Rev. William Williamson & Abolitionism at "the Beeches"

While the Underground Railroad in Ohio is often associated with members of the Quaker faith, in Adams County, the Presbyterians stood at the forefront. Among the earliest and most influential of antislavery activists in the region was the Rev. William Williamson, who along with his family lived near Manchester, just off the Old Zane's Trace, at a spot the Reverend called "The Beeches."

In the early 1790s, a young William Williamson attended the Presbyterian supported College of Hampden-Sydney in Virginia, where he appears to have picked up his antislavery Presbyterian faith. In April 1793, he entered the ministry and found a mentor in the Rev. William C. Davis, an antislavery Presbyterian pastor who occasionally preached at the Fair Forest Church, near Spartanburg, South Carolina. In 1794, Fair Forest invited Williamson to become their settled minister and he was then officially ordained by Davis.

Rev. Williamson and a handful of other younger ministers soon ran into opposition to their antislavery preaching in the Presbyterian Synod of South Carolina. Meanwhile, his new wife, Mary, had begun teaching their family’s slaves how to read and write in preparation for their emancipation. After a group of their neighbors threatened to have the Williamsons indicted for violating a South Carolina law that banned such education, the couple resolved to leave the South for Ohio, where William could openly preach his antislavery faith and where they could lawfully emancipate and educate their slaves.

Having moved to Adams County in 1802, the Williamsons forged a critical early link in the network of Underground Railroad stations that would run from Ripley and Red Oak in Brown County to those in West Union, Tranquility, and other points north and east. Rev. Williamson, alongside his antislavery colleagues from South Carolina, the Rev. James Gilliland who settled at Red Oak, and the Rev. Robert Wilson who first settled in Chillicothe, helped lead an exodus of antislavery evangelicals from the southern states to the lands north of the Ohio River. They established the first stops of the Underground Railroad, a good decade or more before the Rev. John Rankin and his family began operating their famous station at Ripley in the early 1820s.

Rev. Williamson preached to multiple Presbyterian congregations in the area, first taking the pastorate of the Cabin Creek Presbyterian Church in Mason County, Kentucky (roughly across the river from Manchester) and the Eagle Creek congregation on the Ohio side, which later became the West Union Presbyterian Church. He also helped organize the Presbyterian Church in Manchester, where he preached for some twenty-five years.

Williamson, due to health reasons, would later give up his ministerial duties at West Union, but his abolitionist message would be taken up by the Rev. Dyer Burgess who continued to make West Union a known strong hold of abolitionism in the 1830s.

It was here in 1821, at the Beeches, that Jane S. Williamson, the daughter of William, brought Jemima Logan and her children, after purchasing their freedom with a $300 inheritance from a relative in North Carolina. And, it was here that Jemima would ultimately be reunited with her husband, Joe Logan, after his daring escape from the bonds of slavery.

Jane, who never married, ran a private, or what was known as a subscription school, which was open to children of all races. As Emmons Stivers explained in his History of Adams County, "She never excluded a pupil because his or her parents or friends were unable to pay tuition. She sought out the poor and invited them to attend her school. She accepted colored pupils as well as whites. Her teaching the colored people aroused bitter feeling in the community, but she was such an excellent teacher that it did not decrease the number of her white pupils.... On more than one occasion, friends of hers, dreading the attempt to forcibly break up her school, took their rifles and went to her schoolhouse to defend her. Some of these men were rough characters, and hard drinkers, and some of them were pro-slavery, but they were determined her school should not be disturbed. They regarded her as a fanatic in her views, but, as they regarded her as an efficient teacher, they did not propose that her work should be interfered with."

The Williamson family came to Ohio to escape the institution of slavery, to raise their young children in a society, where slavery did not pervert the morals of the people. Ultimately, the Williamsons freed twenty-seven slaves (the bulk of them in 1813, after the death of William's father when he legally received them as an inheritance).

Among the slaves freed by the Williamsons in 1813 were two brothers -- Benjamin Franklin and John Newton Templeton. The later, John Newton, was the first African American to attend and graduate from Ohio University in Athens in 1828. The former and younger brother, Benjamin Franklin, first attended Ripley College, which was presided over by radical abolitionist John Rankin; after a violent attack by a racist thug in a Ripley alleyway, Benjamin transferred to the Presbyterian-supported, Hanover College, near Madison, Indiana; he would later join the Presbyterian ministry after graduating from Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. Without the original education and support provided by the Williamsons these two young men never would have achieved the greatness that they did.

Thomas S. Williamson, Jane's older brother, studied both medicine and theology. He opened his practice in Ripley, where he married Margret Poage, the daughter of Ripley's founder, Col. James Poage, another ardent abolitionist. Thomas would return to school to study theology at Lane Seminary, where he graduated in 1833.

Jane S. Williamson would move from Ohio to Minnesota, where she joined her brother, Thomas who had earlier begun missionary work among the Dakota. Jane had stayed at the Beeches to care for her ailing father. In 1843, under the auspices of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Jane began work as a teacher to the Dakota, while Thomas provided medical care and other missionary services.

The earliest known illustration of the residence comes from 1880, when it was owned by John Y. Francis, who paid to have a depiction included in J. A. Caldwell’s Illustrated Historical Atlas of Adams County, Ohio. Today, "the Beeches" is a private residence, situated next to the Hilltop Golf Course in Sprigg Township.

Sources:

Jacob Leamon, "Historical Sketch of Adams County Ohio," in Caldwell's Illustrated Historical Atlas of Adams County, Ohio, 1797-1880 (Newark, Ohio: J. A. Caldwell, 1880).

Nelson W. Evans and Emmons B. Stivers, A History of Adams County, Ohio: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Present Time (1900).

Andrew Lee Feight, "Joe & Jemima Logan: An Amazing Story from the Early Underground Railroad in Southern Ohio," The Twelfth Ohio Underground Railroad Summit, Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio (20 October 2007).

Andrew Lee Feight, "'The Good and the Just': Slavery and the Development of Evangelical Protestantism in the American South, 1700-1830," Ph.D. Dissertation (University of Kentucky, 2001).

Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002).

Stephen Kelley, "Life at the 'Beeches,'" in Lore, Legends & Landmarks of Old Adams, The People's Defender (West Union, Ohio).

Stephen Kelley, "Williamson helps lead Temperance Movement in Adams County," in Lore, Legends & Landmarks of Old Adams, The People's Defender (West Union, Ohio).

Stephen Kelley, "Williamson's story continues" in Lore, Legends & Landmarks of Old Adams, The People's Defender (West Union, Ohio).

Portrait and Biographical Record of the Scioto Valley, Ohio (Chicago: Lewis, 1894).

Williamson Family Papers, Adams County Genealogical Society, West Union, Ohio.

Cite this Page:

Andrew Lee Feight, Ph.D., “Rev. William Williamson & Abolitionism at "the Beeches",” Scioto Historical, accessed July 27, 2017, http://sciotohistorical.org/items/show/52.

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