Virtual Exhibit: Struggle for a Free State
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The Land of the Free
Before the Civil War, Southern farmers depended upon slaves to run their huge plantations. The ancestors of these slaves had been captured along the African coast and brought to America against their will. They were forced to work in the fields from sunrise until sundown. Some slaves worked long hours as house servants.
Most slaves had miserable lives. They had no rights and could not own anything. Slaves were not allowed to learn to read or write. Some slave owners beat or whipped their slaves. Worse than nearly anything else, however, was being sold away from your family. A slave could be sold at auction to the highest bidder and taken to a plantation far away. Husbands and wives were separated. Children were taken from their parents, never to see them again.
Many slaves decided to run away from their owners to a life of freedom in the North. The Northern states did not allow slavery, but neither did they allow people to help runaway slaves. You could be put in jail just for giving a runaway slave a drink of water. A Southern slave owner could come to the North and take his “property” home again. Rewards were offered to slave hunters who made their living capturing runaway slaves. Slave hunters carried whips and handcuffs when they searched for runaways. Slaves had to go all the way to Canada to be sure they were free.
The Ordinance of 1787
The Ordinance of 1787 was a plan of government for the Northwest Territory. It stated that the land north and west of the Ohio River, including what is now the state of Ohio, should be divided into five states, and that slavery should not be allowed in this area.
It was a law that was very important to the pioneers who first settled in Washington County. Most of them came from New England states where slavery was already illegal. They did not want the Southern states to spread the institution of slavery into the new territory.
A Slave is Sold in Marietta
Not all of the early settlers in Ohio were against slavery. Some of them paid no attention to the laws set forth in the Ordinance of 1787. There is at least one known case of a slave being sold in Marietta!
In pioneer times, there were many stores and taverns located along the Ohio River in Marietta on what is now called Ohio Street. The most common way to travel long distances was by boat, and travelers would come ashore there to do business or rest.
One of the innkeepers was Isaac Mixer, a man of “vicious character.” He ran a rowdy, noisy tavern that was avoided by most local people. In 1789, Mixer was accused of selling a seven year old African-American boy named Prince into slavery in Virginia. It was thought by some to be the second time he had done such a thing.
Many people were outraged. A letter was written to the governor of the territory, but it probably did not reach him. During a local court session, a jury disapproved of the action, but Mixer was not arrested for the crime.
Image from "Anti-Slavery Almanac" (1840).
Ohio Becomes a Free State
By 1802, the Ohio Country had a population of 60,000, the number required to become a state. Before Ohio could be admitted to the Union, it had to form a state government with a constitution, or set of laws. Men from all over the state were chosen to represent the people of their area at a Constitutional Convention in Chillicothe where the first laws of Ohio were written.
One of the representatives from Washington County was Ephraim Cutler. Ephraim was very strong in his belief that slavery should not be permitted in Ohio. He said that the people of the Northwest Territory had already promised this by accepting it in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.
Men from other parts of Ohio did not agree. They thought that outlawing slavery would discourage Virginians from settling in the new state. A law was introduced that would allow slaves to be held in Ohio until they were thirty-five years old if male, or twenty-five years old if female. It was believed that this would end slavery gradually.
Ephraim was sick the day before the representatives were to vote on the slavery issue. Two of his friends from Washington County, Rufus Putnam and Benjamin Ives Gilman, came to his room and found him resting in bed. They were worried that the other representatives would allow slavery in Ohio if Ephraim did not talk them out of it.
Rufus Putnam was very upset. “Cutler,” he said in a booming voice, “get up, get well, and be in your place tomorrow!”
Benjamin Gilman paced the floor and rubbed his hands nervously. He exclaimed, “We must prevent this! I cannot, will not, live in a community Ephraim Cutler from "History of Athens where such injustice is approved by law.
County, Ohio" by Charles M. Walker (1869). Ephraim somehow managed to get well enough to attend the meeting the next day. He made a speech that convinced most of the men at the convention that slavery was wrong. Slavery was made illegal in Ohio by just one vote! Ohio was admitted to the Union as a free state on February 19, 1803.
Questions for Land of the Free
All Aboard for Freedom!
While they were still in the South, slaves escaping at night knew to “follow the drinking gourd.” The drinking gourd was a name for the Big Dipper which contains the North Star. Other signs, such as moss growing on the north side of trees, pointed the way northward. It was a long, dangerous journey, and the runaways needed food and shelter along the way.
The safest path to freedom was by way of the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was not underground, nor was it a railroad. It was a secret network of people who risked their lives to help runaway slaves. No one is sure just how it came to be called the Underground Railroad, but one legend links the term to Ohio.
In 1831, a runaway slave named Tice Davids escaped from Kentucky by swimming across the river to Ripley, Ohio. His owner was chasing him, but Tice disappeared from sight when he got to shore. The owner searched the whole town without success. He finally gave up and said, “It seems as if he went off on some underground railroad.” Trains were just becoming popular at the time, and the name stuck.
Railroad terms were used to describe the people and places on the Underground Railroad. A conductor was someone who helped a runaway from one hiding place to the next. A safe house or other hiding place was called a station. The owner of a house where slaves From "The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom" were helped was called a stationmaster. The runaway slaves were called passengers or shipments.
by Wilbur H. Siebert (1898).
People who wanted to put an end to slavery were called abolitionists. They read anti-slavery newspapers and held meetings to discuss the evils of slavery. Not everyone in Washington County was an abolitionist. Many people who lived here had friends or relatives in Virginia (now West Virginia) who owned slaves. They did not want to upset these friends or risk being put in jail for helping runaway slaves. Some local people even worked as slave hunters. When they saw advertisements in the newspaper for runaways, they tried to capture them and collect the reward.
Most abolitionists were Underground Railroad workers. Some were Quakers or Wesleyan Methodists who, for religious reasons, did not believe in slavery. Others were free blacks who wanted to help their friends to freedom. Marietta College students often helped runaway slaves in their spare time. Sometimes whole families worked for the Underground Railroad. One twelve-year-old boy who lived at Bartlett in Washington County would stand guard and watch for slave hunters. He knew a secret signal to use when one was spotted.
Secret Signals and Hiding Places
People who worked for the Underground Railroad had secret codes and signals. Some safe houses put a lantern in a certain window or painted the bricks of their chimneys in a special way. A conductor might arrive at your door with a runaway and use a series of secret knocks or raps to awaken you. Before you open the door, you would ask, “Who is there?” The conductor might answer, “A friend with friends.” Sometimes conductors made their connections with signals outside in the darkness. A secret signal often used in Washington County was the hoot of an owl.
Most Underground Railroad workers in Washington County hid runaways in their cellars, attics, or barns. Other hiding places were in caves or behind fallen trees. The slaves traveled to the next stop on foot, on horseback, in wagons, or in boats. Sometimes they wore disguises. Men dressed as women, and women dressed as men. Their faces were hidden with large bonnets or slouch hats.
"The Underground Railroad" by Charles T. Webber (1893).
Because the Underground Railroad had to be operated secretly, no one kept records of their work. It was later estimated by one of the operators that about 2,000 slaves traveled on the Underground Railroad through Washington County before the Civil War.
Questions for All Aboard for Freedom!
This CommonLit article "The Underground Railroad" also provides a short history of the Underground Railroad, along with questions based on the text.
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati and the Rankin House both have additional resources on the Underground Railroad in Ohio.