THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD: THE LORAIN COUNTY CONNECTION
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN GENERAL
Slavery played a part in the founding of many of the British North American colonies in the 1600's. In 1619, 20 Africans were shipped to the Jamestown, Virginia, colony on Dutch ships. The slave trade to the Americas had begun. As early as 1641 slavery was legalized and regarded as essential to the economy of the Massachusetts colony. And, as early as 1642, laws were made to penalize anyone assisting a runaway slave.
The practice of slavery was not universally accepted by residents of the Colonies. Many northern states abolished slavery as a practice in their states when their state constitutions were written. The issue sharply divided the Congress that oversaw the composition of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In 1787 the "Northwest Ordinance" prohibited slavery in the new federal territories. Ohio was one of those territories. In 1803 the Louisiana Purchase resulted in the addition of territories to the country. When those territories were added to the Union the argument about whether they would be free or slave-owning states erupted. The "Missouri Compromise of 1820" resulted in an agreement that Missouri would be added as a slave state but ruled out the expansion of slavery above Missouri's northern border.
The United States gained more territory after the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848. Again the issue arose of whether slavery would be allowed in the new territories. The "Compromise of 1850" resulted in California joining the Union as a Free State but also produced the controversial strengthening of the federal "Fugitive Slave Law" which had originally been passed in 1793.
The Fugitive Slave Act required the return of runaway slaves to their owners - even if the runaway slaves had escaped to "free" states or territories. The law allowed for the organization of posses which could track down escaped slaves. Federal marshals, courts and local officials were required to assist the slave catchers apprehending escaping slaves. The Fugitive Slave Act provided for fines, payments to the slave's owners and jail terms for people convicted of aiding a runaway slave's escape. Abolitionists, freeborn and freed Blacks, clergy, Native Americans, Quakers, etc. were among the many who sympathized with and helped runaway slaves in their journeys toward freedom.
If freed Black men or women could not produce documentation proving their status they could also be kidnapped and taken South to be sold.
Some northern states passed "Personal Liberty Laws" that prohibited their local law officials from obeying the national Fugitive Slave Act.
The term "Underground Railroad" was used as early as the 1830's to describe the secret routes that escaped slaves used to travel to freedom.
The Underground Railroad wasn't a real railroad, of course. It was set up as a network whose members worked to shelter, feed, hide and guide escaping slaves. But earlier than that date there had been cases of people refusing to surrender escaped slaves to the authorities.
By the start of the Civil War thousands of ex-slaves had followed the "drinking gourd" (the Big Dipper constellation with the northern star) to find freedom up north in Canada. The most heavily traveled routes to freedom in Canada were through Ohio, Indiana and western Pennsylvania.
Along the Underground Railroad the various hiding places where rescuers were known to be on hand were called "stations". A rescuer who could show the escaped slaves where to hide was called a "conductor".
There is a sculpture, located outside Talcott Hall at Oberlin College, that is a memorial to the Underground Railroad. The railroad tracks which emerge from the ground are a symbol of Oberlin's participation in the Underground Railroad.
The most famous conductor along the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, who had escaped from slavery in Maryland to Philadelphia in 1849. She made numerous trips down south to rescue other slaves, including her own parents. Harriet Tubman did not use any Ohio routes as she took escaping slaves north to freedom. However, there is a "Harriet Tubman Museum" in Cleveland that honors her accomplishments.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN OHIO
Ohio, bordered by the two slave states of Kentucky and Virginia, was one of the main routes to freedom in Canada. Escaped slaves usually traveled through the state to locations such as Sandusky, Toledo, Huron, Charleston (Lorain), Cleveland, Fairport Harbor, Conneaught, Ashtabula or Erie, Pennsylvania, with the hopes of linking up with a friendly whip captain who would provide a trip across Lake Erie to Canada. Slaves knew that Ohio was a state where public sentiment in most of the state, except for cities and towns bordering the slave states, was very much anti-slavery. More stations on the Underground Railroad existed in Ohio than in any other state.
The book, Uncle Tom's Cabin, was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852 to dramatize the plight of slaves. It told the story, based on fact, of an escaped slave named Eliza. She fled across the icy Ohio river from Kentucky near Cincinnati to escape having her child taken from her. Harriet Beecher Stowe, herself, was a conductor on the Underground Railroad and kept a station in Walnut Hills, near Cincinnati.
Levi Coffin moved to Cincinnati in the 1840s. His efforts to help escaping slaves started when he was 15 years old. He was called the "President of the Underground Railroad." According to his records he helped over 3,000 slaves to escape to freedom during a 20 year period.
Another famous station location in Ohio was Ripley, across the Ohio River from Kentucky. A Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Rankin owned a farm overlooking the river. He and his sons helped slaves for forty years to escape to the north. Slave owners were so outraged at his activities that they offered a reward of $2,500 for the kidnapping or murder of Rankin and other conductors like him. Rev. Rankin's house, built in 1828 on the top of a hill, could be seen from the Kentucky shore of the Ohio River. It is said that over 2,000 slaves escaped to freedom with the help of Rev. Rankin.
Traditional stories about Rev. Rankin say that he kept a light burning in his bedroom window to guide fugitive slaves to shelter. Along the route of the Underground Railroad fugitive slaves were usually given food and shelter in attics, cellars, barns or other outbuildings or nearby woods where they would not be observed by other residents who might not be sympathetic to the abolitionists' cause.
John Brown was a famous abolitionist who, for a time in the early 1850s, lived in Hudson, Ohio, where he acted as a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Ohio. He felt that the only way to eliminate slavery in the United States was to encourage the armed rebellion of the slaves. He and some followers, including some from Oberlin, Ohio, broke into the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859 to get weapons to use in freeing slaves and starting a rebellion. He was defeated, captured, and hanged with some of his followers. John Brown's father was a trustee of Oberlin College and was an abolitionist as well.
One author of a book about the Underground Railroad, Wilbur H. Siebert, estimated that over 40,000 escaped slaves were assisted in their flight to freedom through Ohio between 1830 and 1860. Oberlin was the destination, before the Lake Erie shore, for fleeing slaves traveling north through Ashland and Wayne Counties.
The "Flats" area in Cleveland was one of their destinations where a lake schooner could be boarded for the trip to Canada.
Slave catchers, also known as "bounty hunters", were usually motivated by greed. Apprehending a runaway slave in Ohio could earn a slave catcher a reward of $100 to $300 - a substantial amount of money in the 1850s.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD IN LORAIN COUNTY
Oberlin, Ohio was a noted anti-slavery location in the early 1800s. Negro residents, many who were either escaped slaves or freedmen, were part of the normal day-to-day life in Oberlin. Their children attended the public schools, they voted, ran businesses, worshiped in the same churches, and were students at the Oberlin College.
In 1840, at a house on Lorain Street in Oberlin, two slave catchers from Kentucky captured two escaped slaves - a man and a woman. They attempted to leave the Oberlin area with the slaves but word of their actions had spread to the town where some residents were at a chapel meeting. The church-goers rushed out to pursue the slave-catchers and caught them about three miles from the village. The slave-catchers appealed to the court in Elyria but were themselves arrested on a charge of house-breaking. The runaway slaves were put into jail while the slave-catchers were released on bail. But before the slave catchers could go on trial one died. The other one was released when it turned out that the two runaway slaves, who had been in jail, had themselves escaped to freedom.
Oberlin College, founded in 1833, had students and faculty who were famous for their anti-slavery feelings and actions. Oberlin College began to admit Negro students in 1835.
In one year alone, it was estimated that about 360 fugitive slaves passed through the village of Oberlin.
Anti-slavery lectures were common at Oberlin College. "The anti-slavery movement was as predominant in the town as in the college. Numerous accounts of the operation of the 'Underground Railroad' involve local businessmen, mill operators, workers and housewives. ... It was often necessary to transfer the fugitives from house to house, and frequently set up decoys to mislead the slave catchers, who were, on many occasions, accompanied by federal marshals. But the system worked so well that, reportedly, no slave was ever captured in Oberlin, in spite of a few 'spies', who were local and area residents who were not in sympathy with the abolitionist."
The local Oberlin newspaper, The Oberlin Evangelist, wrote on January 30, 1856: "Oberlin is perhaps the most important station along the whole line of the Underground Railway. It has rendered the most important services to Freedom. It is second only to Canada as an asylum for the hunted fugitive."
"The first recorded Underground Railroad activity in Oberlin took place on Saturday, April 28, 1837, when a former Student, Martin L. Brooks, transported four fugitive slaves in a wagon on their way to Canada." (from the brochure, Oberlin and the Underground Railroad)
"Many fugitives were helped to escape, being sent to some port on the lake, to Cleveland, Charleston (now Lorain), Huron or Sandusky, wherever there happened to be a vessel whose captain would take them to Canada." (History of Lorain County, Ohio - Williams Brothers, p. 181)
"It was well known that many skippers of lake steamers or schooners would 'cooperate' in delivering fugitive slaves to their Canadian sanctuary." (History of Lake Shore Ohio, Vol. I, by Randolph C. Downes, p. 378.)
Slavery was abolished in Canada in 1800. In 1844 Levi Coffin found that former slaves in Canada could buy homestead land for $2 an acre and have ten years in which to pay for it.
Oberlin became known as a great anti-slavery reform center and sent out lecturers from the American Anti-Slavery Society to speak about the evils of slavery.
Oberlin residents did not celebrate the 4th of July as "Independence Day" because they didn't feel that all Americans were independent because of slavery. Instead they celebrated on August 1st - the "Independence Day" marking the abolition of slavery in the West Indies.
The citizens of the county were not, however, united in their support of the anti-slavery sentiments and actions of the Oberlinites, even though they might have also disliked the Fugitive Slave Act. Some felt that the abolitionists were fanatics, but even many of these Lorain Countians would band together against slave catchers who came into Lorain County and attempted to take escaped slaves into custody.
On October 28, 1850, in the Cleveland newspaper called The Daily True Democrat, a report was made of a mass meeting that was held in Columbia on October 21st of that year. At that meeting it was resolved that "we will resist its execution and stand by our fugitive brothers, even at the sacrifice of our property or lives".
The Reverend Ansel Clark Home was located in Huntington, Ohio. He was an abolitionist and Congregational Church minister.
The former home of abolitionist David Webster was located in Wellington on State Route 18, it was known as station #98 on the Underground. A makeshift elevator within a 12-foot fireplace would raise and lower fugitives hiding within. David Webster and his son often hid slaves in their wagon and drove them north to Oberlin.
Slaves were brought to this home from Ashland, which was known as station #97. Webster would transport the fugitives to Oberlin, known as station #99. From Oberlin they might be taken north to Charleston (now called Lorain) which was called station #100.
The home of the Congregational Church minister and abolitionist, the Rev. John Bardwell, was located in Oberlin. He was a Congregational minister. Under the eaves of his house were sliding panels behind closet walls which opened into wide dark passageways to hide fugitives. In 1866 he was seized and beaten in Mississippi by a former slave owner, backed by a mob.
The First Church in Oberlin was built in 1842. The Oberlin Anti-Slavery Society met here frequently. A memorial service was held here for two Oberlinites who were hanged for their participation with John Brown in the raid on Harper's Ferry; John Copeland and Shields Green. The funeral for a four-year-old fugitive slave child, Lee Howard Dobbins, was also held here.
Former slaves, abolitionists, and conductors on the Underground Railroad were buried in the cemetery on the outskirts of Oberlin.
Wilson Bruce Evans was a Black abolitionist/cabinetmaker/undertaker who lived in Oberlin. His home on East Vine Street was often the site of meetings of the Black leaders of the Oberlin area. There are rumors that the house was a refuge along the Underground Railroad but the rumors have not been substantiated.
His house was located across the street from the memorials to the Rescuers and to the Harper's Ferry Raid by John Brown on E. Vine Street.
West Marsh was a swamp located northeast of Oberlin. Many escaping slaves were hidden here while awaiting buggies traveling to Cleveland.
Monteith Hall, now the home of the Elyria Women's Club, had a tunnel extending from the basement to the Black River. This allowed fugitive slaves to reach their path safely and out of sight. John Monteith was the manager of the entire southern shore of Lake Erie where hundreds of slaves were put on boats and taken to Canada and freedom.
Kanisa House, at 142 Cleveland Street in Elyria, was built around 1851. It served as a stagecoach stop. It is now the home of the First Community Interfaith Institute which sponsors an Afro-American Festival each year.
The mouth of the Black River in Charleston (the old name for present-day Lorain) was known as station 100 on the Underground Railroad.
Lake ship Captains Aaron Root and Walter Day took slaves to freedom in Canada. Fugitive slaves were brought to the ship captains by local Underground Railroad conductors, Robbins Burrell, John Monteith and James Fairchild. Robbins Burrell was an active abolitionist and conductor on the Underground Railroad. His Sheffield home, built in 1825, is occupied by his descendants but is now the property of the Lorain County MetroParks. The home was raided many times by slave hunters.
Lee Howard Dobbins was the 4-year-old foster child of a runaway slave, Miriam Dobbins. She reached Oberlin after fleeing Kentucky with her children and grandchildren. Once she reached Oberlin her child, Lee Howard, was too ill to continue on to Canada. The couple who sheltered Miriam decided to take care of Lee Howard. The child died shortly after Miriam and the other children left. The town held a funeral for him in First Church of Oberlin on March 26, 1853. His tombstone is presently stored, as a protective measure, by the Oberlin College Archives. The inscription on the tombstone reads:
LET SLAVERY PERISH
LEE HOWARD DOBBINS
a fugitive slave orphan
brought here by an
adopted mother in her
flight to liberty
March 17, 1853
left here wasted with
found a refuge in death
March 26, 1853
Aged 4 yrs.
THE OBERLIN-WELLINGTON RESCUE
John Price was a seventeen-year-old slave who escaped from a plantation in Kentucky by riding horseback over the frozen Ohio River. He lived in Oberlin peacefully for many months before he was caught by two slave-catchers and two federal marshals in Oberlin on September 13, 1858. They tricked him into coming out of town with them by saying they had a job for him picking potatoes at a local farm.
The slave catchers who caught John Price in Oberlin took him to Wellington because that was the closest location where they could board a train to take them south to Columbus. On their way to Wellington they were seen by some Oberlin residents who realized what had happened.
The Oberlinites rushed back to Oberlin to spread the word about Price's capture. The people they met were outraged and immediately got whatever transportation they could to go to Wellington to rescue Price. Price was being kept at the Wadsworth Hotel in Wellington. (The Herrick Memorial Library in Wellington now occupies the site of the Wadsworth Hotel.) The crowd from Oberlin and others from the Wellington area numbered over 200 by the afternoon. Members of the crowd included Oberlin students, freed slaves, fugitive slaves, townspeople, farmers, and business people.
The marshals and slave catchers barricaded themselves in the hotel with Price. After a standoff lasting some hours, the various members of the rescuing crowd freed Price from his captors and took him back to Oberlin. The rescuers took John Price to the home of Professor James Fairchild. Professor Fairchild wasn't known in Oberlin for harboring runaway slaves. For that reason he was asked to hide John Price. Even though he had a family with six children he did not hesitate to agree. His wife cautioned the children not to let anyone know about the runaway slave hiding in their house. John Price was hidden for several days in the Fairchild house until he was taken to Canada. Professor Fairchild later served as a President of Oberlin College.
Thirty-seven members of the crowd who rescued John Price were indicted in federal court for their part in the event. Twenty-one of them were arrested and taken to jail in Cleveland where they stayed for about a month before a trial was held. They were released when the slave-catchers and marshals were charged with kidnapping and agreed to drop their charges if the Oberlinians would drop theirs. The slave-catchers dropped their charges since they were afraid to face a state court in Elyria which would be sympathetic to the Oberlin abolitionists.
This case provoked discussion and controversy around the nation and the "incident is said to have had great influence on the growing anti-slavery sentiment in the North and the ultimate Civil War" (Lorain Sesquicentennial). A book about the Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue was written by Nat Brandt. It is called The Town that Started the Civil War.
Jacob Shipherd was one of the rescuers of John Price. He was the nephew of one of the founders of Oberlin College and attended the theological seminary there. Upon graduation he went on to a career as a Congregational Church minister. Shipherd was one of the rescuers brought to trial in Cleveland after the rescue. He wrote a book about his experiences called The History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue in 1859. Copies of this book may be borrowed from the Lorain Public Library.
Residents of Oberlin were delighted to be able to celebrate the release from the Cleveland Jail of the "Rescuers". A victory celebration was held in their honor.
Three monuments are in place in the Martin Luther King Park in Oberlin located on East Vine Street. One monument honors Martin Luther King, Jr. A second monument was erected to honor the memory of the three Oberlinians who were killed as a result of John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry. The third monument features a photo of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescuers.
There are many other stories about the Underground Railroad and possible locations where stations were located in Ohio. The library has, or can obtain for you from other library collections, books about this topic if you are interested in reading more about it. Films (videocassettes or DVDs) about the Underground Railroad are also available to be borrowed.
There is also a newspaper clipping file about the Underground Railroad maintained in the local history Special Collection at the Main Library. You are welcome to browse through the articles, clippings and photographs contained there.
SOURCES CONSULTED AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
The African-American Heritage Tour, published by the Lorain County Visitors Bureau, sparked our interest in producing this information. We very much appreciate the assistance of their staff.
Thanks to Roland M. Baumann, Archivist of Oberlin College Archives, for his assistance in providing illustrations and information about the Oberlin College history as related to the Underground Railroad and to Betty Gabrielli of the College's Office of Communications who shared many useful pieces of information.
A slide program, called The Underground Railroad: The Lorain County Connection, has been assembled by Lorain Public Library and is available for free loan. This slide program kit, consisting of 74 black and white - and some color - slides, along with a narration script, may be borrowed from the Main Library which also offers rental of a slide projector.
Bibliography of Underground Railroad Sources consulted:
AFRICAN-AMERICAN HERITAGE TOUR, compiled by the Lorain County Visitor's Bureau, 1993.
AMERICAN HISTORIC IMAGES ON FILE: THE CIVIL WAR, published by FACTS ON FILE.
"College Threatened With Burning Before Civil War", LORAIN JOURNAL, July 12, 1962.
"Enduring Ties of the Underground Railroad" by Betty Gabrielli, OBERLIN ALUMNI
MAGAZINE, Summer, 1986, p. 10-15.
"Freedom's Trial Led Family to Oberlin", by Darlene Brown. MORNING JOURNAL, June 10, 1993.
"Fugitive Slave Catching", LORAIN COUNTY EAGLE (Newspaper). Issue of September 15, 1858.
HISTORY OF LORAIN COUNTY, OHIO, Williams Brothers, 1879, p. 181.
THE HISTORY OF THE STATE OF OHIO, VOLUME III: THE PASSING OF THE FRONTIER, 1825-1850, by Francis Weisenburger, Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1941.
HUDSON, OHIO AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, by James Caccamo, 1992.
"Hughes Family Residence Formerly Known as Station 98 of Underground", by Luella Keplar, LORAIN JOURNAL, August 14, 1953.
"Lawmen Fooled, Slaves Escape", Excerpts from letter by Miss Eloise Steele of Great Neck, NY to Donald M. Love, Secretary of the Oberlin College, printed in the LORAIN JOURNAL. July 30, 1962.
LORAIN COUNTY SESQUICENTENNIAL, published by American Multi-Service, Elyria, Ohio, 1974.
OBERLIN AND THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Brochure), written and compiled by Deidre Y. Cheek, Oct. '93 and published by the Oberlin Area Chamber of Commerce.
"Oberlin - History Repeats After 103 Years", by Bob Thomas, LORAIN JOURNAL, January 6, 1962.
"Oberlin Students Tricked Slaveholders Century Ago", LORAIN JOURNAL, July 2, 1962.
"Oberlin, Wellington Symbolize Fight for Freedom", by Forged Note", LORAIN JOURNAL, July 23, 1962.
"Oberlinites Rescue Slaves Ensnared by Forged Note", LORAIN JOURNAL, July 23, 1962.
"Oberlin's Part in the Slavery Conflict", by Wilbur Greeley Burroughs, A.M., Oberlin, published in THE OHIO ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY JOURNAL, Volume XX, 1911. p. 269-301
"Oberlin's Precedent Mission" by Grace Goulder, THE PLAIN DEALER SUNDAY MAGAZINE, January 31, 1965, p. 6-9.
OHIO: OUR STATE, by Robert T. Howe, 1992.
"Ohio Scenes and Citizens: Slave "Underground Railroad" Started as Study Hobby by O.S.U.'s Dr. Wilbur H. Siebert, Has Become His Life Work", by Grace Goulder, THE CLEVELAND PLAIN DEALER PICTORIAL MAGAZINE, February 12, 1950.
OHIO, THE BUCKEYE STATE, by William R. Collins, 1956.
OHIO'S HERITAGE, by James L. Burke and Kenneth E. Davison, 1989.
"Slaves Hidden in Hay Load Escape" LORAIN JOURNAL, July 31, 1962.
"A Station on the Underground Railroad" by Mrs. Florence Bedford Wright, Oberlin, published in THE OHIO ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY JOURNAL, Volume XIV, 1905., p. 164-169.
"Subterranean Hideaways of the Underground Railroad in Ohio: An Architectural, Archaeological and Historical Critique of Local Traditions" by Byron D. Fruehlin and Robert H. Smith, published in OHIO HISTORY, volume 102, Summer-Autumn, 1993. page 98-117.
TAKING THE TRAIN TO FREEDOM (Brochure) published by the National Park Service.
"Tale of the Johnstons: How They Escaped Slavers", LORAIN JOURNAL, July 17, 1962.
THEY STOPPED IN OBERLIN: BLACK RESIDENTS AND VISITORS OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY, by William E. Bigglestone, 1981.
"The Underground Railroad", CHRONICLE-TELEGRAM, June 6, 1962.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD FROM SLAVERY TO FREEDOM, by Wilbur H. Siebert, Arno Press, 1968.
"The Underground Railroad in Ohio": by Prof. Wilbur H. Siebert, A.M., published in THE OHIO ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND HISTORICAL SOCIETY JOURNAL, Volume IV, p. 44-63.
"The Underground Railroad: Legend and Reality" by Larry Gara, published in TIMELINE, August/September, 1988, p. 18-31.
"The Underground Railroad: Oberlin Students to Recreate Escape Route", by Mike Taylor, THE JOURNAL, p. 25, September 20, 1979.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD QUILT, book describing the Sesquicentennial Senior Citizen Project of Oberlin, published with the assistance of the Nordson Foundation.
"Violation of The Fugitive Slave Act 100 Years Ago Set Scene in Oberlin", LORAIN JOURNAL, January 12, 1959.
"Years of Trial: John Brown in Ohio" by Stephen B. Oates, published in TIMELINE, February/March, 1985, p. 2-13.