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Tracking Henry Bibb

Research could lead to national
Underground Railroad trail

Local historians present findings
from former slave’s home

By Levi King
Staff Writer

BEDFORD, Ky. (November 2005) – Students, historians and archeologists convened Oct. 26 to present the findings of recent research on escaped Trimble County slave Henry Bibb at a luncheon at the Morgan Community Center in Bedford.

Nancy Theiss

Photo by Levi King

Coordinator Nancy Theiss (left)
speaks with Trimble County teacher
Karen Long (middle) and Alicestyne Adams
of the Underground Railroad
Research Institute.

The Oldham County Historical Society received a $5,000 grant from the Kentucky Heritage Council earlier this year to determine the feasibility of establishing a National Henry Bibb Heritage Trail and placing Bibb-related sites on the National Register of Historic Places, the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, or both.
The Network to Freedom consists of stations, points of escape or rendezvous pertaining to the Underground Railroad. Both programs are administered by the National Park Service, and attaining either designation would bring attention to the research and assist with protecting the sites. Nancy Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County Historical Society, coordinated the research efforts.
Henry Walton Bibb, an African American slave, was born in 1813 or 1814 and eventually sold to Bedford plantation owner William Gatewood, who also owned Bibb’s wife, Malinda. Bibb escaped from the Gatewood plantation to Madison, Ind., and made his way north to Sandwich, a free community in Ontario. Bibb tried to buy the freedom of Malinda and their daughter, Mary Frances, but Gatewood refused.
Bibb became a central figure in the abolitionist movement, lecturing around Ohio and Michigan, publishing his autobiography and founding and editing “The Voice of the Fugitive,” an anti-slavery newspaper. Bibb died in 1854.
Middletown, Ky., based researcher Diane Coon and Bedford historian Robert Young presented information on the Gatewood property, other plantations where Bibb worked, and his likely escape path. Coon informed the group that an architect from the Kentucky Heritage Council had visited the Gatewood house, built in 1808, and assured her that it could be easily and inexpensively stabilized.
Coon also announced that Afua Cooper, a Ph.D. student at the University of Toronto, had discovered the location of Bibb’s grave while researching her dissertation. Cooper plans to publish a book on Bibb next year.

Gatewood House

Photo by Levi King

Built in 1808, the Gatewood House
near Bedford could become
the interpretive center for the proposed
National Henry Bibb Heritage Trail.

Jeannine Krinebrink, the project archeologist, discussed August and September digs at the Gatewood site. Krinebrink and volunteers conducted surface collections and a one-meter square “test dig.” They plotted a grid around the house, plowed the land and sifted through the soil, collecting and logging the locations of artifacts.
The collections turned up 1,052 items, which were later cleaned and cataloged by volunteers. Only 49 of the artifacts were securely dated before the Civil War. Of these, 28 were nails and the rest were ceramic and glass fragments and clay marbles. While the number of fragments was lower than expected, “this was a good yield,” Krinebrink said. “The distribution of nails is very interesting,” she added, explaining that it could help determine here previous structures stood.
The distribution of artifacts will be vital in determining site boundaries, which the researchers and landowners must do before applying for the National Register and Network to Freedom. Coon, Krinebrink and Theiss expressed their gratitude for the cooperation of current Gatewood owner, Glenn Fisher. A full time farmer and director of the Bedford Loan and Deposit Bank, the retired military colonel said he was “thrilled to be a part of history.”
“I’ve owned the place since the 1960s, and I didn’t have the first clue about the historical significance until Diane called me last year,” he said.
Trimble County High School teacher Karen Long explained that she incorporated Bibb’s narrative into a unit on small town life for her sophomore English students. Long and her students took part in the Sept. 15 dig. “When the grant came through, it was like Christmas. We were very excited to get involved,” she said.
Two of Long’s students, Jessica Harbolt and Julianne Adams, said that after reading and discussing the book, students took on creative projects, producing a video segment, writing historical newspaper articles, and sending letters to Hollywood producers suggesting a film on Bibb. “We always say that nothing ever happens in Trimble County,” Adams said. “But when we read the book, it was like ‘Wow – this actually happened here.’”
Coon set the course for the project’s “Winter Studies.” The researchers will conduct more excavations and compare new aerial photographs with past surveys to determine site boundaries before applying for Network to Freedom in January.
Trimble County Judge-Executive Randy Stevens stated his enthusiasm at the project’s support and potential. “The only thing that stops this project is the lack of resources, but when we bring together this diverse a group, with this much energy and focus we won’t let that stop us, we’ll beat the doors down until it’s done,” he said.

• For more information on the project, visit: www.oldhamcountyhistoricalsociety.org.

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