Washington County Resources
A reprint of an article from the Washington
October 16, 1884…
Submitted by Lorraine Perry
A complete history of the Underground Railroad would prove one of the most thrilling and instructive histories of human action ever written. Such a thing as a complete history of the Underground Railroad however is impossible. It was an organization without a president, secretary or treasurer; it dispensed with the services of an auditor, had no use for an auditing committee; issued no bonds; depended solely upon human trust as the most perfect framework that could be devised. The shareholders were each and everyone masters; absolute owners of depots, stations, and rolling stock. Every transaction was so complete in itself that no records were necessary, and the dividends were declared in heaven. The roadbed was as irregular as the flight of birds; while it seemed, in the eyes of the perplexed slaveholders, to embrace every part of free soil between the slave states and Canada. It was as impalpable when they strove to put their hands on it, as the air cloven by birds of passage.
In short, the Underground Railroad was operated so noiselessly and in such a mysterious manner that many slave owners, unable to account for the sudden disappearance of their slaves, who seemed to be swallowed up by the earth, since the strictest search failed to disclose their whereabouts, or any clue to the means by which they were spirited away, began to speculate seriously upon the possibilities of a subterranean passage. The mass of young men who are assuming the serious responsibilities of life; even the teachers in our public schools, not only in the Eastern and newly erected Western states, but in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, where the lines of the Underground Railroad were laid, and in which managers, agents, and conductors lived and operated, know little or nothing of the wonderful organization which interposed between the slave and his master when the latter pursued him into the free states gave the trembling refugee assurance and safe and often speedy passage to Canada, the Canaan of the colored race throughout a generation. Of the oppressed who turned their eyes hopefully to the north, and availed themselves in large numbers of the noiseless machinery of the great Underground Railroad, the rising generation is wholly ignorant.
This implies a compliment to the presence of mind, tact, discretion and courage of the managers, agents and conductors of the Underground Railroad, which was hardly earned. In all they did, they never let the right hand know what the left hand was doing. Parents concealed the part they acted from their children, brothers aided the movement unknown to each other, and in some instances husbands and wives contributed their aid and means without the other’s knowledge. Especially was this secrecy resorted to for self-protection after the passage of what was termed the Fugitive Slave law; the penalties imposed were so severe and far reaching as to punish the hand that gave a cup of water to a slave fleeing from his master. Prior to the enactment in 1850 of a law that aroused the indignation of the people of the free states, existing laws, had they been enforced, would have sufficed the slave owner, but when these were disregarded, and the discussion of the slave question reached the point where the right of the master to his property in human flesh and blood was questioned; in short when the Underground Railroad was making tremendous inroads in the border slave states and began to be sensibly felt in the cotton and sugar growing states, the slave power succeeded in pouring an enactment that was regarded by the people of the free states as “the last hair on the camel’s back” to employ a common figure.
All who were conscientiously opposed to slavery pronounced the law infamous; even these who by silence seemed to tacitly endorse slavery were averse to a law that compelled them to assist the master n regaining his slaves, for the provisions of the law rendered all amenable who refused to give their aid when the master was in a strait, or when called on to assist in placing shackles upon a fugitive. Men suffered imprisonment for merely looking on when the whip was taken from the master’s hand, placed in that of the fleeing slave, and by him applied to the master’s back. Not only a heavy fine, but imprisonment awaited all who violated a law, designed to arrest runaway slaves in the free states, convert citizens of the free states into “nigger catchers” of the south.
The heart of the mass of the northern people had long revolted from what was termed as the angry discussion between south and north was prolonged, “the twin relic of barbarism” now the brain as well as the heart of the north revolted. The attempt to transform the machinery of a government founded on universal freedom into a police system for the protection of property in slaves, and the perpetuation of slavery, and this too at a time when the heart and brain of the country had protested against the extension of slave territory, was resented. The slave owners overshot the mark. Instead of relaxing their efforts, the managers, agents, and conductors of the Underground Railroad manifested greater activity than ever. They renewed their exertions in behalf of the refugees in defiance of the law, and in doing this they incurred extraordinary risks, and exhibited a devotion to principle as rare as any to be found in the history of the world.
GATHERING THE THREADS
The severe penalties warranted a degree of secrecy in the operation of the Underground Railroad that renders it impossible at this late day to present anything like a complete record, even if it were desirable. Those who were most active for obvious reasons kept their own counsel so long that they are unable to recall names and dates with certainty. The foremost and most resolute among them have gone to their final account. Their children, men and women, for reasons stated, can give but vague and fragmentary statements. It is noteworthy that these, without exception, are corroborative. Owing to the disjointed or disconnected form in which narratives of the Underground Railroad are presented, it is necessary in order to insure a continuous coherent statement with the details essential to completeness to consult numbers of people. As the depots and stations of the Underground Railroad were under the charge of individuals at intervals a few miles apart, to follow flight of a party of refugees from the edge of Virginia to Canada, the investigator is perforce compelled to pick up a link here and a link there, or to employ a better comparison, the stations were so interwoven in out-of-the-way places, highways and towns, as to form a huge and close network, the threads of which must be carefully followed in order to understand the eccentric operations of a system that sometimes reminds one of the doubling of a hare.
It has happened – not once, but a score of times- that a story begun in Pittsburgh, or Allegheny County, has been completed on the edge of Washington or Greene counties, or in Maryland and Virginia, and vice versa. Indeed, that is the most remarkable thing encountered in an attempt to follow the fortunes of a fugitive from the hour he entrusted himself to the conductors of the Underground Railroad until he reached his goal.
In the present instance all that is attempted is to describe the operations of that portion of the Underground Railroad which embraced Washington, Greene and Allegheny Counties. In doing this, the parts played by prominent and highly respected citizens long dead, and men still living among us will be described. Many of the incidents are of such a romantic character that we would hesitate to give them were they not as well authenticated as any narrative which obtains instant credence on account of the high standing and character of the witnesses living. These embrace all classes, from the slaves who periled their lives to gain freedom, to the wealthiest farmers and merchants and the most distinguished in the professions; judges (not a few), officers of the United States Government, superannuated clergymen, all figure in the unwritten records of the Underground Railway.
READ PART 1: THE RANDOLPH RUSE
READ Part 2: A SLY MASTER OUTWITTED : Old George’s Story continues
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