The Abandonment of Washington Island By the Island’s Black Community in the 1850s

A French Sonnet

by Thomas Davis

Gone. Like the waves grasshoppers make
Before a boy who runs into a field of weeds,
The news raced through the island as the seeds
Of mystery began to reawake
The sense that something sinister, a snake,
Is in the emptiness that almost pleads
To hear the shouts of children, men whose deeds
Had made glad days of freedom by the lake.

Where did they go? Why did they have to flee?
The island people said, “It is a mystery.”

When Craw’s barn burned, the chill was palpable,
And now the black community is gone.
The news was like a fire, insatiable;
They took their fishing boats and fled at dawn.

The mystery of the disappearance of seven black families, presumably run-away slaves, from Washington Island in the 1850s still persists today.


Filed under poems, Poetry, Thomas Davis, Uncategorized

10 responses to “The Abandonment of Washington Island By the Island’s Black Community in the 1850s

  1. I had not heard of this historical incident, Tom, and find it extraordinarily moving as well as mysterious. It is so well suited to exploration in a poem – I am glad that you have taken it up. Incidentally, that is a very perceptive image in your opening lines, of the news spreading. And the closing line is starkly effective.

    • Thanks for your comment John. It is extremely generous. I am not sure about how strong this is at all. I do feel like I’m getting the hang of the French sonnet form, though. That couplet in the middle has sort of flummoxed me a bit until now. I have been trying to write it like you would an Italian sonnet. Strangely enough, though, this seems the least successful of the French sonnets I’ve tried in the past.

  2. Ina

    This wonderful poem should be in the history books. And a journalist should investigate! What ever happened to the families, what was the reason they abandoned the island? It must make a very interesting and intruiging story…

  3. I’ve done some research, Ina, but it is mysterious. One suspects that Bennett, the preacher who was the leader of the group, led them to Canada. But I have not succeeded in finding any records. Of course, at the time, the Fugitive Slave Law had passed. Wisconsin was actively fighting the law, although a mob had to free one escaped slave from jail in Milwaukee before he could be spirited out of state, but it was against the law to help blacks. Therefore the records of the Underground Railroad which moved escaped slaves from the south to Canada are sketchy at best. But one of the big mysteries is how such a large group of families could have made it to Washington Island without being noticed. There were few black settlers in Wisconsin at the time. Washington Island was remote wilderness. But I have failed to find much in the way of records outside of the writings of Washington Island settlers. This is the third poem I have written out of the historical record about the Washington Island settlement, all of them sonnets, although one is a Miltonian Sonnet with a coda. Thanks for reading the sonnet and commenting on it.

  4. I like the form, Thomas, and I think you’ve handled it very well. The couplet in the middle, rather than at the end, gives a whole different dynamic….almost cinematic, in that it is imagery which introduces and closes the poem, rather than the question or philosophy. And the imagery is quite beautiful….it is particular —eg. Craw’s barn, boats fleeing at dawn—and… to me it makes for a very moving poem.

    • My previous attempts at the French have not found the secret that this effort did, although they might be better sonnets. Still, thanks for your comment Cynthia. I think you are right in describing the effect as cinematic. The form forces you to come up with a middle couplet, which separates one set from another, also changing where a possible volta might be. It’s interesting how the different forms force you in to different types of structure.

  5. I always appreciate your experiments with form, Thomas. I believe traditional forms are a legacy—especially those in English, but also European ones—and quite worthy of bringing into our own times The trick is always to cherish the old while making it new enough for today. And you’re right, they force you into places you might not otherwise find…of structure, but also ways to think; they are not empty exercises with dead skeletons, but the history of our language’s way of thinking and feeling. They are very much a rich mother lode to be mined.

  6. annajanemark

    I’ll remember this poem for next February, perhaps, Black History Month, as it has been deemed. We read about Harriet Tubman, the Moses of the South who brought so many slaves to freedom. I especially enjoy the image of the grasshoppers, their waves and the mystery.

    • Comments by poets as skilled and powerful as you are are always treasured, Anna. The problem with the Underground Railroad is its heroes, black and white, so often did not want to be known. It was just too dangerous for them given the stakes in the United States at the time. Canadians were so much better as a nation back then.

  7. Your well crafted sonnet retains the mystery and underlying menace of the tale you bring to life.

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