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Archeologists excavate pre-civil war home in Miller Grove – a community founded by freed African Americans

Student archeologists are excavating a pre-civil war home on Shawnee National Forest.

The community, Miller Grove, was founded in the 1840s by freed African Americans from Tennessee. Through Southern Illinois University Archeology Field School, 14 students got a chance to measure, document and dig at Bedford and Abby Miller’s home and smokehouse. They are learning how to read the soil and identify artifacts.

“Compared to other field sites, working on the Miller Grove site is a truly authentic archaeology experience,” said student Dakota Street.

Bedford Miller, for whom the community was named for, came to Illinois as a boy, traveling with his parents, Henry and Lucinda Miller, his grandmother Hannah, and a number of brothers and sisters. Miller Grove consisted of about 24 houses, a church and a cemetery.

At the excavation site, remnants have been discovered, including broken bottles and dishes, nails, harness pieces, bits of animal bone representing food remains, buttons, coins and jewelry.

“It’s the small things that tend to tell you the most. Like buttons, for example, a really personal item, because it's probably the first thing they were allowed to choose for themselves,” said Forest Archaeologist Mary McCorvie.

Mark Wagner, director of SIU's Center for Archaeological Investigations, says the artifacts create a better understanding of how emancipated slaves lived after securing their freedom. "A lot of this are things that are never written down in history books," Wagner said.

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