Monday, February 26, 2018

Ripley, Ohio and the Underground Beyond the Rankins


“Sometimes standing on the Ohio River bluff, looking over on a free State, and as far north as my eyes could see, I have eagerly gazed upon the blue sky of the free North … that I might soar away to where there is no slavery; no clanking of chains, no captives, no lacerating of backs, no parting of husbands and wives; and where man ceases to be the property of his fellow man.”

– From the autobiography of Henry Bibb, a fugitive Kentucky slave, 1849

Henry Bibb was born to an enslaved woman, Milldred Jackson, on a Cantalonia, Kentucky, plantation on May 10, 1815. His people told him his white father was James Bibb, a Kentucky state senator, but Henry never knew him. As he was growing up, Bibb saw each of his six younger siblings, all boys, sold away to other slaveholders. Bibb, himself, claimed to have been owned by seven people including a Cherokee Indian.

Bibb made several bids for freedom with the help of the Underground Railroad. (His first escape was at the tender age of ten.) On one of these he spent a few months in Canada in 1838, but when he returned to Kentucky in an attempt to free his first wife and their daughter, he was caught and sold to a group of gamblers. He finally made his way alone to Detroit in December 1840. There he joined the anti-slavery movement, traveling across Michigan, Ohio, and the northeastern states lecturing upon the evils of slavery.

In 1849-50 he published his autobiography Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself, which became one of the best known slave narratives of the antebellum years. In 1851, he set up the first black newspaper in Upper Canada. He used the Voice of the Fugitive to organize abolitionists in an attempt to help other African Americans immigrate to Canada. Bibb was instrumental in organizing the Refugees’ Home Society that had by his death in 1854 purchased almost 2000 acres of land and allocated 25 acre plots to 40 immigrants.

Crossing the Ohio River into the free state of Ohio represented the first precious steps into freedom for so many escaped slaves like Henry Bibb. There were twenty-three entry points along the Ohio River, where numerous small communities provided safety for slaves in an extremely dangerous territory. The main entry point was a small community called Ripley. Founded in 1803, Ripley was home to a small but extremely important group of abolitionists who assisted thousands of escaping slaves and started them on their journey.

Ripley residents led by the Rev. John Rankin and former slave John P. Parker helped hundreds of slaves to freedom. According to legend, the very title of “Underground Railroad” was coined by slave hunters after losing track of fleeing slaves they were chasing through the dark alleys of Ripley. Johh Rankin's House on “Liberty Hill” in Ripley was an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad in the Ripley area had three interlocking components. The first were Presbyterian ministers, most of whom were Southerners, who had begun around the year 1800 to come north to escape the horrific climate of slavery. Later, united through an administrative body known as the Chillicothe Presbytery, they formed an established web of relationships that linked Ripley to Red Oak, Sardinia, Russellville, and other towns in southern Ohio.

The second component included activist abolitionists. The Ripley Anti-Slavery Society, which held its organizational meeting in Red Oak at the Presbyterian church of Rev. James Gilliland, enlisted 337 members in its first year, an exceptionally large number by comparison with other community antislavery societies. They elected Alexander Campbell, president; Gilliland, vice-president; and Rankin, secretary. Five years later, John Mahan of Sardinia led a small group in Brown County who supported the Liberty Party. Rankin did not join them until 1843, though his son Lowry was one of the original Liberty Party men in Ripley.

The third component was a sizable population of free blacks and a small number of courageous slaves who lived across the river in Kentucky in Mason and Bracken counties. Most of the free blacks were members of the two Gist settlements, just north of Ripley, which were comprised mainly of slaves and their ancestors from Virginia, who had been emancipated after the death of their master, Samuel Gist, in 1819.

Further examination of the history of Ripley reveals more families there with strong abolitionist ties to the Underground Railroad. The importance of their efforts to the freedom movement is monumental.

Samuel Hemphill and William Byington Campbell

Samuel Hemphill was believed to be one of the wealthiest people in the Ohio River Valley in the mid 1800s. He became the largest food and commodities broker in Ripley, Ohio. His trade included lumber, tobacco, hogs, whiskey and items manufactured in Ripley. It is said he once loaned money to the State of Ohio to resolve a financial shortage.

Hemphill was the treasurer of the Ripley Presbyterian Church, out of which developed the leadership and strong following of the Ripley abolitionist movement. As a supporter of abolition, Hemphill reportedly financed the defense of a famous and expensive trial of an abolitionist in Maysville.

Samuel Hemphill was William Byington Campbell's brother-in-law and an antislavery descendent. (Campbell was often known as Byington) Byington befriended Ulysses S. Grant during their school years at Ripley. His father, Joseph N. Campbell, served as a Ripley College trustee, and died five years before Ulysses came to Ripley for schooling.

Byington marked the third generation aiding escaping fugitives. Both of his grandfathers, along with all ten of his uncles, paternal and maternal, were known as “immediate abolitionists.”

* (On the first day of January, 1831, William Lloyd Garrison began publishing The Liberator, the country's first publication to demand an immediate end to slavery without compensation to their owners. Within four years, 200 abolition societies had sprouted up in the North and had mounted a massive propaganda campaign to proclaim the sinfulness of slavery.)

In 1816, Byington's parents and paternal grandparents became charter members of Ripley Presbyterian Church. In 1822, the church called John Rankin to be their minister. Upon his father's death in 1833, Byington, at the tender age of eight, became the man in a house open to fugitive slaves.

Then, Ripley was a bustling center of business and commerce. Here is a description of old Ripley by John P. Parker, the famous conductor on the Underground Railroad:

“... Ripley in 1845. At that time it was as busy as a beehive. There was no town along the Ohio River except Cincinnati that was in its class. There was a group of live men there that made it the center of industry and finance. There was Samuel Hemphill,29 Archibald Leggett,30 the Boyntons, Thomas McCague,31 James Reynolds were the leaders.

“There were the upper and lower boatyards, busy the year round. The upper boatyard was the oldest and larger of the two, located at the mouth of Red Oak Creek. There was a jut of land below the creek which gave the boatyard a safe harbor, winter and summer.32 One hundred flatboats were made here in one year for Vevay, Indiana, to float hay down the river. These boats were turned out in quantities and very rapidly all winter long. The mills would turn out the parts, so all that would have to be done in the spring and summer was to assemble the parts into flatboats.

“These boats were assembled bottom side up. When they slid down the way, they were upset so they floated right side up. In winter steamboats were on the ways. The entire riverfront was filled with flatboats loading cargoes for New Orleans and all waypoints. Winter and summer there flowed down the river highways into the town a continuous stream of logs night and day. Only pork was packed, as the south did not feed beef to its slaves. The slaughterhouses were in full blast at all seasons. Flour mills, both water and steam, ground up the grain of the neighboring farms, which were very fertile. One mill located back from the river had an overhead gravity runway, sending the barrels from the mill across the creek down to the bank to the flatboats.

“All winter long the farmer and his family were busily engaged making pork and flour barrels, and tobacco hogsheads. These were brought to town either on sleighs or by four-to-six-horse teams. At times the farmers killed [and] packed their own hogs. A woolen mill made most of the jeans for the town and flatboats.

“There were still Jacksonian gentlemen who wore blue jean suits with brass buttons and swallow coattails, who devoted as much time to keeping their long rows of brass buttons shining as the men of today to preening and cleaning.

“This little town was so rich [that] in the Panic of 1837, it sent its funds to help New York banks over that depression. It was as busy as a beehive and as thrifty as it was busy ...

“Amidst this commercial activity lived and moved the little group of old-time abolitionists. They were by name Dr. Alexander Campbell, Rev. John Rankin, Theodore, Tom, and Eli Collins, Tom McCague, Dr. Beasley, [and] Rev. James Gilliland. The undoubted leader was Rev. John Rankin.

“While the businessmen were not abolitionists, they were antislavery. But the town itself was proslavery as well as the country around it. In fact, the country was so antagonistic to abolitionism at this time, we could only take the fugitives out of town and through the country along definite and limited routes.

“There was also very active a certain group of men who made a living by capturing the runaway slaves and returning them to their masters. These men were on watch day and night along the riverbank the year round. While they captured quite a few it was remarkable how many slaves we got through the line successfully. The feeling grew so tense Rev. John Rankin and his followers left the Presbyterian church forming a new congregation who were given over to the antislavery movement.

“Many of the Methodists were in silent sympathy with the movement, [and] would give us money, but would take no aggressive part. As a matter of fact, this abolitionist group were ridiculed, detested, and even threatened by the town’s people.

“After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in [1850], the attitude of the town’s people grew even more critical of our group.37 We had to be more secretive than ever, for it meant confiscation of property, a fine, and [a] jail sentence.

“I had kept a diary giving the names, dates, and circumstances of all the slaves I had helped run away, which at that time numbered 315. As I had accumulated considerable property, as a matter of safety I threw this diary into the iron furnace, for fear it might fall into other hands.

“The other men were equally as cautious, but the work went on just the same. Having now become actively engaged in aiding the fugitives, my contact with the other abolitionists was close, and maintained until the close of the Civil War.”

No one knows how often Byington Campbell, with the aid and support of Samuel Hemphill, escorted slaves through the dark woods six miles north to Red Oak. But, a rare letter does survive. Byington's brother, Joseph N. Campbell, wrote to their brother studying at Marietta College:

Ripley November 15, 1845

Dear Brother,

“... Burgess Collins was walking on ferry street and met Becwith who commenced pulling off his coat and Burgess did the same and wipped him till the bystanders told him it was enough. On yesterday he struck James Patterson for which he was fined five dollars and cost. Byington and Hemphill are busy receiving flour he sold to load to Bartlet and has since bought another. Every few days there is a great excitement about flour ...”

Your affectionate Brother,

Joseph N. Campbell

Joseph relayed his brother's excitement about “flour” in code language for fugitives from slavery. Of course, Hemphill in the letter is Samuel Hemphill. This brother-in-law team of Hemphill and Campbell kept busy shuffling sacks of “flour” every few days.

Silver Point

Silver Point was the family home of Samuel Hemphill. It is located along what is known as Colonial Row on Ripley's Main Street. The stately columned homes there reflect the town's prosperity during the mid-1800s when Ripley was a major river port on the Ohio River with a population of approximately 5,000 people. Hemphill's workers named the home “Silver Point” because he always paid them in silver – somewhat unusual because then silver was hard to come by. Bartering was the “currency” of the day for most trades.

Built in 1840, Silver Point has six bedrooms and five bathrooms, two kitchens, a dining room and two living rooms at the front of the home. The foyers on the main floor and second floor are immense and connected by a beautiful staircase.

The house's 23 rooms are a treasure trove of carved architectural designs, said Greg Haitz, who has frequented the house while researching the design and former owners of the home.The architecture is an excellent example of the Neo-Classical period.

Hemphill was friends with President Ulysses S. Grant and President Rutherford B. Hayes, both of whom were frequent visitors to his home.


G.L. Corum. Ulysses Underground. 2015.

Wendy Mitchell. “Silver Point Readying for Public Peek.” February 19, 2015.

“Ohio Was the Promised Land.”

John P. Parker. His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad ed. Stuart Seely Sprague (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996),

Marla Toncray. “A visit to Silver Point, on Ripley's Colonial Row.” May 08, 2015.

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