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Crossing The "Dark Line": Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in Louisville and North Central Kentucky (excerpt)
Dr. J. Blaine Hudson

Corridors and Crossing Points

      As early as the 1640s, when only a few thousand Africans were resident in British North America, there are records of slave escapes - - often in the company of white indentured servants. (Franklin, John Hope, and Moss, Alfred A., Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1994): 57). This pattern continued as the small African population grew into a massive African American population of over 600,000 by the time of the American Revolution. Due to the "unsettling effect" of the Revolution on American slavery, more than 100,000 enslaved African Americans transformed chaos into opportunity and fled slavery. For example, Georgia lost more than 10,000 and South Carolina more than 25,000 enslaved African Americans during the Revolutionary period. Virginia may have lost nearly 30,000 in 1778 alone. (Berlin, 1998: 290-324; Franklin and Moss, 1994: 75; Klein, Herbert, African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986): 295-297). Between 1783 and 1860, at least another 100,000 enslaved African Americans, roughly 1500 per year, escaped successfully from bondage, i.e., these figures do not include fugitives who were recaptured or temporary runaways who remained in the south. Furthermore, most of these early escapes and probably the majority of later escapes were largely unaided. (National Historic Landmarks Survey, 1998: 15).

      As the young nation expanded westward, Kentucky became central to this history and the state's northern boundary, the Ohio River, became a veritable "River Jordan," i.e., the "Dark Line" between slavery and nominal freedom. (The Indianapolis Freeman, October 31, 1891; Trotter, Joe W., Jr., River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1998): xiii.). This "place" in the political geography of antebellum America had two key consequences:

  1. If the probability of effecting a successful escape was inversely proportional to one's distance from free territory, then, by virtue of location alone, escape from Kentucky had a fair probability of success; and
  2. Escape through Kentucky (or by the Ohio River) was the route chosen by enslaved African Americans fleeing states farther south, particularly after the massive shift of slave population as cotton cultivation spread into the Gulf States after the War of 1812.

      In this respect, the history of fugitive slaves and the UGRR in Kentucky was one primarily of corridors (or routes) and crossing points - - and only secondarily one of "sites" and sanctuaries. While systematic study of the corridors which led across the state remains a task for the future, twelve major crossing points along the Ohio can be identified. These crossing points, and probably others yet to be discovered, were spaced roughly fifty miles apart - - from the Jackson Purchase in the west to the Appalachians in the east. There were five major crossings in the western third of the state:

  1. Through far western Kentucky, i.e., through Cairo, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky to the east.
  2. At Diamond Island, near Posey County, in southwest Indiana, leading along the Wabash River.
  3. Through Evansville, Indiana, a "very popular route as there were many free negroes in the city among whom the refugees could be easily hidden. This work was done at night by fisherman who supplied fish to the market."
  4. Near the mouth of the Little Pigeon River, in Warrick County and then north through Oakland City to Petersburg, Indiana.
  5. Between Owensboro, Kentucky and Rockport, Indiana and another crossing point a few miles east of Rockport where "there used to be a little fisherman's hut on the south bank of the Ohio river . . . and two men who put in much of their time fishing, living in that shack . . . The real business of the men was to carry refugees that were brought to their shack at night, across the Ohio River." (Cockrum, 1915: 17-20; Siebert, 1898: 134-139; Trotter, 1998: 1-23.)

All routes in the western third of the state led eventually to Lake Michigan for fugitives bent on reaching Canada. In the eastern third of Kentucky, there were four crossing points, the latter two of great consequences:

  1. The Portsmouth, Ohio area, leading toward Chillicothe and then to central Ohio.
  2. Near the Kentucky/Virginia/Ohio border in the Appalachians. (Cockrum, 1915: 17-20; Siebert, 1898: 134-139).
  3. The Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Kentucky area, the extensively researched "Grand Central Station" of the UGRR. (Coffin, 1876; Siebert, 1898: 135-138).
  4. The Maysville, Kentucky and Ripley, Ohio area, also researched extensively. (Sprague, Stuart S, Ed., His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996).

In the middle third, between Meade County and Carroll County, there were three crossing points, centering around Louisville, through which a substantial number of fugitives escaped in the decades before the Civil War. Typically, these crossing points and those to the east led ultimately through Indiana or western Ohio to Lake Erie.

  1. Leavenworth, Indiana, near the mouth of Indian Creek (near Brandenburg, Kentucky) leading toward Corydon, Indiana. (Cockrum, 1915: 17-20).
  2. The Louisville region, including New Albany, Jeffersonville and Clarksville, Indiana - - on which this study will focus in some detail.
  3. The Madison, Indian, Trimble and Carroll Counties crossing, now being extensively researched. (Coon, Diane P. Reconstructing the Underground Railroad Crossings at Madison, Indian. Unpublished manuscript, 1998.)

Estimates of how many fugitive slaves actually escaped from Kentucky vary widely, ranging from the extremely low estimates noted previously to that of Dr. Thomas Clark who stated in 1937 that "Kentucky lost nearly 20,000 slaves annually in this way" in the late antebellum period. While truly reliable numbers will result only from future research, more recent estimates indicate that there were between 600 and 800 successful escapes from or through Kentucky each year, i.e., once again, excluding fugitives who were recaptured or temporary runaways who remained in the south. (Clark, Thomas D., A History of Kentucky (Ashland: Jesse Stuart Foundation, 1988; first published in 1937): 208; National Historic Landmarks Survey, 1998: 32.)

The Underground Railroad in Louisville and North Central Kentucky

      The UGRR was an important part of the larger history of self-emancipatory efforts initiated by enslaved African Americans and was particularly important along the Ohio River border between slavery and freedom. After the American Revolution, state laws permitted and the U. S, Constitution protected slavery in the "southern" states. In particular, Article IV.2.3 and the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act gave slaveholders the right to pursue fugitives into "free" territory, i.e., the status of "slave" remained attached to the fugitive throughout the United States. Those who aided fugitives were likewise criminalized - - even more severely after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Consequently, the Underground Railroad was ". . .a form of combined defiance of law . . . and the unconstitutional but logical refusal of several thousand people to acknowledge that they owed any regard to slavery." (Siebert, 1898: viii-ix). This willingness to break the law implied not only commitment but the conviction, which many white Abolitionists did not share, that the United States could and should become a multiracial democracy. For these reasons, the UGRR stands, even today, as one of the most powerful and sustained multiracial human rights movements in world history. (Blockson, Charles., The Underground Railroad (New York: Prentice Hall, 1987); Cockrum, 1915; Coffin, 1876; Gara, 1961; National Historical Landmarks Survey, 1998; Siebert, 1898; Still, 1872; Thompson, Vincent B. The Making of the African Diaspora in the Americas, 1441-1900 (New York: Longman, 1987): 373-376).

      The types of assistance most valuable to fugitive slaves, at various points in their journey from slavery to freedom, determined the range of corresponding roles available to Underground Railroad workers. The most important roles - - and the purposes they served - - were as follows:

  1. field agents who provided information, e.g., where to go, who to contact, how to travel, signs and signals along the route.
  2. station-keepers who provided shelter and provisions for fugitives; and
  3. conductors who guided and/or transported fugitives through slave or free territory. (Siebert, 1898: 87)

After the War of 1812, escapes which depended to some appreciable extent on the assistance of other enslaved or free African Americans became commonplace. Many enslaved African Americans had some limited opportunity to travel and interact with other blacks, slave and free, as a consequence of being hired out or other work that removed them from the isolation of rural slavery. Information gleaned from such experiences could be shared, which often provided the crucial facts needed by those contemplating escape.

Money played a crucial role as well. It was possible for enslaved African Americans to escape slavery with "empty pockets." However, most escapes did cost something - - for food, clothing, a hiding place, weapons, transportation, forged "free papers," et al. Where aid might not be offered freely, such aid could sometimes be secured at a price. (Harold, Stanley. "Freeing the Weems Family: A New Look at the Underground Railroad." Civil War History, 52, 4 (1996): 289-306). In other words, one was often required to pay to ride the Underground Railroad.

Beyond monetary rewards for slave-catchers, there were severe penalties for whites and African Americans convicted of "enticing slaves to escape" or "harboring fugitive slaves." (Smedley, 1883: 381-387). Those who willingly risked imprisonment or worse by defying the law seldom acted through highly structured organizations, but rather through a loosely structured network. Some individuals played decidedly passive roles, e.g., setting signals, refusing to divulge information, etc. Others committed their lives to clandestine groups such as the Anti-Slavery League that operated in south central Indiana. (Cockrum, 1915). Moreover, available evidence suggests that, while northern anti-slavery groups with Underground Railroad involvement may have been multi-racial (Still, 1871), UGRR activity in or near slave territory was based in racially separate networks - - between which there was substantial coordination, collaboration and cooperation.

In fact, on the "slave side" of the Ohio River border, African Americans, through their small settlements and communities, may have managed the only true UGRR networks. In contrast, it may be more accurate to describe white UGRR workers in the region as either individuals motivated by personal conviction or other interests - - or as agents of more formally structured networks based in free territory.

Of course, from the standpoint of the fugitive seeking assistance, technical considerations related to origin and organizational affiliation, if any, were wholly irrelevant. Not so with some modern historians, however, who have argued that if the Underground Railroad was not a highly and formally organized affair, then it, in essence, did not exist outside the imaginations of many aging men and women in the late 1800s and early 1900s who were determined to romanticize the past and often their role therein. (Peters, Pam. The Underground Railroad in New Albany, Indiana. Unpublished manuscript, 1998) Perhaps, simply considering the Underground Railroad a "movement" is more faithful to the historical evidence.

The determination of slaves to escape remained constant. However, the "invisible" UGRR south of the "Dark Line" was complemented by a more visible anti-slavery presence to the north - - creating, in Kentucky, unique opportunities for escape as well as unique constraints. As Coleman conceded:

Even though slavery in Kentucky was known and described as being of the mildest form that existed anywhere in the United States, freedom and liberty were often the bondman's uppermost thoughts. . . For a distance of over six hundred miles the Ohio River bounded Kentucky on the north, separating her from the free states of Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. Once the slaves crossed the Ohio River, they were not only in free territory, but hey had placed that river between themselves and their pursuers. Most important, however, they were in a region where, for the most part, they could find citizens who sympathized with them and were eager to help them. (Cockrum, 1915: 21)
The Underground Leadership of the UGRR in the Louisville Region

The role of Louisville was critical both to the passage of fugitive slaves and to the operations of the UGRR in the trans-Appalachian west. The city was the only major urban center between Baltimore and St. Louis on the "slave side" of the border. Louisville was also home to the largest free black community in Kentucky with smaller free black settlements in southern Indiana. (Gara, 1961) As Cockrum noted on the basis of his own experience:

There were probably more negroes crossed over the Ohio River and two or three places in front of Louisville than any place else from the mouth of the Wabash to Cincinnati. The reason for this was that the three good sized cities at the Falls furnished a good hiding place for runaways among the colored people. Those crossing at these places were all conveyed to Wayne County, Indiana, and thence on to the Lake. (Coleman, 1940: 218)

      There is also a rich vein of evidence, both circumstantial and substantive, that the individuals most instrumental in establishing the free black community of Louisville were also major figures in - - if not the moving forces behind - - UGRR activity in the region. Thus, understanding the setting, structure and leadership of this community is critical to understanding the operations of the UGRR, not only in the region, but in the state itself.

      The population of enslaved African Americans in Louisville and Jefferson County peaked by 1850 while, in contrast, the free African American population of the region continued to grow. To illustrate, in 1830, there were only 232 free persons of color in Louisville and another 29 in Jefferson County. However, by 1860, there were 1,917 free African Americans in the city and 90 in the county. Viewed somewhat differently, the number of free people of color increased by 640 percent, from 5.4 percent of the total black population (city and county) in 1830 to 16.3 percent in 1860 - - virtually all of this growth occurring within the city limits of Louisville. (U.S. Census, 1830, 1860)

      Growth in this segment of the African American population, coupled with the presence of smaller but relatively stable free black communities in the Indiana towns facing Louisville - - e.g., in 1860 there were 757 African Americans in Floyd County (New Albany) and another 520 in Clark County (Jeffersonville and Clarksville) - - made the Louisville region a major refuge and crossing point for fugitive slaves. (Cockrum, 1915: 21; Peters, 1998; Thornbrough, Emma Lou, The Negro in Indiana: A Study of a Minority (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1957): 41-45) However, free people of color were an anomaly - - people who were black but not enslaved. As such, they were objects of both fear and scorn, as reflected in the memorable profoundly revealing, 1835 Louisville newspaper editorial entitled, "Local Evils":

We are overrun with free negroes. In certain parts of our town throngs of them may be seen at any time - - and most of them have no ostensible means of obtaining a living. They lounge about through the day, and most subsist by stealing, or receiving stolen articles from slaves at night. Frequently, they are so bold as to occupy the sidewalks in groups, and compel passengers to turn out and walk around them. Their impudence naturally attracts the attention of slaves, and necessarily becomes contagious. In addition of this, free negroes are teaching night schools. Slaves are their pupils and, to the extent of the tuition fees, are induced, in most instances, to rob their masters or employers. . . and our city protectors seem to be, as yet, as ignorant of the fact, as if they were the guardians of Constantinople. . . We are not alarmists - - but we do believe prompt measures to drive the vagrant negroes from among us, to prevent servants from hiring their own time, and to subject the entire slave population to rules sufficiently rigid to preserve order and insure perfect subordination, are necessary to our security. (Louisville Public Advertiser, November 30, 1835)

Dr. J. Blaine Hudson is a professor at the University of Louisville, and is Chairman of the Department of Pan African Studies.
To contact the author please email him at jbhuds01@ulkyvm.louisville.edu

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