Legend has it that in 1831 a runaway slave named Tice Davids slipped into the Ohio River with his owner in hot pursuit. Tice swam for his life across the great river while the other man sought out a boat to row after him. Tice landed first in Ripley, Ohio, and immediately disappeared from view. The owner continued to search for Tice, but eventually gave up without a clue to his whereabouts. In frustration, the man concluded that it was as though Tice had "gone off on an underground railroad..."
For Tice and tens of thousands of others, traveling through Ohio meant freedom, hope of a better life, and often a life-and-death struggle. From about 1816 to the dawn of the Civil War, individuals and communities ushered fleeing slaves from southern states along the difficult and dangerous journey northward to freedom in Canada. The network of homes or barns with concealed rooms and hiding places, secret tunnels, well-worn trails through dense woods, and conductors leading the runaways to the next safe haven became known as the Underground Railroad. Although members of the Underground Railroad did not encourage slaves to run away, they made every effort to assist the slaves who did.
The need for secrecy was all-important, for many slave owners pursued fleeing slaves themselves or hired bounty hunters to pursue them. The penalties for apprehended slaves or persons caught assisting them were severe. Although Ohio was a free state, early federal laws allowed for the legal capture of escaped slaves from free territory and imposed a penalty of $500 on any person who hindered arrest of, harbored or concealed a fugitive slave. Runaway slaves returned to their owners were usually treated brutally and subjected to even more misery than before. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 raised the penalty to $1,000, imposed prison sentences and required citizens to assist federal marshals when called upon to apprehend fugitive slaves.
The Underground Railroad in Ohio was an amazingly efficient and well organized operation, despite the impossibility of open communication and coordination. Routes through the forests, farms and towns were established from one hiding place to the next. In all, nearly three thousand miles of routes criss-crossed the state, most bound in a northeasterly direction, and at least 23 points of entry were established along the Ohio River1. The Underground Railroad in Ohio reached its greatest level of activity in the 1840s, and more stations existed in Ohio than in any other state. For the safety of all involved, few records were kept of the numbers and identities of persons who reached freedom along the railroad, but it is estimated that at least 40,000 passed through Ohio.
Notable individuals and religious communities, in particular the Quakers, gave the railroad its start. In Cincinnati, Levi Coffin became known as the "President of the Underground Railroad." In Ripley, the home of John Percial Parker, an African American abolitionist and industrialist, was one of the earliest and busiest stations. Nearby, the light from Reverend John Rankin's house on a hill overlooking the Ohio River shone like a beacon to fugitives making the dangerous journey across the great river. Further north, additional towns, such as Oberlin, became important centers with high levels of support for and participation in the railroad. Eventually, people from all walks of life, including former slaves who already achieved their freedom, became members or conductors. In town and on farms, ordinary people dared to offer a meal, a place to stay, or safe passage to the next stop. Fleeing slaves were hidden in wagons, covered with everything from sacks of flour to pumpkins; stowed away on canal boats; driven in carriages, disguised as women with heavily-brimmed bonnets; or snuck onto railroad freight cars.
Harriet Beecher Stow, who lived in Cincinnati from 1832 to 1850, was deeply moved by an incredible story she had heard there about a woman's frantic race across the frozen Ohio River to earn freedom for herself and her baby. In 1852, she retold the story in her book Uncle Tom's Cabin, which became immediately famous, raising awareness in the north of the horrors of slavery and the plight of runaway slaves. As a result of the book, anti-slavery feelings ran even higher and were expressed more openly. Within another decade, the Civil War was underway.
Today, there are scattered reminders of the journeys taken by many thousands of brave men, women and children who risked everything to earn their rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Some remnants also remain of the hiding places and routes of travel, as well as stories of the schemes devised by those who bravely took risks to help them.
One of the most famous Underground Railroad routes in central Ohio was Africa Road. This was the setting of one of the most extra-ordinary chapters in Underground Railroad history. The tiny unincorporated zone in southern Delaware County which was once the community of Africa touches the southern border of what is now Alum Creek State Park. Prior to 1840, the hamlet then known as East Orange was a rural crossroads north of the bustling town of Westerville. Country gentlefolk had erected small cabins there as temporary housing while building permanent homes on their estates. After a time, the woodlands north of Westerville harbored a cluster of these abandoned cabins, as folks moved into their newly completed houses.
In 1859, a slave owner in North Carolina passed away and his widow freed the family's slaves. Miraculously, the group of 35 freed slaves traveling together found their way safely across the Ohio River, where they were advised to press on until they were far from the state border. Many slave hunters were ruthless mercenaries who would abduct any black person, regardless of their status as free citizen or escaped slave. Once these slaves arrived in the strongly anti-slavery town of Westerville, the group was ushered to the cabins north of town where they were invited to make themselves at home and were offered paid employment helping local farmers harvest crops. The black residents became very involved in the Underground Railroad themselves, providing food, shelter and acting as conductors. They risked not only fines or imprisonment, but potential kidnapping and return to slavery in the south. One joined the Union Army and fought for the anti-slavery cause during the Civil War.
One of the few pro-slavery landowners in the area sarcastically nicknamed the community "Africa," and the name stuck. Ever since, the community and the road have proudly kept the name, although the story behind it has been nearly forgotten. After the Civil War, the black residents of Africa moved on to better prospects in Westerville, Delaware and other parts of the state. The cabins in the woods and the few homes, businesses and church that were once Africa are gone now, but this great story perseveres.
Another critical route of the Underground Railroad followed an Indian trail known as the Bullskin Trace from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. A section of the old Bullskin Trace is incorporated in the hiking trail system at Caesar Creek State Park, and north of Xenia, it tracks State Route 68, which passes just to the west of John Bryan and Buck Creek state parks. The community of Harveysburg, adjacent to Caesar Creek State Park, and the neighboring countryside contained a number of underground railroad stations. Many of the homes reputed to have secret rooms and hidden tunnels are gone now, but their legacy lives on. From Harveysburg, fleeing slaves sometimes traveled up the Miami River on their way to Dayton. Although travel through the river was sometimes difficult, it was effective in throwing sniffing hounds off the trail. Other fleeing slaves took advantage of the natural shelter provided by caves along Caesar Creek while on their dangerous journey.
The Underground Railroad helped pave the way for the establishment of a number of black settlements in Ohio. The history of these settlements is rich, and the stories of the people who brought themselves from extreme poverty to prosperity despite every disadvantage and obstacle are fascinating.
Although many of the landmarks of the Underground Railroad in Ohio are gone or their significance forgotten, time and progress can't erase the example set by this incredible bond of community, however brief, among those in desperate need and those who assisted them. Some families kept their commitment as stations on the railroad for decades, touching two or three generations and reaching far beyond that. This chapter in Ohio history is one worth studying and passing along, for it shows how each individual decision to take a risk and do the "right thing" for oneself or for someone else lays down tracks that link together for everyone's ride on the great train of freedom.
Ohio State Parks gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Otterbein College Archives, Westerville Public Library, Central State University Library, Greene County Library,
Ohio Historical Society, National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center and Hanby House in compiling this article.
1 Prof. Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad in Ohio (A.W. McGraw, 1993)