Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Grants and Underground Railroad Connections In Southern Ohio

 Jesse Grant Tannery, Georgetown

Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant) is known for his accomplishments as a Union General in the Civil War and, of course, for his presidency. What is little known is that the Grant family were stalwarts in the movement for the abolition of slavery. The story of Jesse, Ulysses' father, provides insight into local history and is a touchstone to the all-important freedom movement.

Ulysses' childhood occurred in the middle of a seventy-year span of Underground Railroad history. As early as the 1790s, families moved to what became Ohio and aligned their homes to help liberate slaves. Religious convictions played a big part. In southwestern Ohio, certain Quakers, Calvinists, and Presbyterians worked together in secrecy to develop liberation plans. Communities were often loose but connected considering the times. (Jesse was a member of the Methodist faith – also well-represented in the anti-slavery population.)

Four years before their revival at Cane Ridge, the Presbyterian Church's highest governing body, the General Assembly, directed people to pray to redeem the frontier from “Egyptian darkness” so named for Moses' struggle against Egypt's Pharaoh. In Buckeye Presbyterianism, E.B. Welsh describes the ministers serving the antislavery churches surround Ulysses.

In the southern part of the state, especially in Chillicothe Presbytery, … convinced anti slavery men were apparently in the majority, certainly the more vocal. … most of them were from the South, several from the Carolinas – such men as James Gilliland and William and James Dickey, as well as John Rankin of Tennessee, men who had migrated to this free staate of Ohio for the express purpose of getting their families away from the blight and curse of slavery. With William Williamson of Manchester, Samuel Crothers of Greenfield and Dyer Burgess of West Union and later Rocky Spring, they brought the issue before Presbytery again and again.”

(E.B. Welsh. Buckeye Presbyterianism. 1968.)

Jesse Grant

Jesse Grant's paternal ancestor, Matthew Grant, and wife Priscilla and their infant daughter, embarked from Plymouth, England aboard the Mary and John with a party of 140 emigrants who had been gathered chiefly from South West England. It was one of many Pilgrims of the Puritan movement that fled England to escape religious persecution. After a 70-day journey the party arrived at Massachusetts Bay coloy in Nantasket, on May 30, 1630, and soon moved to and settled in Windsor, Connecticut.

Matthew was a trusted member of the community. He became a surveyor and a town clerk. Jesse's grandfather Noah Grant, and his brother Solomon, fought and died in the French and Indian War, and his son, (Jesse's father) also named Noah, served in the American Revolution, including the Battle of Bunker Hill, soon advancing to the rank of captain. Later generations migrated into Pennsylvania.

Ulysses' father, Jesse Root Grant, was born in 1794 in western Pennsylvania, to Noah and Rachel Kelly Grant. Noah Grant, was married to his first wife, Anna Richardson, who became the parents of two children, Solomon and Peter Grant. Upon Noah's return from service in 1787 Anna died. On March 4, 1792, at Greensburg, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, Noah married his second wife, Rachael Kelly, who became Jesse's mother with the birth of her first born child on January 23, 1794. Noah named Jesse after the Honorable Jesse Root, Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Connecticut.

In 1799, when Jesse was age five, Noah moved his family to East Liverpool, and again in 1804, to Deerfield, both in Ohio. Noah worked in a shoe shop, earning a modest wage in Greensburg.

Jesse's mother, Rachel, died the spring after Jesse turned eleven, and her death scattered the family. For a time Jesse lived with Sallie Isaac Tod, whose husband was an Ohio judge. (Their son would be Ohio's governor during the Civil War.) According to biographer G.L. Corum, “in motherless Jesse, Mrs. Tod helped the young teen acquire a basic education and infused him with a love of reading. Jesse also credited her with his decision to become a tanner.”

Jesse Grant moved to Point Pleasant in 1820 and found work as a foreman in a tannery owned by his half-brother Owen Brown (father of the famous John Brown who led the raid at Harpers Ferry). Owen was a stout and outspoken abolitionist and Jesse often listened to his public orations against slavery, where he became familiar with and supportive of the cause. During this time Jesse lived under the same roof as John Brown, became friends and came to know his abolitionist philosophy.

Later in life Jesse would describe John Brown as "a man of great purity of character, of high moral and physical courage, but a fanatic and extremist in whatever he advocated." Harold I. Gullan, in his book, Faith of Our Mothers, mentioned that Jesse Grant moved to Ravenna, Ohio “because he hated slavery” [in Kentucky].

Jesse soon met his future wife, Hannah, and the two were married on June 24, 1821. Ten months later Hannah gave birth to their first child, a son. At a family gathering, several weeks later the boy's name, Ulysses, was drawn from ballots placed in a hat. Wanting to honor his father-in-law, Jesse declared the boy to be Hiram Ulysses, though he would always refer to him as Ulysses. Jesse eventually gained ownership of many tanning locations.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Law accelerated vengeance against escaped slaves and those who assisted them. At that time, Jesse Grant ran his interstate commerce sending animal hides, tanning supplies, and leather goods between Ohio and Illinois. Corum states, “He had tanneries on both sides of the Ohio River, with a few extending down into Kentucky and a few more stretching up the Mississippi.”

Jesse wrote about his tanneries …

As tanning was absolutely necessary to the support of a leather store, I set up my youngest son, Orville, then about nineteen, in a new tannery of eighty vats, in the chestnut oak bark region, twenty-four miles from Portsmouth, Ohio, where we got plenty of bark delivered at three dollars per cord. Soon after we bought another tannery of 130 vats, five miles from Portsmouth, where bark cost five dollars. It was not long before we bought still another tannery of 110 vats, in Kentucky, opposite Portsmouth, and where bark cost about eight dollars. These tanneries all employed steam power, but labor, bark, and hides advanced, so as to make tanning rather unprofitable, and the Kentucky tannery has been sold; the other two are still (being) run.”

(Jesse Grant. “Biological Sketches.” 12 No 8. September 24, 1868.)


He talked about tannery and not about slavery, but in the woods halfway between Portsmouth and Sinking Spring, Ohio, where no town existed, more went on.

Helen Christian in Echo of Rarden History revealed the name Galena was adopted when the first plat of the town was made on October 10, 1850. Orville Grant, brother of Ulysses S., named the town for his home in Galena, Illinois (“Galena” refers to a black mineral.)

Orville's new town coincided with Congress passing the Compromise of 1850, containing the ultra-controversial Fugitive Slave Law. Of course, the passage of this law made abolitionists all the more resolved to put an end to slavery. It appears the Grants doubled down on their underground efforts. The timing, placement, and name of Galena, Ohio supports this. It is known that the Grant family helped liberate slaves with through their tannery operations. 


Corum says, “Fleeing feet would have headed north through the woods (now Shawnee Forest) to Galena, Ohio, on their way to Sinking Spring. Ammen (newspaper editor) bragged about helping more fugitives escape than anyone else, indicating he received runaways from various lines.”

Corum believes Jesse was putting up a smokescreen with talk about chestnut bark prices. His Underground Railroad operation even extended into Kentucky – a wide expanse of work for freedom. In Lewis County, Jesse operated a tannery. And, eventually, Jesse even moved his family to Covington, Kentucky, where they were better able to aid fugitives by operating on both sides of the river. Indeed, his tanneries map a way out of slavery during their operations.

Jesse died June 29, 1873, in Covington, Kentucky, shortly after President Grant began his second term.His funeral was held at the Union Methodist Episcopalian Church in Covington. Jesse was buried at Spring Grove Cemetery, in Cincinnati, Ohio. His wife, Hannah, died ten years later in 1883, in Jersey City, New Jersey, just two years before their son Ulysses died.


Jesse Grant” (1794-1873)

King, Charles (1914). The true Ulysses S. Grant

Marshall, Edward Chauncey (1869). The ancestry of General Grant, and their contemporaries. Sheldon

Corum, G.L. Ulysses Underground. 2015.

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