Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Local History: Conducting the Ohio Underground Railroad


When Virginian John Randolph's 518 slaves were emancipated and a plan was hatched to settle them in southern Ohio, the population rose up in indignation. An Ohio congressman warned that if the attempt were made, "the banks of the Ohio ... would be lined with men with muskets on their shoulders to keep off the emancipated slaves."

Slavery and Ohio

When Congress established the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, one of the provisions forbid slavery in any new future state admitted to the Union, north of the Ohio River. Yet, to say Ohio afforded slaves freedom would be debatable in that blacks were denied many rights of citizenship. It is evident that Ohio abolitionists were not in the majority.

According to historian Leon F. Litwack, Ohio "provided a classic example of how anti-immigration legislation could be invoked to harass Negro residents."

The Ohio state constitution adopted in 1802, deprived blacks of the right to vote, to hold public office, and to testify against whites in court. In time, Ohio's position became even harsher when laws were passed saying that blacks could not live in Ohio without a certificate proving their free status. They even had to post a $500 bond "to pay for their support in case of want."

Blacks were prohibited from joining the state militia, were excluded from serving on juries and were not allowed admittance to state poorhouses, insane asylums, and other institutions. Some of these laws were not strictly enforced, or it would have been virtually impossible for any African American to emigrate to Ohio.

Later Congress added the Fugitive Slave Law on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free Soilers. It required that all escaped slaves were, upon capture, to be returned to their masters and that officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate in this law. Abolitionists nicknamed it the "Bloodhound Law" for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.

The law made it a federal crime to give aid or harbor escaping slaves. It also penalized officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave, and made them liable to a fine of $1,000. Adding to this were rewards paid by plantation owners to freelance bounty hunters for slaves that were returned. This made life extremely difficult for slaves, even in a free-state like Ohio.

The population of Ohio in the early 1800s held opposing views about slavery. Ohio was being settled by two basic cultures: those coming from New England, and those coming from Virginia and other southern states. In New England, slavery had long ago been abolished, and quite the opposite held true for the southern states. These two different cultures led to clashes with regards to African Americans and the issue of slavery in Ohio. Even in rural areas, one town might be pro slavery and the one just down the road a few miles would be a stronghold of anti-slavery sentiment.

A third conflict arose from law-abiding citizens that may have opposed the issue of slavery, but so revered the letter of the law, that they felt obligated to turn in runaway slaves because the law required it.

Almost anywhere in Ohio, in almost any community, about half of the population would be pro-slavery, and the other half anti-slavery. This would be especially true in the lower half of the state where citizens were more likely to be former residents of Virginia or Kentucky or be descendents of family from these states. Slavery was a hot issue in Ohio. Pro abolitionists speaking at local rallies could often turn the event into a hostile conflict.

Even with all the impediments to equality and the considerable opposition to emancipation, Ohio became perhaps the most important state on the road to freedom. Many Ohioans help secure this claim as they took part in helping escaping slaves.

It was under these conditions that caused abolitionists to form secretive networks that could help escaping slaves move along a network that was neither advertised nor written. In fact, most of the people on the network only knew a few of the other members to help protect everyone's identity. That network became known as the Underground Railroad.

Underground Railroad

The Ohio Anti-Slavery Society was formed by a number of like-minded individuals that opposed slavery. Following closely the structure of the American Anti-Slavery Society that was founded in 1833, the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society was formed in 1835 in Zanesville as an auxiliary to the American Anti-slavery Society. The members of the society pledged to fight for the abolition of slavery and establishment of laws protecting African-Americans after they were freed. Their purpose, as stated in their constitution, was, “abolition of slavery throughout the United States and the elevation of our colored brethren to their proper rank as men.” In 1836, the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society grew from 20 chapters to 120 chapter covering every part of the state. By December of the same year, ten thousand Ohioans were part of the Society.

The Underground Railroad was neither underground, nor a railroad, but a system of loosely connected safe havens where those escaping the brutal conditions of slavery were sheltered, fed, clothed . . . and instructed during their journey to freedom. The term underground was used because this activity of helping escaping slaves was against the law and therefore these activities had to be concealed. The term railroad was used because those people involved in the activities used terms commonly associated with railroads, to describe different aspects of their activities.
  • Slaves were called cargo or passengers.
  • Hiding places or safe houses were called stations.
  • Guides leading the escaping slaves were called conductors.
  • People helping the escaping slaves, but not guiding them, were called agents.
  • People providing financial resources for these activities were called stockholder.
Although there were Underground Railroad networks throughout the country, even in the South, Ohio had the most active network of any other state with around 3000 miles of routes used by escaping runaways. Some sources estimate that 40,000 slaves escaped to freedom through Ohio. The reason for this is two-fold. First Ohio was bordered by two slave states: Virginia and Kentucky. That amounted to more than 400 miles of border between slave-state and free-state. In addition, of all the states involved in these underground networks, Ohio was the closest state to Canada with only about 250 miles or less from anywhere along the Ohio River to Lake Erie and freedom.

Ohio also had a large Quaker population, especially in the east and southeast portions of the state. While the Pennsylvania Quakers were largely responsible for initiating the abolitionist movement, the Ohio Quakers seemed to be more directly involved in actually moving escaping slaves on their way north and freedom in particular those fleeing slaves coming from Virginia.

The River-To-Lake Freedom Trail in Ohio memorializes one of the most frequently-used corridors of the Underground Railroad. The trail generally follows the present-day alignment of U.S. Route 23 from the Ohio River at Portsmouth, north through central Ohio. North of Marion County the trail follows state Route 4 to Sandusky on the shore of Lake Erie.

Of course, the ultimate destination for freedom was Canada (and to some degree, Mexico in the south). Yet, once there, escaped slaves still found life difficult – with no work and with strong segregation. After escaped slaves arrived in Canada, they would often return to Ohio where they could join small enclaves of freed slaves in areas that were uninhabited and try to remain as inconspicuous as possible.

The recorded history of the Underground Railroad is lacking simply because its operations were conducted in secret. Records were not kept.

Crossing at Scioto County


James Poindexter

Many runaways from Kentucky on the River-To-Lake Freedom Trail were aided by Rev. James Poindexter. Poindexter was born on Sept. 25, 1819, in Virginia. His father was white; his mother was black and Cherokee. He trained as a barber and moved to Columbus in 1838. His shop at 61 S. High St., across from the Statehouse, was popular with city leaders and state politicians.

Simultaneously upon apprenticing himself to a barber, he hired a British tutor to teach him. From this time, instead of letting circumstances keep him down, he made them do his bidding and besides furnishing him an income his barbering also gave him an education.

All sorts of prominent men sat in his barber chair: politicians, statesmen, doctors, lawyers, and many others :in the know” around the state capitol. Before they knew it, these men found themselves deep in complicated discussion of some question of the day and, unlike the philosopher who wanted his hair cut in silence, they came as much to listen to the arguments of a well-informed young man as they did for a haircut.

Upon reaching maturity Poindexter exercised his right to vote and was the first Negro in Columbus to use his franchise. He knew his rights and privileges. An uncle of his, George B. Poindexter, was once governor of Virginia.

In 1847, Poindexter was a preacher at the Second Baptist Church when an event split the congregation in two and Poindexter emerged as a champion of freedom.

A black family that Poindexter knew from Virginia joined the congregation. The family had owned slaves in the South and sold them before moving to Columbus. Some churchgoers demanded that the family use the proceeds from the sale to buy their former slaves from bondage. The family refused and Poindexter led forty dissenting brethren to form the Anti-Slavery Baptist Church.

That church grew to 104 members before it merged with its parent church in 1858. Poindexter was named pastor of the combined church, a post he held for the next forty years.

Poindexter also served secretly as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, helping runaway slaves escape to Canada. Risking imprisonment and fines, Poindexter and a handful of both black and white Columbus residents gave sanctuary to escaped slaves and passed them, often disguised as cargo in freight wagons, north to the next stop on their journey to Canada.

During the Civil War Poindexter and his wife formed the Colored Soldiers Relief Society to help give soldiers and their families’ assistance since the State of Ohio failed to support its black veterans.

When the 15th Amendment allowed black voting throughout Ohio in 1870, Poindexter began his political career. In January 1871 he led the call for a statewide convention of African American men to encourage voting. Two years later Poindexter was nominated by the Republican Party for a seat in the Ohio House of Representatives. He lost but in 1880 he became the first African American elected to the Columbus City Council. Reelected in 1882 Poindexter remained in the seat until 1884 when he was named to the Board of Trustees of the Ohio School for the Blind. In 1884 Poindexter was also appointed to the Columbus Board of Education and was reelected four times.

William McClain

William McClain was born in Virginia in 1807. His father, Hugh McClain, captained ships along the Ohio River. While little is known of William McClain's youth, he eventually pursued the same career as his father. He also became an abolitionist and actively protested slavery by ferrying runaway slaves across the Ohio River from the slave states of Virginia (now West Virginia) and Kentucky.

McClain usually brought the runaway slaves to J.J. Minor, who resided in South Webster, Ohio. He, in turn, would see them to the Dan Lucas or Joseph Love farms. The Lucas or Love families would take them 37 miles northwest to the PP Settlement in Pike County. This place was settled by former slaves and freed men from Virginia and North Carolina. The people here sent them to Chillicothe or to other places of safety. There, they followed the Scioto River to Waverly and to the free black community called P.P. Settlement in Pebble Township.

McClain died on September 10, 1867, in Portsmouth.

Connection to Huston (Houston) Hollow

Established in Scioto County, Ohio in 1830, Huston Hollow was a predominantly African-American community. It was located six miles north of Portsmouth, Ohio in what is now Clay Township. In 1830, whites in Portsmouth drove approximately eighty African-American residents from the city.

At the time, many white Ohioans had no desire to live near or face economic competition from African Americans. Free blacks found that it was difficult to get fair treatment, and they often formed their own communities away from whites for protection. Several of the displaced African Americans formed the community of Huston Hollow. Among the community's more prominent residents were the Love and Lucas families. Members of both of these families actively assisted runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. This was part of the River-To-Lake Freedom Trail.

Huston Hollow remained small in size during its existence, averaging less than one hundred residents. By the mid 1900s, Huston Hollow had lost its identity as a separate community. With whites increasingly showing African Americans tolerance, many African Americans began to find acceptance in traditionally white communities.

Despite the growing opposition to slavery by some whites during the early 1800s, communities, such as Huston Hollow, illustrate the prejudice that existed in Ohio during the years before the American Civil War.

James Ashley

Ashley was born on November 24, 1822, to John Ashley, a bookbinder and Campbellite preacher who evangelized in Kentucky and West Virginia, and his wife Mary A. (Kilpatrick) Ashley of Kentucky. near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When he was four years old, his family moved to Portsmouth, Ohio. As a boy in the Ohio River Valley, Ashley saw coffles of chained slaves being walked to the Deep South, boys his own age being sold, and even white men who refused to let their cattle drink from a stream in which his father had baptized slaves. He grew to hate the "peculiar institution" (which he considered a violation of Christian principles) and the oligarchy that supported it.

He had begun helping slaves to escape as early as 1839, and late in his life Ashley relished telling stories of the families he had saved as a 17 year old.

Although Ashley's father was a bookbinder, many of his ancestors had been Baptist ministers. Ashley's father encouraged his son to pursue a career in the ministry. Ashley refused and ran away from home at the age of fourteen. He spent several years as a cabin boy and later as clerk on steamboats on the Ohio River. He then returned home to Portsmouth in 1848 where he became a journalist—first at the Portsmouth Dispatch and later editor of the Portsmouth Democrat. The following year, he was admitted to the Ohio Bar but did not practice. the printing trade.

In 1851, abolitionist activities caused Ashley and his wife to flee Portsmouth and move to Toledo to avoid prosecution under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. There, Ashley opened a drug store (which was soon burned down) and also became involved in the new Republican Party (campaigning for its presidential candidate John C. Fremont and Congressman Richard Mott.

Ashley quickly became prominent in the party and served as chairman of the Ohio Republican Convention in 1858. In that same year, Toledo voters elected Ashley to the United States House of Representatives. He was reelected four times until he lost in 1868 by fewer than one thousand votes.

An active abolitionist, Ashley traveled with John Brown's widow to Brown's execution in December 1859, and reported the event in the still-extant local newspaper, the Toledo Blade. In 1858, he led the Ohio Republican Party. As the year ended, Ashley was elected to U.S. House of Representativs of the 36th United States Congress, and took office the following year.

In Congress, Ashley championed abolitionist causes. During the American Civil War, Ashley took an active role in supporting the recruitment of troops for the Union Army. He also became a leader among the Radical Republicans, writing a bill to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia in 1862. On December 14, 1863, he introduced the first bill which ultimately (with Ashley as House Majority floor manager) became the Thirteenth Amendment to the United State Constitution by a 2/3 margin of 2 votes on January 31, 1865, formally abolishing slavery.

Ashley also served as the chairman of the House's Committee on Territories and helped organize Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, and Montana. Ashley strongly opposed Mormonism and polygamy, and he successfully campaigned to reduce the size of Utah to limit Mormon influence. He also played a leading role in President Andrew Johnson's impeachment. In 1867, he demanded that the House Judiciary Committee begin an investigation of the President. Ashley lost reelection in 1868 principally because of his radical views on race issues. Increasingly, white Ohioans rejected government actions that would increase equality between whites and African Americans.


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Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D. “The Good and the Just': Slavery and the Development of Evangelical Protestantism in the American South, 1700-1830.” Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Kentucky, 2001.

Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D. “James Ashley & the Thirteenth Amendment.” sciotohistorical.org.

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. New York: Simon & Schuster. 2004.

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Huston Hollow, Ohio.” Ohio History Connection.

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The Underground Railroad in Southern Ohio.” angelfire.com. Written for Lest We Forget, published by Bennie McCrae, 1997.

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