MEIGS COUNTY — Much of the county’s history of settlement by free or emancipated African American’s has been lost to time and migration. The next series of articles will highlight what is known and currently being researched in an effort to add and preserve their story of struggles, contributions, and achievements to Meigs County’s history.
Upcoming stories will include Jazz pianist Sam Allen, Poet James Edwin Campbell, Buffalo Soldiers, the Underground Railroad in Middleport, enslaved people fleeing the Confederate Army in Virginia/West Virginia and finding refuge across the border in Ohio, and of the arrest of John Adams Smith in Meigs County by Virginia ofﬁcials who charged him with assisting runaway slaves, and his escape.
Some background on why runaway slaves found safety in Ohio: The Northwest Ordinance/Ordinance of 1787 established the territorial geography and governance of what later became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Ordinance included the prohibition of slavery in the territory and established the Ohio River as the geographic divide between what were referred to as slave states and free states from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 had guaranteed the right for a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. The Act was strengthened by the Compromise of 1850 at the insistence of Southern states to require the governments and the residents of free states to enforce the capture and return of fugitive slaves or face legal consequences.
The enforcement of the act outraged many Northerners who were opposed to slavery and were assisting those trying to escape.
The story begins across the Ohio River from Meigs County in Virginia, where blacks were held as enslaved persons, property of their “owners.”
A story in “The Pioneer History of Meigs County” illustrates the divide between the states in the years before the Civil War as told to Albert G. Gardner, by his father Joshua Gardner.
Joshua Gardner began his telling with, “Many of the early settlers were of Puritan stock, and thoroughly imbued with the love of liberty, united to dauntless courage and daring to aid or rescue from oppression any helpless fellow being.”
With this in mind, it is not surprising the choice he made when confronted a by runaway slave trying to escape her captor.
One morning in the early part of summer of the year 1825 Gardner and a party of neighbors were at the blacksmith shop of Joseph Giles, near New Lima Road.
The group saw a horseman approaching with a “Negro woman sitting on the horse with the stranger.”
The men thought it was evident that she was not a “willing passenger on that train”, and halted the horseman. Gardner demanded the man show his authority for taking the woman, but he had none, saying that “she acknowledged herself to be a slave of the Wagners in Virginia.”
The Wagner farm was opposite Kerr’s Run in Ohio, and one can imagine the woman may chosen to cross the river there. The man who captured the woman said she had escaped and was on her way to Canada to join her husband, “who had made the race for freedom some time before.”
Gardner told them he was a town constable, and it was his duty to prevent kidnapping as well as other crimes, and asked the woman “if she wanted to go with this man.”
The woman, holding back tears, answered, “No, sir,” and Gardner told her to “get down and go where you please,” and that as an ofﬁcer of the law he would protect her.
The man returned to Virginia to inform the Wagners, and members of Gardner’s group took the woman and guided her to the house of “one Crandle, a poor man, but noble citizen, who lived in an ‘out of the way’ place,” where she could be hidden and provided for until it was safe to continue on her journey to Canada.
According to the story, the “colored woman was hidden in an old brush fence by a shelving rock and fed and well taken care of by Mrs. Crandle and family.”
The Wagners were soon in the area looking for her and offering rewards. One man who accidentally discovered her whereabouts planned to inform the Wagners, but was foiled after relating his plan to Stephen Ralph, who sounded an alarm and allowed enough time for the woman to be taken to the Benjamin Bellows farm. There she stayed until Bellows communicated with parties in Canada and ascertained the whereabouts of the woman’s husband.
Bellows then prepared a wagon with a false bottom to transport her and headed for Canada. He later reported that he traveled one day with one of the Wagners and another party who were hunting for her, and that Wagner had dismounted and helped Bellows’ wagon down a steep, rocky hill to keep it from overturning, never suspecting that the object of his search was inside.
Nothing more was written about the woman, so it is assumed she reached Canada and was reunited with her husband, but this cannot be verified.
Unable to locate her, the Wagners decided to try legal avenues to obtain the value of their “property” from Joshua Gardner.
The case was brought to trial in the Court of Common Pleas in Chester, Ohio and resulted in a verdict for the plaintiff.
Gardner appealed, and the verdict was overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court that held that the “admissions and sayings of the woman could not be admitted to prove her identity; if she was a competent witness she must be produced in court; but if she was a slave she could not be a competent witness.”
It was noted that after the trial Judge Pease was heard to say “that an action of trover for the recovery of stock might do in Virginia, but it would not do in Ohio unless the stock had more than two legs.”
Not satisfied with the verdict, the Wagners next step was to kidnap Gardner and “deal with him according to the rules of chivalry.”
Twelve men in disguise were reportedly seen on horseback, but before they could abduct Gardner, they were “anticipated by a force abundantly able to resist them,” and Gardner came to no harm.
The expenses of the suit and events associated with helping the woman to freedom had exhausted Gardner’s resources.
The story ends with Gardner making “an overland trip to California,” where he obtained money “sufficient to buy a comfortable home in Rutland, Ohio, where he enjoyed the respect and conﬁdence of his neighbors.”
Editor’s Note: A story on the life of Joshua Gardner appeared in The Daily Sentinel as part of a column by local historian Jordan Pickens in February 2019. Hart revisits the life of Gardner as part of a series on Meigs County’s African American heritage.
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Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing, email her at L.Faudree.Hart@gmail.com.