Online Exclusive: Professor details the history of slavery in Platteville

Elizabeth Kaiser graphic

Elizabeth Kaiser graphic

The Black Student Union held its first Soul Food Dinner at the First English Lutheran Church in Platteville on Friday. The dinner consisted of various staples and treats from African American cuisine. These included fried chicken, collard greens, mac n’ cheese, cornbread and a mix of beans, potatoes and onions. After opening with a prayer, the dinner proceeded directly into the main event of the night: a presentation by Dr. Eugene Tesdahl, assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, “The Sum of Three Hundred and Thirty Dollars; Maria, Felix, Rachel, and Slavery in Platteville, Wisconsin.”

“We can have people from the school as well as the community come out and we can all commune together and of course it can be a fun thing and we can have delicious food and we can all sit and talk and have fun but that there’s so much to be learned from an event like this,” senior Criminal Justice major and community service coordinator for the Black Student Union Brandi Hall said, stating the purpose of the Soul Food Dinner.

The discussion was centered on the history of slavery that was present in Platteville from 1730 to the mid-1850s. Dr. Tesdahl explained how slaves had been brought to the North to states like Wisconsin, even though it was a free-state. Some of the first slaves brought to Wisconsin were with slave owner Henry Dodge, who was the first territorial governor of Wisconsin, namesake of Dodgeville and Governor Dodge State Park. Before becoming governor of Wisconsin, Henry Dodge moved from Missouri in 1826 and brought with him five African American individuals under contract called Tom, Jim, Joe, Lear and Toby. The contract was meant to last six months but instead continued for twelve years.

“It is important to acknowledge our past,” junior international studies major and vice president of the Black Student Union Abby Fuller said.

Transitioning to local history, the discussion examined the complex history of Platteville’s founder John H. Rountree, known for Rountree Commons and Rountree Stone Cottage. Rountree is not as well known for owning slaves, a point that Dr. Tesdahl stressed heavily when describing Rountree as “John H. Rountree – Enslaver.” Rountree owned three slaves that were able to be identified in census records. These individuals were called Rachel, Maria and Felix. Maria was given to Rountree in August 1828 while Maria and Felix were sold to Rountree in May 1830 as mother and son. Records from the James Stevens County Clerk highlighted a deed of sale in Galena, Illinois which showed Rountree’s purchase of African American people. The most damning evidence found by Dr. Tesdahl exposing Rountree as a slave owner in a free-state was the categories of the three individuals. Labelled under a “slave” category, the evidence presented.

“A lot of people don’t realize that there was any slavery in the north and yet it did, in places like New York City, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here in Wisconsin we had free and enslaved lead miners as well as enslaved individuals like Maria, Felix and Rachel who were all enslaved by John H. Rountree right here in Platteville,” Dr. Tesdahl commented when asked about the awareness of slavery in Wisconsin’s past.

Wrapping up the presentation, the event drew the attention to the Rountree Stone Cottage, a local historical sight. Suggesting that the cottage was used for slave housing on Rountree property, Dr. Tesdahl sought to bring to light what could have been the home of Rountree’s slaves. The Grant County Historical Society is currently changing how they conduct their tours to include this bit of its history. Ending on a hopeful note, Dr. Tesdahl put forth an idea to remember those who endured slavery in Wisconsin: renaming places like Rountree Hall to Rachel, Maria or Felix Hall.

“I think accurate research about topics like this are really important. I also think that we know John H. Rountree was a slaveholder, I think the community of Platteville needs to have difficult conversations about if they want lots of different things to bear his name” Dr. Tesdahl explained.