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Ripley County history

Markers dedicated for Underground Railroad

Harding descendants take part in events

By Diane Perrine Coon
Special to RoundAbout

VERSAILLES, Ind. (June 2004) – On Saturday, May 15, Ripley County, Ind., dedicated two Indiana Freedom Trails historic markers, launched two heritage Underground Railroad automobile tours, and opened a room in the Ripley County Historical Society’s Museum Annex dedicated to Stephen Selwyn Harding, noted abolitionist and leader in the region and nation’s anti-slavery political movements. This activity is the first phase in a major project to develop a comprehensive approach to tell the Underground Railroad story in this county of Indiana.

Harding descendants

Photo provided

Harding descendants pose after the ceremony.

Five different Underground Railroad routes came through Ripley County in the 1840-1860 period. Several hundred fugitive slaves crossing the Ohio River in Aurora, Rising Sun, Patriot, Vevay, Lamb, and Madison, reached freedom through the aid of black and white abolitionists in Ripley County.
The celebration began with the dedication of an Indiana State Freedom Trails Historic Marker on the courthouse lawn next to the cannon in Versailles, Ind., and the opening of the Harding room in the Ripley County Museum Annex. Featured gospel singer, Petronia (Mrs. Lester) Bulmar of Louisville performed several Underground Railroad songs as part of the opening program.
The event also kicked off the grand opening of a guided automobile tour from Versailles to Old Milan, Ind., Harding’s home, which was Station No. 7 on the Underground Route from Aurora through Napoleon, Ind., and up to the Levi Coffin site in Wayne County, Ind.
Harding was an attorney in Versailles and an early abolitionist famous in the region for his anti-slavery oratory often in the face of intensely hostile opposition. He made unsuccessful runs as an anti-slavery candidate for Lt. Governor of Indiana on the Liberty Party ticket in 1842 and 1846, was one of four delegates from Indiana to the founding of the Free Soil Party at Buffalo, N.Y., in 1846, and during the 1850s led the disaffected Whigs, Free Soil and anti-slavery Democrats into the creation of the Indiana Republican party that helped nominate Abraham Lincoln for president in 1860. Harding was appointed Governor of the Utah Territory in March 1862 by Lincoln and in 1863 as Chief Justice of the Colorado and Utah Supreme Court and as District Judge of Colorado’s Third Judicial District.
A second Indiana State Freedom Trails Historic Marker was dedicated at the Union Flat Rock Baptist Church on Flat Rock Road in northwestern Ripley County. Featured at this program was the Gospel Choir of the First Baptist Church of Eminence, Ky., accompanied by their pastor, the Rev. Charles Duncan Jr. and pastor emeritus, Rev. Dr. W. H. Goatley. Eminence sits along one of the secret fugitive slave trails leading from the interior of Kentucky through the Madison, Ind., Underground Railroad. Also taking part in the program was the Jennings County, Ind., High School Jazz Band and Color Guard and the high school choir.
This marker honors the charter members of Union Freewill Baptist Church that formed an anti-slavery congregation in 1843 and with the leadership of its first deacon, Harvey Marshall, aided runaway slaves for nearly 20 years. More than 100 slaves made it to freedom through the aid of the Charles Hull, Joseph Judd, Daniel Adams families and other early members of Union Church. The marker also honors the Freewill Baptist denomination as an early and consistent public voice working to eradicate institutional slavery in this nation.
“This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened at Flat Rock,” said Mary Hughes a descendent of one of the charter members. The Union Church is located in a lovely and peaceful valley between Zenas and Napoleon, in a section so remote that the nearest store is five miles away. Many of the descendants of the early abolitionists are still living in the region today, and a rich oral history has emerged about the Underground Railroad activities of their ancestors. It is one of the few places in Indiana where runaway slaves attended church services and revivals at Union Church in spite of slave-catchers living in the area. The stories tell of several times when the sheriff or the federal marshall would come out to Flat Rock, but each time the local people could hide the runaway slaves effectively, chiefly because they were warned ahead of time by someone highly placed in the Ripley County political establishment at Versailles.
Tours of the historic church and cemetery were given as part of the ceremonies. Additionally, the event marked the opening of a guided automobile tour leading from Versailles to Flat Rock and returning to Versailles by way of Napoleon and Osgood. Tour maps, brochures, and Audio CDs are available at the Ripley County Tourism Bureau and the Ripley County Historical Society Archives in Versailles. The Audio CD through sound effects and first person narratives introduces visitors to the people and incidents of the Underground Railroad at each of 10 tour stops along the way.
Research and materials to support the Underground Railroad programs were funded in part by the Rising Sun Regional Foundation.
A third tour – from Versailles to Cross Plains – outlining events in the southern section of Ripley County will be open by June 15, and three more tours are planned to open this summer.
The Indiana Freedom Trails markers are a joint project of the Indiana Historical Bureau that controls the documentation and placement of Indiana roadside heritage markers and the Freedom Trails project of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Historic Preservation and Archaeology. The markers look like regular Indiana state markers, but they have an additional Underground Railroad insignia of a runaway slave and the North Star, designed by Anitra Larae Donahue who won a statewide competition. The Freedom Trails project aims to identify and mark Underground Railroad sites in each county in Indiana and eventually develop a map linking all the sites. The Freedom Trails project, in turn, is linked both to the Freedom Center in Cincinnati and also to the Network to Freedom program of the U.S. Park Service.
An important part of the Ripley County Underground Railroad project is the development of educational materials for use in the classrooms that are based on real historic figures, authentic sites, and real events in the county’s history. The first educational package, for elementary and middle school classes, is being tested in 2004-2005. First responses show that the children are much more interested and involved when the Underground Railroad story is told from a local perspective. A curriculum for high school students based on research documents, letters, public and church minutes compiled as part of the overall Underground Railroad project will be available for the fall term. The program also includes local Boy Scout troops, the Southeastern Career Center and the Ripley County Tourism Bureau.
More than 100 people in the county have been involved directly in the Underground Railroad project. Among the most active is Helen Einhaus of Osgood, Ind., the designated Ripley County Historian.

Louisville’s Diane Perrine Coon, a historian who specializes in the history of the Ohio River Valley, has been responsible for research and development of core materials and has served as the project director for the Ripley County Underground Railroad program. She is a native of Cincinnati and graduated from Cornell University, received an MBA from Rider College in New Jersey and has done post-graduate work in history at the University of Louisville.

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