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Warren County Local History by Dallas Bogan

Underground Railroad System Was Active In Southern Ohio

Dallas Bogan on 14 September 2004
original article by Dallas Bogan
Return to Index to see a list of other articles by Dallas Bogan

The state of Ohio was undoubtedly the center for traffic along the Underground Railroad. The many branches of the "railway" began at the Ohio River, wound their way through the center of the State, and eventually on to Canada.
The first rumors of the existence of the Underground Railroad originated in Ripley, Ohio. This happened shortly after a wandering Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Rankin, located into that community from Bourbon County, Ky.
It was in this latter place that Rev. Rankin had preached for many years against slavery. He was a man of outstanding education, and shortly after locating in Ripley, he established Ripley College.
Not long after the formation of this school, strange things began to happen. It seemed that Rankin's home was more than a residence and a classroom for the few students enrolled. The nature of his activities increasingly became well-known in the neighborhood.
The Rankin home, overlooking the Ohio River, and in full view of the Kentucky shore, had become a lighthouse of freedom for fugitives from slavery. Rankin not only sheltered such slaves that dared to make their way across the Ohio, but he tried to convince his neighbors to do the same. He was only somewhat successful in this venture.
Clermont County joins Brown County on the west. This was also a port of entry for the fugitive slaves. Pioneers from Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky mostly settled the former. One would think that these settlers would favor turning away the slaves, but most had sought homes north of the river to escape the "peculiar institution" of the Negro.
One historian wrote that "nothing was done to entice slaves from Kentucky, and only as they came were they safely sped on their way. True men never refused bread to the beseeching Negro fleeing from chains and with his face toward the North Star."
Robert E. Fee was a slave liberator in Clermont County. A light is said to have been kept burning in a window in his home each night to guide travelers across the river.
Fearing the southern slave-owners, Fee kept his doors barred at all times. His entire family, including his daughters, were said to have slept with loaded shotguns by their sides.
From both Rankin's and Fee's houses, fugitives from south of the Ohio were not only directed, but often accompanied north to the next station, Hillsboro.
From Hillsboro the next stops were Wilmington, Xenia, Oldtown, Yellow Springs and Springfield. By the time the Negro reached this point, his safety was virtually assured.
The Bullskin Trace was an essential part of the prehistoric trails that led through Ohio. It extended from the old town of Rural, located on Rt. 133 (founded in 1845 and later destroyed by the flood of 1913), which was situated on the Ohio River in Clermont County. The entire course wound its way through Ohio, touching the eastern portion of Warren County, and on to its destination of Detroit, Michigan. This was another critical route for the Underground Railroad.
Another branch of the "railway" was by way of Cincinnati, north through Sharonville, Lebanon, Waynesville and on to Xenia, the latter being the interchange between Cincinnati and Ripley. Springboro was also included in this system of trails.
History tells us that the "railroad" was first established in Ohio, possibly from about 1815 to 1817. Work along this internal thoroughfare proceeded with great vigor until the end of the Civil War. One writer says that during this fifty-year period, there were 18 or 19 fully prioritized routes in the State.
The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 fixed fines and punishments to cover the conviction of anyone found guilty of aiding or abetting a slave in flight from his owner.
Jane F. Wales Nicholson, of Harveysburg, tells personally of the first incident regarding the Fugitive Slave Law. She writes:
"We were but one short night's ride from Cincinnati, and to our home came the slave, Lewis, whose case is notable, because the first tried under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. The trial was in Cincinnati and lasted many days. John Jollif aided by Rutherford B. Hayes tried all the technicalities of the law to secure his freedom, but in vain. He sat in the courtroom between his master and the state marshal who had him in custody.
"While the sentence was being read that remanded him to slavery, Lewis slipped his chair back quietly, arose, and before the judge had finished reading, stepped into a group of colored people conveniently near, one handed him a hat, another pointed to the door. The courtroom was crowded but a way opened to let him pass. In a moment he was in the street and gone, before the multitude in the courthouse could realize what had happened.
"He made his way out of town and hid for a few hours in a colored grave yard. At night the sexton brought him to a friend's house in the city. In the disguise of a woman they took him to the basement of a Presbyterian Church, where he remained concealed for several weeks in one of the committee rooms, his meals being carried to him.
"One morning he came out dressed as a nurse with a veil over his face and a child in his arms, took a seat in a carriage with the pastor and his wife, Dr. and Mrs. Boynton, and before sunset they were at our fireside. A little daughter was rather astonished to see an awkward mulatto woman go upstairs, and come down a brisk slender young man.
"The foiled master claimed one thousand dollars from the marshal for the loss of his slave: but by compromise he received but eight hundred. It is known that the marshal, disguised as a Quaker, visited, under various pretenses, ours and other neighborhoods of Friends in hopes of finding Lewis and saving his money."
In 1831, a Negro named Tice Davids ran away from Kentucky, closely pursued by his master. When he reached the Ohio near Ripley, he plunged in and swam for the Ohio shore. His master promptly borrowed a watercraft and followed him.
He had full view of the Negro until he reached the Ohio bank of the river. At this point Davids totally disappeared as if by magic. His master said that he must have gone off on an underground railroad. Thus marked the origin of the name, "underground railroad."
Men who were very active in the work of the "railroad" were considered fearless and called "managers."
"Contributing managers" furnished money for clothing, food and the hiring of vehicles. They generally did not wish to be, for social or political reasons, known as sympathizers to the cause.
An "agent" or "conductor" directed the slaves from one house to another.
Levi Coffin, a Clark County citizen, was for many years called President of the Underground Railroad. He was said by one writer to have assisted more than 3000 fugitive slaves to freedom in his 30 years of engagement in the work.
The Quakers were unquestionably opposed to slavery.
The Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Scotch Covenantors and Wesleyan Methodists churches were located within the railroad territories. These religiously involved sects refused to raise a hand to persuade a slave to escape, but the runaway was never refused aid at their door.
Monetary losses to the slave owners were never a consideration to the operators of the Underground Railroad. Senator Mason, of Virginia, put his losses at $100,000 annually, while Senator Atchison, of Kentucky, professed to losing several hundred thousand dollars annually to the bordering states.
After the crossing of the Ohio, the runaways had no inclination as what to do next. Aided by their rescuers, they quickly believed that once they set foot in Canada their days of enslavement were over. Traveling by night and hiding by day, their freedom soon became a reality.

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This page created 14 September 2004 and last updated 28 September, 2008
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