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Jeffrey, Preston families were pioneers

Preston’s Cafe, located at 112 W. Washington St., in the city of Marquette, is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center

MARQUETTE — In the late 1840s and early 1850s, five Jeffrey brothers and their families arrived in Ontonagon.

Born in Connecticut between 1812 and 1828, Asa, Richard, Josiah, Horace and Charles Jeffrey had African and Native American roots.

In the east, the family had been active in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and in social reform movements, including the Underground Railroad, temperance organizations, and activist groups that fought against legislative restrictions on African and Native American freedoms.

The family quickly established themselves in Ontonagon. Asa and Josiah voted in Ontonagon Township’s first election of 1849, when Asa Jeffrey himself was elected to township office as “Overseer of the Poor.”

The election of a man of African descent at this time was very unusual. By the middle of the 1850s, Asa, Josiah, and Horace collective owned over 400 acres.

Despite their early success in the area, by 1860 part of the family had left Ontonagon. Three of the brothers — Charles, Horace and Josiah — went west, settling in Minnesota. From there, they all enlisted to serve in the Civil War, with Horace dying from injuries sustained during the Battle of Nashville in 1865.

Unlike their brothers, Asa and Richard remained in Michigan. Richard stayed in Ontonagon until at least 1870 before joining his brothers in Minnesota. Asa moved first to Houghton, then Calumet and eventually, Ishpeming. Asa operated a barbershop in Ishpeming until the early 1880s when he and his wife moved to Florence, Wisconsin.

Although we can’t be certain, it was possibly this Ishpeming connection that drew one of Asa’s nieces to Marquette. Harriet “Hattie” Sophia Jeffrey, daughter of Richard and Hannah (Littlefield) Jeffrey, had been born in Ontonagon in April 1857. In May 1879, she married Marquette barber, George Corbin Preston in Winona, Minnesota.

George Preston had arrived in Marquette in 1865. Born in the state of New York in 1842, he had also had African ancestry, possibly via Jamaica. George had a barber shop in several locations around town, most notably on the corner of Front and Washington Streets in the Savings Bank Building. Later, he would also operate a restaurant and confectionary.

The Prestons had four children, George Corbin Jr. (born 1880), Charlotte “Lottie” Mable (born 1881), Bessie M. (born 1883) and Willie (born 1885). Willie died of a fever in November 1891, aged just six years and eight months.

Charlotte was the first student of African ancestry to attend Northern Normal School (now Northern Michigan University). She would have been a member of the first graduating class but was unable to complete her studies after developing tuberculosis. She died in May 1901.

Bessie followed her sister to Northern, graduating in 1903. Despite frail health, Bessie obtained a teaching position at the famed Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Shortly after New Year’s during her first year of teaching, her health declined further and she was brought home to be cared for. She died just 13 months after graduating from Northern in June 1904. Like Charlotte, the cause was tuberculosis.

George Jr., the only surviving child worked as an office clerk for several local railroads including the Duluth, South Shore, & Atlantic and the Minneapolis, St. Paul & Sault Ste. Marie.

He never married. He and his parents remained members of the community until their deaths. George Sr. died in May 1920 at the age of 78. Harriet died October 1942 at the age of 85. George Jr. died in October 1953 at the age of 72, the last member of the family in the area.

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