David Putnam, Jr., was born on May 17, 1808, at 519 Fort Street in Harmar, a section of Marietta, Ohio. He was the son of David and Elizabeth (Perkins) Putnam, the grandson of Col. Israel Putnam, and the great-grandson of General Israel Putnam (1718-90), a farmer who left his plow in the field to go fight in the battles of Lexington and Concord at the beginning of the American Revolution. David Putnam, Jr., was also a cousin of Brigadier General Rufus Putnam, a Revolutionary War veteran who led the first party of authorized American settlers down the Ohio to Marietta in 1788, establishing the first organized settlement in the Northwest Territory.
David Putnam, Jr., married Hannah M. Munson on September 26, 1833, and their marriage was blessed with seven children: Peter Radcliff, Martha Munson, Mary Burr, Catherine Douglas, Hannah Hubbard, Rufus Browning and Elizabeth Perkins Putnam. He built his home above the Harmar Cemetery on the west side of the Muskingum River in present- day Marietta, where he raised a family amidst his not-so-secret activity with the Underground Railroad. (The house was demolished for construction of the Washington Street Bridge in the 1950s.) Though Putnam didn't hide fugitive slaves at his home very often, during difficult circumstances he was compelled to do so.
Putnam acquired his antislavery sentiments from growing up across the Ohio River from Wood County, Virginia, part of the "Old Dominion," where slavery was not only legal but thought of as essential to the economy. The two sides of the river began development about the same time (1785-1788), with people of opposing political views on slavery settling within sight and shouting distance of one another. In all fairness, it must be noted that many living in western Virginia eventually came to reject slavery and seceded from the state in 1863 to form the free state of West Virginia, which remained loyal to the Union throughout the Civil War.
Putnam was born and raised at just the right time in American history, in just the right location and with the necessary background to become a leader of the Underground Railroad. As a young man he had become personally acquainted with many of the slaves in Wood County and had listened to their fears of being "sold down the river" to plantations in the Deep South. He began his fight against slavery as a teenager.
When I use the word “fight,” I mean it literally. Putnam grew up to be a tall muscular fellow who was equally comfortable settling his disputes either diplomatically or with bare knuckles, as the need required. In December of 1845, he wrote in a letter to be delivered by William P. Cutler of Marietta to a Mr. Guthrie in Columbus, Ohio: "If we cannot catch the kidnappers, the devil will!" The kidnapers referred to were bounty hunters in pursuit of fugitive slaves. In 1847 Putnam was sued by Virginia plantation owner George Washington Henderson for the loss of nine slaves whom Henderson claimed Putnam had influenced to run away. The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Columbus, was dismissed in 1852.
Putnam was a merchant in good standing in Marietta and had many supporters who came to his defense on several occasions when he was besieged by pro-slavery advocates. He lived to see the collapse of the “Slavocracy” a quarter of a century before he died, on January 7, 1892. He now rests in the Harmar Cemetery below his former dwelling.
AN HISTORIC UNDERGROUND RAILROAD LAWSUIT
Henderson vs. Putnam
Filed in: U.S. CIRCUIT COURT, District of Ohio in Columbus, on June 25, 1849.
Attorneys for the Plaintive: Samuel F. Vinton and Noah H. Swain.
Attorney for the Defendant: Salmon P. Chase
G.W. Henderson, Briar Plantation, Wood County, Virginia (Slave Owner), charged that under provisions of the [1793 U.S. FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW], David Putnam, Jr., Harmar (Marietta), Washington County, Ohio, did illegally entice, conceal and otherwise aid (nine) Negro slaves, all the legal property of G.W. Henderson, to run away from their owner, and the State of Virginia at various intervals commencing on or about 15 February, 1846, the last instance occurring on or about 11 February, 1847. Plaintive filed two Suits for compensation for lost property.
Suit 1: Asked $5,500 for the value of the slaves.
Suit 2: Asked $10,000 compensation for causing a breech of contract (specified in the provisions of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law) and for lost labor and legal fees.
Disposition: The case was dismissed on October 12, 1852, on the grounds of flawed legal language in the FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT of 1850.
Ref: INSUPERABLE BARRIERS - A Case Study of the Henderson vs. Putnam Fugitive Slave Case, by William B. Summers. [The complete manuscript, with notes and bibliography, can be viewed at the Archives and Special Collections Room, Dawes Memorial Library, Marietta College.]
It is also of interest to note the career of Putnam's lawyer, Salmon Portland Chase (1808-1873). Chase was one of the best known attorneys in the United States at the time. Born on January 13, 1808, in Cornish, New Hampshire, he was educated at Dartmouth College. As a lawyer in Cincinnati, Ohio, he defended numerous fugitive slaves’ cases, was a leading spokesman for the anti-slavery Liberty party, and helped found the Free-Soil party in 1848. Chase was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1848 as a Democrat but separated from the party in 1852 when it committed itself to slavery. He was elected governor of Ohio in 1855 on the Free-Soil ticket and, in 1857, as a member of the newly formed Republican party, which he also helped found.
From 1861 to 1864 he was secretary of the treasury in the cabinet of President Abraham Lincoln. During his term in office Chase developed the national banking system and issued the first legal-tender paper currency not backed by gold. “Greenbacks” were used to finance the federal cause during the Civil War. Chase resigned from the cabinet because he thought Lincoln's anti-slavery position was too moderate. In 1864, however, Lincoln appointed him chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and in this capacity Chase presided at the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. In 1873, because he felt the decision by the federal government would endanger the rights of black people in the South, he wrote a dissent in the well-known Slaughterhouse Case