One of the best examples of a plantation in the mid-Ohio River valley, Henderson Hall, is still standing between Williamstown and Parkersburg, WV, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Henderson family of Wood County were descended from Alexander Henderson, who came to Virginia in 1756. Alexander was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and immigrated to Dumfries, Virginia, where he established a very profitable importing firm. Before the American Revolution, he served in the Virginia House of Burgesses and was one of five committee members appointed to establish the boundary between Virginia and Maryland. He was a close friend and political associate of George Washington, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and his marriage to Sarah Moore is mentioned in Washington's journal. From Washington, Henderson acquired over 26,000 acres in western Virginia.
Alexander and Sarah Henderson had six sons and four daughters. In 1797 three of the sons and Sarah Moore Henderson set out to explore their father's land holdings on the Ohio frontier. Alexander, Jr., came to Wood County where he built a cabin for himself and his slaves before returning to Dumfries. In July, 1799, he sent his overseer Henry Summers with ten slaves "for the purpose of effecting a settlement on the Little Kanawha River.” The slaves were listed as Henry Bull, 48 or 49 years old; his wife Sukey, 36; their children, Heathy, 9, Lucy 7, and Sarah, 6 months; Abram, 24; Hannah, 19, and her child Davy, 18 months; John Dingo, 11; and his younger brother Stephen.
In 1801 Alexander, Jr., married Jane Lithgow and brought her to Wood County. Alex hunted bear to get the $5-per-head bounty they brought and had the silver he earned melted down to make hollow ware and flatware for his bride. Their first two children died of "bilious fever." Their third child, George Washington Henderson, was born in 1804 at Willow Island near Bull Creek.
George W. Henderson attended school in Marietta and graduated from Ohio University in 1818. In 1826 he married Elizabeth Ann Tomlinson, the daughter of Joseph Tomlinson III, son of the original claimant of the site of Williamstown, whom we met earlier. At first the Hendersons lived on his father's plantation at Willow Island where they worked the land with slaves. In 1836 the couple purchased land from Elizabeth's father and built a modest but comfortable home. During the 1850s they constructed a three-story addition to the front of their home, and the place became known as Henderson Hall. All the building material was produced on the plantation. The bricks for the addition were fired on site, the sandstone was quarried on the property, and the wood came from massive walnut trees on the grounds.
Although the average slaveholder in western Virginia during the 1840s owned only five slaves, Henderson at one time owned over 30, most of whom ran away in droves. Their escapes were well documented in the Marietta Gazetteer and Marietta Intelligencer newspapers.
Let's look at how slavery was practiced at Henderson Hall, where trusted slaves had a considerable amount of mobility. It’s hard to determine whether all the slaves were treated in a similar fashion, but at least two Henderson slaves, Steven Dingo and his wife Julie, were members of the First Congregational Church in Marietta. They also made regular trips back and forth across the Ohio River to deliver farm produce from Henderson Hall to Marietta merchants, receiving payment which they brought back to Henderson -- at least that’s what they were supposed to do with it.
As the story goes, "Uncle Steven," as Dingo was called, began to take out small amounts of Henderson's money to put in care of a free black abolitionist named Tom Jerry who was also an agent for Marietta's branch of the Underground Railroad. When enough money had accumulated to give them a new start in life, Uncle Steven and Aunt Julie, in spite of their advanced ages, “boarded” the Underground Railroad in Marietta and took off for Canada sometime in the early 1840s. In 1845, another Henderson slave named Isaac Fairfax set off for Canada on the Underground Railroad, then after a year’s absence wrote Henderson this interesting letter:
July 13, 1846, Niagara, Canada:
It is not any hard usage I have met with since my arrival in Canada which induces me to acknowledge that I am very sorry for the manner in which I left your house without your leave or the leave of any of your family. I must acknowledge that you ever treated me kindly, so not any unkindness of yours, but longing for Liberty induced me to leave you.
If you will promise me on your honor that no punishment shall be inflicted upon me for my offense, and I shall be on the same conditions as before, I am willing to return to you again and you never shall have any cause to repent it. I know that I am taking a risk, but knowing you to be a man of honor, even where a slave is concerned, I will place my confidence in you. X (His Mark)
I remain Your Most Humblest obedient Servant, Isaac Fairfax
I will remain in Niagara with my brother for your answer.
George W. Henderson agreed to the terms in the letter and in September or October of 1846, Isaac Fairfax returned to Henderson Hall. He remained there until the spring of 1847, when he left again, this time with eight other slaves! A slave informant reported to Henderson that Fairfax had conspired with David Putnam, Jr., of Marietta to escape on the Underground Railroad, and a court case ensued.