My black Curtis ancestors came from Rockingham County, Virginia, the same Shenandoah Valley geography as Tom Lincoln, father of Abraham, "the Great Emancipator." In 1830 there were only about 500 slaves in Rockingham County, compared to several thousand in less mountainous Spotsylvania County to the east. Spotsylvania County, you may recall, was the home of Kinte Kunte of "Roots" fame.
Although Virginia was the colony that introduced slavery to America and had the largest slave population at one time, by 1700 eastern Virginia was cleared and productive. By 1780 owning slaves had become more of a status symbol than an economic necessity. Then the invention of the cotton gin and Congress’s ban on the importation of slaves set the stage for slave-breeding in Virginia and the United States. But although the public revulsion which prompted the legislation -- from both moral outrage and fear of labor competition -- added fire to the abolitionist movement in America, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was still more than half a century away.
In the meantime, as the need for slaves continued to increase on cotton, rice and sugar cane plantations in the Deep South, their price doubled. For example, during the 1840's when the price of potatoes was six cents a pound, and a good horse might cost $20, a prime slave could bring $1,000 or more. Some planters in Virginia sold an occasional slave when cash was short, but others began to raise slaves and sell them to slave traders traveling around the state.
This, then, was the setting for the escape of my great, great grandfather John Curtis and his two younger brothers from a Rockingham County plantation in about 1846. According to family history it all began with a mule. John, 16 at the time, and his master-father got into an argument over the master's cruel treatment of the animal. The argument turned into a scuffle and John hit the alleged mule-abuser with a single-tree, the heavy wooden bar to which the traces of a harness are fastened so an animal can pull a wagon or farm implement. Fearing he had killed his master, John took off with his two younger brothers: Ben, 13, and Harrison, 14.
Almost certainly with the help of the Underground Railroad, they made their way across the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains all the way to the Ohio River, just south of Sistersville in what is now West Virginia -- "with the dogs on their heels," according to the stories told to me by three of John's seven children. I believe this to mean that they were being pursued by bounty-hunters from Wheeling, where there was a slave auction house.
Although the boys managed to cross the river, they were still far from safe, with the bounty-hunters and their baying hounds hot on their trail. Fortunately, they found a place to hole up in: Colby's Cave, near the junction of Ohio Routes #145 and #260 in present-day Elk Township in Noble County. The only problem, the story goes, is that the cave was already claimed -- by a bear. This isn't too hard to believe when you consider that black bears were common in the area not only in the 1800's, but are actually making a comeback in this part of the country today. The boys were desperate for a hiding place, so John found a heavy piece of lime rock, hit the bear in the head with it and killed it!
Now they had a hiding place, but the bounty-hunters, unseasonably bitter cold and early November snows kept them pinned in the cave, with no winter clothing and only bear meat to eat, for nearly two months. The boys didn't dare venture out for food or better shelter because they'd be so easy to track in the snow. But when Ben, the youngest, died of exposure, John and Harrison were determined to give him a proper burial. Because the ground was too frozen to dig in, they covered his body with slabs of stone beside Duck Creek.
By this time the bounty hunters had apparently already left, because it was members of the Feltner family, who ran the Carlisle, OH, branch of the Underground Railroad, who discovered Ben's body and the tracks leading back to Colby's Cave. The Feltners had been on the lookout for runaways in need of their help ever since spotting the bounty hunters. After finding John and Harrison nearly frozen to death, the Feltners took the boys in and cared for them until they recovered their health. This part of the story was related to me in 1967 by Lester Feltner, then 95 or 96, whose grandfather ran the Carlisle station.
Within a year of his arrival in Carlisle, John sent for his mother Elizabeth Curtis and the rest of her family. Although the facts are hazy, apparently their Virginia master manumitted, or freed, the entire family, who soon arrived with their freedom papers to settle in and around Stafford, OH. Rockingham County relatives who were free people of color, descended from indentured servants rather than slaves, came with them.
Rockingham John, as he became known, liked the countryside around Stafford, which he said reminded him of his beloved Shenandoah Valley. He became a conductor on the Carlisle branch of the Underground Railroad himself in the decade prior to the Civil War; his brother Harrison worked at the Barnesville, OH, station in Belmont County.
During his years with the Underground Railroad, John became very knowledgeable about using roots and herbs to treat both man and beast and often had to treat sickness among his fugitive charges. In the winter of 1863 a group of runaway slaves from Kentucky, traveling without a conductor and suffering from exposure, became lost at Renrock, a cluster of houses a few miles south of Cumberland, OH, in western Noble County. Several of the party were gravely ill, and although John was sent for and did his best to save them, seven died and were buried on a windswept ridge above Renrock. The survivors were taken in by the people of Cumberland, and most ended up settling there themselves. One who didn't was a 20-year-old mulatto woman named Jane Early, who became Rockingham John's wife. It's unclear whether Jane was one of the Kentucky runaways or an earlier resident of Cumberland when John met her. They married in 1867 and bought a farm in Stafford, which stayed in my family until 1961.
John's many adventures as an Underground Railroad conductor include a battle with a huge rabid dog or wolf, which he killed with a pitchfork; and a gunfight with a bounty-hunter, whom he reputedly shot to death to save not only his own life but the freedom of the fugitive slaves in his care. But that's another, very dramatic, story.