Histories of the Civil War and the mid-19th century mineral rush abound. But what happened shortly thereafter, when newly freed African Americans sought better lives across the U.S., is a story largely resigned to family albums and local historical societies like the one in Fergus Falls, Minn.

There, a collection of newspaper clippings and photographs, many donated by a woman named Lorraine Tate, tell the story of the "First 85," 60 men and boys and 25 women and girls who migrated from Kentucky on April 7, 1898.

According to an article published in the Fergus Falls Journal in 1933, the group of pioneers was the largest influx of African Americans to settle in a Western state. In Fergus Falls, they set up businesses and homes and raised families for generations. Descendants will gather on Aug. 11 to honor their ancestors' bold move.

But how did a trainload of African Americans end up in Fergus Falls? A 2007 documentary by Twin Cities Public Television sought to explain.

"There were veterans in Fergus Falls and they got a bright idea that they would take real estate brochures down to this event [the Grand Army of the Republic's annual encampment in St. Paul in 1896] and see who they could draw up to Otter Tail County," said Melissa Hermes, education coordinator for the Otter Tail County Historical Society. The pitch apparently appealed to the Army's African American troop, prompting them to pack up their families and move northwest.

According to the Fergus Falls Journal, the group consisted of roughly 18 families, including Civil War pensioners Oscar Vaughn, Frank Marshall, John Lewis, Allen Webster, Reuben Fitch, Joe Himsly, Gene Strader and Alexander Pennick. An announcement for this weekend's reunion also includes men by the name of Prince Honeycutt, Joe Robinson, Harrison Webster, Patrick Fitch, Frank Penick, Frank Curry, John Taylor, Lulu Drew, Jean Frazier, Ham, Hans and Max Denham, Thomas Anderson, Simon, Minor and John Anderson, Luens Anderson (Teamsters), Arthur Edwards, Mattie Patterson, Betty Wench, William Gaines, Harden Tate, Henry Johnson, Frank Taylor, Loraine Crockett, Elizabeth Goodall, Albert Mitchell, Eliza Patrick, Raymond Patrick, John Will Smith, Jane Ingram, Bud Wagner, John Ingram, Katie Cod, Albert and June Madison, Willie Vaughn, Arthur Edwards and Clarence Watkins.

"What was unique is that they came in one large group," Hermes told The Huffington Post. "They packed up the community around Bowling Green, Kentucky, and moved here en masse. As they traveled to get here, people were fascinated. You'd find stories in other newspapers as well."

Newspaper clippings and a series of letters recently acquired by the Kentucky Historical Society reveal to both Hermes and the descendants of the First 85 what life was like for African Americans after slavery and the American Civil War.

"They were really patriotic," Hermes said. "So many of these families had people that served their country in the Civil War ... and later, World War I."

"When they got here, one of the first things that they did was registered their kids in schools. Education was extremely important and they worked hard for their children to go to college," Hermes added. "A lot of the children of this original 85 were very successful, working for big companies like Honeywell," though she says the job opportunities are what ultimately pulled them away from small-town life.

"But it was not easy for them," Hermes continued, noting Minnesota's KKK activity, which peaked from the 1870s to the 1920s.

By the Depression, a scarcity of jobs and homestead opportunities, coupled with a disastrous tornado several years earlier, forced many families to disperse, Hermes said.

Descendants of the First 85 gathered for a reunion in 2010, a tradition they look forward to carrying on this year and beyond.


Loading Slideshow...
  • In 1896, real-estate agents distributed fliers to Kentucky African American veterans visiting the fairgrounds in St. Paul; the fliers highlighted Fergus Falls as a good settlement area. The community was described in a newspaper article as "the first exclusive Colored colony in Minnesota."

  • Central Baptist Church circa 1925

    Initially the first Blacks attended the Swedish Baptist Church, but that proved unrewarding because the services were in Swedish. Some joined the Seventh-Day Adventist congregation and others the Methodist Episcopal Church. In February 1919 they organized their own Central Baptist Church. The church remained active until the mid-1940's; after that services were held infrequently. The Central Baptist Church was the only Church edifice left standing after the great cyclone of 1919.

  • Prince Honeycutt

    Prince Honeycutt was the first African-American man in Fergus Falls. Born in Tennessee in 1853, Honeycutt had attached himself to the unit of Captain James Compton of the union army during the Civil War. He worked for Compton's family in Illinois after the war and accompanied Compton to Fergus Falls when he moved there in 1872.

  • William Ed Anderson

    A well-known Fergus Falls resident for nearly 50 years, William Edward Anderson (called Uncle Ed by brother Virgil Anderson's descendants) was born on February 10, 1880 in Indianapolis, Ind. and died on December 10, 1954 in Fergus Falls. His parents were Thomas Anderson and Jane Ingram. He married Theresa Hamilton on April 14, 1904 in Lebanon, Ky., and they had one son, Clarence, who was born in Fergus Falls in 1905 and passed away there on November 25, 1910.

  • Virgil & Maggie Cook Wedding Photo April 8, 1914

    Virgil Gupton Anderson and Maggie Mae Cook were married in Fergus Falls on April 8, 1914. Virgil was born in Campbellsville, Ky. and moved to Fergus Falls in 1898 with his parents, Thomas and Esther. Maggie was born in Bowling Green, Ky. and moved to Fergus Falls around 1910 or 1911 to live with her aunt, Maria Campbell Taylor.

  • Tom Anderson, Wife & Children

    Thomas (uncle Tom) Anderson was a Fergus Falls citizen who was born in slavery. He was born in Green County (Campbellsville), Kentucky, on May 10, 1854 to Martin and Biddie Cauldwell Anderson, and was owned by a white master until he was 10 years old. His slave master's name was Alfred Anderson, a Virginian by birth.

  • Tom Anderson & Wife Esther

  • Nellie Crockett Williams

    Nellie Crockett Williams born 1881, died 1983 and is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Fergus Falls. Nellie was born in Carroll, IA and moved to Fergus Falls at approximately two years of age.

  • Early Nellie Taylor

  • Moriah Campbell

    Moriah Campbell Taylor, born in 1837, died in 1929 and is buried at Oak Grove Cemetery in Fergus Falls, Mn. Mrs. Campbell was 93 years old. She was a native of Bowling Green, Ky., and was born in slavery.

  • Minor Anderson

    Minor came to Fergus Falls about 1902 and stayed with his brother Simon. Minor later married Mattie Anderson, the daughter of Tom Anderson. Ironically, Simon's sister-in-laws name was Mattie Anderson. So to distinguish between the two, one was referred to as Mattie Simon and the other Mattie Minor.

  • Brothers John & Minor Anderson And Brother-In-Law Sam

    John Anderson came to Fergus Falls with his wife Armanda and young daughter Mary Lee. John worked at the bank. John too was described as a very hard working, respected member of the community. Their only daughter, Mary Lee returned to Kentucky to graduate from college. Mary Lee was trained as a school teacher, however, when she returned to Minneapolis she was unable to teach because of racism. She worked a number of years at the city hospital. Mary Lee became a community activist fighting for the rights of African Americans and was the first Black to serve on the City Civil Rights Commission.

  • Frank & Minnie Penick

    Ben Frank Penick, settiing down in Fergus Falls was clueless that in a few years he would meet and marry Armenda "Minnie" Denham- Taylor, who was born in Tennessee on December 4, 1878. Prior to marrying Frank, Minnie was married to John Taylor; living in Iliinois where they had three children: LuLu, Larcy and Charles. Sadly, in October 1906 John passed away. Minnie and her children moved back to Fergus Falls. In March, 1913 Minnie and Frank Penick married and had three daughters: Marie (who died in infancy), Jeart, and Dona.

  • Arthur & Jean Frazier

    Frank Penick's daughter Jean met and married Arthur Thornton Frazier of St. Paul; and to this union they had seven children: Arthur Thornton Jr., Roger Fredrick, Stanley Neil, Frank Myron, Thomas Gerael, one daughter, Patricia Ellyn, and youngest son Michael Paul. In 7942the family packed up and moved from Fergus Falls to Minneapolis.

  • Central Baptist Church

    The Penick family became deeply involved in helping to grow and develop the Fergus Falls "colored" community. Along with the other hundred or so colored family members, Frank participated in the fundraising efforts for the new "Colored People's Baptist Church" of Fergus Falls. Knowing the residents alone could not come up with enough money to build or buy a building for their new church they decided they would ask the white people for help. They did receive the financial assistance to own their church located on Lincoln Avenue West.

  • Fred is the only living child of Simon Anderson and Mattie Wagner Anderson who came from Campbellsville, Kentucky. Simon homesteaded in Fergus Falls about 1902 and build his home at 511 Stanton Ave. Fred will be 88 in 2012.

  • Bud & His Sister Mattie Anderson

    Bud arrived in Fergus around the spring of 1902. He was born in Adair County, Campbellsville, Ky. in i875. Bud was a farmer and had a trucking route where he hauled ashes. His nephew Fred Anderson remembers working with him. Bud was a very tall man with a "very erect posture". He raised pigs and had several horses. He always had a car and was known for taking people for rides.

  • Lorraine & David Tate

    As many black families left in the wake of the 1919 tornado or the Great Depression, the Tate Family was the last African American family left in Fergus Falls from the turn of the century migration.