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Tracking the Underground Railroad

Ohio Valley was gateway
to freedom for many fugitive slaves

Researchers still seek clues to escape routes

By Ben Fronczek
Staff Writer

Diane Perrine Coon, a Cincinnati native now living in Louisville, Ky., is one of the Railroad's busiest researchers. Coon has spent four years of close concentration and collaboration with other researchers on tracking evidence linking specific locations to past Underground Railroad activity. Her findings have resulted in writings and lectures that are to this day just scratching the surface of a system that played a significant role in history.
The many paths to freedom

There was no one universal route for a fugitive slave to find safety and freedom. For the most part, the border between Kentucky and Indiana harbored bitter feelings of pro and anti-slavery during the 19th century. Naturally, the standard route of escape was from the mostly pro-slavery south to the mostly anti-slavery north. 
But there were exceptions. Coon and her colleagues have found most activity in Indiana.
"The problem with Kentucky is that so little has been preserved, and so much has been destroyed," says Coon, driving down the country roads in Ballardsville, Ky. 
Coon has found from researching deeds that much of Oldham County between 1820 and 1860 consisted of plantations. Slaves worked these plantations, but the ambiguity rests in the lack of evidence to trace escape routes. Much of Coon's findings come from oral histories and piecing together the lay of the land.
"You get a thread, you have to pull on it," she said. "It's that kind of history."
Coon's process of authenticating Underground Railroad sites involved four steps: First, she looks at a particular site's integrity in terms of its age in accordance with the time period. Second, she studies the slavery views of those who lived or were present at the site. This could be uncovered by looking at the families to which they belonged or whether they attended an anti-slavery church. Third, she looks at public records, deeds and church records. Finally, she visits probable sites and walks the terrain.
Based on viewing land records of the time, Coon believes a probable escape route would have been through the hilly ground around Shelby and Trimble counties areas where plantations would not have existed. Coon also cites areas along the Ohio River that largely depended on riverboat commerce. Such areas include Westport, Ky., in Oldham County and Carrollton, Ky., particularly where the Kentucky and Ohio rivers meet.
Some fugitive slaves sneaked aboard steamboats traveling between Louisville and Madison, Ind., that would have stopped at Westport as well as other points on both sides of the river. Most, however, waded across because, according to late 1840s newspaper accounts, the Ohio River was shallow.
Coon says it is a misconception to think that the slaves had no idea of the lay of the land. "The truth was, the slaves were very knowledgeable about geography because they were the ones who went to the markets and drove the wagons."
Anti-slavery merchants from New England, Ohio and Pennsylvania who traveled the river also helped in the effort. The Indiana side of the river offered a hodgepodge of escape routes. Routes had to be multiple so that the fugitives would not be caught or discovered by bounty hunters. 
Following one of the secret trails
One popular escape route began just east of Madison. From Eagle Hollow, the path led up to Ryker's Ridge, north up Graham Road to what is now part of the U.S. Army's Jefferson Proving Ground. From there, fugitives often followed Graham Creek to the Hicklin House, then owned by the Rev. Thomas Hicklin. 
The Hicklin House, located in southern Jennings County, Ind., has intrigued Madison resident and researcher Elbert Hinds and Eleutherian College director John Nyberg. 
"The whole Hicklin family was involved very heavily in the Underground Railroad movement," says Hinds. 
Hicklin's gravestone, located across the road from his residence, reads: "To the memory of Thos. Hicklin, an ardent preacher of the gospel and an advocate of human rights."
Hinds and Nyberg also have closely followed sites around Lancaster, Ind, which is northwest of Madison. These sites, or safehouses as they were called, would have assisted fugitive slaves escaping from Kentucky's river bottoms of Westport, Payne Hollow and Coopers Bottom. Other fugitives crossed the river and headed north on routes through Saluda Basin, old Michigan Road and other areas west of Madison. 
One group, the Neil's Creek Anti-Slavery Society, was the most active in Lancaster. The Hoyt House and Walton House are examples of sites still standing. According to minutes of the society's meetings, occupants of those houses, among others, were members in the society and Underground Railroad conductors a person who directly transported fugitive slaves. 
Much of the history of the Walton House, located near the Jennings-Jefferson County line, was transmitted orally. Walton family relatives told stories of how they would hide fugitives under double-layered false floors in wagons and transport them north overnight. Lois L. Hoyt wrote about her father's hiding runaway slaves in a nearby cave. 
Lois Hoyt may have been one of the few children who knew of her parents' involvement in the Underground Railroad. Parents often hid their activity from children in fear they would tell other children at school and those children would, in turn, tell their parents.
"What these people were doing was not socially acceptable, and that is why it needed to be secretive and done in darkness," says Hinds. 
Because of the threat of bounty hunters and the nearby pro-slavery group called the Knights of the Golden Circle, the conductors had to operate during the night. 
Little has been found by researchers regarding activities in Vernon, Ind., but to the east in present-day Ripley County, the story is different. County historian Helen Einhaus cites still-standing structures that served as "safehouses" for escaping slaves. Einhaus has researched deeds and oral testimonies.
"There is hardly any written documentation because what they were doing was against the law," says Einhaus. 
Certain features of particular houses and their owners suggest involvement in the Underground Railroad. For example, a written history of general store owner and teacher Stephen Harding records his reading anti-slavery periodicals. There is also testimony of a false ceiling from an 1948 occupant of what was Harding's house.
"There were false ceilings in the closets where they would put (fugitives)," says Einhaus. Harding's house sits in what was then considered part of Milan, Ind., before its boundaries moved south. 
To the northwest in Napolean, Ind., sits an old building that now houses Bonaparte's restaurant. Einhaus has found deeds labeling the building as once the Railroad House Hotel. She adds that there was never any record of an actual Railroad being there. 
The current restaurant's owner, Debbi Powers, has also discovered the remains of a tunnel in the cellar that is now filled with rocks. The double dug cellar in the basement is typical of those used to hide slaves, according to Coon.
More significant than the sites, though, is the many black and white folks who helped make the Underground Railroad a successful operation.

• Pick up this month's RoundAbout Entertainment Guide to learn more about the Underground Railroad in the Ohio River Valley.

Back to February 2001 Articles.

 

 

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