OHIO VALLEY — The Underground Railroad reached its peak in the 1850’s, and has become synonymous with the battle to end slavery.
This vast network helped runaway slaves to escape to the north, and often onto Canada. It was made up of a diverse group of people, the majority of whom were free blacks. Along with their white supporters, the Underground Railroad is estimated to have helped 100,000 slaves between 1810 and 1850.
Considering that at the end of the Civil War there were approximately 3.7 million freed slaves, the percentage of fugitives was small. But the idea that one could escape their captors and find support among abolitionists in the north fueled the movement to end slavery in every state in the United States.
The era of slavery in the American Colonies began with the landing of the first ship of African captives at a Virginia port 1619, and so did the divisiveness on the issue.
During the Revolutionary War, free Blacks fought alongside their white counterparts, but were disappointed with the new government’s stance on slavery and equality for Black citizens. The states of Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut abolished slavery by the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. Southern states raised concerns this would encourage slaves to escape and find refuge in one of the “free states,” and insisted a “Fugitive Slave Clause” be placed in the Constitution. The result was Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3: “no person held to service or labor” … would be released from bondage in the event they escaped to a free state.
Anti-slavery sentiment remained high in the north, and Congress received numerous petitions to abolish the practice completely. Not satisfied that the Constitutional clause went far enough to discourage or return runaway slaves, Southern states were able to gain support to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This act authorized local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners, and imposed penalties on anyone who assisted them.
To the ire of southern slaveholders, most northern states ignored the act as they had the clause, and continued assisting fugitive slaves.
The efforts of enslaved people to escape their captors had been ongoing since the first slave ship arrived in the Colonies, and increased after the War of 1812. White southern soldiers returned from the war with stories of Canada, a country where they would be free; disillusioned Black soldiers who had been denied the promises made to them for their service in the war effort looked to escape as a way to end their servitude.
The institution of the enslavement of Africans in what is now present-day Canada was never as extensive as it was in the United States, and successful efforts to disable the practice took place in the in the 1790’s. Court decisions in Lower Canada made slavery unenforceable, and Upper Canada’s Act Against Slavery passed in 1793, which legislated its gradual abolition.
An incident involving a runaway slave in lower Canada made clear to the United States their position on the issue of returning fugitives after they entered Canadian soil when they refused a request in 1829 to return an escaped slave: “The state of slavery is not recognized by the Law of Canada,” and that every slave who came into the territory was immediately free whether he had been “brought in by violence or has entered it of his own accord.”
When slavery was banned in all parts of the British Empire in 1834, this meant Canada was a safe haven, and, it gave even more were motivation to escape and seek refuge outside the United States.
The years preceding the Civil War, 1840 to 1860, have been referred to as the “war before the war”, and Ohio was on the frontline. The Ohio River was a naturally occurring border between the southern states where slavery was legal, and northern states that had either banned the practice or never embraced slavery in their initial statehood constitutions. Many saw the escape to Canada as a “road to freedom” and were willing to take the risks no matter the consequences. Only the river and the over 200-mile journey after crossing stood between freedom and slavery.
Abolitionists and resistance groups began to organize networks of safe houses and persons willing to assist runaways in their escape. The need to have some sort of system in place to assist the fugitives became apparent with the increase in numbers, and also in the makeup of the escapees. Prior to 1850, most runaways had been men, but now, women and children were fleeing the South. These fugitives had nothing more than the clothes they were wearing, and were in need of food and clothing if they were to make the long journey. They also needed places to rest and to hide from the “slave hunters” who were often close behind, and transportation or a guide to their next stop.
What we know as the Underground Railroad was born from this effort, and refined into a network that was often as sophisticated as it was invisible. A system of safe houses and hiding places for fugitive slaves from southern states seeking freedom in northern states and Canada, the Underground Railroad was so called because no traces of its “passengers” could be found after they entered the system.
Their attempts to escape were routinely stifled, and the consequences could be severe. Most runaways had to rely on their own resources to get away, but sometimes a “conductor” in the Underground Railroad would pose as a slave and go onto a plantation to act as a guide. Travel was done mostly at night, with the fugitives and walking between 10 and 20 miles to reach the next “station.” There they could find a place to rest and eat. Often, they would hide in barns and other designated structures, at other times they had to be kept in secluded areas to avoid capture by pursuing “slave hunters.” After their arrival a message would be sent to the next “station” to alert them to expect the arrival of new “passengers.”
With tensions continuing to build with in the United States over the return of fugitives, and the decision on whether or not to allow slavery in the new western territories, Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The new act required slaves to be returned to their owners even if they were found in a free state, and gave owners and agents of the enslaved people the right to search for them within the borders of free states. It also mandated harsher punishments for interfering in their capture that included fines and jail sentences.
These were dangerous times for fugitive slaves and those who chose to help in their escape. For the fleeing slaves there were many natural and man-made obstacles to their journey, and if captured, certainly punishment upon their return.
For white abolitionists, there were legal consequences including fines and incarceration. For Black’s the risks could be even greater, as they too might get caught up in the search for fugitives, and unable to prove they were free, or their proof disregarded, they could be taken into slavery themselves.
Communications used in the Underground Railroad
The term Underground Railroad was not used until around 1840, when railroads became a widespread system of transportation. After that time railway terminology such as stations, conductors, depots, and passengers were used to describe the Underground Railroad and its participants.
Participants in the Underground Railroad were dedicated to the cause of ending slavery and assisting fugitives in their escape to freedom, and came up with creative ways to accomplish their mission.
Communication involved special signals, whistles, passwords, hushed conversations, watchwords, and cryptic written messages. Abolitionists called this method of communicating the “grape-vine telegraph.” Fugitives seeking admission to “stations” were given a combination of knocks or raps to make on a door or window. They were often asked, “Who’s there?”, and the reply would be, “A friend with friends.”
Double entendres were used in written communications – in case of interception by a slave chaser, the written notes would not give away any useful information, only another member of the Underground Railroad would be able to decipher its meaning. The following note, originally hand written by Mr. John Stone, of Belpre, Ohio, in August, 1843, is an example:
Belpre Friday Morning
Business is arranged for Saturday night be on the lookout and if practicable let a carriage come and meet the caravan.
Letters from persons involved in the Underground Railroad
There are many stories of escapes who crossed the river to Underground Railroad networks in Gallia and Meigs Counties, none more poignant than those told by those who participated. Included are some direct transcripts found in the “The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Wilbur H. Siebert. Siebert, an Ohio State History Professor, was working on a project in the early 1890’to gather as much information as he could find about the Underground Railroad. As part of the effort, he requested and received written remembrances from persons directly associated. Below are three letters, one from a Pomeroy resident, and two from Gallipolis.
A letter from Mrs. C. Grant, Pomeroy, Meigs County, Ohio, August 28, 1884 documents a route from Pomeroy, via Rutland, Meigs County, to Albany in Athens County, and on to McConnelsville, Morgan County, or Zanesville, Muskingum County.
I write at my husband’s request in reply to your letter asking for information in regard to the old “Underground R.R.” in which my family was more actively interested than his; though he lived directly opposite the landing on the old Wagner farm, where trading boats landed and received their loads of human freight, and a number of times witnessed the heart rending scenes, always attendant upon such visitations, when husbands, wives and children were separated for life, and driven like cattle aboard of the boat, and floated away to the South. Those boats were built something on the plan of the modern “Shanty-boat” but had not even its comforts and conveniences. The approach of the dreaded “Trader” as those boats were called, has been the signal for more than one valuable Chattel to manage to slip over the river, where he was fed, and bid God speed, by my husband’s parents, when it was a crime against the law to thus feed and aid an escaping slave. Everything was done so secretly that your right hand knew not what your left hand did.
But the first Depot of which I had any knowledge was at Rutland in Meigs County, a small place six miles back from the river, and settled by a sturdy New England colony. Among the well-known and fearless friends of the Slave in that vicinity, I remember the names of the Holts, Barrets, and Mills, and operators there were several others, whose names I cannot now recall, that were always ready to lend a helping hand. Horace Holt managed a reed factory, and sold reeds all through the county. Everyone did their own weaving then. Holt used a light wagon for his purpose, and with a lid or cover that closed down tight and was locked on the top with a padlock. In this he could haul several hundred reeds, and by those who ought to have had a pretty good idea of how things were done, it was well understood, that one or two hunted fugitives could be stowed in among the reeds, and thus helped a long way on their journey; and if a colored person reached Rutland they were seldom heard of again in Ohio, although vigorous search was often made, and large rewards offered for them.
By-roads, paths across lots and ways known only to Pioneers and Hunters, were utilized, til Albany (a small town in Athens County) was reached, where John Brown (best known as Jack Brown) lived, who could always be depended upon to secrete, feed and forward all that came to him. Though he seldom left his store, if there was no one else that could be trusted, he would pilot them though to my fathers (J.M. Hibbaard) or David More (Grandfather of Rev. D.H.More) or Joe Herrold, who after giving them rest and food, would take them on, avoiding Athens, (though J.B. Miles, Hull Foster and others lived there who would have at any time, rendered all the aid in their power) by passing down Margaret’s Creek, and up Hocking, and through Wolf’s Plains, where a peculiar whistle, or some other recognized signal, indicated to a trusted friend on the other side, that there were passengers to cross the river, and in a very short time, a canoe would furnish a way over.
Do not suppose that all of this was accomplished without difficulty, or interruption, often times action was delayed for hours, or even days, and sometimes a new route had to be laid out on account of the presence of either interested or disinterested parties that could not be gotten out of the way without exciting suspicion. After crossing the Hocking, the way lay over the hills and through hollows, and many small streams were to be crossed (without bridges) til Federal Creed was reached, where Dr. J.S. Hibbard resided, with his large family of boys, any one of whom was always ready for service.
From there the route lay over an exceedingly rough section of the county, to the East-Fork-of Federal, into the neighborhood of Solomon Newton and Hosea Alderman; men who would always lay by all personal business, for the benefit of the fugitive, caring for their needs and forwarding them to friends near McConnelsville or Zanesville, and there they were left with others well known to the ”Secret Service” and were seldom heard from again by those that had been instrumental in their escape, until after the war, when many of them returned and were seen and conversed with, by their former “Friends in need.”
A Letter from N.D. Rose, Underground Railroad Operation, Gallipolis, circa 1890’s
I suppose about half a dozen persons came under my care; all of them got safely across the Canadian Border. A woman with three children crossed the river opposite Gallipolis. I took the littlest child in my arms. The weather was very cold. I called on the woman and other children to follow. The excitement and the hurry compelled me to throw my overcoat in the corner of the fence til my return. I took these three miles and left them with a colored family.
(Marshall) Porter built a haystack with he made hollow so that when a fugitive slave sought refuge, he put him in the haystack, till the bloodhounds lost the scent
Another incident during the war and before the proclamation of emancipation 30 or 40 black people were housed for the night by my wife in a loft and I did not know they were in the house till next morning. The children were trained to silence so that not a whimper was heard by the little ones.
Letter from Erastus Nulton, circa 1890’s
In Ohio I went several times with fugitives. Never went alone, but helped whenever I could as was natural in an enthusiastic boy whose father was an active worker for human freedom. I left Ohio in 1849 when I was 16 years old.
Fugitives on our route usually crossed the Ohio River at Gallipolis, Gallia County, where they were ferried across by a slave living on the Virginia side, who directed them to Abolitionists nearby. Afterwards a party of fugitive slaves told us that the old ferry man was going to try to escape, and the last slaves we helped on, before we left Ohio, were the ferryman and his family.
Editor’s note: The Nulton family moved to Iowa, where they continued to assist runaway slaves; Erastus enlisted in the 3rd Iowa Cavalry in 1861 and served for three years.
Sources for this article: “Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom” by Wilbur H. Siebert, Gutenberg.org; The Underground Railroad, PBS.org.
Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing.