Historical research details can send archivists like St. Olaf’s Jeff Sauve off on different tangents.
The latest example of that for Sauve came after a researcher for Twin Cities Public Television contacted him in regard to previous research work Sauve did on John Boone − an African American Civil War veteran buried in the Northfield Cemetery. It turned out Boone isn’t the only African American Civil War veteran buried in the cemetery.
Boone is joined by Alex Robinson in the cemetery. In fact, his headstone may not be more than 30 feet away from Boone’s.
“This story just somehow got by me and I was just astounded,” Sauve said. “Physically, his gravesite is just around the corner from John. It’s almost too good to be true.”
Sauve learned of Robinson in late April and recently he’s spent time researching Robinson’s life. It turns out Boone and Robinson served together for the Union Army in Missouri.
“Boone was part of the Missouri team,” Sauve said. “Robinson grew up in Missouri and fled at the beginning of the war. He ended up joining the Union troops down there. I assume it’s where John was and they somehow became confidants of each other. [Boone] must have said to come to Minnesota, it’s better than Missouri.”
Boone lived in Minnesota prior to his enlistment in the Army in 1864. Boone and his wife, whose name was Missouri, moved to Minnesota from North Carolina in 1857. They took their first residence in the state near Henderson. Missouri subsequently moved to Northfield shortly after John enlisted and he joined her following his tour.
Sauve’s still discovering more about Robinson’s life but he’s found that Robinson worked at Carleton College for many years as a custodian. Robinson was well-liked by the students, especially when Robinson would look the other way when students returned to their dorms after hours, Sauve said.
Robinson and Boone were original members of the Grand Army of the Republic Heywood Post in Northfield. They even served in different capacities with the GAR like as treasurer, Sauve said.
Robinson and Boone found a home in Northfield, which came in part because of the philosophy of the town’s forefathers. Northfield’s abolitionist founders − John North and Charles Wheaton. North lectured for a year or more for the Connecticut Anti-Slavery Society and Wheaton played an important role in abolitionist movement in New York before coming to Northfield.
“I started researching more about the general context on how African Americans were accepted in this community,” Sauve said. “That’s an important aspect that Northfield people may not really understand is that … we certainly had an abolitionist bent to our founders, but there were a small community of black people living in the community. I think upward to 15 families.”
Daniel Bergin is working on a documentary for TPT that will feature African Americans from Minnesota who served in the Civil War. Sauve’s research on Boone and Robinson will likely be included in the documentary, which will premier possibly in the fall.
“We have a pretty solid canon around Minnesota and the Civil War,” Bergin said. “We’re still discovering and sharing other stories, especially stories of African Americans with Minnesota connections. We hope that it plays as compelling cinema for our viewers at home and it’s a useful addition to classrooms across Minnesota.”
Sauve estimates there were about 300 African Americans in the state in 1860, and Bergin has sought stories from outside the metro for the documentary. His research has led to stops in Hastings and Litchfield, as well as Fergus Falls.
Bergin will not only tell the stories of African Americans in Minnesota and their connection to the Civil War, but will show the process that archivists like Sauve take in their research of historical figures.
“We’ll learn about these African American pioneers and how these scholars found them,” Bergin said. “That will kind of demystify history. It’s a different way to understand history.”
Bergin also likes to connect history to the present through his documentaries and hopes that the upcoming documentary will make that connection.
Boone’s story continues to unravel. Sauve recently discovered that the house the Boone family lived in still stands in Northfield near the corner of Lincoln Street and St. Olaf Avenue The Boones rented 10 acres of land there, Sauve said.
Sauve continues work on documenting Civil War veterans buried in the Northfield Cemetery. He said he’s identified around 80 so far.
“History is organic,” Sauve said. “It’s always growing the more you invest in it, the more you research, the more you talk to people.”