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Majors & Degrees

Blessinger uncovers president's past

April 15, 2021

Historical document spawns additional stories

General William Henry Harrison Beadle was humble to a fault. His autobiography is “pretty sparse on details,” said Dr. Justin Blessinger, Professor of English.

Beadle’s professional achievements are some of the few things that are well documented, including his contributions in several states to constitutional provisions as to the use of public lands to fund and support education.

Born in Indiana, Beadle attended the University of Michigan (U-M), served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and then came to South Dakota in 1869, where he served in several leadership roles – surveyor general, superintendent of public instruction, and third president of the first teachers’ college in the territory, Dakota State University (which for many years bore his name as General Beadle State College).

Because of these significant contributions, Beadle is South Dakota’s contribution to Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Copies of the statue are in the South Dakota State Capitol and on the DSU campus.

Still, “there’s so much about Beadle that we don’t know,” from his years before South Dakota, Blessinger said.

That’s why it is significant that Blessinger stumbled across a letter Beadle wrote in 1902 for a U-M alumni publication. In the document, Beadle recalls the events that led to the Civil War and the atmosphere on campus when war broke out. This recollection, written in the third person, seems to indicate that he was a rider who delivered a message to a Quaker who was active with the Underground Railroad in the area around Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Blessinger will speak about this discovery on South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s “In The Moment” with Lori Walsh on Monday, April 19 at about 12:40 p.m., but there is also a unique second wave to the story.

After Blessinger’s story was posted on the SDPB website, two others with DSU connections have shared related stories.

Former Arts & Sciences Dean Ben Jones (now the South Dakota State Historian) reached out to Blessinger to share that Jones’ great-great-grandfather, William H. Jones, was a member of the Underground Railroad in Michigan in the early 1850s. In 1854, he was one of several who lost a federal court case in Detroit regarding runaway slaves, so he had to sell his farm in Cass County, Michigan to pay the debts.

“He moved to northeast Kansas where he picked right back up with his Underground Railroad work,” Jones shared with Blessinger. By 1861, William Jones was paying runaways to join a black regiment being raised by the Governor, the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry. They were the first black unit to fight against a Confederate force, Jones stated. The story is featured in the book, “Soldiers in the Army of Freedom.”

Kathleen McClatchey, assistant to the President for Strategic Projects, also has a connection to the Michigan Underground Railroad.

McClatchey grew up in an original, 1840 homestead along the Huron River, just outside Ann Arbor. It had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and “there were two ‘hiding rooms’ in the house, one upstairs behind a false wall between bedrooms, and another in the basement with a hidden exit up stone steps out of the house and into a stand of pine trees and an orchard,” she wrote.

She also recalled stories about U-M student activity with Underground Railroad activity. There were reports of students and faculty who served as couriers to provide information to safely move fleeing slaves. There were stories that U-M students sometimes would pretend to befriend slave hunters, but instead gave them false information to protect the Underground Railroad stops in the area.

“It was said that the students even set up middle-of-the-night hunts that would draw the slave hunters far away from those Underground Railroad sites,” McClatchey wrote to Blessinger. “These wild goose chases for the slave hunters would allow Underground Railroad engineers opportunities to safely move the fugitives while the slave hunters were occupied chasing the U-M students.”

McClatchey is intrigued that a former president of the university where she works might have been one of the U-M students delivering messages to the Underground Railroad engineers, the people who built the home and hid fleeing slaves in the house she lived in decades later.

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