"Nobody had ever instructed him that a slave-ship, with a procession of expectant sharks in its wake, is a missionary institution, by which closely-packed heathen are brought over to enjoy the light of the Gospel."
– Harriet Beecher Stowe
Refrains of "My Old Kentucky Home" echo "'Tis summer, the darkies are gay," yet reality is sobering. Life in the Bluegrass before the Civil War for African-Americans was horribly oppressive. Kentucky was a slave state bound to the evil institution of bondage. Still, some Kentucky families were instrumental in efforts to free slaves ... the slaves of others and their own human "property."
In 1838, A.M. January and William Huston built majestic homes on Third Street in Maysville, Kentucky, just west of the Maysville Academy. These dwellings were built on a steep incline with stellar views of the Ohio River. After these constructions, other supporters of freedom then pitched their tents around the school. Historians connect the dots.
Speculation has it that Jesse Grant and his son, Ulysses, had a role in establishing a safe network, running across Fourth Street and down to the river. Of course, any evidence of this had to kept secret and likely those records were eventually destroyed. Yet, some facts do exist.
In 1922, the City of Detroit Deluxe Supplement documented the Januarys' freedom work in Ohio. Andrew January helped gift Elsiha Green with money to keep his wife and children from being sold south. William Huston emancipated persons a quarter-century before it became law. The academy, the homes, and the businesses aligned in the direction of the river indicate intentions of logistics to enhance endeavors of freedom.
The question is did these families intentionally give off slave-holding intentions in order to move freely and help the enslaved go free? They may have even employed slaves to aid others running north. The conjectures are intriguing and loosely supported in G.L. Corum's book Ulysses Underground.
The same year as the Huston construction (1838), the father-in-law and father of these two men (also named William Huston) wrote out his last will and testament, leaving detailed instructions for the emancipation of all those he held in bondage:
“I furthermore do will and desire that all my Negroe slaves be freed from slavery and servitude in the following manner, to wit, my slave Easter to be freed on the Twenty-fifth of December in the year Eighteen Hundred and Forty, my slave Charles to be freed on the Twenty-fifth of December in the year Eighteen Hundred and Forty-four, my slave Patty to be freed on the Twenty-fifth of December in the year Eighteen Hundred and Forty-five, and my slave Margaret to be freed on the Twenty-fifth of December in the year Eighteen Hundred and Fifty-one ...”
(Mason County Court House, Maysville, Kentucky. Will Book #L, 289.)
Then consider ...
Christmas day was the day of the annual Anti-slavery Society gathering in Ripley and Red Oak, Ohio. The Higgins, Williamson, and Poage families had done this forty, thirty, and twenty years earlier respectively. William Huston emancipated persons in Kentucky. And, Andrew's father-in-law acted for freedom twenty-five years before the Emancipation Proclamation made it the law of the land (even longer before it was required in Kentucky).
Despite this, A.M. January and his brother-in-law, the younger William Huston, continued to hold persons against their will. In Fact, the number of persons listed under A.M. January's name on the Slave Schedule, increased during the 1830s and 40s. This seeming gives off a mixed message.
The young Huston prospered financially as a “commission merchant,” making his living traveling to other cities and bringing back goods ordered by other merchants.” (Corum notes: “A great line of work if, in fact, he did assist fugitives. Andrew's uncle Samuel had also been a commission merchant.”). Behind the Huston home, up on enormous ascent, lived a man who, as a boy, attended Maysville Academy and formed an enduring friendship with Ulysses S. Grant.
No documents fasten Ulysses to the January, Huston or Bierbower families, but multiple biographies refer to Ulysses' friendship with William Henry Wadsworth, who grew up in Maysville. Wadsworth ancestral line came out of the Connecticut faction of the American Revolution.
(Wadsworth file, Kentucky Gateway Museum Center, Maysville. Found by G.L. Corum.)
Wadsworth (born in Maysville on July 4, 1821) was educated at the Maysville Seminary. After study at Augusta College, he read law in the office of Payne & Waller and was admitted to the bar. In 1853 he was elected to the state senate. In 1861, he was elected as a Unionist to the U.S. Congress.
(H. Levin, The Lawyers and Lawmakers of Kentucky. Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co. 1897.)
The Grapevine Dispatch cited William Henry three times for defending black persons in antebellum court cases. Wadsworth used his law practice to advance the rights of blacks, augmenting the antislavery force on the south side of the river.
(C. Miller. Grapevine Dispatch, 131, 133, 137.)
A picture of Wadsworth's Victorian Gothic home reads: “So many of the old homes which were built just before the Civil War were constructed with slave labor – but not this one – as Mr. Wadsworth was very anti-slavery.”
(Jean Calvert and John Klee. “The Towns of Mason County – Their Past in Pictures.” Maysville and Mason County Library Historical and Scientific Association. 1986.)
It is clear there were many Maysville connections in the noble struggle for abolition. The names of January, Huston, and Wadsworth attest to this. Imagine the courage and fortitude shown by these people during a time when pro-slavery beliefs and slave holding enterprises were prevalent in Kentucky.
A Burning Question
My inquiry is about the Huston family. Upon emancipation, freed slaves found themselves having to choose surnames since they'd most often never had any before. It was not at all uncommon to choose the surname of their last owners. In that case, isn't it possible that the Underground Railroad station and black community at Huston Hollow, north of Portsmouth, Ohio, is connected to the slaves of Willaim Huston? The time frame (Is it correct?) is approximately the same. My curiosity is begging for any factual reference.