Sowing Prosperity: the Roberts Settlement of Hamilton County
By Mary Giorgio
In 1835, one of Indiana’s oldest African-American settlements was founded just north of Indianapolis in Hamilton County. Attracted by the low cost of fertile farmland, three men—Hansel Roberts, Elijah Roberts, and Micajah Walden—purchased farmland and founded a community of free African-Americans. Roberts Settlement would go on to become famous for its success and prosperity.
Most of these settlers came from North Carolina and Virginia, and many members of the community had been slaves on the same plantation, accounting for the fact that the majority of early residents to the settlement shared the surname Roberts.
The Roberts settlers hoped the move to Indiana would provide them with opportunities for economic prosperity, good education, and religious freedom. They chose to build their community in northern Hamilton County because there was an abundance of high-quality, low-cost farmland.
Their nearest neighbors were members of the Quaker and Wesleyan faiths, both of which were known for their abolitionist leanings and tolerance of free African-American communities. Indeed, the Roberts Settlement quickly formed a beneficial relationship with their neighbors in both trade and friendship.
By 1838, members of the settlement owned 900 acres of farmland. Their hard work paid off. The community erected a church and school in 1847, along with numerous shops and small businesses. With the coming of the railroad in the 1850s, markets for the community’s farm goods. By 1858, community members had accumulated enough wealth to build a new church.
At the peak of their economic success in the late 1800s, the Roberts Settlement owned 1,700 acres of land and had over 250 residents. The community began to decline in the early 1900s, as farmland became increasingly hard to purchase at an affordable price. The decline in affordable land coincided with the development of factories in nearby Kokomo and Noblesville. Many residents moved away to take jobs in these factories.
Today, descendants of the original Roberts settlers live all over the country.
As a testament to the profound impact the Roberts community had on its residents and their descendants, an annual gathering occurs on the weekend nearest to July 4th. These homecomings have been taking place since 1925. Each year, descendants turn out to reconnect and pay tribute to the accomplishments of their ancestors.
The community’s historic church has been preserved and features prominently in these reunions. The original cemetery still stands, along with a few old farmhouses. In 2016, the Indiana Historical Bureau erected a historic marker commemorating the community’s origins.
While little remains of the original community, the Roberts Settlement continues its legacy as one of the first successful African American communities in Indiana. Surviving and prospering for generations, Roberts Settlement served as a model and inspiration for other African-American communities across Indiana and the Midwest.