Famous Underground Railroad
North Central Ohio Biographies





CHAPTER XX.

FAMOUS UNDERGROUND RAILROAD

The region around Savannah, a few miles north of Ashland, contained a number of places of refuge for fugitive slaves on their way to Canada. Anti-slavery sentiment among the sturdy Scotch Presbyterians was so strong that at the risk of heavy penalties, fines and even confiscation of their farms, they followed their vision of service to fellow beings in bondage, harbored the run-away slaves and at night conveyed them to Greenwich, Oberlin or even to Sandusky.

Among these stations near Savannah, were the John Lawson home along the Creek Road, four miles west of Savannah; the Bebout farm, the John Patterson farm, both west of the village; the homes of Abram and William Shaw, A. H. Paxton, James Lindsay, John Harvey and Ezra Garrett. One of the landmarks on Route 250, near where it leaves Route 60, is the old Ezra Garrett home, a brick house behind a grove of eighty year old pine trees about a mile north of Savannah. In the front room, to the right of the hallway, was a trap door which gave access to a secret cellar where the colored fugitives were concealed when officers or masters were searching for them. There was a similar secret cellar in the Bebout farmhouse and the attic of the Lawson house was a frequent place of concealment of runaway slaves.

Joseph Patterson, the aged president of the First National Bank at Ashland, told of an occasion when two southerners, searching for their human chattels, appeared suddenly at the home of Mr. Lawson, Patterson's uncle. In a pile of wool in the attic, Mr. Lawson had concealed the negroes so well that though the masters took off some of the fleeces they failed to find the hidden negroes, who that night were taken to Greenwich and from there further north to freedom.

Miss Emma E. Garrett, who died Dec. 26, 1930, at her home in Savannah, told this writer on one occasion that between the years 1847 and 1860, her father, Ezra Garrett, gave aid to between 400 and 500 runaways.

"From Mansfield, Wooster and south of Hayesvile, the refugees would be brought to our home on the Fitchville Road, usually about midnight. John Finney brought them from near Mansfield and Mr. Wilson from south of Hayesville. My father, who died Aug. 15, 1914, often told me of his experiences in transporting runaway slaves. He told me that the first time he took a load of them on their way, he was afraid, but after that he had not the least bit of fear. 'I knew that I was disobeying a man made law but was obedient to the higher law of God,' he used to say. One night two men came out at the Fitchville bridge and seized his horses by the bridles but father gave the animals a sudden cut with the whip, they leaped forward and he got away. The tavernkeeper at Fitchville was safe but there were some people in the village who could not be trusted and father usually took the runaways to the home of a Mr. Palmer, two miles north of Fitchville. Father hauled a great deal of wheat and other grain to Milan and it was easy for him to conceal the runaways among the sacks. He sometimes concealed fugitives at his sugar camp and one time they were hidden in shocks of corn back of the woods.

"One time eleven slaves, worth from $1,000 to $2,000 apiece, were brought to our house at midnight. Mother prepared a big meal for them. Potatoes were cooked with the jackets on and a whole ham was cut up. The negroes were kept until the following night when they were taken on their way. An aunt of mine, Mary Benton, accompanied by a neighbor girl, Maggie Slonecker, helped a mulatto girl on her way one time; the slave girl was anxious to get to Oberlin to meet her lover. The girls took her to Elder John Kirkton's, southwest of Ruggles, and he took her on to Oberlin. Neighbors often supplied clothing for the slaves, some of whom were quite destitute."

John Finney, to whom Miss Garrett referred, lived in Springfield Township, Richland County, a few miles northwest of Mansfield. It is asserted that during the quarter of a century that he was an Underground Railroad conductor, he helped fully three thousand negroes on their way to liberty. Many were brought to his farm home from Iberia, the Quaker settlement in Morrow County, from a couple of refugees in the vicinity of Lexington, and the Owl Creek Quaker settlement north of Fredericktown.

The story has often been told how he outwitted officers of the law when he had five negro men concealed in the grainery of his barn and several negro women and a couple of children hidden in the house loft. Finney having demanded that a search warrant be produced, several of the officers returned to Mansfield for the legal authority while the other members of the posse, left on guard, accepted Finney's invitation of breakfast, which was preceded by family worship. The officers knelt with the family and Finney, praying with his eyes open, did not say amen until from a window he saw the five negroes, who had been warned, disappear up the road. To give them further time he announced the 119th Psalm, the longest one he could find, and it was sung to slow music. The breakfast was even more abundant than usual and the officers did full justice to the good things provided, tarrying until the other members of the force returned with the warrant. The search was fruitless for the women and children were so well hidden that they could not be found. Disappointed, the posse returned to Mansfield and that night the women and children joined the other runaways at Savannah, from which place they journeyed to Sandusky and from there across Lake Erie to Amherstburg in Canada.

There are said to have been between 2,800 and 3,000 miles of Underground Railroad routes in Ohio, so efficiently operated that during a period of forty years the loss to southern slave owners amounted to thirty millions of dollars. Along the Ohio River there were twenty three communities from which runaway slaves were helped on their way across the State of Ohio. The five principal outlets on Lake Erie, places from which the fugitives were taken across the lake, were Ashtabula Harbor, Fairport Harbor, Cleveland, Sandusky and Toledo. There were 123 miles of these routes in Richland County; 120 in Huron and 108 in Lorain. The extent of the opposition to the fugitive slave law of 1850 is seen in the famous Oberlin Wellington rescue case which attracted nation-wide attention from the middle of September, 1858, until the case was finally disposed of in July, 1859.

OBERLIN-WELLINGTON CASE

An eighteen-year-old negro, John Price, who had fled from his master's plantation in Mason County, Kentucky, had lived in Oberlin a couple of years when the owner, learning of the black boy's whereabouts, sent a couple of men after him. They obtained the assistance of a United States officer and deputy from Columbus and the black boy having been enticed from Oberlin on promise of a job at potato digging, they seized him and drove with him to Wellingtotn, Sept. 13, 1858. They stopped with their prisoner at the Wadsworth House, afterwards the American House, where the Herrick Library now stands. News of the kidnapping was brought to Oberlin and crowds of people were soon on their way to Wellington where they were joined by Wellington folks who had come out to a fire. The kidnappers had intended to take Price south on a train over what is now the Big Four but were prevented by the people who surrounded the hotel. The prisoner was found in the attic, rescued by Oberlinites and taken back to the college town. For several days he was at Professor Fairchild's and then taken to Canada.

In federal court at Cleveland, indictments were secured against twenty-four Oberlin people and thirteen from Wellington. There was considerable litigation, sentences imposed, fines assessed. A number of the men refused to give bail and remained in jail at Cleveland for months. Governor Salmon P. Chase and Joshua R. Giddings were speakers at an anti slavery mass meeting held on the Cleveland public square while the case was pending. In Lorain County, Price's kidnappers were indicted in retaliation and finally the court at Cleveland held that there was not sufficient proof of the slaveowner's title and all the prisoners connected with the case were freed.

The rescuers were accorded a big demonstration when they were released from the jail at Cleveland. A big reception was held and bands played. There was great rejoicing at Elyria, Oberlin and Wellington. Judge A. R. Webber, in his "Early History of Elyria and Her People," says that the Oberlin-Wellington rescue case was the last attempt to enforce the fugitive slave law in Ohio. A little over a month after the case ended occurred John Brown's raid at Harpers Ferry, on December 2 of that year Brown was hanged and a little more than sixteen months later Fort Sumter was fired upon and the nation plunged into Civil War.

GRAVES OF THREE OF BROWN'S MEN

In the southeast section of the Oberlin cemetery a monument of clouded marble marks the resting place of three colored men who were with the abolitionist, John Brown, in the Harper's Ferry raid Oct. 16, 1859. They were twenty three year old S. Green and twenty five-year-old J. A. Copeland, both of whom died at Charlestown, Va., Dec. 2, 1859, and L. S. Leary, aged twenty-four, who died at Harper's Ferry, Va., Oct. 20, 1859. The inscription reads: "These colored citizens of Oberlin, the heroic associates of the immortal John Brown, gave their lives for the slave. Et nunc servitudo etiam murtua est, Taus Deo."

FORMER SLAVE LIVES IN OBERLIN

Living in Oberlin in his eighty fourth year is a former slave, James A. Bell, white-haired, white-mustached, who was sold on the auction block several times before he was eighteen years old. He tells of his childhood on a cotton plantation along the Savannah River; the cruel, lash-wielding master who dropped dead in a fit of anger; Bell's father sold down the river, his mother and her three children, including James, then five years old, sold to a master as cruel as the first one, his sale to a third master, who hung him up by his thumbs to a rafter of the barn and gave him 100 lashes on the bare back with a harness tug because he had run away; his escape finally to the Union Army, and his acquaintanceship with Capt. Herman Nicholson of Pittsfield, Lorain County, which lead to the former slave locating in Oberlin in October, 1865, that town having been his home ever since.

Commemorating a Medina County abolitionist, Hiram Miller, who is said to have aided hundreds of negroes to escape to Canada in the days of the fugitive slave law, a monument is to be erected this summer (1931) on the old Miller farm in Hinckley Township, Medina County. With his family he located in Medina County ninety-eight years ago. He was not only outspoken in behalf of freedom for the slaves but was one of the foremost in educational matters, an ardent worker in the cause of temperance. He was a personal friend of the abolitionist, John Brown, when the latter lived in Akron. Judge A. R. Webber of Elyria will be one of the speakers at the unveiling of the Miller monument. Frank G. Goldwood, who leads a band organized in Hinckley by his forefathers and who is one of the leaders in the Miller memorial preparations, says that over 3,500 fugitive slaves made their way to freedom through Summit, Medina and Cuyahoga counties.

From:
History of North Central Ohio
Embracing Richland, Ashland, Wayne,
Medina, Lorin, Huron and Knox Counties
BY: William A. Duff
Historical Publishing Company
Topeka-Indianapolis 1931


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