Wednesday, May 4, 2011

THE RIVER JORDAN: A True Story of the Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad, the inspiring story of ordinary people who helped bring about the end of slavery in America by putting their livelihoods, their lives, and the lives of their families at stake to help many thousands flee to freedom, was not only one of our nation’s finest hours but is still a vital example for the world today.

Virtually all wars and acts of terrorism are the result of ethnic hatred and racial prejudice. What better example has there ever been of compassionate, courageous cooperation between the peoples of different races than the Underground Railroad?

THE RIVER JORDAN is the true story of a woman who escaped on the URR in 1843 with her seven children. It was dangerous enough for a strong man, traveling alone and responsible for no one but himself, to flee from slavery. Bounty hunters, wild animals and the wilderness lay between fugitives and Canada. For a woman with a large family, the feat was nothing less than heroic. But it actually happened, as Jane’s epic story portrays in vivid, harrowing detail.

The book is available on Amazon as both an e-book and a paperback, co-authored by Henry Burke and Dick Croy.

This blog is intended to tell you not only about Jane's extraordinary true story but about the history of the Underground Railroad. We hope you find it interesting, informative and enjoyable, and we welcome your questions and comments.

Henry Burke & Dick Croy


  1. To me the subject of the Underground Railroad is very personal. It is the greatest story of freedom in American history and I feel it in my soul. The history of the Underground Railroad also involved my family's rise from slavery and their fight to free other African-Americans in the Civil War.

    As a child, I developed a great interest in where my family had originated and how they’d come to southeastern Ohio. I didn't learn about the Underground Railroad in a classroom. I learned about the Freedom Trail from my relatives and many others who, like me, cherished the tradition that our ancestors had contributed to the freedom of African-American people in our country. I have spent nearly all my life developing a perspective about the Underground Railroad along the Ohio River, while researching my family's origins in Virginia.

    Ancestors of the Burke family were brought from Africa to the Corotoman Plantation in Lancaster County, Virginia, by John Carter as early as 1640, about the time the plantation was founded. Some Burke ancestors may even have been on the first ship to Virginia in 1619. In any case, my family’s ancestors were among the earliest Africans brought into the English Colonies of North America.

    Robert King Carter (1663-1736), the son of Col. John Carter, became America’s first millionaire. He owned over a thousand slaves and held almost 300,000 acres of plantation land in the northern neck of Virginia. His land holdings included the famous Carter Grove Plantation, now a part of the United States Park Service at Williamsburg, Virginia. Descendants of the original Carters included American presidents Benjamin and William Henry Harrison and Robert E. Lee, father of the Confederacy.

    Robert King Carter’s son Robert Carter Jr. (1704-1732) died very young, leaving a four-year-old son of his own. Robert Carter, III, (1728-1804) inherited a large number of slaves and an estate that included some 78,000 acres. He eventually established a plantation on Nomini Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, near the present-day city of Montross. Around 1791 he freed nearly 500 of his slaves, the largest emancipation by an individual slaveholder in the history of the United States.

    Among those freed was my ancestor Winny Burke, whose son Joseph brought his family to Washington County in 1854. When the Civil War broke out, Joseph’s son Nimrod was hired as a civilian teamster and scout by Lieutenant Colonel Melvin C. Clark, a prominent Marietta, Ohio, attorney who had employed Nimrod before the war. In March, 1864, after President Lincoln opened the way for the Union Army to enlist free blacks and emancipated slaves, Nimrod became a sergeant with the 23rd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment. The 23rd participated in the fall of Petersburg in April, 1865, and pursued Lee’s forces to Appomattox, where on April 9 Lee surrendered to end the Civil War. Thus had slavery come full circle in the history of my family. Carter descendant Robert E. Lee lay down his arms to victorious Union forces which included my great-great-grandfather Nimrod Burke, whose ancestors had helped make the Carter family the richest and most powerful in America.

    To understand what motivated African-Americans to run from slavery, one needs only to ask a few basic questions: Who were the slaves? How had they become slaves? What perpetuated slavery? What would my life be like if I were a slave myself?

    These are the questions that prompted my own fascination with the Underground Railroad, which goes back to my earliest memories. My grandparents John (1889-1967) and Anna (Curtis) Burke (1888-1973) raised me in their home in Marietta, Ohio, in Washington County. My early lessons about the Underground Railroad came from my grandmother’s family and the village of Stafford in Monroe County, where she was born and raised. Stafford was an abolitionist center with a very busy station on the Underground Railroad.

    (to be continued, Henry Robert Burke)

  2. My grandmother Anna was the daughter of Cisley Curtis and granddaughter of "Rockingham" John Curtis (1830-1914), born on a plantation in Rockingham County, Virginia. Rockingham John was a legendary ancestor about whom I’ve written extensively. Due to Cisley’s death soon after giving birth to my grandmother, John Curtis raised Anna as his own child. He also had another daughter, Laura, and six sons. Both daughters and one son had long been dead when I came along, but five sons – Tom, Clem, Ike, Ed and John Henry – were still alive during the 1940s when I was young.

    Clem, Ike and Ed all lived near Stafford, where my grandmother and I spent nearly every weekend and where, from the age of five, I spent every day of my summer vacation with my great-uncle Ed Curtis. I was very fond of a big ancient gray workhorse named Harry. Though at first I had difficulty getting on Old Harry, as I called him, I soon learned to maneuver him to a place where I could climb aboard; then I would ride him up and down the road, pretending to be my great-great-grandfather Rockingham John.

    It was during these visits that I became aware of Underground Railroad trails leading northward to Stafford from the Ohio River. I thought that the Underground Railroad began and ended near Stafford; I had no real concept of slavery although I had heard it discussed. I knew that Rockingham John had been a slave. He had worked with the Stafford Underground Railroad, and the stories of his many exploits were told over and over – the most vivid during our winter weekend visits around a big fireplace in a cabin shared by Clem and Ed.

    There was no electricity and since lamp oil was considered expensive even it was used sparingly, so the fireplace provided light as well as heat. This was such a special time, when the oral history of the Underground Railroad was passed down to me.

    Then when I was eleven years old, tragedy struck. As usual, I had gone to Stafford to stay with my uncle Ed for the summer. He had mowed and raked some hay in a field above the house, and we loaded the hay wagon, which was hitched to an inexperienced new horse. Uncle Ed and I were sitting on top of the load. On the way to the barn, the young horse ran off.

    Although I managed to jump from the back of the wagon, receiving only minor injuries, Uncle Ed fell behind the runaway horse and became entangled in the traces. Critically injured, he was taken by a neighbor to the hospital in Marietta, where he died a few hours later. My visits to Stafford and my childhood ended that afternoon.

    I was lost back in Marietta. I just couldn’t cope with the loss of Uncle Ed. Nothing interested me. I was in a daze that made it impossible for me to concentrate. I had spent every hour of every summer of my life in Stafford with Uncle Ed. Today such a condition would probably be recognized as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. In 1951, we just called it "feeling low." This was when I first realized that death was final. Before the accident, I had more or less believed that everything would go on unchanged forever.

    I finally decided to run away from home, for the first and only time in my life. (I’m still not sure how serious I really was.) The whole episode lasted only about ten hours and covered about twenty miles round-trip. Though geographically I didn't travel far, in a psychological sense, my trip took me to the other side of the universe.

    (to be continued, Henry Robert Burke)

  3. For some weeks, I had lived in an imaginary realm where time stood still and nothing ever changed. I was a listless spirit, wandering through an empty void; a mute observer to a horrendous tragedy, unable to change or control anything. My poor grandmother, enduring her own grief, finally bought me a horse to console me. I kept him at the Washington County Fairgrounds, just a couple of blocks from where we lived in Marietta.
    Early one August morning, I saddled Dan and rode him through town and across the Ohio River to Williamstown, West Virginia, then headed north on the old Waverly Pike. It soon grew very hot as we plodded upstream along the Ohio, but I was determined to put distance between myself and the sadness at home.
    Around 10 a.m. I was thirsty enough to stop at a house and ask for a drink of water. A warm-hearted lady working in her garden gave me a glass of lemonade instead, and I continued on with renewed vigor. Sometime before noon, I reached Bull Creek at the north end of the little town of Waverly. I was only about ten miles from home, but Dan was sweating badly from the heat radiating off the asphalt pavement.
    After crossing the bridge over Bull Creek, Dan climbed a long gentle grade and I was soon thirsty again. The thought of giving up had begun to creep into my mind. Then just ahead on the right, I spotted an old man sitting on a bench in the shade of an oak tree in front of a big old farmhouse. I noticed that he had a funny little cap cocked sideways on his head. That dingy, sweat-stained gray cap turned out to be of Civil War vintage.
    I stopped and exchanged greetings with the old man, whose name was Bill Harness, then got directly to the point. He directed me to a well at the side of the house. The pump had a crank, with an old tin cup hanging on a hook on the faucet. There was a three-gallon bucket sitting nearby. I turned the crank and filled the bucket for Dan, then took the tin cup and drank deeply. I can’t remember a time when water tasted any better. What a pleasant relief the shade of that grand old oak tree gave me! I just took my time.
    When Dan and I had finally finished drinking, I replaced the tin cup and bucket and thanked Bill Harness again for the water.
    "Sit a spell and rest yer hoss," he said after looking Dan over. I gladly accepted the offer and tied Dan to the tree. "Nice hoss yer got there.”
    We just sat there on the bench in the shade, gazing out at the two-lane blacktop. Occasionally a car or truck would roll by, but traffic was light in this part of the country back in 1951.
    Finally Bill asked in his hillbilly twang, "Whar yer headed?"
    "Pittsburgh I reckon."
    "Whoa, ah reckon yer got you a fur piece ta go, don' cha?"
    "Yup." I had no idea how far away Pittsburgh was; I wasn't even sure I was headed in the right direction. For something to say, I offered, "Nice place ya got here."
    "It'll do till something better comes along," he said with a big grin. Then he asked bluntly, "What ta hell you agoin’ all the way to Pittsburgh fer?"
    "To git a job I guess," was the best answer I could come up with.
    "Yer Ma know whar yer agoin'?"
    "Sure thing," I lied.
    "Hmmm," he said.
    We continued to sit for a while, then Bill asked, "What's yer name agi'n?"
    I told him.
    "I was jest thinkin' yer might be some kin to them there slaves mah gran'pappy Solomon Harness used t’ keep 'round cher."
    ...I heard what the man said, but my mind wasn't responding. In the first place, I still didn't understand the historic issues about slavery very well. It had certainly never crossed my mind that slaves had been kept right across the Ohio River.

    (to be continued, Henry Robert Burke)

  4. He went on to tell me a long story about slaves and slavery in West Virginia, the northern-most part of Virginia until 1863. As Bill saw it, slavery had darn near ruined his family. Because they had slaves to do their work, he said, a whole generation of the Harness family had become complacent.

    We talked for some time before I noticed that the sun had moved a considerable distance toward the west. Bill realized it too. "Yer best be headin' back if yer wanna make home afore dark."

    "See ya later," I told him, climbing back on Dan. It was a little cooler now, and old Dan stretched into a long ground-covering shuffle. We arrived in Marietta a lot faster than we’d reached Bull Creek. It wasn't quite dark when I finally took Dan to the stable, watered and fed him, then walked the two blocks home. My mother, who was home from work, assumed I’d spent the day at the Fairgrounds as usual.

    After that first conversation with Bill Harness, I unconsciously began to file away every little bit of information I could find about slavery in the Mid-Ohio Valley. Over the years I went to see Bill quite a few times. The last time, before joining the Army in the fall of '58, he showed me a tumbled-down old cabin sitting between the highway and the Ohio River. Bill said it had been built clear back in 1790 by an early settler who purchased the land from George Washington.

    He told me many stories about events around Bull Creek before it became part of West Virginia. I always kept them in mind; they broadened my interest in the enslavement of African-American people and the Underground Railroad that set so many of them free.

    When I returned to Marietta in 1967 after nine years’ military service, I found employment as a heavy equipment operator in surface coal mines and on projects building highways and electric power plants. For thirty years I worked on many construction projects extending along the Ohio River from Wheeling downriver to Huntington, West Virginia. In every place I worked along the Ohio, someone would tell me a story about slavery and the Underground Railroad.

    Around 1980, I became acquainted with Louise Zimmer and Jerry Devol, local experts on Washington County history. I discussed my research with them on a regular basis as I continued to study the Underground Railroad as a serious hobby. So many people have contributed information to my research over the years that I can’t possibly remember all of them, but a list of those who have helped most significantly appears on the Acknowledgments Page.

    In 1985, my co-author Dick Croy returned to Marietta to take over his family’s business, and our paths crossed a year or so later when he called me for information concerning a book he was writing. When I told him of the many stories about the Underground Railroad that I’d been collecting and writing down, he was quite interested and asked to see some of them. That began a collaboration which, over more than a decade, has led to the book you’re about to read as well as a number of other projects. The River Jordan began as a short story entitled "The Escape of Jane" and just kept growing.

    I have now spent many years researching my family’s heritage, which I feel is an extraordinary story within the framework of African-American history. An unbounded curiosity was first aroused by names and voices from another century, in front of a huge stone fireplace in an old cabin on a former Underground Railroad route in southeastern Ohio. A solidly built cabin erected near Stafford in 1866 by my great-great-grandfather, former slave Rockingham John Curtis.

    Henry Robert Burke

  5. Very interesting, the personal makes it real.

    Thank you for writing it.

  6. Thank you, Henry, for your research and your great website. I have been researching the Lynch family who founded Lynchburg. Judith Lynch, daughter of Sarah Clark Lynch and mother to the founding father of Lynchburg, John Lynch who founded the city by building a ferry across the James River is my ancestor. William Lynch came to the Colonies as an indentured servant to Capt. Clark from Ireland. He married Capt. Clark's daughter Sarah, John and Judith were their children. They were Quakers and very opposed to lifelong slavery. They established the South River Friends Meeting House, a Quaker Church where John and Sarah are buried. I understood the term "Lynching" came about during the revolutionary war when captured pro-British Tories were hung without a trial. An agreement of the Virginia General Assembly on September 22, 1782, allowed Colonel Charles Lynch to pursue and punish criminals in Pittsylvania County, without due process of law, because legal proceedings were in practical terms impossible in the area due to the lack of adequate provision of courts. This agreement was called the Lynch Law. I also share ancestors with Obama through Thomas Hickman of VA. I am aware that life was extremely difficult for the Black African in the colonies and in the newly formed American Nation. Their treatment was cruel and hardhearted and designed so in order to control and manipulate using the techniques described by William Lynch of the Caribbean Islands.

  7. I'd like to talk to you about our ancestors and the Carters. My family has been chronicling our history for over 200 years, through our naming practices and the use of written documents. Apparently, we have similar stories, for our ancestor, James "Gentleman Jim" Robinson was also born free on the Carter plantation of Landon Carter, Jr., known as Pittsylvania, in Northern VA. It's been said that Landon Carter, Jr. was the father of Gentleman Jim, as well. When we discovered your story we were very intrigued, because we had never encountered a parallel story before. One of the branches of our family resides in NE Ohio presently. Hope to hear from you soon, so that we can compare notes.

  8. Please respond to the above comment via FB, where I'm listed as Kofi Khemet or by eMail to

    Thanks a lot!