KET looks at the fugitive slave movement in the one-hour documentary Kentucky’s Underground Railroad—Passage to Freedom.
Many Kentucky people and sites played fascinating and critical roles in the story of slavery, abolitionism, and the Underground Railroad. Though no actual railroad existed, the term refers to the escape of enslaved African Americans through secret pathways, both with and without assistance.
Kentucky’s location on the border of slave and nonslave states and its unique geography as the only state surrounded on three sides by rivers created opportunities for people who were willing to risk their lives to live in freedom, and those willing to risk everything to help them. KET’s documentary tells the following stories and more:
|Fugitives||Anti-slavery advocates||Descendants tell the family histories of fugitives|
In addition, this resource contains additional footage, including oral histories passed down in the Turley and the Brown families.
Teachers who want to use this resource in their classes will find it useful to preview the documentary. The Resources for Teachers and Students section includes humanities activities for students using The Last Sale of Slaves, a painting by Kentuckian Thomas S. Noble; the original lyrics of “My Old Kentucky Home”; and other sources.
A brief history of slavery in Kentucky and timeline are included to provide context. In addition, research has uncovered sources of information that may lead to the documentation of more family stories and historic sites. Search the community research section for opportunities for research and public information grants, as well as steps in the documentation of historic sites.
Kentucky's Underground Railroad--Passage to Freedom: The Documentary
Resources for Teachers and Students
Kentucky’s Underground Railroad—Passage to Freedom fills in a missing piece of Kentucky history and supports inquiry in a variety of subject areas. Teachers in grades 4-12 can use the 60-minute program to illustrate Kentucky’s role in the story of slavery, abolitionism, and the Underground Railroad. Several Kentucky educators have reviewed the documentary and written letters to colleagues suggesting uses with students at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.
Documentary Theme Overview
Kentucky’s Underground Railroad—Passage to Freedom illustrates the influence of Kentucky geography, history, economy, politics, and culture in the context of a much larger social, political and moral struggle in American history. By hearing interviews with real people telling their family stories, students will realize that history lessons are not always found in books. They will also realize the importance of corroboration when history was not recorded and activities were conducted secretly.
This story of rebellion and sacrifice in resistance to human bondage and cruelty has largely been undocumented. The costs of being discovered after a failed escape were death, imprisonment, whipping, or sale “down the river” so secrets of successful escapes were well hidden. Help for escaping slaves could come from many sources including other slaves, free blacks (some never held in bondage), Native Americans, whites acting alone, or whites acting as conductors along the Underground Railroad. Similarly, there were patrollers acting alone or with others who tried to foil escapes and return slaves to their masters. Secret codes of communication to aid escapees were embedded in music, quilts, and signals. The stars, particularly the North Star, were guides for runaways. Though hidden passageways, stairs, and rooms are frequently rumored throughout Kentucky, few are actually documented as sites to aid the escape of slaves.
Importance of documentation and preservation of local history
Many of the stories represented in the documentary have been passed down for generations in oral histories, some with physical evidence that the stories were true. Others are well documented and represent some of the bravest stories of Kentuckians on record. Kentucky still has the opportunity to document and preserve what remains untold of this story. Teachers and students must first incorporate what is documented into the curriculum and then encourage students at all levels to research their own family and local community histories and use various forms of communication to share with others.
The fact that the full story of bravery, resistance, and escape has not yet been documented can inspire students and teachers, as well as community members, to undertake more research at the local level. Tips for conducting local research, as well as activities for students are included here.
Stars have been used to guide travel for thousands of years, and the story of the Underground Railroad includes use of the North Star (Polaris) as a navigational tool of escaping slaves. The North Star, which never rises or sets, always appears to be in the same position in the sky because it is situated almost directly above the earth’s axis. Students can learn about the properties of stars while learning about the unique social and cultural history of the North Star, also referred to as the Drinking Gourd, due to its position in the Ursa Major constellation, or the Big Dipper.
Include stories and songs of escaping slaves who used the North Star to attain freedom to introduce the study of the motion and properties of stars.
Discussion of the buying, selling, and breeding of human beings as a form of capital and wealth bring up many uncomfortable feelings. However, as the documentary reveals, Kentucky played an important role in the sale of slaves to more southern states. Kentucky also positioned itself as an important exporter of goods and materials to the north, particularly of hemp and tobacco, with jobs for both free blacks and slaves hired out by their masters. Though the resulting split in markets was one reason Kentucky chose not to join the Confederacy and secede from the Union, slavery apparently was widely accepted as being good for the economy of the state. Additionally, auctions of slaves were considered entertainment, as well as business opportunities.
Even Cassius Clay, regarded as one of the most outspoken anti-slavery voices in Kentucky, operated in conflict with his views as he continued to hold slaves. The documentary brings this dichotomy into closer focus and provides a good background for discussion about economics and cultural values.
Discuss the need for social and ethical constraints on a free enterprise system.
Kentucky is the only state bounded by rivers in three directions. The western boundary is the Mississippi River, the eastern boundary is made up of the Big Sandy River and the Tug Fork, and the northern boundary is approximately 700 miles of the Ohio River.
The documentary illustrates the importance of Kentucky’s geography in the slave trade as well as in the fugitive slave movement. The Ohio River, the dividing line between slave and non-slave states, sometimes froze over in the winter and was low enough to walk across in the summer, making escape at certain crossing points more feasible. The steamboats traveling the Mississippi River would often carry slaves “sold down river” into the deeper south. Escaping slaves would sometimes “disappear” into the crowds on the river docks and ride steamboats north to freedom. Tributaries and streams were used as escape corridors for slaves. Maps of escape routes through Kentucky are not known to have existed, primarily because of the secret nature of the activity.
In addition, the documentary explains why Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland became major slave selling states; why the central Kentucky region was unique in the state for its large number of slaves; and why Lexington and Louisville became important locations for slave auctions.
Map a route using only references from nature (e.g., turn at the tree with the crooked trunk). What other clues would be appropriate to give someone trying to follow the map so they would know if they’re on the right path? How could the route be followed at night, with limited sight or visual clues?
Look at changes in the Ohio River over time. Ask students to explain the effect of placing dams and locks on the river on its likelihood of freezing or drying out.
What were the push/pull factors that caused the fugitive slave movement to “pick up steam” in the period 1830-1860?
The juxtaposition of the ideals of a democratic society against a history of slavery can lead to many discussions of the role of a democratic government in meeting the needs of all people. It also leads to discussion of protection to all citizens under the U.S. Constitution and the processes of law.
History, civics, and culture and society are important components of the documentary. In particular, the documentary brings into focus the diversity of opinion as to the amount of help escaping slaves may have had from whites, other slaves, free blacks, and religious organizations.
One of the themes of the documentary is that more research needs to be conducted, both by scholars and by people interested in their communities. Identification, documentation, and preservation of artifacts and records are needed. The documentary illustrates the importance of using primary sources: oral histories, narratives, newspapers, government records, maps, artifacts; and of seeking corroboration among sources.
Gather oral histories of elderly relatives or members of the community. Try to piece together a record of one historical event using the oral histories corroborated by research using other primary sources, such as old newspaper stories.
Choose an old building that appears to have had an interesting history. Find out as much as is possible about the building using old maps, courthouse records, interviews with neighbors, etc. Turn the material into a story for the local newspaper.
Kentucky’s Underground Railroad—Passage to Freedom could be used in the language arts classroom to teach the importance of writing, and the importance of written records that represent diverse points of view. Because of the secretive nature of the fugitive slave movement in Kentucky, very few written records exist. However, the absence of written documents makes it rather interesting for students to create their own works, including writing original poems, plays, short stories, news articles, and personal narratives in the context of the classroom curriculum after hearing the family stories of tragedy and bravery on the documentary.
The importance of reading is illustrated in the documentary by showing how important newspapers and books were to convey information and espouse a particular point of view during this time period. The connection between having access to printing press and affecting public opinion is very clear. In addition, there are frequent references to Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and to narratives written by former slaves, including the historical context of these works and their effect on the course of events.
The documentary can also be used to teach media literacy. No work of art is completely value free, and students can “read” the documentary to find the perspectives of the producer/director and the effect on the finished product.
Explain how people today can relate to Margaret Garner’s story. Does her story have anything in common with stories in the news today? Read Beloved by Toni Morrison.
Analyze the contribution of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe to the understanding of the experience of American slavery. Discuss how it caused change within the American culture.
Read the narratives of William Wells Brown, Henry Bibb, and Frederick Douglass. How did these works affect the mood of the country prior to the Civil War?
Visit the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for a collection of slave narratives.
Compare and contrast the use of the printing press by James G. Birney and Cassius Clay to using digital communication to express personal opinion today. Why or why not would one have more influence than the other?
Listen to the voiceover at the beginning of the documentary. Read the words. Write your own introduction. Keep it under 30 seconds!
Create a collection of poetry with a common theme, e.g., freedom, and write an analysis of several of the poems. Write why you chose this theme.
Create and perform a play written about some of the family stories on the documentary.
Paintings , drawings, and early photographs provide a representation of the antebellum years in Kentucky and they usually have the perspective of the client who commissioned them, and are not sympathetic to the lives of slaves. The exception is two of the paintings used in the documentary by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, an artist born in Lexington, KY.
Quilts represent important artistic expressions and some quilt patterns can be traced back to African textiles. Historians are just beginning to explore the connection between the use of traditional bed coverings and secret communication among slaves.
Look at the painting below from the documentary. Respond using the four step critiquing process.
- Describe: Tell exactly what you see.
- Analyze: Use the elements/principles to reflect upon the art form.
- Interpret: Consider the following:
- What is the artist trying to say?
- What caused the artist to say it?
- What is the historical milieu that surrounds the work of art?
- Why was the work of art created in this particular style?
- Evaluate: How successful or important is the work of art?
Make a classroom quilt, either using fabric or paper, or make a virtual quilt.
When there is a limited record of documented history, indigenous songs are compelling evidence of the history of a people. The songs sung by slaves were expressions of sorrow in their harsh living conditions and faith that a better life was promised in heaven. In addition, the same songs were used in code to communicate among slaves that escape was near at hand. The double meaning of the spirituals has inspired many to marvel at the ingenuity of the communication methods.
Lyrics to Steal Away
Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus!
Steal away, steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here!
My Lord calls me, He call me by the thunder;
Green trees are bending, Poor sinner stands a’trembling;
Tombstones are bursting, Poor sinner stands a’trembling;
My Lord calls me, He call me by the lightning;
The trumpet sounds within in-a my soul, I ain’t got long to stay here.
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” was a favorite of Harriet Tubman, called Moses for her deliverance of so many slaves to freedom. “O Canaan” was used to refer to the trip to Canada and freedom. “One Last River” and “Roll Jordan Roll” are references to the Ohio River as the border between free and slave states. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” was an instruction to use the North Star as a navigational tool. “Wade in the Water” was a warning given by fellow slaves to help escaping slaves elude capture by slave catchers with packs of dogs.
In his narrative of his life, escaped slave and passionate anti-slavery orator Frederick Douglass writes: “They would sing words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy. I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those songs. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains…Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.”
Kentucky’s state song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” contains lyrics written to tell the emotions of a slave who had been sold away. Many of Stephen Foster’s “plantation” songs were written to be performed by white minstrel singers and were not inspired by the music of slaves.
Listen to the songs from the documentary. How do spirituals make you feel? Respond through movement that is symbolic of escaping secretly or symbolic of how the music makes you feel. Create a song or a poem to express how you would feel if you were enslaved, seeking freedom, or had achieved freedom.
Perform spirituals that evoke feelings such as triumph, freedom, resolve, despair, loss, etc. (e.g., “Oh Freedom,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Wade in the Water,” etc).
Research songs and poems from other time periods and cultures that express human desires such as freedom from oppression.
Analyze the effect of time, place, and belief system on the interpretation of “My Old Kentucky Home,” or “Steal Away.” How can music be used to convey a mood that may not be an accurate portrayal of the subject of the song? How can music be “coded”?
Are songs popular with young people today “coded” in any way?
- Kentucky’s unique geography and the effect of the proximity to freedom for slaves
- Kentucky’s dual economy built as a supplier to the north of goods and materials and supplier to the south of slaves and the resulting effect
- Kentucky slavery and its consequences for African American families
- Existence of a belief system that justified slavery
- Resistance to slavery including the role of free blacks, slaves, and the African American church and methods of escape including the Underground Railroad
- Music as a source of solace and rebellion within a cultural and historical context
- Freedom as a powerful motivator for action and upheaval and as a source of artistic expression
- Importance of documentation and preservation of local history
My Old Kentucky Home
My Old Kentucky Home
Stephen Collins Foster
Kentucky adopted “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night” as its state song in 1928. The phrase “the darkies are gay” has since been replaced with “the people are gay.” The inspiration for the song may have been Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1851. Foster’s first draft in his song workbook is entitled “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night.”
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home
’tis summer, the darkies are gay,
the corn top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom
while the birds make music all the day.
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor
all merry, all happy, and bright.
By’n by hard times comes a-knocking at the door,
then my old Kentucky home, good night.
Weep no more, my lady,
oh weep no more today.
We will sing on song for the old Kentucky home,
for the old Kentucky home far away.
They hunt no more for the ‘possum and the coon
on meadow, the hill, and the shore.
They sing no more by the glimmer of the moon
on the bench by that old cabin door.
The day goes by like a shadow o’er the heart
with sorrow where all was delight.
The time has come when the darkies have to part
then my old Kentucky home, good night.
The head must bow and the back will have to bend
wherever the darky may go.
A few more days and the trouble all will end
in the field where sugar-canes may grow.
A few more days for to tote the weary load,
no matter, ’twill never be light.
A few more days ’till we totter on the road,
then my old Kentucky home, good night.
A Condensed History of Slavery in Kentucky
Current research at the national and regional levels has allowed new information to surface on the role Kentuckians played in the fugitive slave movement. This research has partially been spurred by an increased national and international effort to document the Underground Railroad as a secret system of assistance — sometimes spontaneous, sometimes highly organized — of efforts by blacks both free and enslaved, whites, and Native Americans led by the National Park Service.
In learning a fuller history of Kentucky’s role in slavery and in the fugitive slave movement, there may be lessons for today’s society. One of those lessons is that African American history is a part of the fabric of the history of America and should not be kept separate from the whole.
Kentucky and the Question of Slavery
Entering the Union in 1792 under the terms of the Northwest Ordinance, Kentucky continued its Virginia heritage as a slave-holding state. Unlike Virginia, Kentucky developed a diverse agriculture, which varied from region to region. The majority of enslaved Africans in Kentucky were held primarily in the Bluegrass and the Jackson Purchase, the largest hemp- and tobacco-producing areas in the state.
Many Kentucky slaves resided in Louisville; Henderson and Oldham counties along the Ohio River; and Trigg, Christian, Todd, and Warren counties in the tobacco-growing southcentral section of the state. Few slaves lived in the mountainous regions of eastern and southeastern Kentucky. Those slaves that were held in eastern and southeastern Kentucky served primarily as artisans and service workers.
Unlike in the Deep South, with its large cotton plantations and longer growing seasons, Kentucky slavery operated with greater diversity and on smaller plantations. In addition to providing the much-needed labor force to raise and harvest Kentucky tobacco and hemp, Kentucky slaves worked in salt mines, in iron works, and on bridge and road construction. In Kentucky’s urban centers, slaves worked in the better hotels and performed all the household chores in the homes of the white elite.
Unlike slaves in the Deep South, Kentucky slaves lived on farms, not plantations, in units that averaged about five slaves. Only 12 percent of Kentucky’s masters owned 20 or more slaves, and only 70 persons held 50 or more. Fluctuating markets and seasonal needs characterized Kentucky slavery.
Congress prohibited the importation of slaves into the United States in 1808, and Kentucky prohibited the importation of slaves into the state for sale in 1833. However, because of the lucrative nature of the slave trade, slaves continued to be bought and sold, despite legal restrictions. In order to gain maximum benefit from their slaves, Kentucky slaveholders also frequently hired out skilled slaves as carpenters, blacksmiths, brick masons, coopers, herders, stevedores, waiters, and factory workers. In 1860, James Klotter estimates, roughly one-quarter of Louisville’s enslaved were hired out. The hiring-out system provided masters with considerable flexibility in using slave labor and afforded the enslaved a sense of freedom and perhaps a small measure of independence not experienced on larger plantations in the Deep South.
The invention of the cotton gin and the implementation of better-growing cotton and rice seeds and improved agricultural techniques caused demand for slave labor in the South to grow at alarming rates. To capitalize on expanding markets and to meet the needs of Southern planters, Kentucky quickly became a major supplier of hogs, corn, African slaves, and “fancy girls.” By the time of the Civil War, Kentucky was known as a “slave-growing” state, responsible for supplying African slaves for Southern plantations. According to historian George Wright, “Ownership of slaves was profitable to Kentucky whites; the slave trade shipped approximately 80,000 Africans southward between 1830 and 1860.”
In addition to enslaved African communities, Kentucky maintained small but vocal “free” black hamlets throughout the state. Kentucky’s free black population ranked third among the slave states that remained loyal to the Union in 1861 and seventh overall among slave states and the District of Columbia. The number of “free” blacks in Kentucky prior to the Civil War is uncertain, but noted scholars such as Wright list the total at about 11,000 in 1860, compared to a total of 211,000 enslaved Africans at that time.
The differences cited above in how Africans experienced slavery in Kentucky have led many historians to speculate that Kentucky provided a “milder” form of slavery for its African population. Despite seeming differences in work and living conditions, Kentucky slaves suffered the same grueling work schedules; separation from family; threat of death or severe punishment; and mental, physical, and spiritual abuse experienced by slaves farther south. In many ways, enduring slavery in Kentucky was made even harder because of the nearness of freedom in the free states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
Kentucky entered the Union as a state deeply divided over the issue of slavery. Two of the most visible proponents of the pro-slavery argument in Kentucky during the 1790s were the state’s first and second attorneys general, George Nicholas and John Breckinridge.
Nicholas was the son of Virginia attorney Robert Nicholas, the president of Virginia’s 1775 Revolutionary convention. George Nicholas migrated to Kentucky from Williamsburg, VA in 1788 and rapidly established himself as one of the territory’s leading legal minds.
Nicholas successfully defended his draft of a resolution adopted as article IX of the 1792 state constitution. Article IX ensured that “The legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners, previous to such emancipation, or a full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated.” Nicholas would later be appointed the first law professor at Transylvania University in 1799.
John Breckinridge, a former member of the Virginia legislature and also an attorney, settled in Kentucky in 1799. In the second constitutional debate in the Kentucky General Assembly, he reaffirmed the Commonwealth’s slave-holding identity. In addition to these two well-known Kentucky proslavery supporters, local Kentucky newspapers were filled with proslavery arguments, often written anonymously.
The most prominent proslavery arguments used in Kentucky and most Southern states, represented in the thinking of George Nicholas and John Breckinridge, supported slavery as a “positive good,” as a “necessary evil,” and as biblically ordained. The “positive good” theory put forth the argument that African slaves would die from starvation without the protective and benevolent control and oversight of slave masters who knew what was best for them, while also proclaiming the supremacy of white property rights. Proponents of slavery as a “necessary evil” argued that though slavery was not desired, the potential economic and social disaster that would result from freeing slaves would be greater than any burden of maintaining slavery. Implicit in this theory was the fear that freedom for African slaves would result in amalgamation of the races. The biblical defense of slavery was tied to the fact that God’s chosen people, the Jews, had owned slaves, and that therefore slavery was not a moral sin but was, in fact, ordained by God.
As a border state positioned between slavery and freedom, Kentucky had strong economic ties to African slavery as well as Northern industrialism. Kentuckians’ identification with slavery (even though the vast majority never owned slaves) linked them culturally and economically to the plantation South. But Kentucky’s links to an industrialized North and an expanding West made them less willing to end Union ties over the question of slavery or the issue of states’ rights. The conflicting pulls of economic gain, westward expansion, and fundamental support for slavery caused Kentuckians to be morally divided over the issue of slavery before, during, and immediately after the Civil War. Though loyal to the Union, the Kentucky majority never intended to end slavery or reject notions of white supremacy.
- Allen, Jeffrey Brooke. “The Origins of Proslavery Through in Kentucky, 1792-1799” in The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Spring 1979, Vol. 77.
- Klotter, James. “Slave Life in Kentucky” in Our Kentucky, 1992.
- Wright, George. “Afro-Americans” in Kentucky Encyclopedia, 1992.
Westward Expansion and Development of Abolitionist Thought
Greater agricultural productivity, increased growth in population in Virginia and other colonies, and growing industrialization led to the expansion of pioneer settlements beyond the Appalachian Mountains onto Kentucky’s new frontier. As early as 1750, through the exploration of Dr. Thomas Walker and Christopher Gist in 1751, Kentucky’s “unclaimed” lands were being explored.
Another of Kentucky’s early and possibly best known explorers, Daniel Boone, departed his Yadkin River Valley home in North Carolina in 1771 to explore the Kentucky and Licking River Valleys, eventually settling in Kentucky in 1773. Primarily coming into the region as runaway slaves aided by Native Americans, as slaves to white explorers like Daniel Boone and Captain James Estill, and through manumission from their Virginia masters, Africans were among the first people to settle on the new Kentucky frontier.
Encouraged through payment of Revolutionary War soldiers through the issuance of Kentucky land grants, settlement of Kentucky increased rapidly following the Revolutionary War. Kentucky became Virginia’s Fincastle County December 7, 1776 and remained part of Virginia until officially gaining its statehood, June 4, 1792.
Westward expansion onto new frontiers also brought expansion and change in religious and political thought. The Society of Friends (Quakers) in England was the first religious denomination to question the morality of human bondage. Slaveholders themselves, Quakers began to divest themselves of slaves in the 1750s. Those who found they could not do so, left the Society of Friends. By the nineteenth century, Southern Quakers had begun to move West to escape the culture of slavery.
Both those Quakers who remained in the South and those who moved to the Midwest took responsibility for aiding ex-slaves and acquired a deserved reputation for assisting runaways. Far removed from the state supported Anglican and Congregationalist Church, a new “frontier” religion and religious leadership known as “evangelicals” began to emerge. The early lead taken by Kentucky evangelicals earned Kentucky a national reputation of producing outspoken religious opponents to slavery.
The beginnings of what came to be known as the “Evangelical Religious Movement” in the United States can be traced to the first Great Awakening, led by American born minister Jonathan Edwards in New England (upstate New York) and George Whitefield (South Carolina and Georgia) in 1734. Following fast-growing religious fervor generated by Great Awakening revivals and camp meetings, Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Shakers, and others began to seek religious freedom in the West. One such congregation seeking freedom from Virginia’s policy of state-supported, mandatory religious adherence was Baptist minister, Lewis Craig.
In December 1781, Craig, often imprisoned in Virginia for his religious views, and Captain William Ellis led five hundred members of their congregations from Orange and Spottsylvania counties in Virginia to Gilbert’s Creek, Kentucky (Lancaster County). Members of the original church congregation included men, women, children, free blacks, and African slaves. This Craig and William’s led congregation became known as “The Travelling Church.” Although there are no anti-slavery sentiments attached to Lewis Craig, members of the Travelling Church went on to found several other Baptist Churches in Central Kentucky. This new church membership led to the establishment of black congregations and the founding of several anti-slavery churches.
Religious fervor on the new frontier gave birth to the nation’s Second Great Awakening from 1740 to 1790. This second flood of religious activism took place primarily in the South, led by multi-denominational, evangelical ministers from Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian congregations. In 1796, the Great Revival began in Logan County, Kentucky through the efforts of Presbyterian minister James McGready.
On the heels of this religious fervor, the nation’s largest Great Revival occurred at Cane Ridge, in Bourbon County, Kentucky August 8, 1801 led by Presbyterian minister, Barton Warren Stone. Despite the commanding influence of the Presbyterian Church, Methodists cannot be overlooked. American Methodists, led by Francis Asbury, became the first congregation in the United States to actively enforce anti-slavery sentiments as a condition of congregational membership. Methodists were organized in Kentucky in 1790.
Under Asbury, the Methodist Church became the first church in America to write a policy against slave holding as a condition of church membership. Many Kentucky Methodists, following the lead of Asbury, participated in the Cane Ridge Great Revival, and called for Kentucky slaveowners to end their attachment to slavery in order to establish a more perfect union with God. African membership in the Methodist church far exceeded membership in any other evangelical denomination, actively establishing churches in North and South Carolina and New York as early as 1790.
The evangelical religious movement had always offered Africans hope of freedom. Before 1667, baptized Africans in Virginia could seek freedom on the basis of their religious conversion. Nearly one thousand slaves were baptized at Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, VA between 1746 and 1768. Liberal membership guidelines, acceptance, and open participation in religious services, encouraged large numbers of women, free blacks, and African slaves to join evangelical congregations.
Evangelical ministers, including those who preached at Cane Ridge, brought African slaves into their fold during the second half of the eighteenth century by offering hope of deliverance from the persecution of perpetual slavery. Many evangelicals and their followers openly denounced slavery. Some took their beliefs a step further by actively seeking its abolition.
One of the most important outgrowths of the evangelical movement in Kentucky, was the formation of black congregations headed by black ministers. Black congregations in Kentucky and free states, under the leadership of black ministers began to deliver openly antislavery messages, encouraging slaves to believe that freedom was possible in their lifetimes. The ministry of the Cane Ridge Great Revival, in addition to preaching salvation, also called for the abolition of slavery.
As a result of the Great Revival ministry, many Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian members manumitted their slaves and sponsored black church congregations. By 1845, the First African Baptist Church was formally established by the Elkhorn Baptist Association in Lexington, Kentucky. By 1858, Kentucky had several noted African Baptist ministers with their own congregations, including Reverend Elijah W. Green of Mason County, Kentucky, and Pleasant Green Baptist Church in Lexington.
The growth of black churches in western and central Kentucky as well as the location of black hamlets is often credited as vital links in the Kentucky Underground Railroad network. On the eve of the Civil War, there were seventeen black churches in Kentucky; nine of them located in Louisville, which also housed the state’s largest free black population.
A split in the thinking of members of the Elkhorn Association over the issue of slavery occurred immediately following the Kentucky Great Revival. By 1807, a formal division had occurred between members of the Elkhorn Association, and those who split to form the “Baptized Licking Locust Association, Friends of Humanity,” dedicated to preaching an anti-slavery gospel. Led by Kentucky abolitionist and Baptist ministers David Barrow and Carter Tarrant, the Baptized Licking Locust Association quickly developed an anti-slavery mission and church following. In addition to Carter and Tarrant, Kentucky’s, anti-slavery Baptist ministers included the former Kentucky Governor James Garrard (1796-1804).
Members of various religious denominations joined Baptist efforts to end slavery in Kentucky. The most noted religious leadership who sought to legislatively end slavery in Kentucky included Presbyterian minister and founder of Transylvania University (1784 – approximately 1786), David Rice, and fellow Presbyterians Rev. John Gregg Fee, Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge, and Rev. John C. Young (President of Centre College 1830-1857). With the support of fellow Presbyterians, Rice attempted to legislatively end slavery in Kentucky by introducing an amendment to the 1792 Kentucky Constitutional Convention calling for the end of slavery and the manumission of all slaves. He was unsuccessful in this attempt, losing the vote by a margin of twenty-six for slavery and sixteen against.
The State remained divided over the issue of slavery until the end of the Civil War in 1865. Prior to the Civil War, Kentuckians sought many remedies to rid itself of enslaved Africans and to resolve the issue of slavery. One proposed remedy included formation of the American Colonization Society.
Kentucky’s public opposition to slavery was carried out primarily through the work of the Kentucky Abolition Society and the Kentucky Colonization Society, the latter a branch of the National American Colonization Society. Founded in 1808, the Kentucky Abolition Society defined African slavery as “a system of oppression pregnant with moral, national and domestic evils, ruinous to national tranquillity, honor and enjoyment.” Advocating immediate emancipation for all African slaves held in bondage, the Kentucky Abolition Society organized local antislavery societies in Kentucky (eight were reported in 1827) and published the Abolition Intelligencer and Missionary Magazine.
The colonization movement enabled influential slaveholding politicians like Henry Clay to favor sending free blacks and manumitted slaves back to Africa, while allowing them to also distance themselves from supporting the principle of immediate abolition. Founded in 1816, the American Colonization Society appealed to Kentuckians who feared the presence of free blacks. The Kentucky Colonization Society, organized in 1829, absorbed colonizationist groups that surfaced as early as 1823. By 1832, over thirty such societies existed throughout the state.
The Kentucky Colonization Society condemned slavery “as a great moral and political evil,” while at the same time being composed primarily of conservative slaveholders who could not reconcile moral gain with the economic loss of slaves. Consequently, most slaves repatriated to Africa were often free blacks, newly manumitted slaves, the elderly, or infirm. Even with state and federal funding secured through the work of Henry Clay, from 1829 to 1859 the Kentucky Colonization Society repatriated only 658 black Kentuckians to Liberia.
Clay later ran for national office, which included President of the United States. At the close of 1819, when the applications of Missouri and Maine for admission to statehood were before Congress, there were twenty-two states in the Union, eleven slave and eleven free. Slave states were Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The free states were Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.
The political balance between North and South had been maintained by admitting alternately (1802-19) slave and free states. Despite the three-fifths ratio, slave states held 81 votes in the House of Representatives against 105 votes held by free states. Through his skill as a negotiator, Clay received the title “the Great Pacificator” for successfully negotiating the final terms of the 1821 Missouri Compromise.
Considered a “friend” to enslaved Africans, in August 1845, Cassius Marcellus Clay published a newspaper entitled, the True American. This anti-slavery newspaper suggested easing conditions for the enslaved and granting political equality to free Africans. These views were seen as dangerous and radical by Kentucky slaveholders who were already concerned with Kentucky’s growing free black population.
Public outrage became so prevalent that Lexington authorities, armed with an injunction, seized Clay’s press and transported it to Cincinnati. Clay continued to publish the True American from Cincinnati until mid-1846. It was Clay who gifted abolitionist John G. Fee with funds and land on which to live and establish Berea College. Presbyterian minister and abolitionist John Gregg Fee continually challenged Kentucky’s courts. Unlike Cassius Clay, Fee favored immediate abolition and rejected colonization. “In whatever way we enter our protest against slavery,” Fee wrote in 1847, “it must be for the good reason that it is sin against God.”
After starting antislavery congregations in Bracken County, in 1854 Fee moved to Madison County where he established a church, interracial schools, and Berea College. Proslavery mobs harassed Fee and his supporters. Fee until they fled the state returning at the time of the Civil War to establish schools and a refugee camp at Camp Nelson in Jessamine County, Kentucky.
The growing strength of the abolitionist movement in the North after 1830 threatened Kentucky’s social and racial order. Such concern was intensified in 1833 when the Kentucky legislature outlawed the importation of more African slaves into the state for sale. In 1835, James G. Birney, denounced colonization, and organized the Kentucky Anti-Slavery Society.
Proslavery Kentuckians successfully blocked his attempt to establish an anti-slavery newspaper in the state. In 1840 and 1844, Birney ran unsuccessfully for the presidency of the United States on the Liberty party ticket. Though proslavery politicians repealed Kentucky’s Non-Importation Act in 1849, and that year more than 150 delegates, including Cassius M. Clay and John G. Fee, attended an antislavery convention in Frankfort. That year, emancipationist candidates in twenty-nine counties received ten thousand votes in statewide elections.
- Birdwhistell, Ira. The Baptist of the Bluegrass: A History of Elkhorn Baptist Association, 1785-1985. Berea: Berea College Press.
- Carson, Cary. Becoming Americans: Our Struggle to be Free and Equal. Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1998.
- Curtis, Nancy C. Black Heritage Sites in the South. New York: The New York Press, 1996.
- Harrison, Lowell H. “Governor James Garrard” in Kentucky Encyclopedia, 1992..
- Klotter, James. “Slave Life in Kentucky” in Our Kentucky, 1992.
- Murphy, Frederick I. The Kentucky Encyclopedia, 1992.
- Wright, George. “Afro-Americans” in Kentucky Encyclopedia, 1992.
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.
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.
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—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.
Up until 1847, most of the fugitives from Kentucky vanished into stations in the “colored” quarters of Cincinnati. 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 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.
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 the child 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).
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.”
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. 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.
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.”
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.“
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.
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.
- Foner, Philip S. History of Black Americans: From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1975.
- Frost, Karolyn Smardz. I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
- Gara, Larry. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
- Harrison, Lowell H. The Antislavery Movement in Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1978.
- Klotter, James. Our Kentucky. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
- Meaders, Daniel. Advertisements for Runaway Slaves in Virginia, 1801-1820. New York: Garland Publishing Company, 1997.
- Runyon, Randolph Paul. Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad. Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
- Siebert, Wilbur H. The Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroads. Ohio: Long’s College Book Company, 1951.
- Sprague, Stuart Seely. His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996.
- United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service Theme Study, September 1998.
Places, People, and Terms
Article Nine (1792 Kentucky Constitution)
The Legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of their owners, or without paying their owners, previous to such emancipation, a full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated; they shall have no power to prevent emigrants to this State from bringing with them such persons as are deemed slaves by the laws of any one of the United States, so long as any person of the same age or description shall be continued in slavery by the laws of this State; that they shall pass laws to permit the owners of slaves to emancipate them, saving the rights of creditors, and preventing them from becoming a charge to the county in which they reside; they shall have full power to prevent slaves being brought into this State as merchandise; they shall have full power to prevent any slave being brought into this State from a foreign country, and to prevent those from being brought into this State who have been, since the first day of January, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine, or may hereafter be, imported into any of the United States from a foreign country. And they shall have full power to pass such laws as may be necessary, to oblige the owners of slaves to treat them with humanity, to provide for them necessary clothing and provisions, to abstain from all injuries to them extending to life or limb; and in case of their neglect or refusal to comply with the directions of such laws, to have such slave or slaves sold for the benefit of their owner or owners.
John Gregg Fee and Berea College
Berea College was first established by noted Kentucky abolitionist John G. Fee with funds and lands received from abolitionist Cassius M. Clay. Berea opened as the first college in America founded for the specific purpose of educating black and white students together. Other colleges had admitted black students in the nineteenth century. Cheyney State College and Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and Wilberforce University in Ohio, for example, were established as black colleges or as colleges that would admit black students. Berea, however, was founded for the purpose of integrating the races for classroom instruction and work experiences, and it opened in a state that had accepted slavery. The school had its origins in 1855 when Reverend John Fee, a white abolitionist, opened a small elementary school in a church. He named the location “Berea” after a biblical town in which people were tolerant and open minded. Reverend Fee had written a pamphlet entitled the Antislavery Manual.
Cassius Clay read the manual and was so impressed that he urged Fee to spread his abolitionist views among the people of western Kentucky. As these views became widely known, proslavery forces began to see the church and school as hated symbols. In spite of threats, Fee and his associate, J. A. R. Rogers, struggled to keep the school alive. Shortly after the constitution for Berea was written, abolitionist John Brown and his followers raided the arsenal at Harpers Ferry West Virginia, in October 1859. Their intent was to free the slaves and establish a stronghold in the mountains. The raid increased the slaveholders’ fear and anger; and reprisals swept the South. In December 1859 sixty five armed men rode into Berea and ordered Fee and Rogers to leave Kentucky within ten days. Since the state governor refused to provide protection, the men had no choice but to flee. In spite of this hostility by 1867 the school reopened; ninety six black and ninety one white students were attending elementary classes at Berea.
The school remained an irritant until the turn of the century when the southern and border states enacted Jim Crow laws. Kentucky’s segregationists turned to the state legislature in 1904, pressuring legislators to pass the Day Law. This new legislation, which specified that black and white students could not be taught on the same campus, was specifically aimed at Berea. The college fought the law for four years, but in 1908 the Supreme Court, in Berea College v. Commonwealth of Kentucky ruled that the state could require a private institution to segregate students of different races.
Bitterly disappointed, African American students had to leave the campus, and Berea remained segregated until 1940, when the state of Kentucky removed the ban. During the period of segregation, Berea used its funds to establish an all black school in Simpsonville, Kentucky. Of the forty four buildings on campus, Lincoln Hall is the last surviving structure from the old college. The three-story brick building, constructed in 1878, was named after President Abraham Lincoln. The structure originally contained classrooms, a library a museum, meeting rooms, and laboratories, but it is used today for administrative offices and activities. Although the interior has been altered, the exterior remains as it originally appeared. Lincoln Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Cassius Marcellus Clay and White Hall State Historic Site
This three-story mansion was the home of Cassius Marcellus Clay, an outspoken and idiosyncratic white abolitionist. The site also contains slave quarters of stone located near the main house.
Cassius Clay was the son of General Green Clay, one of the richest men in Kentucky. At the time of his death in 1828, General Clay owned more land, slaves, and personal property than anyone else in the state. When his sixth child, Cassius Marcellus Clay, was born in 1810, slavery was a well-accepted institution in Kentucky. Cassius grew up in a world of wealth and privilege.
Two incidents caused Cassius to turn against slavery. The first occurred when he was approximately eight years old. A slave named Mary, who had been Clay’s companion and playmate, was punished by Green Clay for a minor misdeed. She was transferred from her position in the Clay household and sent to work for the family of the overseer on another of Green Clay’s estates. Years later these feelings were reinforced when he heard his first antislavery speech while a student at Yale. White abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison gave a lecture that impelled Clay to speak out against slavery. Clay asked that his name be removed from the church roll because he disagreed with the members’ views on slavery. When he graduated from Yale, Clay was selected to deliver the Washington Centennial Address. He made his first antislavery speech at that time. After graduation, Cassius freed approximately fifty of his own slaves at great financial cost. In 1845 he began publishing an antislavery paper, The True American, in Lexington. Within a month he received death threats and had to arm himself and barricade the doors of his newspaper office for protection. On an occasion when he was ill, a mob of about 60 men broke into his office, dismantled the press and equipment, and shipped them to Cincinnati. Clay continued to publish the paper from Ohio, circulating it throughout Kentucky.
Cassius Clay also helped to found Berea College, one of the first colleges in the United States established for the purpose of educating an integrated student body. This activity drew more hatred and enmity from Kentucky’s proslavery forces. Clay’s last years were saddened. Divorced from his wife and deeply in debt, he sold much of his property. Ironically, in spite of his antislavery views, he still owned some slaves, whom he now sold to pay his creditors. He lived almost alone in his large house, armed for his own protection. Clay died on July 22, 1903, at the age of 93. Sixty-five years after his death, White Hall stood empty and in ruin. The fine furnishings were sold at auction for a little more than $3,000. Walls and floors buckled, and vandals destroyed parts of the house. Tenant farmers who lived in sections of the house stored grain and hay in the elegant ballroom. In 1968 the Commonwealth of Kentucky bought White Hall and thirteen acres of land from the Clay heirs for $18,375 and began to restore the main house. The old Stone slave quarters behind White Hall were built in the early 1800s. Slaves also lived in the basement of the main house, where bars remain across a window in one room. In another room a tunnel still exists where slaves owned by General Green Clay tried to dig their way to freedom by tunneling underground. Apparently the escape plot was discovered.
Henry Clay was born in Hanover County, Virginia on April 12, 1777 and died in Washington, DC, on June 29, 1852. Considered a statesman, Clay studied law in Richmond and was admitted to the bar in 1797. He practiced law in Lexington, Kentucky; became a Kentucky legislator from 1803-06; and filled an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate from 1806-07. Clay became speaker of the state legislature (1807-09), and filled another unexpired term in the Senate (1809-10). While congressman (1811-21, 1823-25), he was Speaker of the House (1811-20 and 1823-25) and was a leader of the “war hawks,” and a commissioner to negotiate peace with Great Britain (1814). Clay urged recognition of South American republics by the United States in 1817 and was influential in framing the Missouri Compromise in 1820. As a candidate for president in 1824, he was fourth in the number of electoral votes. After losing his presidential bid, Clay threw his support to John Quincy Adams, and became Adams Secretary of State from 1825-29. As a Senator from Kentucky from 1831-42 and 1849-52, Clay became the Whig candidate for president in 1832, but was defeated by Andrew Jackson largely because of his support of the Second Bank of the United States. His “American System” was based upon tariff protection and federal aid for internal improvements. He sponsored the compromise Tariff of 1833, failed to secure the Whig nomination in 1840, and ran in 1844. He is thought to have lost this race because of his noncommittal stand on Texas. His sponsorship of the Compromise of 1850 earned him the title “The Great Compromiser.”
According to his autobiography, Elisha W. Green was born a slave in Bourbon County, Kentucky, near Paris “six miles to the right of that place, on the Georgetown turnpike.” He lived there until the age of 10, at which time Elisha, his parents, brothers, and sisters were divided as heir property, and Elisha came to live in Mays Lick, Mason County, Kentucky. Elisha, his sister, and four other children were sold in Washington at a sheriff’s sale. Elisha was purchased by a Mr. Charlie Ward. Elisha eventually became the property of a Miss Dobbyns in Maysville. Elisha became a Baptist preacher through the sponsorship of several members of the African Colonization Society. In his autobiography, Green reports having met the “president of the Underground Railroad, Mr. Cabin” (Coffin?). While in slavery, Elisha became a Baptist minister and traveled freely in northern Kentucky and Ohio. He purchased his freedom, and built a black church in Maysville. The original church structure burned in the 1970’s, and a new building was built in a different location. The church still maintains a very active congregation in Maysville today.
(Information on Josiah Henson, Old Washington, Songs of the Underground Railroad are taken for the work of James Blockson, The Underground Railroad, 1994.)
Josiah Henson Trail, Owensboro, Kentucky
The fictional character of Uncle Tom in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based partially on the real life career of an escaped slave named Josiah Henson. Henson had been a Maryland slave whose owner, Isaac Riley, transported him to Riley’s brother Amos’ plantation in Owensboro, Kentucky. Henson was about 36 years old when he arrived in Kentucky with his family. He became a model slave and served as overseer of the plantation.
However, late in 1830 he gathered his family together and with them escaped to freedom, going first to Indiana, and from there to Canada via the Underground Railroad. He later told his life story to Harriet Beecher Stowe and wrote an autobiography entitled Father Henson’s Story. Stowe wrote the introduction to the second edition of his book, which was published under the title Truth Stranger Than Fiction: Father Henson’s Story of His Own Life. The former site of the Riley plantation is designated by a historical marker on U.S. 60 near the village of Maceo, just west of the Davis County line. No evidence of the former plantation remains.
The entry of the antislavery forces into politics was signaled by the establishment of the Liberty Party, which held its founding convention at Warsaw, New York in 1839 and nominated James G. Birney, a native of Kentucky and a former slaveholder, for president, and Thomas Earle (Pennsylvania) for vice president. These nominations were confirmed at the party’s first national convention at Albany on April 1, 1840.
Liberty Party conventions were subsequently held in Ohio and other states in the Northwest. The party was composed of moderate abolitionists who did not share William Lloyd Garrison’s opposition to political action. Unlike Garrison, they professed loyalty to the Constitution and did not advocate secession or dissolution of the Union. By virtue of holding the balance of power, the party played an important part in the presidential election of 1844, and was considered responsible for the defeat of Henry Clay.
In 1848 it combined with the Free-Soil Party and helped to defeat the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass. The party’s chief political issue was its stand against the annexation of Texas. Among its leaders were Gerrit Smith (New York) and Salmon P. Chase (Ohio).
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, was born in Hardin County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809 and died in Washington, D.C. on April 15, 1865. He moved with his parents (Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln) to Spencer County, Indiana in 1816. The family then settled in southern Illinois in 1830, where he clerked in a store at New Salem. He became captain of volunteers in the Black Hawk War (1832), but did not see action. He operated a store, practiced surveying, and served as postmaster at New Salem from 1833 to 1836 while he studied law and was admitted to the bar (1836). He moved to Springfield, Illinois in 1837, where he opened a law office and quickly obtained a reputation on the circuit as an outstanding jury lawyer. He became a Whig state legislator from 1834 to 1842 and was elected to Congress in 1846, but did not stand for reelection. In his Peoria speech (1854) he denounced the Kansas Nebraska Act.
Joining the Republican party in 1856, he ran for the Senate against Stephen A. Douglas (1858), accepting the nomination on June 17 with a speech in which he declared: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In the course of seven campaign debates with Douglas he forced the latter to announce the so-called Freeport Doctrine. Even though he lost the election, Lincoln had established himself as a national figure. He won the Republican nomination for the presidency in 1860 because of his conservative views on slavery. His election was regarded by the South as forecasting an attack on their “peculiar institution.” By March 4, 1861, seven states had already seceded. In his first inaugural address Lincoln reiterated his constitutional doctrine that the contract between the states was binding and irrevocable.
Against the advice of his cabinet, Lincoln ordered the provisioning of Ft. Sumter and when war began called out the state militia; suspended the writ of habeas corpus; proclaimed a blockade of Southern ports; and in other ways did not hesitate to use the dictatorial powers with which he was invested. He largely countermanded Fremont’s proclamation (August 30, 1861) emancipating the slaves of rebels in Missouri and proposed his own plan for compensated emancipation (December 1861, July 12 and December 1, 1862). “My paramount object is to save the Union, and not either to save or destroy slavery,” he stated (August 22, 1862). After Antietam he prepared a draft of emancipation, proclaimed formally January 1, 1863. A diplomat in the handling of both his cabinet and his generals, his re-election in 1864, when he easily defeated McClellan, was assured by the military victories of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan. His plan of Reconstruction (December 8, 1863) was based on the prompt restoration of the Southern states to “their proper practical relation with the Union.” He pocket-vetoed the harsher Wade-Davis Bill ( July 8, 1864). He personally attended the Hampton Roads Conference (February 3, 1865) to discuss peace terms with Confederate leaders. His most notable speeches were his Gettysburg Address (November 19, 1863) and his second inaugural (March 4, 1865), in which he appealed to the nation to “finish the work we are in… with malice toward none, with charity for all.” Shortly after General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox he was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater, Washington (April 14, 1865), and died the next day.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
The second Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress (the first was passed in 1793) levied heavy fines for northern citizens who obstructed slaveowners in their efforts to retrieve escaped slaves. The new legislation made it profitable for federal commissioners to dispose of such cases in the slaveowner’s favor. Ralph Waldo Emerson described it as a “filthy enactment” and swore he would not observe it. In response to the Fugitive Slave Act, northern states passed stronger personal liberty laws.
Harriet Elizabeth Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811 and died in Hartford, Connecticut on July 1, 1896. Stowe was an author, daughter of abolitionist minister Lyman Beecher (1775-1863), and the sister of abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. She was educated at Litchfield and Hartford, and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1832, where she produced her first published writings and developed anti-slavery sympathies. Stowe married Calvin E. Stowe (1836), a professor of Biblical literature in the Lane Theological Seminary, of which her father was president. She left Cincinnati in 1850, when her husband became professor at Bowdoin College. The agitation over the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 led her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (2 volumes, 1852), originally published in serial form (June 5, 1851- April 1, 1852) in the National Era, an anti-slavery newspaper in Washington, D.C. The book sold 300,000 copies within a year, aroused deep hostility in the South, and won her an international reputation. She answered her critics in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). She wrote a second antislavery novel, Dred; a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). Her other literary works were The Minister’s Wooing (1859), The Pearl of Orr’s Island (1862), Oldtown Folks (1869), Sam Lawson’s Oldtown Fireside Stories (1872), and Poganuc People (1878).
The population of the North was growing at a more rapid pace than the South (free states: 5,152,000; slave states: 4,485,000). To preserve the sectional balance, the South looked to its equal vote in the Senate. Late in 1819, the Missouri Territory embraced all of the Louisiana Purchase with the exception of the segments organized as the state of Louisiana in 1812 and the Arkansas Territory organized in 1819. The application of the Missouri Territorial Assembly (which had originally petitioned for statehood in 1817) raised the question of the legal status of slavery in Missouri and in the rest of the territory west of the Mississippi. In 1818 there were an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 slaves in the upper Louisiana country where slavery extended back to the rule of the Spanish and French. Henry Clay was credited with negotiating the final agreement, and these negotiations earned him his national reputation as the “Great Compromiser.” The Missouri convention at St. Louis incorporated in the constitution a provision excluding free Negroes and mulattoes from the state. This clause provoked antislavery sentiment in Congress when the Missouri constitution was presented to the Senate and the House.
A compromise formulated by Henry Clay resulted in the so called second Missouri Compromise (March 2, 1821) providing that the state of Missouri should not gain admission to the Union until the legislature gave assurance that the offending clause would never be construed as sanctioning the passage of any law abridging the privileges and immunities of United States citizens. This condition was accepted by the Missouri legislature (June 26, 1821), which qualified its pledge by insisting that it had no power to bind the people of the state. On August 10, 1821 President Monroe proclaimed the admission of Missouri as the 24th state.
Mount Vernon African Methodist Episcopal Church
This log church, one of the oldest African American religious structures in Kentucky, is empty now except for an annual reunion. Most of the members have died or have moved away, with only one or two remaining in Gamaliel. Mount Vernon Church is associated with William Howard, a wealthy farmer and slaveowner who settled in Monroe County in 1802. Although Howard owned slaves, he did not fully approve of slavery and freed his slaves when they reached the age of 21. Later he gave the freed people 400 acres of land on which to build their own homes. They established the community of Free-Town several miles west of Howard’s residence, living in freedom at a time when others still lived in slavery. As late as 1860, there were 922 slaves and 17 free black people in the county.
Some of the freedmen established Mount Vernon Church. In 1848 George Pipkin, Albert Howard, and Peter West built the log structure on a slight rise, near Free-Town and the Kentucky-Tennessee border. The structure also served as a school. Except for the tin roof and double pane sash windows that were installed at a later date, Mount Vernon Church still has most of the original building material. The one-room, one-story structure has hand-hewn logs joined by wooden pegs and chinked with clay. Clapboarding covers the north and south ends. The interior has the original floor on log sleepers and rustic benches that appear to be the original ones.
A white resident recalls:
“They had a Maypole. It was around the time I married, in 1930, and it was such a pretty sight. They had a big dinner there in front of the church with white and black there. They still have funerals there sometimes but most of them are done and dead and gone.”
Some residents of surrounding communities still have memories of activities at the log church. Ms. Edith Howard, an African American resident of Gamaliel, made the following statement:
“We used to go to the church way back yonder. They had big dinners on the ground. Enjoyed it. They fixed the church up later and got it looking good.”
Ruth Craig Proffitt of the Gamaliel Senior Center also has a vivid memory of the church:
“I remember the Maypole. Everyone went from miles around to see it. The girls wore frilly white dresses. They held on to streamers that were red, white, and blue, I think, and they plaited them. They danced in and out, their dresses blowing in the wind, and when they finished, the pole was braided with the pretty streamers. It was the best settlement of colored people in the world. They were all straight and honest people. They had to go to Hickory Ridge for high school. Sometimes, too, they had to walk to Fountain Run, they would walk or go by in buggies. My mother would have a bucket of water for them because they would be thirsty. Nobody looked down on them, but I didn’t know until I was in high school that black people had to sit in the back of the bus and couldn’t eat in the restaurant. When I asked why I was told it was just that way.”
Mrs. Joyce Thomas, a school teacher in Louisville, Kentucky and a descendant of founders of Mount Vernon Church, is writing a book about her family in Monroe County and about Mount Vernon Church. Her great grandfather; Peter West, one of the builders of the church and its preacher, was a Methodist minister from Tennessee. Thomas said the Free Town people were: “very proud and honest people who believed that you do what you say you will do and look out for each other. The Pipkins and Wests originally came from Tennessee, and most were teachers. My uncle, Roscoe Pipkins, and my Aunt Elmer taught school in the log church. When the school first started they chopped down trees and made desks, some of which are still there. For school supplies, they used whatever the white students had rejected.”
Mrs. Thomas leads an annual reunion to celebrate this heritage. Beginning in 1982-1983, former members of the Mount Vernon Church and their families began to return to the log church for an annual reunion on the second Saturday in June.
The National Underground Railroad Museum
This museum is located in Maysville, Kentucky. The museum has rare collections of slave artifacts, books, and papers related to slavery in Kentucky.
Old Washington, Kentucky Slave Market
Although John G. Birney, president, and other members of the Kentucky Society for the Gradual Relief of the State from Slavery called for gradual emancipation, the “peculiar institution” of slavery stood firm in Old Washington. It was the second largest town in Kentucky, and it was a place where slaves were sold. An auction block may still be seen on the courthouse green. When Harriet Beecher Stowe visited Washington in 1833, she saw slaves sold on the block, and she was so stirred by the abhorrent scene that she recorded the experience in her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Also in Washington is a restored building called the Paxton Inn. This building is reported to have been a station stop on the Underground Railroad when it was owned by James A. Paxton, who is said to have hidden escaped slaves in the cellar. A prominent lawyer, Paxton married twice, both times into the Marshall family, and was related to Chief Justice John Marshall. Paxton later moved to Ohio because he “would not rear his family in a state that supported slavery.” Old Washington is just off U. S. 68 about five miles south of Maysville.
Pleasant Green Baptist Church
Pleasant Green Baptist Church is the fourth oldest black Baptist church in the United States and is the oldest west of the Allegheny Mountains. The church is remarkable in that its congregation has worshipped continuously at the same site since 1822. It was founded by Peter Duerett, a slave called Brother Captain. Brother Captain learned in Virginia that his wife was to be taken to Kentucky, and he petitioned his master to be allowed to go with her. A trade was arranged that allowed him to go to Kentucky as a slave of Lexington pioneer John Maxwell. Brother Captain preached in Kentucky and organized a congregation. In 1822 he and the congregation purchased the land on which the present church stands. Three trustees, all slaves, received the land deed from a white Lexington surgeon, Dr. Frederick Ridgely. A year later their pastor; Brother Captain, died.
Reverend George W (Pappy) Dupee, a slave, was the fourth minister of Pleasant Green Baptist Church. In 1826 the congregation heard that Reverend Dupee’s owner was planning to sell him. Greatly troubled, they asked a white minister; Reverend William Pratt, to buy their pastor for them, and Pratt purchased Dupee off the auction block. Every Monday morning the church members made a payment on the debt to Pratt with their Sunday offerings until Dupee was freed. Dupee became a widely known and respected preacher. In 1858 he left Lexington to become pastor of Washington Street Missionary Baptist Church in Paducah, Kentucky, where he served for thirty-nine years.
The lovely elegance of the nineteenth century house called “the Grange” belies the misery experienced by black slaves who suffered there. The house was built for slave trader Edward Stone, who chained slaves below his own living quarters while he awaited their sale. Edward Stone, his wife, and their eleven children settled on Stone’s father’s Revolutionary War land grant. He began to build the one and one-half-story main house in 1800 and completed it in 1816. The brick main house known as “Oakland” has a deep-set doorway with a fanlight and side lights and Palladian windows in delicately curved walls. The carved, reeded woodwork throughout the interior is said to have been created with an eight-foot gouge chisel operated by a talented carpenter and pulled on chains by slaves. Stone kept slaves due for sale in a 24-foot by two-foot masonry-walled cellar.
When Stone built this house, his neighbors owned slaves, too, but they did not regard slave trading as an honorable profession. He was the only person in the community to openly advertise his trade. On July 24, 1816, for example, he placed an advertisement in the Western Citizen: “Cash for Negroes — I wish to purchase twenty negroes, boys and girls from 10 to 25 years of age. A liberal price will be given for those answering the description on early application to the subscriber, Edward Stone. Living on the Limestone Road, 4 miles from Paris leading to Millersburg.”
In 1882 a Reverend James H. Dickey met one of Stone’s coffles (that is, a group of slaves chained together) on the Paris Lexington Road. Forty men and thirty women were in the coffle, and Reverend Dickey described them as marching with sad countenances. Owners often sold Stone their unruly slaves or those who had committed crimes. To break their spirits, Stone chained them to rings set in the walls of the dungeon and left them in complete darkness. They were fed nothing but bread and water, and their only breath of fresh air came from one iron barred window under the back porch. This window was approached by a four-foot by 400-foot doorway raised two feet off the ground and guarded with a solid iron door.
By 1826, Stone had developed a lucrative business, but the community still rejected him because of his slave trading practices. Stone finally announced that he would give up slave trading and become a planter. He planned a final trip to New Orleans with a cargo of seventy seven surplus slaves and loaded his human cargo on a flat bottomed boat. Ignoring a servant’s warning that a rebellion might take place, he began a fateful trip down the Ohio River Approximately ninety miles below Louisville, the slaves overwhelmed Stone and other white men on board, killing them and throwing their bodies into the river. The servant who had given the warning fought to save Stone, but when he could not, he escaped and eventually returned home. The slaves who had rebelled were determined to be free, but were eventually captured. Their mutiny was unsuccessful in freeing them, but it left no doubt in the minds of Kentucky citizens of the strength of the impulse toward freedom. The fate of Stone’s rebellious slaves is not known; as a rule, such slaves were either executed or very harshly punished.
The Grange today is a private home, and its interior is not accessible to visitors. There is a one-story brick cabin on the site that once was used as slave quarters, and the slave holding cellar is still there. Despite the fact that the house is not open to visitors, it is worthwhile to drive by because of its tragic history.
A belief in the immediate end of slavery. Abolition grew from religious beliefs developed during the evangelical movement.
Benefit of Clergy
A one-time exemption from a mandatory death sentence for a manslaughter conviction. Like England, Virginia limited benefit of clergy to white men who could read. If the judge granted the motion for benefit of clergy, the accused went free, but not before a court official burned a mark into the offender’s hand with a hot iron.
A religious meeting which lasted for several days, even weeks, where the religious faithful would bring tents and “camp out” during revivals. Camp meetings were characterized by music, speeches, vendors, and a lively atmosphere.
A moveable item of personal property. In eighteenth-century Virginia, slaves were considered to be chattel property.
Laws or court decisions based on a long history of custom or tradition, rather than specifically enacted statutes.
When someone is forced by law or custom to be a slave.
A name given to women of African and European descent who were often fair-skinned enough to be considered white. In many instances these women were well educated and from privileged backgrounds.
A person who is legally bound to work for another person for a predetermined period of time. In the eighteenth century this period of time was often, but not always, seven years.
The act of releasing an individual from slavery, usually by the slave owner.
The Atlantic crossing during which enslaved Africans endured inhumanely cramped unsanitary conditions.
A term describing an individual who has both African and European ancestry.
A term used to describe a person of African descent.
Any farm that produces a crop for sale.
Laws concerning the enforcement of racial slavery.
Community Research and Preservation
Many Kentucky people and sites played fascinating and critical roles in the story of slavery, abolitionism, and the Underground Railroad. Of course much of that history was necessarily secret, and very little is documented of the role Kentucky communities, churches, and/or families played in the fugitive slave movement. Buildings that were rumored to have contained hiding places for escaping slaves have not been studied for their historic importance. Yet, the hundreds of miles of Kentucky border separating freedom from slavery lead to an intuitive belief there had to be more fugitive slave activity in Kentucky than is recorded.
Kentucky’s bitter division in the mid-nineteenth century over the issue of slavery has carried over to present-day feelings that this period in history is simply too painful to bring up. After generations of simply not talking about it, historical sites have been ignored, undocumented, or destroyed, and valuable oral histories have gone unrecorded. However, it seems that interest in community research on slavery, slave resistance, and site identification is slowly gaining momentum.
Into the Fiery Furnace: Anti-Slavery Prisoners in the Kentucky State Penitentiary 1844-1870 by James M. Prichard
Released from the Kentucky State Penitentiary in the spring of 1864, Reverend Calvin Fairbank fell to the ground as soon as he reached Ohio. “I kissed the dirt of my adopted State,” he later recalled, “and rising to my feet, and throwing my hands high in (the) air, I shouted: Out of the Mouth of Death! Out of the Jaws of Hell!!”1
A convicted felon, Reverend Fairbank had served two separate terms for the same offense. In all, he spent over 17 years and four months behind prison walls. During one eight-year period alone, Fairbank claimed he received over 35,105 stripes from the lash. Although confined with murderers and thieves, Fairbank lost his youth and his freedom for the “crime” of helping Kentucky slaves escape to freedom.2
The ordeal of Calvin Fairbank represents one of the best known incidents in the history of the Underground Railroad in Kentucky. However, he was only one of 44 men and women of both races who were sent to the Kentucky State Penitentiary between 1844 and 1864 for “Assisting Slaves to Runaway.” Over eight of these forgotten heroes died during their confinement. Incredible as it sounds, the last anti-slavery prisoner did not leave his cell until 1870 – over five years after slavery was swept from the land.
Although virtually forgotten today, each prisoner represents a story of courage and sacrifice. Their plight illustrates how determined pro-slavery Kentuckians were to preserve and protect the “peculiar institution.” More importantly, their stories shed further light on resistance to slavery in antebellum Kentucky.
In 1847, a party of Kentuckians attempted to seize six fugitive slaves in Marshall, Michigan. Driven off by local citizens, one of the furious “slave catchers” threatened to return with a regiment of Kentucky militia and reclaim his “property.”3 In reality, the first line of defense for Kentucky slave-owners was the criminal justice system. In 1801, Kentucky’s penal code was amended to provide for a penalty of from two to nine years imprisonment for anyone convicted of “Slave Stealing.”4 As anti-slavery agitation increased in the early Republic, the law was further amended in 1830 to provide for from two to 20 years confinement for those found guilty of “seducing or enticing any slave to leave his lawful owner. . .”5
Under the law of 1830, persons found guilty of persuading a slave to run away were required to give security for good behavior.6 However, in 1845, this section of the law was repealed and those found guilty of this “crime” in the future now faced from one to five years in the state penitentiary.7
Kentuckians, therefore, chose to strengthen their laws rather than the militia in response to the growing threat from “fanatical Northern abolitionists.” Historians have since debated whether their fears were truly justified. In his classic, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (1898), Wilbur H. Siebort described a highly organized, widespread alliance of freedom fighters who waged a successful secret war against the “Slave Power.”8
However, since the publication of Larry Gara’s The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961), many historians have challenged the traditional accounts of this militant aspect of the anti-slavery struggle. Gara’s study argued that the Underground Railroad was not the widespread, highly organized entity of legend. Furthermore, he contended that most fugitive slaves escaped to freedom through their own efforts.9
In his brief sketch of the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Encyclopedia (1992), Dr. Marion Lucas noted that “very few whites or blacks in fact entered Kentucky to lead slaves to free soil.” Indeed, he continued, the majority of Kentucky’s runaway slaves generally struck out on their own, “without the aid of abolitionists.”10
While historians continue to debate the extent and activities of the Underground Railroad, the deeds of those imprisoned in Frankfort for anti-slavery activities symbolize real sacrifice in the name of freedom. While over 44 have been identified thus far, the number was unquestionably higher. Indeed, many prison register entries merely use the term “felony” to describe the offense in question.11 The tendency to denigrate and convict anti-slavery zealots as “Slave Stealers” poses further challenges, making it difficult for researchers to separate true abolitionists from mere criminals.
Published in 1860, William C. Sneed’s history of the Kentucky Penitentiary reveals that at least 14 men served time for stealing or kidnapping slaves between 1798 and 1834.12 However, further investigation is needed to determine which of these were prisoners of conscience or mere criminals like the legendary “Land Pirate,” John A. Murrel of Tennessee. Many Southerners would afterwards compare abolitionists to men like Murrel, who would lure slaves away from their masters with promises of freedom only to sell them for their own profit.13
However, by 1844, the annual reports for the penitentiary began to differentiate clearly between those confined for “Slave Stealing” and those confined for “Assisting Slaves to Run Away.” The latter represented a clear minority of the prison population between 1844 and 1859; ranging from as few as four in 1849 to as many as 11 in 1853.14
A review of the original prison registers provides considerable data on the 44 men and women who served time between 1844 and 1870. Of the 24 white anti-slavery prisoners confined during this period, only seven were born in Kentucky or other slave states. The remainder included 10 natives of free states and seven who were foreign born. Not all of their occupations could be identified; however, at least six were common laborers, one a farmer, and three tradesmen. Isaac Barter, a native of Ireland who was convicted in Simpson County, was a physician while Calvin Fairbank was a man of the cloth.15
Of the 19 “Free Persons of Color” confined in Frankfort for anti-slavery activities, only one, John Russell, was born north of the Ohio. The occupations of seven included five common laborers. The remaining two were a cooper and a blacksmith by trade. Occupations were not given for the seven women, both black and white, who were incarcerated during the same period.16
Original prison records also reveal that most of the 44 were in the prime of life. Over a dozen were in their twenties with an additional 10 in their thirties. It is surprising to note, however, that six were aged 60 or older. Indeed, Doctor Perkins, a African-American from Bracken County, was 76 years old.17
As previously noted, eight of the 44 died in their cells. Of the remainder, 20 served out their time, while 14 were pardoned. One, 61-year-old William H. Davis, who was convicted in Logan County, escaped. According to a terse entry in the prison register, he “went a fishing” and never returned.18 Yet another, William Dixon, had his sentence overturned by a decision of the Kentucky Court of Appeals.19
An examination of available court records, petitions for pardon filed with Governors Papers, contemporary newspapers and other sources indicate that these men and women were motivated by strong anti-slavery convictions, compassion for the enslaved or, as in the case of some African-Americans, their desire to liberate family or loved ones. It should be noted, however, that some may have been motivated by purely mercenary motives.
In 1848, Edward James “Patrick” Doyle was sentenced to 20 years at hard labor by the Fayette Circuit Court for leading the largest mass escape attempt in Kentucky history. However, the Irish youth had been previously charged in Louisville with attempting to sell free blacks into slavery. This incident, coupled with the fact that he required payment from each slave for his services as a guide to freedom explains why Doyle is excluded from this study.20
William Green, a 37-year-old laborer from Germany, represents the majority of those prisoners who were inspired by purer motives. On or about July 3, 1859, he attempted to lead Hagar and her two children, the property of Lloyd Kirby, and Amy, the property of Henry Ellis, to freedom. Bound for New Richmond, Ohio, the fugitives never made it out of Pendleton County. Green was arrested and jailed in Falmouth, while the runaways, discovered hiding in a tree, were returned to their owners.21
Whether a militant abolitionist like Calvin Fairbank, or simply a man moved by the plight of his neighbor’s “property,” Green was undoubtedly regarded as a dangerous fanatic by the pro-slavery element in Pendleton County. His trial record included a crude sketch of what may have been Green himself with the caption “Abolitionist” scrawled beneath.22 Sentenced to 12 years, Green was among a work detail captured by Confederate cavalry during John Hunt Morgan’s attack on Frankfort in the summer of 1864. Although paroled by his rebel captors, Green chose not to escape and returned voluntarily to his cell. For this act, and his overall good behavior, Green was pardoned on February 2, 1867.23
A native of Tennessee, twenty-two year old Tom Johnson, a “free man of color” who was raised in Lexington, sacrificed his freedom for the love of a woman. Determined to marry Amanda, the property of F.B. Merriman of Marion County, he persuaded her to run away with him on August 2, 1863. Both were captured and Johnson was sentenced to two years for “Unlawfully Enticing, Aiding & Assisting a Slave to Leave Her Owner.”24
Leading members of Lexington’s Free Black community apparently requested Leslie Combs, a prominent Kentucky Unionist, to intervene in young Johnson’s behalf. Although staunchly devoted to the old flag, Combs, like many Kentucky Unionists, did not support Lincoln’s measures against slavery. In a letter to Governor Thomas Bramlette dated March 21, 1865, Combs bluntly declared, “I am no Abolitionist.” However, he continued, “while the whole state, county, & town & village is filled with white men in the constant habit of running off slaves. . . without the motive of feeling influencing this colored man . . . I respectfully urge that it is a cruel mockery to keep this man longer confined.” Johnson was accordingly set free on April 25, 1865.25
Sixty-two-year-old Lydia A. Parks of Louisville and Mattie Johnson, her 27-year-old house servant, were, along with the noted Delia Webster, among the seven women who served time in Frankfort. On September 15, 1863, both were brought before the Louisville Police Court and charged with “running off John and Amy, slaves of Mrs. Gaithright.” Both Parks and Johnson were found guilty and sentenced to two and three-year terms respectively.26
Johnson, a poor widow from Indiana, claimed that she was innocent of any crime. In a petition for pardon submitted to Governor Bramlette, Johnson claimed that she was in route to visit relatives in Indiana at the time she was arrested at the riverfront landing. Upon learning of Johnson’s travel plans, Mrs. Parks had persuaded her to wait for two veiled women. It was only when the hack reached the landing, Johnson claimed, that she discovered her mysterious companions were fugitive slaves.27
Bramlette pardoned the distraught woman on January 27, 1864. However, Mrs. Parks remained in prison until she was pardoned on March 1, 1865.28
Given the serious friction between Kentucky and the Lincoln administration over the slavery issue, loyalty to the Union was no shield against Kentucky law. When Gooden Smith, a discharged Federal soldier, persuaded the slave of a local Southern sympathizer to run away, he was sentenced to a two-year term by the Butler Circuit Court.29
On December 3, 1862, David C. McDonald, a discharged Union soldier from Ohio, was indicted by the Breckinridge Circuit Court for “Negro Stealing.”30 Sentenced to 17 years at hard labor, McDonald was still in confinement five years after the close of the Civil War. The Cincinnati Commercial learned of his plight and launched a campaign to secure his release.31
On April 7, 1870, while African-Americans across the land were celebrating the passage of the 15th Amendment, McDonald was pardoned by Governor John W. Stevenson. Generally, entries of this type in a Governor’s executive journal consisted of one or two brief lines. Such was not the case in this instance. After referring to McDonald’s date of conviction, the entry read:
Since that time the Negroes have all been emancipated, Slavery no longer exists any where in the Union, the negroes have been even invested with the electoral franchise, and as they are now free to go wheresoever they may choose, it would appear somewhat singular to see a man imprisoned for seventeen long years for attempting to take one negro from his master when the government has taken & freed them all since the conviction of McDonald took place.32
In a brief reference to the event, the Louisville Courier-Journal observed on April 11, “This may be set down as the last of the immediate consequences of slavery in Kentucky.”33
These random profiles only tell part of the story. Indeed, the seven men and one woman who died during confinement symbolize the ultimate sacrifice of those who dared defy the law in the name of freedom. Conditions within the prison were primitive by modern standards and evidence indicates that “abolitionist fanatics” were singled out for brutal treatment.
Published in 1857, Thomas Brown’s Three Years in Kentucky Prisons chronicled his confinement in Frankfort. Convicted of “Abducting Slaves” in Union County, the 60-year-old Irish native entered the “gloomy portals of the State Prison” on May 18, 1855. Brown related that the warden was “extremely glad to get another ‘Abolitionist’ . . . in his power, expressing with an oath, a wish to be permitted to hang all such.”34
When the old man, already weakened by a year’s confinement in the county jail, failed to perform a task properly, word spread that “Old Brown has worn himself out stealing negroes and would not work.” Brown was stripped and “flogged with the ‘cat’ till his blood ran upon the floor.”35 When he complained of his punishment to another prisoner, the same guard struck him a blow with his fist that knocked out two of his teeth and left him unconscious on the floor. Less than a month after the beating, Brown was flogged again for failing to eat the crust of his bread! The old man served out his time and was finally released on May 18, 1857.36
Calvin Fairbank’s 1890 autobiography is filled with similar accounts of brutal treatment. His first term of four years and ten months ended in 1849 when he was pardoned by Governor John J. Crittenden. When he began his second lengthier term in 1852, the Abolitionist heard the warden snarl, “. . . take Fairbank to the hackling house and kill him.”37 The hackling house was part of the prison’s hemp production area where conditions were so brutal that during one fifteen month period three inmates deliberately chopped off a hand in order to escape the hated task.38
To Fairbank there was “very little difference between the condition of the prisoner and that of an actual slave.”39 As previously noted, the Abolitionist was flogged repeatedly during his second term. During the fall of 1863, Fairbank was struck by a club with such force that he was temporarily blinded.40 The end finally came in the spring of 1864 when Leslie Combs, the staunch Unionist who intervened on behalf of young Tom Johnson, sought a formal pardon for the long suffering prisoner.
In a letter dated April 14, 1864, Combs wrote:
I have learned with some surprise recently that a minister of the gospel named Fairbank is still confined in the penitentiary upon the charge of stealing a negro . . .
Now while high officials of the U.S. Government with the sanction of the president or by his orders are doing the same thing or much worse under the tyrant’s state plea of “military necessity” – without containing any such conscientious opinions as influenced Fairbank, I think it a most cruel farce to keep him in penal confinement & hope you will pardon him.41
The petitions of Combs and others fortunately came before Lieutenant Governor Richard T. Jacobs, who had promised to pardon Fairbank at the first opportunity. On April 15, 1864, Reverend Calvin Fairbank walked out the prison gate a free man.42
Both Brown and Fairbank survived their walk through the fiery furnace, but others did not. Brown himself related that another anti-slavery prisoner, a “colored man of Evansville, Indiana” died “after receiving a severe blow from one of the keepers.”43 This was probably a reference to German Pin, a 60-year-old African-American convicted in Henderson County. According to prison records, he died on March 30, 1857 of “Congestion of the Lungs.”44
Other deaths included George Carter, a 22-year-old African-American convicted in Scott County, Dr. Isaac Barter sent from Simpson County, and William Jeter, a 45-year-old carpenter sentenced in Jefferson County.45
The conviction of Doctor Perkins by the Bracken Circuit Court was virtually a death sentence. The 76-year-old African-American baker was sentenced to a three-year term in 1853. On February 3, 1854 several residents of Augusta petitioned Governor Lazarus Powell for executive clemency. In “consequence of his old age,” they pleaded, and because of “the sympathy we have for the old man, we petition your excellency to pardon him on condition he will leave the state with his family. . . “46
Unmoved by their pleas, Powell rejected the petition. Perkins died behind prison walls on September 23, 1854.47
In August of 1856, several slaves belonging to Dr. James E. McDowell of Mason County slipped across the Ohio River to freedom. Pursuing whites failed to overtake them, however, they happened upon George Williams, a 33-year-old “Free man of Color” in the hills of Brown county, Ohio. Convinced that Williams had guided the fugitives over the river, one of the Kentuckians drew a knife and threatened to “cut his guts out” if he didn’t confess.48
Williams had pistols drawn on him twice during the journey back to Mason County and, as he later stated to the court, was forced to confess against his will. His plea for a new trial was overruled and on October 31, 1856 he walked through the prison gate at Frankfort. Detailed to the dreaded Hemp House, Williams died of “Consumption” on December 29, 1858.49
Whether an agent on the Underground Railroad or a scapegoat, Williams was still a victim of the system.
Although she gained her freedom in 1847, Julett Miles of Bracken County still had several children and grandchildren held in slavery for years afterward. Their owner — her former owner — was the father of noted Kentucky abolitionist John G. Fee. Young Fee was so devoted to Julett, his former nursemaid, that upon learning that she was about to be sold, he purchased her freedom. Father and son clashed bitterly over the transaction, however the latter prevailed.50
Julett subsequently married, started a new family and moved to Ohio in 1854. However, in the fall of 1858 she learned that the elder Fee planned to sell the children and grandchildren he still owned down river to New Orleans. Julett slipped across the Ohio, gathered her little family group of 10, and made a desperate attempt to reach free soil. The entire party was overtaken and captured before they reached the river.51
Fee was heartbroken when he learned of her arrest and confinement in the Bracken County jail. When efforts to raise bail money failed, he hired two attorneys for Julett’s defense. The Abolitionist was reportedly threatened by pro-slavery mobs but refused to withdraw his support. Fee’s wife boldly visited Julett who was confined in an underground cellar that served as the local jail. However the two women were forbidden to meet face-to-face and Mrs. Fee was forced to speak to Julett through a crack in the floor. Found guilty in February of 1859, the 48-year-old woman was sentenced to a three-year term for the “crime” of “stealing” her own children.52
Fee and his daughter visited Julett later that summer and found her employed as a cook in the warden’s home. She seemed in good health and high spirits at the time. However, shortly afterwards, Fee received word that she was dead. According to prison records she died of “Stomach inflammation” on August 29, 1859. The prison physician noted that the symptoms were so sudden and violent that he suspected she might have taken poison.53 She had lost her own freedom and knew her children and grandchildren were sold “down the river” during her confinement. The fact that her loved ones were lost to her forever could well have broken her spirit.
The tragic fate of Elijah Anderson symbolized the risks taken by those “Underground Railroad agents courageous enough to operate on Kentucky soil. A daring member of what Benjamin Quarles termed the “Black Underground,” Anderson was born free in Lynchburg, Virginia around 1808. A skilled blacksmith, he settled in the booming river town of Madison, Indiana in the late 1830’s. He prospered on free soil, and in time was able to acquire a fine brick cottage.54
During the 1840’s, Anderson emerged as one of the most active members of the “Underground Railroad” within Madison’s free black community. On more than one occasion, he entered Kentucky to guide runaways to safety on the Indiana shore. Driven out of Madison because of his anti-slavery activities, Anderson settled in Cleveland, Ohio in the early 1850’s.55
Anderson continued to remain active during the years after his forced exile from Madison and was termed by one Abolitionist as the “General Superintendent” of the Underground Railroad in Northwestern Ohio. According to Rush Sloane, an anti-slavery activist of Sandusky, Ohio, Anderson had led over a thousand fugitives to freedom by 1855.56
However, in late 1856 he was betrayed by an African-American for the reward money offered by Kentucky slave owners, and was arrested by Louisville police officers. Convicted of “Enticing Slaves to Run Away” in Trimble County, Anderson was sentenced to an eight-year term in June of 1857.57 Anderson’s daughter later claimed that his skills as a blacksmith were so appreciated by the warden that he was not subjected to harsh treatment.58
However, on March 4, 1861, the day Lincoln delivered his inaugural address, the 53-year-old Anderson was found dead in his cell. The official cause of death was given as “Hydro-pericardium,” an inflammation of the membrane enclosing the heart.59 While his contributions to the anti-slavery cause may have been exaggerated, Anderson’s courage and sacrifice were genuine. He sacrificed his freedom and his life in an effort to deliver others from the ordeal of slavery.
The stories of Anderson and the others who served time in Frankfort reveal that in Kentucky, slavery was attacked both from within and without. Northern born Abolitionists such as Calvin Fairbank and Delia Webster as well as African-American “abductors” such as Anderson dared to enter the state and lead slaves to freedom. While many slaves escaped entirely on their own, others were assisted by Kentucky residents, many of them Northern or foreign born, or members of the Free Black community. Not all were part of a secret underground network of abolitionists and their motives varied. Indeed some “Free Persons of Color” fought a personal war against slavery in an effort to free family members or loved ones held in bondage.
This study also reveals the determination with which pro-slavery Kentuckians fought to preserve the institution. Union men who dared to persuade the slaves of Southern sympathizers to flee during the Civil War found themselves treated with the same severity as any ante-bellum “Negro Thief”. The stories of Doctor Perkins and Julett Miles reveal that the law, which spared neither age nor gender, could indeed be merciless. Evidence also indicates that Free Blacks and white “outsiders” may have served as convenient scapegoats as the slavery controversy intensified. Thomas Brown claimed to be innocent of all charges. So did Oswald Wright of Indiana and George Williams of Ohio, two African Americans who were seized north of the Ohio and brought back to Kentucky by force. The “troublesome” presence of these free blacks near the slave community and Brown’s open hostility to slavery could well have been the true cause for their punishment.
Razed in 1937, little remains of Kentucky’s first prison today. The names of most of the forty four men and women who served time have been largely forgotten. With the exception of Elijah Anderson, the names of the dead themselves have vanished from the pages of history. Buried alive behind the cold, gray prison walls, their suffering and sacrifice has been ignored by historians. However, each in their own way, should be remembered as casualties in the anti-slavery struggle. Their story forms the heart and soul of the legacy of the Underground Railroad and the anti-slavery struggle in Kentucky.
- Calvin Fairbank, Rev. Calvin Fairbank During Slavery Times.
(Chicago: Patriotic Publishing Co., 1890. Reprint. New York : Negro Universities Press, 1969), 149.
- “Giltner vs. Gorham et al”, 4 McLean (1848).
- C.S. Morehead and Mason Brown. Digest of the Statute Laws
of Kentucky. (Frankfort: Albert G. Hodges, 1834) II: 1267-1271.
- Acts. . .of the Thirty-Eighth General Assembly for the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
(Frankfort: Dana and Hodges, 1830) 173-175.
- Acts of the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. (Frankfort; A. G. Hodges, 1846) 21.
- Wilbur H. Siebert. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom.
(New York: The MacMillan Co., 1898) 340-358.
- Larry Gara. The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad.
Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1961. Reprint. The University Press of Kentucky,
1996: 164-194, passim.
- Marion Lucas. “Underground Railroad.” The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Ed. John Kleber.
(Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992) 905.
- See entries for Elijah Anderson and Gooden Smith, Kentucky State Penitentiary Register
(1861-1866), Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives, Frankfort.
- William C. Sneed. A Report on the History and Mode of Management of the Kentucky
Penitentiary from Its Origins in 1798, to March 1, 1860. (Frankfort: State Printer, 1860)
75, 155, 207-209, 214.
- Judge Walker Reid to Governor Owsley, September 2, 1848 (Box 27, Folder 574),
Governor William Owsley Papers, Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives, Frankfort.
(Hereafter cited as KDLA)
- Sneed, Kentucky Penitentiary, p. 347, 450, 504.
- See Appendix B. Data compiled from Kentucky Penitentiary Registers (1848-1855),
(1855-1861) and (1861-1866), KDLA.
- See Appendix A. Data compiled from Kentucky Penitentiary Registers (1848-1855),
(1855-1861), (1861-1866), KDLA.
- Kentucky Penitentiary Register (1848-1855), KDLA.
- Kentucky Penitentiary Register (1855-1861), KDLA.
- James M. Prichard, “This Priceless Jewell – Liberty: The Doyle Conspiracy of 1848.”
Paper Delivered at the 14th Annual Ohio Valley History Conference, October 23, 1998.
- “Commonwealth vs. William Green.” Pendleton Circuit Court Criminal Cases, KDLA.
- William Green to Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, ND. (Box 32, Folder 683). Governor
Thomas E. Bramlette Papers, KDLA.
- “Commonwealth vs. Tom Johnson.” Marion Circuit Court Criminal Cases, Box 1, KDLA.
- Leslie Combs to Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, March 21, 1865 (Box 13, Folder 276).
Governor Thomas E. Bramlette Papers, KDLA.
- Louisville Daily Journal. September 16, 1863.
- Mattie Johnson to Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, ND. (Box 9, Folder 189).
Governor Thomas E. Bramlette Papers, KDLA.
- Ibid and Lydia A. Parks Pardon (Box 13, Folder 276). Governor Thomas E. Bramlette Papers, KDLA.
- Gooden Smith Pardon (Box 11, Folder 232). Governor Thomas E. Bramlette Papers, KDLA.
- Breckinridge County Circuit Court Order Book 15: 581, 615. KDLA.
- Madison (IN) Evening Courier, June 15, 1874.
- Executive Journal (1870-1871): 59. Papers of Governor John W. Stevenson, KDLA.
- Louisville (KY) Courier Journal, April 11, 1870.
- Thomas Brown. Brown’s Three Years in the Kentucky Prisons. Indianapolis:
Courier Company Print, 1857. 15, 19.
- Ibid, p. 18.
- Ibid, p. 18-19, 21.
- Fairbank, Slavery Times: 104.
- T. Kyle Ellison. Changing Faces, Common Walls: History of Corrections in Kentucky.
Louisville: Office of Corrections Training, 1988. 6.
- Fairbank, Slavery Times: 119.
- Ibid: 140-142.
- Leslie Combs to Governor Thomas E. Bramlette. April 14, 1864 (Box 10, Folder 210)
Papers of Governor Thomas E. Bramlette, KDLA.
- Fairbank. Slavery Times: 144-147.
- Brown. Three Years. 20.
- Kentucky Penitentiary Register (1855-1861), KDLA.
- Kentucky penitentiary Register (1848-1855), Kentucky Penitentiary Register (1861-1866)
and Sneed, Kentucky Penitentiary: 568.
- J. Taylor Bradford, et al to Governor Lazarus Powell. Feb. 3, 1854 (Box 27, Folder 576).
Papers of Governor Lazarus Powell, KDLA.
- “Commonwealth vs. George Williams.” (Box 257). Mason Circuit Case Files, KDLA.
- Sneed. Kentucky Penitentiary: 568.
- Victor B. Howard. The Evangelical War Against Slavery and Caste. Selingrove:
Susquehana University Press, 1996: 60, 114-115.
- Ibid: 115-116.
- Ibid. Sneed. Kentucky Penitentiary: 564, 566.
- Siebert. Underground Railroad: 183; “Blacks in and Around Jefferson County.”
Unpublished mss, Jefferson County Library, Madison, IN.; Madison (IN) Daily Courier, Jan 13, 1880.
- Ibid; Madison (IN) Courier. June 20, 1857.
- Siebert. Underground Railroad. 183.
- “Blacks In and Around Jefferson County;” Trimble County Circuit Court Order Book 3: 170, KDLA.
- Madison (IN) Evening Courier, June 15, 1874.
- Ibid; Report of the Keeper and Lessee of the Kentucky Penitentiary. . .
September 13, 1861. Frankfort: State Printer, 1861. 13.
Crossing The "Dark Line": Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in Louisville and North Central Kentucky (excerpt) by 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:
- 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
- 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 50 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:
- Through far western Kentucky, i.e., through Cairo, Illinois and Paducah, Kentucky to the east.
- At Diamond Island, near Posey County, in southwest Indiana, leading along the Wabash River.
- 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.”
- Near the mouth of the Little Pigeon River, in Warrick County and then north through Oakland City to Petersburg, Indiana.
- 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:
- The Portsmouth, Ohio area, leading toward Chillicothe and then to central Ohio.
- Near the Kentucky/Virginia/Ohio border in the Appalachians. (Cockrum, 1915: 17-20; Siebert, 1898: 134-139).
- The Cincinnati, Ohio and Covington, Kentucky area, the extensively researched “Grand Central Station” of the UGRR. (Coffin, 1876; Siebert, 1898: 135-138).
- 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.
- Leavenworth, Indiana, near the mouth of Indian Creek (near Brandenburg, Kentucky) leading toward Corydon, Indiana. (Cockrum, 1915: 17-20).
- The Louisville region, including New Albany, Jeffersonville and Clarksville, Indiana – – on which this study will focus in some detail.
- 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:
- field agents who provided information, e.g., where to go, who to contact, how to travel, signs and signals along the route.
- station-keepers who provided shelter and provisions for fugitives; and
- 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)
Making Their Way To Freedom: Runaway Slave Advertisements From Louisville Newspapers, 1788 - 1860 (excerpt) by Pen Bogert
Louisville As A Stopping Point and Destination for Escaping Slaves
The strategic location of Louisville at the Falls of the Ohio resulted in both its preeminence as a river port and as a terminus for overland trade routes from Tennessee and Alabama. After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and particularly after the advent of steamboat transportation in 1811, trade between Louisville and Natchez, Baton Rouge, and New Orleans grew rapidly. The growth of sugar plantations in Louisiana and the rapid influx of European settlers into the Mississippi Territory, and the development of cotton plantations there, created a huge demand for slave labor. Individual slave owners and slave traders in Kentucky began selling enslaved African Americans in these areas as early as the 1790’s. What began as a sporadic slave trade developed into a flourishing and professional business as early as 1820. Many enslaved persons, separated from their families and sold into Mississippi and Louisiana, attempted to escape back to Louisville and other areas of Kentucky. The burgeoning trade on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers created opportunities for escape as slaves secreted themselves on steamboats or, posing as free persons, found work as firemen and deckhands. Mississippi slave owners were placing advertisements for escaped slaves in Louisville newspapers as early as 1806.
J. Pannill, living near Natchez, was the first Mississippi slaveowner to place a runaway slave advertisement in a Louisville newspaper. On July 23, 1806 he placed an advertisement in the Western American (Louisville) for the capture of a 19-year-old man named Sam, who had been taken to Natchez by G. R. C. Floyd of Jefferson Co., Ky. and sold. There were advertisements for 91 escaped slaves from Mississippi between 1806-1860.
It took about seven to 10 days for steamboats to reach Louisville from New Orleans, and steamboats continuing on to Cincinnati would lay over in Louisville for a few days. Steamboats were also a frequent means of escape from Northern Alabama and Tennessee via the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers. This study documents 176 persons who escaped on steamboats which were scheduled to stop in Louisville.
Hundreds of enslaved African Americans also escaped overland from Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi. The Natchez Trace was a frequent route as early as 1807 and there were other early routes to Nashville from northern Alabama. The early roads from Nashville north through Russellville, Bowling Green and Glasgow to Elizabethtown, Bardstown and Louisville became major escape routes. One of the earliest Tennessee slaveowners to place a runaway slave advertisement was Andrew Jackson. In 1802 he advertised in the Western Spy (Cincinnati) for the capture of George Melvin, who Jackson stated “will make for the North Western territory, or Detroit” and who “has obtained by some means a good idea of the Geography of that country.” George Melvin was captured but escaped again in 1804. This time Jackson placed an ad in the Farmer’s Library (Louisville), stating that Melvin had last been seen in Hartford, Kentucky. In 1804 an escaped slave from Sumter County, Tennessee, named Jack Sweetman was seen crossing the Rolling Fork “on the road that leads to Bairdstown.” His destination (or so the slave owner thought) was the Indiana Territory or Ohio.1
The road Sweetman took was probably the road that went from Gallatin (Sumter County), Tennessee, through Franklin and Bowling Green, Kentucky, and then across the Rolling Fork in Hardin County to Bardstown. From there he could have continued on through Shepherdsville to Louisville. Numerous other advertisements mention these and other early escape routes. Louisville was also a destination and waystation for 823 slaves who escaped from other areas of Kentucky, particularly Barren, Bullitt, Fayette, Green, Hardin, Meade, Mercer, Nelson, Oldham, Shelby, Spencer, and Washington counties. All of these counties were connected by roads to Louisville. Finally, Louisville and the rest of Jefferson County was itself the point of origin for 1,021 escaped slaves between 1788-1860.
The Western Frontier, 1770 – c. 1810
Much of the literature on the Underground Railroad in Kentucky tends to focus on the period after 1840, and in doing so creates the impression of an environment that changed little over time. In fact, there were major changes in the opportunities and challenges which escaping slaves had to face if they were to be successful in their escape attempts.
During the frontier period there was no Underground Railroad; Ohio and Indiana did not even exist as states and Canada was not yet a safe haven for escaped slaves. Escaping slaves had three choices: they could write or obtain a forged pass, change their names and clothing and attempt to pass as free persons in one of the expanding settlements in Kentucky; they could cross over to the “Indian” side of the Ohio River and either try to make contact with one of the Indian nations or else attempt to reach Vincennes, Detroit and (later) Cincinnati and Chillicothe; or they could attempt a long and extremely dangerous overland trek or river voyage back through the wilderness to Maryland or Virginia.
The first alternative was chosen by many. There are numerous advertisements in the Kentucky Gazette in the 1790’s where escaped slaves were suspected of passing themselves off as free persons. Typical of these advertisements was one placed in 1793 by William Farrow of Lexington for the capture of George, who was suspected of “lurking in the county of Logan or Green, or gone to Cumberland [Tennessee].” In 1795 Rawleigh Chinn of Lexington advertised for an escaped woman named Nan, whom, he supposed, was still in Lexington or “if she is not I expect she will try to pass for a free woman.”2
The earliest surviving runaway slave advertisement in a Kentucky newspaper was placed by Louisville merchant and landowner John Campbell on 15 March 1788 for the capture of a man named Isaac. Four months later B. Wilson advertised for the capture of two carpenters named Jim and Lewis. Wilson stated that “as they were lately moved from Cumberland county in Virginia, they may endeavour to pass through the wilderness to the place of their nativity.”3 In 1790 Daniel Boone captured an escaped slave from Virginia at the mouth of the Kanawha River4 and in 1793 Thomas Carneal of Lexington placed an advertisement for the capture of John Grey who, he surmised, “will try to pass for a freeman, and will either make for the mouth of Licking [River] or the Eastern settlements [Virginia]: he was raised in Caroline county Virginia.”5
There were many similar advertisements placed in the Kentucky Gazette and several escaped slaves succeeded in reaching the “Eastern settlements.”6 In 1785 Peter Brown advertised in a Baltimore newspaper for the capture of a 19-year old escaped slave named Tom, stating that he “ran away from Kentucky, sometime in September last, and was seen on his way to Virginia, this side the wilderness.”7 It is clear that the changing nature of the frontier posed great challenges and hardships for anyone trying to escape from slavery. Choices of destinations were extremely limited until around 1795. After that period increasingly successful attempts were made to reach first Ohio, then Detroit and finally Indiana (around 1804). By 1815 the rapid settlement of Ohio and Indiana, the further expansion of European settlement into the Illinois country, the growth of cities in Kentucky and the rapid increase in trade on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers created many more avenues of escape.
Pen Bogert is a reference specialist at the Filson Club Historical Society.
1 For George Melvin, see Western Spy (Cincinnati), 19 June 1802,
Tennessee Gazette (Nashville), 24 October 1804 and Farmer’s Library
(Louisville) 26 October 1805. For Jack Sweetman see Farmer’s Library, 15 February 1804.
2 Kentucky Gazette (Lexington), 10 August 1793, 18 July 1795.
3 Kentucky Gazette, 15 March 1788, 5 July 1788.
4 Ibid., 14 June 1790.
5 Ibid., 18 May 1793.
6 A slave named Ned and two white men escaped from a jail in
Hamilton County, Ohio in 1794, crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky and planned to make their way
to Crab Orchard, Kentucky, at night. Crab Orchard was the major rendezvous in Kentucky for groups
attempting to pass back through the wilderness to Virginia. Ibid., 11 October 1794.
7 Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, 6 January 1786,
in Runaway Slave Advertisements: A Documentary History from the 1730’s to 1790, Vol. 2, Maryland.
Lathan A. Windley (comp.). Greenwood Press, p. 342
Historic Architecture (excerpt) By Julie Riesenweber
Kentucky’s historic architecture tells stories about the past much like those written by historians or told by family and neighbors. Buildings and structures stand in every town and along every country road to provide an immediate sense of the past. The history, made up of people’s stories can be influenced by poor memory or personal point of view. But buildings represent the past directly, providing historical information without human opinions.
Many of history’s stories relate great achievements because people tend to write down and tell the most remarkable events. Likewise, some architectural studies focus on outstanding buildings. This “great and few” approach groups structures like Liberty Hall and the Old State Capitol in Frankfort into architectural styles and asks how recognized architects influence one another. Although great buildings are part of our past, they make up only a small portion of our historic architecture. Many more ordinary buildings remain to tell about the everyday lives of most past Kentuckians.
The Settlement Period, 1770-1820
Few of the buildings in the state’s first white European settlements survive. The earliest standing structures date to the 1790s, when people left fortifications to establish farms and towns. Much of the architecture built in Kentucky at this time was log, and, although settlers constructed all kinds of buildings from log, those still standing are dwellings.
The first dwellings were log cabins containing round logs, wooden plank roofs weighted with poles or stones, dirt or split-log floors, and few window openings. Like forts, these cabins were meant to be temporary. People soon replaced them with well-built and tightly sealed log houses with plank floors, wood shingle roofs, plastered interior walls and weatherboards to protect chinking between logs from moisture.
Kentuckians used familiar methods of construction to build these houses, joining squared logs into standard forms with interlocking notches cut into logs’ ends. The basic units of log dwellings were pens or rooms that were either square or rectangular in shape. Rectangular pen houses often had a board partition dividing the interior ground floor space into two rooms of unequal size called hall and parlor.
The floor plans based upon these basic square and rectangular units have a long history. People in the British Isles constructed dwellings with similar sized rooms arranged in the same plans during the 1600s and 1700s. While most English colonists built American versions of these familiar forms from heavy frame, people from Sweden, Finland, or German-speaking countries brought the idea of log construction to the New World. Americans blended English house forms and log construction, building log houses in large numbers as they moved westward from the eastern seaboard.
Kentuckians enlarged small square and rectangular pen houses by adding units to create floor plans with more than one pen, such as the double-pen, saddlebag, and dogtrot floor plans. They sometimes used wood frame or other materials like stone or brick to build these additions. Rather than enlarging their houses with additions, some Kentuckians constructed such multi-unit plans in a single effort.
While we often think of log houses as crude dwellings connected with the state’s settlement, most of those still standing in Kentucky were well built and finely finished. Prosperous landowners often chose log for constructing their two-room, two-story houses and installed elaborate woodwork and other ornamental details. Log buildings went up as late as 1870 across the state and until the 1930s in some parts of eastern Kentucky. Many of these later log dwellings have the same types of corner notching and the same floor plans as log houses built before 1820.
Other well-to-do settlers chose to live in houses built from limestone. Most of the state’s stone buildings date between 1785 and 1835 and are found in central Kentucky, where this material was abundant. To construct a stone wall, a mason laid two rows of carefully shaped stones about a foot apart, fitting them closely together. He then placed other stones lengthwise over both rows to tie them together with mortar. This “dry stone” method came from Ireland or Scotland and can also be seen in Kentucky’s many rock fences, although these were not common until about 1840.
Buildings constructed in Kentucky before 1820 also were made of brick and wood frame. Brick began to be used during the 1790s and replaced stone as the favorite masonry building material about 1820. Like stone, brick construction required a mason’s skills and was thus expensive compared to log: only the wealthiest Kentuckians could afford the labor costs involved in making and laying brick. The brick houses surviving today represent the largest and most elaborate dwellings of their time. Kentucky’s frame architecture before 1860 employed posts and beams nearly the same size as logs. This type of structure is called timberframe because of the large size of the framing elements. The timbers were joined by means of tongues shaped at the ends of vertical posts that fit into pockets cut into horizontal beams. Before the Civil War, Kentuckians preferred log over timber frame for wooden houses because log was a simpler system of construction for which most had the necessary skills and tools. They used frame more often for large buildings such as mills and barns.
Many stone, brick and frame dwellings built before 1810 have a hall/parlor plan. The majority of early Kentuckians lived in houses we would find very small, carrying out most daily activities in two ground-floor rooms. The larger hall was used for general living, eating, and working, while entertaining and perhaps sleeping took place in the smaller, more formal parlor. Most surviving Hall/parlor houses have exteriors carefully designed to disguise their unequal interior spaces. Whatever their form, many buildings constructed before 1835 have Federal ornament, which features geometric shapes, especially ovals.
Between 1780 and 1820, the wealthiest Kentuckians had separate kitchen buildings for cooking and other heavy household work like laundry and soapmaking. When present, kitchens were usually in the back yard, but most people probably did these dirty tasks outside. Kentucky’s mild climate made this possible and meant that farm animals could generally do without shelter. Kentuckians rarely constructed outbuildings before 1830.
The Antebellum Period, 1821-1865
Three related house plans appeared in the state as early as the 1790s but were not widely used until about 1830. Although each of these contains a passage or hallway that usually includes a stair, two are called central passage because the hallway is located between two rooms of equal size. One central passage plan has a total of four rooms, two arranged one behind the other on each side of the passage. This type is called double-pile, central passage. Another version called single-pile, central passage is the front half of the four-room type. The single-pile from has only two rooms on the ground floor, one on each side of the hallway. A third variety is basically two-thirds of the first. Called the side-passage plan, it includes a hallway with two rooms, one behind the other, at one side of it. Side-passage houses were almost always built in towns and could occupy individual lots or be joined with common end walls to form rows.
The passage helped to solve the space problems of other house forms. It gave the house’s occupants more privacy because visitors entered the passage instead of directly into a living space. With four ground- floor rooms, each opening onto the passage in the large double-pile house, plans with passages also allowed homeowners to make clear spatial separations between work activities like cooking from leisure ones like entertaining. Passages also meant that sleeping could take place in a private chamber that was never seen by people outside the household.
This separation of work and leisure and public and private activities because so desirable that, beginning in the 1830s, many owners of small houses sought ways to create the necessary extra spaces. One way that many Kentuckians did this was to build a rear wing that provided one or two additional spaces for household work, creating a three-or four-room house from a smaller one. Such a rear wing is called an ell because it was most often located to one side of and at a right angle to the house, giving the dwelling an “L” shape when viewed from above. The passage and the extra spaces provided by the ell were so popular that by 1850 the house type built more often than any other had a single-pile, central-passage main block two stories high and a rear ell either one or two stories high. Many earlier dwellings were altered during the mid-nineteenth century to conform to this ideal, which continued to be built until the 1880s.
Kentuckians also extended the idea of special spaces for various activities outside the house so that after about 1830 rural Kentuckians built farm buildings in greater variety. By 1840, almost all farmers had a springhouse for storing dairy products, a cellar for keeping fruits and vegetables, a meathouse or smokehouse for curing meat, and a log or timber-frame barn for storing hay and grains.
Another outbuilding common in antebellum Kentucky was the slave house, which took the same basic forms as the dwellings inhabited by free men. But while their owners enjoyed large central-passage houses with distinct spaces for unique activities, slaves lived in comparatively crowded conditions. Rather than building a number of individual dwellings, Kentucky slave owners preferred houses with two-room plans that could be adapted to accommodate two families or groups of single men or women in a single building. The saddlebag plan, which includes one room on each side of a central chimney, was a very popular form for slave houses. When each ground-floor room contained a front door, and the house lacked doors between the rooms on either side of the chimney, both sides of the building were independent units much like a modern duplex. Many of the small one-and two-room houses intended for slaves were hastily and poorly constructed, rarely contained woodwork, and often were not even plastered. Since the average Kentuckian owned only a few slaves, there often was no separate slave house. In such cases, bondsmen had accommodations in the second stories of outbuildings such as kitchens or in the same house but apart from their owners in attics or second-floor rooms that did not connect with the front of the house.
Beginning in the late 1830s, the Greek Revival style appeared in Kentucky architecture. This style adopted ideas for design and ornament from classical Greece and was popular after the Civil War. The Greek Revival element most popular in Kentucky and most recognizable on its buildings was the portico, an elaborate porch supported by columns. At the same time, many public buildings were constructed to look like classical temples.
The new architectural ideas of the 1830s-central-passage plans and Greek Revival ornament-soon combined to result in a different look for Kentucky’s landscape. Many of the state’s buildings were replaced or altered during the 1830s and 1840s because people at that time, like those today, wanted to be up-to-date. Small dwellings gained additions, became ells to center-passage units, or were torn down. Greek Revival ornament replaced unfashionable woodwork both inside and outside. By 1840, most farmhouses were two stories high and had fronts with five openings organized window-window-door-window-window. Their faces, bearing porticos and classical ornament, overlooked roads rather than streams.
Social, political, economic, and religious events in history provide a context to better understand the attitudes and behaviors of individuals. This timeline gives some of the major occurrences in Kentucky and American history that influenced events leading to the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which made slavery illegal and extended civil rights to former slaves.
Below are the Kentucky timeline and the American timeline.
Christopher Gist and Dr. Thomas Walker, accompanied by an African servant, begin the first exploration beyond the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. This newly explored territory will come to be known as Kentucky.
An enslaved man guides Daniel Boone across the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Daniel Boone leads a group of settlers, including African laborers, into Kentucky. Presbyterians establish their first church at McAfee Station in what is now Mercer County.
Fincastle County is officially formed as the Western frontier of Virginia. Fincastle County will later become the state of Kentucky.
The “Travelling Church” departs for the Kentucky frontier.
Baptists establish their first permanent church at the Severns Valley settlement (now Elizabethtown).
An enslaved man named Monk Estill helps prevent the destruction by Native Americans of Estill’s Station near Irvine, Kentucky. Captain James Estill, owner of the station and of Monk, is on a hunting trip; but Monk attempts to find him and warn him of an attack. He finds him near present day Mt. Sterling but arrives just as an ambush begins. Captain Estill is killed, and Monk brings his body back to the Station. For his bravery, the oldest son of Captain Estill frees Monk through a process of “manumission.” Monk moves to Fort Boonesboro, becomes a skilled maker of gunpowder, and is the father of the first African American child born in Kentucky.
Town of Old Washington established in what was then Bourbon County.
Methodists organize in Kentucky. The first federal census counts 11,830 slaves on the Kentucky frontier. Fayette, Woodford, and surrounding counties have the largest African American population in Kentucky.
Kentucky officially enters the Union as the fifteenth state at a ceremonial meeting held in Lexington, Kentucky. It enters as a pro-slavery state. Free blacks are allowed to vote.
An anti-slavery resolution is presented to the state legislature by Rev. David Rice and evangelical religious leaders.
Second Kentucky Constitution is adopted. Free blacks lose their right to vote.
Great Revival is held at Cane Ridge, Bourbon County, Kentucky.
The Kentucky Abolition Society is founded, and the anti-slavery Abolition Intelligencer and Missionary Magazine are published. Kentucky becomes major exporter of slaves to the South.
Kentucky’s slave population increases at a rapid rate with African Americans making up over 40% of the population in Lexington.
Free blacks are allowed to legally marry each other, but not allowed to marry slaves.
Kentucky Colonization Society is formed. One of its key supporters is Henry Clay.
Kentucky slave, Tice Davids, successfully flees slavery and escapes to Ripley, Ohio. Based on his escape and disappearance, the term “Underground Railroad” is said to have been adopted. Kentucky’s enslaved population peaks at 24.7% with 165,213 slaves and 4,917 free African Americans. Josiah Henson makes a successful escape with his family from Owensboro, Kentucky to Canada.
Kentucky legislature passes law prohibiting importation of African slaves into the state for resale south.
James G. Birney, a slaveholder in Danville, frees his slaves, denounces colonization, and organizes the Kentucky Anti-Slavery Society.
The entry of the antislavery forces into politics is signaled by the establishment of the Liberty Party, which holds its founding convention in Warsaw, New York and nominates James G. Birney, a native of Kentucky and a former slaveholder, for president, and Thomas Earle (Pennsylvania) for vice president. These nominations will be confirmed at the party’s first national convention at Albany (April 1, 1840).
Liberty Party conventions are subsequently held in Ohio and other states in the Northwest. The party is composed of moderate abolitionists who do not share William Lloyd Garrison’s opposition to political action. Unlike Garrison, they profess loyalty to the Constitution and do not advocate secession or dissolution of the Union. By virtue of holding the balance of power, the party plays an important part in the presidential election of 1844, and is considered responsible for the defeat of Henry Clay.
In 1848 it combines with the Free Soil Party and helps to defeat the Democratic candidate, Lewis Cass. The party’s chief political issue is its stand against the annexation of Texas. Among its leaders are Gerrit Smith (New York) and Salmon P. Chase (Ohio).
First African Baptist Church is established in Lexington, Kentucky.
Cassius Clay publishes the anti-slavery newspaper True American.
Kentucky repeals the Non-Importation Act.
Bourbon County’s enslaved population reaches 50% of the total in the county.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe is published in book form. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work originally serialized in the antislavery newspaper, The National Era (in Washington, DC). A sentimental novel directed against the brutality and injustice of slavery, it was said to be inspired by passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. By mid-1853 some 1,200,000 copies of the work had been published. As a stage play it was first presented August 24, 1852.
Mrs. Stowe wrote Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) in an attempt to show that she had relied on factual evidence to support the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As a tribute to her brief stay in Kentucky, the Harriett Beecher Stowe Slavery to Freedom Museum has been established at Old Washington, Mason County Kentucky in the former Marshall Key home.
Kentucky legend states Stowe was inspired to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin while visiting Marshall Key’s daughter, her classmate, in Old Washington. While visiting the Key family, Stowe is said to have witnessed a slave auction in Old Washington which inspired her to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin based on the life of Kentucky slave Josiah Henson.
Margaret and Robert Garner are recaptured in Cincinnati, Ohio. Margaret kills one of her daughters rather than have her return to slavery. The case receives enormous publicity and becomes a test of the newly strengthened Fugitive Slave Law. The story is later fictionalized in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.
Pleasant Green Baptist Church is officially recognized as an established church in Lexington, Kentucky.
Elisha W. Green establishes a Baptist church in Maysville, Mason County, Kentucky.
John Gregg Fee establishes Berea College to provide interracial education.
Lincoln’s plan of compensated emancipation is embraced, abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, but no such compensation is provided.
General David Hunter proclaims the emancipation of slaves in his Department (including Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina), but Lincoln disavows this action.
Slavery is abolished in United States territories. Lincoln continues to appeal to the loyal states to enact gradual and compensated emancipation. Aware of the public shift toward the radical position on slavery, Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation.
President Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in states that seceded from the Union. Kentucky never seceded, therefore its slaves are not freed under the Proclamation. Lincoln had submitted the first draft of the proclamation to his cabinet on July 22, 1862, but was persuaded to withhold it because of military reverses.
On December 1 the president appeals to Congress for passage of a constitutional amendment providing for compensated emancipation, but the border states oppose the plan. To retain the loyalty of the border states Lincoln resists demands of the radical Republicans for abolition.
Military action on the part of Lincoln’s generals causes President Lincoln to rethink this strategy, which leads to issuance of the proclamation. With a need to influence European opinion, Lincoln follows his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation (September 22, 1862) with his final Proclamation (January 1, 1863) declaring that all slaves in areas still in rebellion were “then, thenceforward, and forever free.”
The Proclamation actually frees no slaves; in fact, it goes no further than Congress had already gone in legislation on the subject, for it applies only to areas over which the federal government exercises no control, specifically exempting all regions under federal military occupation.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery and frees slaves in border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and Maryland.
U.S. National Timeline
A group of Africans is brought to South Carolina by a Spanish explorer to erect a settlement. They escape and settle with Native Americans.
African slaves are brought to Spanish colony of St. Augustine.
Jamestown is settled. It is the first permanent settlement in the colony of Virginia. The Virginia Company of London finances the settlement with the expectation of seeing profits from harvesting Virginia’s raw resources.
John Rolfe plants Caribbean tobacco seeds in the rich Virginia soil. Tobacco becomes the exported product that makes Virginia a wealthy colony.
The first recorded Africans in the colony of Virginia arrive at Jamestown on a Dutch ship. Colonial Williamsburg historians believe these Africans were indentured servants.
Blacks in Virginia are not required to bear arms although white settlers must.
An African servant, John Punch, and two servants of European descent are captured while attempting to run away. The European servants are required to serve additional time as part of their punishment. John Punch is sentenced to lifetime servitude. This is the first recorded case of slavery prescribed by law in the colony of Virginia.
Massachusetts Bay Colony legalizes slavery.
Black women are counted as taxable property. Virginia passes a law making it illegal to help runaway slaves, punishable by 20 pounds of tobacco for each night of assistance.
Virginia legalizes slavery.
Children born to enslaved mothers are considered slaves as well, regardless of their fathers’ status. Children of enslaved fathers and free mothers are not considered slaves.
By law, slaves baptized into the church are still considered to be slaves.
Accidentally killing a slave during correction is not considered a crime.
Blacks and Native Americans are not permitted to own servants of another race. All non-Christians arriving in the colony by sea are hereafter considered slaves.
Black slaves are considered property in real estate appraisals.
Runaway slaves resisting capture may be killed. Virginia passes a law putting a bounty on the heads of escaped Africans who formed communities in and around the Great Dismal Swamp bordering Virginia and North Carolina.
The ages of imported black children are to be determined and documented within three months of arrival in the colony.
Blacks are forbidden to possess any type of weapon.
Slaves must have permission before leaving their plantation of residence.
Slaves are forbidden to raise a hand against any Christian. An act punishing slave insurrection is in force.
All non-Christians coming into Virginia by any means are considered slaves, whether or not they convert to Christianity.
A court of oyer and terminer (a Latin term meaning “hear and decide”) is established to try all slaves accused of crimes. No jury hears the cases and there is no right to appeal the court’s decision.
Blacks are required to give up ownership of cattle, horses, and sheep.
Mennonite Quakers in Pennsylvania sign an anti-slavery resolution.
“An Act Concerning Servants and Slaves” revises and strengthens most of the laws regarding slavery.
Slaves who turn in other slaves planning insurrections or revolts are to be set free by law.
Stono Rebellion takes place 20 miles southeast of Charleston, South Carolina after the governor tells slaves they can go to St. Augustine, Florida and be free. A group of fugitives escape, killing 21 whites along the way. After their capture, 43 slaves are executed.
North Carolina passes a law to prosecute people helping slaves to escape.
Matthew Ashby, a free black man living in Williamsburg, Virginia, obtains the freedom (via petition and purchase) of his wife, Ann, and his two children, John and Mary. Ashby may have been one of a group that successfully petitioned the court to eliminate the tax on free black women.
In the Somerset Case, an English court rules in favor of a slave brought into England from British colony who claims he is a free man.
George Lile and Andres Bryan organize the first African American Baptist Church at Savannah, Georgia. Members of this church helped escaping slaves.
Governor Dunmore of Virginia issues an emancipation proclamation that imposes martial law in Virginia and offers freedom to indentured servants and slaves willing to fight for the King of England.
A slave insurrection occurs in the western part of Virginia.
The first abolitionist society is formed in Philadelphia.
Delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia adopt the Declaration of Independence on July 4, which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
U.S. Congress passes the Northwest Ordinance, which provides for territorial government and eventual statehood for the area north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. Slavery is prohibited in any of this new territory.
The Free African society is organized in Philadelphia by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. The form the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which assisted escaped slaves.
Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin.
The U.S. Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Act to protect the rights of slave owners to retrieve runaway slaves from free states and territories.
The Gabriel Plot for rebellion in Henrico, County, Virginia is suppressed.
Haitians win independence from France and abolish slavery.
Nearly all Northern states abolish slavery by this time.
U.S. Congress passes a law to end the importation of African slaves.
Federal troops engage in war against Seminoles and escaped slaves in Florida.
The first free Africans are repatriated to Sierra Leone.
The Missouri Compromise admits Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state to maintain the balance of 12 free and 12 slave states in the United States. All territory north of latitude 36-30′ is declared free, all territory south of the line is slaveholding.
A slave revolt led by Denmark Vesey is suppressed in Charleston, South Carolina. Thirty-six collaborators are hanged.
Formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society by Lewis Tappan. Vigilance committees are formed in northern cities to prevent return of slaves to the south.
William Lloyd Garrison publishes The Liberator.
Nat Turner, a slave who believed God had chosen him to lead slaves out of bondage, leads an insurrection killing 51 whites in Southampton County, Virginia. He and his followers are caught. Turner is convicted of treason at his trial, hanged, skinned, and boiled. More stringent slave laws are enacted following his rebellion.
Oberlin College in Ohio is founded as an integrated institution and becomes a center of abolitionist and Underground Railroad activity.
All slavery is abolished in the British Empire, including Canada.
The New England Anti-Slavery Society is formed.
Abolitionist editor Elijah P. Lovejoy is killed in Alton, Illinois.
New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Vermont and Ohio pass a series of “personal liberty laws.”
Enslaved African revolt on the Spanish ship Amistad off the coast of Cuba.
Prigg vs. Pennsylvania challenges the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.
Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and tremendous abolitionist orator, begins publication of the newspaper The North Star.
First Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York.
Harriet Tubman escapes from slavery and begins helping others to escape.
The Fugitive Slave Law is passed by Congress strengthening the 1793 Act. Federal officers are now offered a fee for returning runaway slaves.
Dew, James H. Hammond and others issue strong proslavery arguments adopted by southern states.
Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
U.S. Supreme Court decides in the Dred Scott decision that slaves do not become free when taken into free territory.
John Brown and others attack the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia to prepare to free slaves. Ten of his men were killed; he and seven others were hanged after trial.
Abraham Lincoln is elected president. South Carolina is the first state to secede from the Union.
The First Conscription Act for Union troops makes all men 20-45 liable for military service, but service can be avoided by payment of $300 or procuring a substitute to enlist for three years. State quotas are fixed (proportionate to total population) and states are given credit for previous enlistments. The draft is regarded as inequitable to the poor.
The first drawings provoke serious riots in working-class quarters in New York City, culminating (July 13-16) in the New York City Draft Riots, four days of pillaging and lynching of African Americans. It is chiefly participated in by Irish-Americans and requires the dispatch to New York of regiments detached from Meade’s army.
The Confederacy first relies on enlistments and then drafts into military service every white man (18-35) for three years. The lower classes denounce the long list of exempted occupations as well as the privilege of sending substitutes; many Southern leaders question the constitutionality of conscription.
General. B. F. Butler, in command of Fortress Monroe, Virginia, rules that slaves escaping to his lines are “contraband of war” which he will not return to their masters.
General John C. Fremont issues a proclamation declaring that slaves of Missourians taking up arms against the U.S. are free. Lincoln modifies this order (September 2) to conform to existing federal law.
Kansas is admitted to the Union as a free state. Eleven states secede from the Union. The Civil War begins.
The Emancipation Proclamation is issued by President Lincoln, and frees slaves in the seceding states.
Congress passes the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution making slavery illegal and extending civil rights to former slaves. The Civil War ends with Union victory.
U.S. Congress passes the Fourteenth Amendment extending civil rights to former slaves.
U.S. Congress passes the Fifteenth Amendment permitting men to vote without regard to race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The efforts of many people made this resource possible.
This project was partially funded by the Kentucky Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Additional grant funding was received from the Kentucky Department of Education, Division of Equity to help support the cost of hiring a content writer.
Kentucky African American Heritage Commission
Kentucky Heritage Council
Missouri Historical Society
The University Press of Kentucky
Jerry Pinkney, Artist
The Filson Club Historical Society
Morton Middle School, Fayette County
Scott County Middle School
Dr. Blaine Hudson
University of Louisville
Dr. James Klotter
Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives
Bourbon County High School
Muhlenberg County Public Schools