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Kentucky and the Underground Railroad

      Having inherited the slavery ideology of Virginia, from which the state had been formed, Kentucky in 1798 adopted a slave code that defined slaves as “chattel,” thereby denying them basic rights—including citizenship, education, legal marriages, and control over property and even their own bodies. Even though various groups of Kentuckians made attempts, based primarily on religious doctrine, to end slavery, the tremendous wealth and status offered by slavery lured many poor whites to seek their fortunes through the trafficking of slaves.

      Developing research now indicates that Kentucky slaves were instrumental in creating resistance to slavery themselves, expressing their longing for freedom through such cultural means as African-inspired religion; humor; crafts, including the quilts that historians are examining for coded messages related to the Underground Railroad; and the arts. Running away was the most extreme, most hazardous, and therefore the least often chosen form of resistance. Kentucky’s role in aiding that resistance is only now being explored.

      The Underground Railroad is defined by the National Park Service as “a secret system—sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized—to assist persons held in bondage in North America to escape from slavery.” It is generally believed that the term “underground railroad” came into use as a result of the growth in the railroad industry during the 1820s.

      Most enslaved Africans who traveled the Underground Railroad are credited with beginning their journeys unaided and completing their emancipation without assistance. Each decade in which slavery was legal in the United States is said to have increased both the public perception of a secretive network and the number of people willing to give aid to escaping slaves.(1)

      According to the 1998 Park Service Theme Study, the Colonial era offered enslaved Africans more opportunities to escape than did the more settled and legally restrictive American society of the 19th century. The study concluded that there were more runaways before the American Revolution than afterward. Many of these Colonial slaves escaped to form “maroon” colonies in the sea islands, the Appalachian Mountains, the Caribbean, and South America. Escapes to Spanish Florida and Mexico also offered slaves the chance to gain their freedom.

      Although these early escapes are well known, the operating period for the Underground Railroad is normally considered by historians to be the years between 1830 and 1865. This period has been selected and promoted by the National Park Service as the time frame when most anti-slavery advocates abandoned their hope for gradual emancipation and adopted the immediate abolition of slavery as their goal. Although often divided on racial understanding and tolerance, the abolitionists in general are credited with successfully expanding a network of collaborators.(2)

      Kentucky represented the last slave state before freedom in the North. The state had more than 700 miles of border with free states, spread over 24 counties(3)—all within a 75-mile radius of some of Kentucky’s largest slave-holding centers. In addition, Cincinnati and many surrounding towns to its north and east contained large Quaker and anti-slavery Presbyterian and Methodist communities, as well as some 400 free black residents. The same can be said of several Indiana and Illinois communities. Those factors combined to make Kentucky a great pass-through state for Africans escaping to freedom. One scholar has estimated that approximately 300 slaves per year escaped from Kentucky, based on claims for stolen slave property. That number does not count those who were retrieved by slave catchers and returned to the state.(4)

      Up until 1847, most of the fugitives from Kentucky vanished into stations in the “colored” quarters of Cincinnati.(5) The known active opposition to slavery in that city and the various religious communities’ continued aid to fugitive slaves, as well as steamboat and rail connections to both North and South, served as key factors in establishing this escape route for fugitives. Quakers, Methodists, and Presbyterians established an underground network encompassing Kenton, Campbell, Bracken, Mason, and Lewis counties in Kentucky and Hamilton, Clermont, Brown, and Adams counties directly across the river in Ohio.

      Passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act only increased the number of slaves who not only escaped from and through Kentucky, but also continued their journey on to Canada. Several slave narratives document escapes by slaves from other Northern Kentucky communities who passed through the Covington or Newport stations on their way to Canada. One such slave history includes the story of Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, a Kentucky slave couple escaping to start a new life in Canada. Fugitives from Louisville, the Blackburns had been captured in Detroit and were to be returned to a life of slavery when they were rescued during the first race riot in the history of the city, in 1833. Despite two attempts at extradition by Michigan’s acting governor, they were freed and subsequently made their home in Toronto. In 1836, the couple founded that city’s first taxi business, and they were active in African-Canadian abolitionist and self-help organizations.(6)

      Another well-known story of escape is that of Kentucky slave Margaret Garner. Her story received national prominence when she and her husband, Robert, escaped with their four children from a Richwood, Kentucky plantation to Cincinnati, only to be recaptured in 1853. As the pursuers closed in, Margaret killed one of her own children rather than see it sent back to slavery. The ensuing legal battle over whether Margaret should be charged with murder (which would have put her in jail, but out of reach of her owner) became a cause célèbre. Her story later became the basis for the Toni Morrison novel and Oprah Winfrey movie Beloved, as well as Dr. Steve Weisenberger’s book Modern Medea: A Family Story of Slavery and Child-Murder in the Old South (Hill and Wang, 1998).

      Operating with funds from the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission, the University of Kentucky Archaeological Survey, in conjunction with Kentucky State University’s Center of Excellence for the Study of African Americans (CESKAA), undertook excavation of the plantation site in Richwood where Margaret Garner was a slave. The purpose of the survey was to document the site and search for any remaining evidence of Garner’s life on the Richwood plantation. The findings are available from the Kentucky Archaeological Survey, (859) 257-5173, or from CESKAA, (502) 227-6315.

      In 1849, Henry Bibb, a fugitive Kentucky slave, described his restless yearning for freedom in his autobiography: “Sometimes standing on the Ohio River bluff, looking over on a free State, and as far north as my eyes could see, I have eagerly gazed upon the blue sky of the free North ... that I might soar away to where there is no slavery; no clanking of chains, no captives, no lacerating of backs, no parting of husbands and wives; and where man ceases to be the property of his fellow man.” Bibb believed that he “was in a far worse state than Egyptian bondage; for they had houses and land; I had none; they had oxen and sheep; I had none; they had a wise counsel, to tell them what to do, and where to go, and even to go with them; I had none. I was surrounded by opposition on every hand. My friends were few and far between. I have often felt when running away as if I had scarcely a friend on earth.”(7)

      According to the 1998 Underground Railroad Theme Study published by the National Park Service, scholars and researchers estimate that about 100,000 persons successfully escaped slavery between 1790 and 1860.(8) The study goes on to say:

      “We may be sure that the numbers were not the same each year, as individual opportunity varied at all times. The secrecy which necessarily surrounded the slave runaway means that we cannot know of many escapes which, for many reasons, went unrecorded in the North or the South. While census estimates indicate an average of 1,000 successful runaways a year, it is reasonable, given the secretive nature of the enterprise, to increase that number by half to 1,500. This number is in harmony with other scholarly estimates of 1,500 persons running to freedom during the late antebellum years. Although it is not clear whether the percentage of slave escapes, based on a rising slave population, changed much from decade to decade, it was more difficult to elude patrols and slave catchers in the settled eastern United States after 1820.”

      The Underground Railroad gradually became a more elaborate system as slavery was abolished above the Mason-Dixon Line and above 36º 30' in the western territories. The lines were more clearly drawn between slave-holding and non-slave-holding territory, and the direction for fugitives was clearer.(9)


Stations and Conductors

      Kentucky native Josiah Henson became one of the best-known “conductors” for the Cincinnati “station” on the Underground Railroad. He is known to have conducted at least 30 slaves from the region below and surrounding Maysville, Kentucky through Levi Coffin’s Cincinnati “depot.”(10)

      Coffin himself, celebrated as the “president of the Underground Railroad,” had left North Carolina and settled in Newport, Indiana in 1826, where he noted that “fugitives often passed through that place and generally stopped among the colored people.” Coffin later continued his activities in Cincinnati. James G. Birney, while in Cincinnati, observed that “such matters are almost uniformly managed by the colored people. I know nothing of them generally till they are past.“(11)

      Old Washington, in Mason County, Kentucky, is home to the Harriet Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum, where it is said Harriet Beecher Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly while a guest at the home of Marshall Key.

      The nearby town of Ripley, Ohio, once nearly the rival of Cincinnati in prosperity, was at least the equal of Cincinnati in Underground Railroad activity. The most active and prominent individuals giving aid to fugitives were John Parker and John Rankin. They were assisted by various other families in the community, although by no means was it an antislavery town in general.(12)

      Oberlin College, the model for Kentucky’s Berea College, and Lane Seminary in Cincinnati served as successful abolitionist centers used in aiding the escape of Kentucky slaves. The best known Oberlin graduate in Kentucky became Methodist abolitionist minister Calvin Fairbank. Tried and imprisoned after assisting in the successful escape of Kentucky slaves, Fairbanks served 17 years in the Kentucky State Penitentiary, along with other Kentuckians imprisoned for the same crime. James Pritchard, Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, is researching Kentuckians imprisoned for aiding the escape of slaves. Former Maysville, Kentucky resident Dr. Randy Runyon, currently a Professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and Joel Strangis, a former Fayette County administrator and educator, have recently published books on such other notable Kentucky Underground Railroad figures as Lewis Hayden and Delia Webster.

      Information regarding Kentucky Underground Railroad sites, escaping slaves, and abolitionist activity is a rapidly developing area of interest, both in Kentucky and around the nation. International, national, and regional efforts of the National Park Service, local historical societies, and archaeologists have caused America to once again seek to examine this secretive part of its history.

  1. United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service Theme Study, September 1998.
  2. Ibid, 1998: 1
  3. Ballard, McCracken, Livingston, Crittenden, Union, Henderson, Daviess, Hancock, Breckinridge, Meade, Jefferson, Oldham, Trimble, Carroll, Gallatin, Boone, Kenton, Campbell, Pendleton, Bracken, Mason, Lewis, Greenup, and Boyd counties
  4. See Lowell H. Harrison, The Antislavery Movement in Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1978) for a list of slave memoirs with Kentucky origins and for biographies of antislavery Kentuckians. Harrison’s estimate of escapes is on page 86.
  5. Siebert, Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroad.
  6. Information on the Blackburn family is taken from the ongoing research of Karolyn Smardz, History Department, University of Waterloo.
  7. As quoted in Our Kentucky, III.
  8. Daniel Meaders, Advertisements for Runaway Slaves in Virginia, 1801-1820. New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1997, p. 37.
  9. Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. Reprint ed. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996, p. 32.
  10. Siebert, Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroad, p. 41.
  11. Foner, History of Black America, p. 480.
  12. Stuart Seely Sprague, His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996. Randolph Paul Runyon, Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996.
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Last Updated: Tuesday, 09-May-2006 10:39:16 EDT