How I Discovered That The First Shot Of The Civil War Fired In Michigan

by Craig Manson | Mar 25, 2011

Unraveling a family mystery can sometimes lead to a significant historical event. As I tried to understand a pair of unusual marriages in my family tree, I discovered an incident at the root of the Civil War in a most unlikely place. This article tells that story, while at once highlighting often-overlooked resources and strategies in African-American genealogical research.

In the 1930 census of Kansas City, Missouri, my great-uncle, Julius Walter Long is enumerated with his wife, Laura, and Laura's daughter, Violet Crosby. One thing that immediately struck me was that Laura's birthplace was listed as "Canada English." This term was used in earlier times to describe the province of Ontario, while the francophone province of Quebec was frequently referred to in U.S. documents as "Canada French." Having not before come across an African-American relative born in Canada, I was eager to know more about Laura. I looked for and found their marriage license in the files of Jackson County, Missouri. They had been married in 1929. It was a second marriage for Laura Gaines Crosby.

But as I looked for Long/Crosby marriage pairings, I came across a marriage license for Rafael Long and 15 year old Violet Helen Crosby. Rafael, known as "Rafe," was Walter Long's younger brother by 13 years. He had married his brother's step-daughter in July, 1930, about three months after the census canvass of Kansas City's 6th Ward. Laura Long signed a consent to her underage daughter's marriage. When I discovered these facts, I thought that the unusual circumstances of two brothers married to mother and daughter were the interesting story. In fact, the main story is far more compelling and interesting than my parochial first take.

Knowing that Laura had been married before, I undertook to discover where she was prior to 1930. The United States census for 1920 finds George Crosby and his wife Laura in Toledo, Ohio. Among their six children is four year old Violet Crosby. The 1910 U.S. Census reveals George and Laura Crosby in Toledo, Ohio, with three children, the youngest a boy named Frank. George and Laura are both said to have been born in Canada.

I next went to the Canadian census records of 1861, 1871, 1881, and 1891; and the Ontario birth records. These records revealed the following:

Laura Gaines was born on February 18, 1890 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. She was the daughter of Franklin Gaines, a black man born in 1861, Adrian, Michigan; and Victoria Miller, a white woman, born about 1870, location uncertain. Franklin and Victoria were married on November 2, 1886, in Windsor, Ontario.

George Crosby was born in 1866 in Dresden, Ontario. His father was Lafayette Crosby, a black man, born February 1838 in Ohio; his mother was Sarah Crosswhite, a woman of mixed race, born about 1840 in Kentucky; Lafayette Crosby and Sarah Crosswhite appear on the 1851 and 1861 censuses of Ontario, Canada, with their respective families. By 1870, however, Lafayette and Sarah had married and this new family were in the United States, being enumerated on the 1870 census at Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Census records over a number of decades, from the US and Canada, show these families to be at different times in Michigan or Ohio, and sometimes in Canada. What was going on here?

Recall that Lafayette's wife (George Crosby's mother) Sarah Crosswhite Crosby, was born in about 1840 in Ohio. The 1851 census of Kent County, Ontario, reveals that her father was Adam Crosswhite (born about 1805) and her mother's name was also Sarah (born about 1804). In 1851, Sarah and Adam Crosswhite lived with their children, Sarah, John, Benjamin, and Frances. Adam was a carpenter; his 20-year-old son John was a shoemaker. All of the Crosswhite children except Frances, were born in the United States according to this Canadian census. Frances was three years younger than Sarah, so it appears that the Crosswhites came to Canada in the 1840s. [Though there is some disagreement in historical documents about where the children were born, it's clear that the family went to Canada in the late 1840s. How and why they went is the real story.]

The Crosswhite family also appears on the 1861 Canadian census, but in 1870, United States census takers found them in Marshall, Calhoun County, Michigan.

At this point it's important to understand that census records and vital records don't tell the complete story of an ancestor's life. For example, in my own case, each of the four United States censuses from 1980 to 2010, show me living in Sacramento County, California. In fact, over that 30 year span, I actually lived in three different states and two foreign countries. I just happened to be in Sacramento during the census years--a pure coincidence.

An often overlooked source of research, particularly African-American research, are local histories. My preference is to start with a local history that is closest in time to the events which occurred. Sometimes, however, such contemporaneous histories lack perspective and balance. It's worthwhile therefore, to read a history somewhat removed in time from the actual events as well. New information will be available, new perspectives will have developed.

Having located the Crosswhite family in Calhoun County Michigan, I then sought out historical accounts of life in Calhoun County, Michigan during the 19th century. There are several written during the 19th century, and several more written during the 20th and 21st centuries. The older ones are freely available on the Internet, as is true for most such County histories; others can be found in libraries, historical and genealogical societies, and of course bookstores for the newer ones.

Reading several of the older Calhoun County histories, the following story emerges. Adam Crosswhite, the father of Sarah Crosswhite Crosby, and grandfather of George Crosby, and great grandfather of Violet Crosby, who married my uncle Rafe, was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, in about 1799. His mother was a slave; his father, her master. As a baby Adam was given by his owner to the owner's daughter (i.e., Adam's half-sister). His half-sister eventually sold him to a slave dealer, who subsequently sold him to another. Eventually, Adam ended up in the hands of a man named Francis Giltner. It appears that Adam had begun a family with a woman named Sarah.

Sometime in the early 1840s, Adam became aware that his family was about to be sold and possibly broken up. With the help of the Underground Railroad, they absconded from Kentucky and found themselves in Marshall, Michigan.

What happened next would open the portals of American history to its darkest, and then, most triumphal moments.

Francis Giltner, the slave owner, sent a man named Troutman after the Crosswhite family. Eventually Troutman wound up in Marshall, Michigan. Playing the role of a lawyer named Carpenter, Troutman told the townspeople that he met that he was seeking the Crosswhites because they had come into an inheritance. A citizen generally sympathetic to the Crosswhite unwittingly pointed them out to Troutman. Troutman sent word back to Giltner in Kentucky that he had located his "property."

Giltner sent a team of thugs to Michigan to "repossess" the Crosswhite family. This is part of an orchestrated effort by Kentucky slave owners, who are tired of seeing their human capital go free. Thugs included Troutman and a deputy sheriff from Kentucky. This gang broke into the Crosswhites home, only to be confronted by Adam Crosswhite, who fired a single rifle shot into the air. One historian has described it as a shot heard truly around the world. The shot alerted his neighbors, one of whom in Paul Revere style ran through the town yelling and ringing a bell as the thugs attempted to abduct the Crosswhites. A crowd of several hundred people soon gathered outside the house to protect the family. In the ensuing chaos, the Crosswhites escaped and Troutman and his group of thugs were taken into custody. They were fined $100 for the kidnapping attempt. When Troutman arrived back in Kentucky empty-handed, Giltner and the other slave owners were outraged. As it happened, Giltner was as close friend of Henry Clay. Clay immediately introduced to Congress the legislation which became the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, one of the most malicious pieces of slave era legislation. Most historians agree that the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, as well as the validating Dredd Scott case, were direct political preludes to the Civil War. Those political moves were precipitated by the single rifle shot fired by Adam Crosswhite, an escaped slave now a free man trying to protect his family. The Crosswhites made it to Canada and has a census evidence indicates lived there for many years before returning to the United States.

I learned all of that, simply because I was curious about how my two great uncles had come to marry a mother and her daughter, respectively. But to learn the whole story, I had to use resources not typically used in African-American research: the Canadian censuses, Canadian birth, marriage and death records, and local county histories. However, these are not exotic resources. They are readily available, and any researcher of African-American history and genealogy should not hesitate to use them to find missing ancestors, to knock down brick walls, and enrich the gray spaces of history.


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