Thursday, May 12, 2011


            No one wanted to be a slave.  Africans started escaping from day one of slavery.  Although some native Americans owned slaves, many more adopted runaway slaves into their tribes and intermarried with them.  Other escaped slaves made their way into the larger northern cities and either melted into the free community or were helped to secure passage back to Africa.  As time passed, the willingness of free Negroes to help fugitive slaves grew into a tradition that eventually became the model upon which the Underground Railroad was built. 
            After the U.S. Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1808, slave-breeding operations sprang up all over Virginia, including what is now West Virginia along the Ohio River.  Not only were there slave auction houses in Wheeling and Vaucluse, just north of Williamstown, but beginning in about 1811 there were steamboats plying the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi.  The waterway provided excellent transportation for the slave markets in the Deep South. 
            This, in fact, is where the phrase "to be sold down the river" apparently originated.  It was said that you could hear the screams of slaves as they were torn from their families and friends and loaded aboard steamboats at the landing above Marietta, Ohio, on the Virginia side of the river.  These were the conditions that my own ancestors found when they came to the Mid-Ohio Valley from Virginia in about 1850. 
            Although the Underground Railroad operated all over the United States of the time, few slaves from the Deep South ever traveled on that mystic train; the logistics were simply too daunting. 

            In Ohio, which for a short time was the western frontier, the territory's first settlers had no tradition of helping fugitive slaves.  But the techniques employed by free men of color in the eastern cities eventually found good use in Ohio as well, brought here by white settlers from the New England states.
            Another group that played a strong supporting role in the Underground Railroad were the Quakers.  They first came to Boston, where they themselves were persecuted, in 1656; and in 1682 Quaker William Penn founded the colony of Pennsylvania as a haven for members of the Religious Society of Friends.  For the next century or so splinter groups of Quakers wandered up and down the Atlantic seaboard looking for places to practice their quiet form of religion without persecution.  In 1791 and 1792 various groups of Quakers trekked to the Northwest Territory.  Many were from the South, where their meeting houses had been sold to buy land in Ohio and to purchase the freedom of slaves at the Wheeling slave auction house. 
            One group settled in present-day Columbiana County, Ohio; another just south in Jefferson County, at a place they called Mount Pleasant.  Around 1804 a group of Quakers from Mount Pleasant purchased some land and made their home around present-day Chesterhill, Ohio, in Morgan County, through which a branch of the Underground Railroad eventually ran.  Another group settled in Barnesville in Belmont County, Ohio.  At one time these eastern Ohio Quakers constituted the largest Quaker settlement in the world.
            Those involved with the Underground Railroad, whether black or white, were resourceful and creative people.  Wherever they lived in the United States they risked their own freedom and often their lives for a cause they believed in: to end slavery forever.  For this reason I think the slavery era in American history included some of both the worst and the best human endeavors the world has ever witnessed.

            The Underground Railroad was already in place during the Colonial period of American history but not recognized as an organization until the early 1800s.  Africans freed under the rules of indentured servitude often emigrated to cities in the more liberal northern colonies, New England in particular.  This small core of free Africans kept the dream of freedom alive for the African slave.  And it was among these "free men of color," as they were often called, that fugitive slaves could most likely hope to find refuge, thus establishing the pattern of mutual daring that gradually evolved into the Underground Railroad.
            Between 1750 and 1800 as slavery grew, the efforts of free Negroes in New England to bring it to an end and to help runaways escape became more organized.  And when the northern states finally abolished slavery during the 1780's, a large migration of free blacks from Virginia to the north and to the western frontier began.  Some of these adventurous families and individuals settled in Washington County. 
            In 1787 the birth of James Davis in Marietta marked the first recorded birth of a black American in the Northwest Territory, which was born the same year.  The Underground Railroad and settlement of this vast, fertile land of freedom for both black and white, separated from the slave states of Virginia and Kentucky by 900-plus miles of the Ohio River, developed together.

            Among church groups in the North, the Quakers, Wesley Methodists, and Covenanter Presbyterians were antislavery in sentiment and contributed to the abolitionist movement.  In addition to the American Colonization Society which attempted to repatriate former slaves in Liberia, the American Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1833, also provided national leadership in the abolitionist movement, with the support of newspaperman William Lloyd Garrison, former fugitive slave Frederick Douglass and many others. 
            Prominent free blacks in Washington County during this period were Richard Fisher, the first black American to own property in Ohio and the Northwest Territory, with a deed recorded in 1800; and Christopher Malbone, also known as Kit Putnam, since he accompanied the Putnam family to Marietta from Connecticut, where he had been given his freedom a few years earlier.  He was the first, and for many years only, black man to vote in Ohio.
            In 1864 in Washington County a young black woman named Ann Jones published a book of poems, titled Liberia, Oh Liberia, and a future virtuoso was born.  At the age of five Frank McPhearson  was placed in the Washington County Children's Home, where the black youngster's precocious talent in piano attracted the attention of a wealthy Marietta resident who sponsored his study at Oberlin Music Conservatory.  Frank McPhearson became a world-class pianist who performed for the kings and queens of Europe.
            Operation of the Underground Railroad in Ohio was dependent on the terrain that had to be covered.  In the western part of the state, where the land is flatter and the hills gentler, the methods of moving passengers to their destination were different from those in Washington County, situated in southeastern Ohio in the rugged foothills of the Appalachians.  I have found that at one time or another almost every road, trail or stream in the county running roughly north and south was used as an escape route.  Caves, fallen trees, dark hollows, cellars and barns were favorite hiding places.
             Washington County was still pretty primitive until after the Civil War.  In the early 1800's wolves, bears and other wild animals were still abundant and roaming the hills at night, and poisonous snakes were far more numerous than they are now.  But the biggest danger to fleeing freedom passengers was from the bounty hunters who made their living by capturing and returning fugitive slaves to their owners.
            Runaway slaves came in winter and summer, on foot and in wagons, alone or in groups of 20 or more.  What started with a few fugitives a month eventually grew to hundreds of slaves crossing the Ohio River from Virginia each month.    
            Supported by religious groups in and around Marietta, the Underground Railroad appears to have had three main branches in Washington County.  Which of the three routes fugitive slaves took generally depended on where they crossed the Ohio River, although in some cases they might have been hidden for a while or sent along alternate routes to avoid bounty hunters.
            One route approximated present-day Ohio Route #555, which runs from the Ohio River north through Cutler, ending just south of Zanesville.  Quakers ran the Underground Railroad station in Chesterhill, in Morgan County.
             The central branch began at Marietta and followed the Muskingum River north to Zanesville.  The year 1840 saw the completion of a "slack water navigation" system of locks, dams and canals which not only made the Muskingum River navigable for steamboats, but connected the Ohio River with Lake Erie.  Fugitive slaves now often stowed away on steamboats headed up the Muskingum. 
            In about 1850 a steamboat traveling upriver stopped at the Decker farm about nine miles north of Marietta near the mouth of Rainbow Creek, to take on firewood for the boiler.  While the wood was being loaded, bounty hunters came aboard looking for runaway slaves who had stowed away.  When the fugitives tried to escape, two were reportedly shot to death while four or five others managed to get away.  They must have gotten lost, however, because they headed south instead of north and were apprehended a few days later near the Ohio River port of Pomeroy, in Meigs County.
            The third branch of Washington County's Underground Railroad began east of Marietta and ran north from the Ohio River through Fearing and Salem Township, where the Hovey farm and the Jewett Palmer station were located.  From there fugitives could travel either to Carlisle in Noble County or to Stafford in Monroe County, which has had a sizable black population since the 1840's.  Both Stafford and Carlisle were important Underground Railroad stations. 
            About 150 black families lived in Washington Country right after the Civil War.  Ironically, at the beginning of the war many fugitive slaves were left temporarily stranded, as whites helping to run the Underground Railroad left to enlist with the Union forces.  Ultimately, of course, the 4,000 men who enlisted in the Union from Washington County alone went to war to ensure that "America, land of the free," was not just a false and empty phrase.  Of these 4,000, 72 were black men who enlisted after President Lincoln approved the use of black soldiers in the Union Army, in 1863.

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