James M. Ashley and the Underground Railroad in Friendship, Ohio
Marked today as the intersection of US Highway 52 and Ohio State Route 125, Friendship is the southern gateway to the Shawnee State Forest and Park, and is recognized as the site of the first permanent American settlement in Scioto County. In the spring of 1795, Maj. John Belli, a confidante of George Washington and former U.S. Army quartermaster under General Anthony Wayne, hired a man to clear a homestead on his 1,000 acre parcel at the creek's confluence with the Ohio. Belli himself, with his wife, Cynthia (Harrison) Belli, moved to Turkey Creek in 1806, having built a stately two-story house, which they named Belvidere. From this moment forward, Major John Belli would be Turkey Creek's most famous resident.
By the time the Belli's had moved into Belvidere, a pioneer community of settlers had already formed in the neighborhood. The Rev. James Quinn, a pioneer Methodist circuit rider, recorded the first known account of the community that would become Friendship. In his memoirs, Quinn would recall preaching at Turkey Creek, beginning in 1803, where he gathered a "tolerably large class" of neighboring residents at the home of John Worley. This class would continue to grow, with the arrival of new settlers and the overall growing density of the American population.
Included among these pioneer families was that of Ezra and Sarah Bradford. With their five young children, the Bradfords had settled on 300 acres of Turkey Creek land in 1805. They had been slaveowners in Norfolk, Virginia, and like a number of other white, antislavery-minded southern Methodists, the Bradfords decided to emancipate their slaves and remove to Ohio, where they could raise their children in a free society and economy.
According to Quinn's memoir, a large camp meeting was held in 1809 "near where the present meeting-house called Wesley Chapel now stands." This log structure, which dated to 1835, would be replaced in 1897 by a wood-framed chapel, which burned in 1933 and was replaced by the current building in 1934. Better known today as Friendship Methodist Church, the house of worship marks the site of the Turkey Creek Camp Meeting of 1809. Such frontier gatherings were part of the larger Great Revival that broke out in Kentucky and Ohio frontier communities beginning in the late 1790s.
Methodist ministers, Abbot Goddard and J. Williams, led the proceedings, while other preachers joined in the services, including James B. Finley. Twenty years later, in 1839, Finley would recall "old brother Bradford," and others who attended the camp meeting.
Writing in the pages of the Western Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper published in Cincinnati, he remembered: "Several got religion. We were annoyed with the wicked, some of whom had come from the Scioto Salt-works. Brother Goddard gave them an exhortation on Sunday morning at daylight, and told them of their deeds of darkness in such a way as shamed them, and waked up the patriotism of a squire, who professed to be a deist; so he came out and told the disturbers that if they did not retire and let this people alone, that he would fill the jail in town so full that their legs would stick out at the windows; that although he did not believe in their religion, yet it was their privilege to believe it, and to worship as they pleased; and that the Constitution guaranteed this right, and he would see that they should not be disturbed."
With the Worley and Bradford families forming the core of a Methodist society that gathered near the banks of Turkey Creek, Friendship Methodist Church became the center of a familial and social network that supported the operations of the region's Underground Railroad and helped nurture one of America's most influential abolitionists -- Congressman James M. Ashley, the author of the Thirteenth Amendment.
In July 1894, at the age of seventy, Ashley sat for an interview with Wilbur Siebert, a professor of history at Ohio State University in Columbus. Therein, the former Congressman provided tantalizing details of the operations of what can be considered the West Side Line of Scioto County's Underground Railroad. Today Prof. Siebert is remembered as one of the first historians of the Underground Railroad and it is thanks to his research that much of what we now know about its operations was first recorded.
From census and other genealogical records, we also know that three Veach brothers -- Dr. Charles Wesley Veach (1799-1854), Sylvester Veach (1794-1850), and William Veach (1794-1866) -- had all been born in Surry County, North Carolina, and had moved as children to Fleming County, Kentucky, in 1800. According to an account of the family's immigration, they relied upon three horses -- "the mother rode one carrying one child, two children rode another, and the third was used as a pack horse. The father walked."
From the name of Charles Wesley Veach, it would appear that the Veach brothers were raised in a Methodist household. In the early 1820s, when they began to marry and create their own families, William, Sylvester, and Charles left Kentucky, and settled some forty-miles north in Ohio, near Turkey Creek in Scioto County's Nile Township. William and Charles would marry two sisters (Ruth and Elizabeth Burriss, respectively), who were also from Fleming County. They would join other Burriss relatives, who previously settled near Turkey Creek, including Ignatius Burriss, who shows up in the records of the Scioto County Commissioners for July 31st, 1812, when he and Anthony Worley were paid $1.50 for three "wolf scalps." Today, one finds Veach and Burriss headstones erected near each other in the Friendship Cemetery.
Littleton Bradford, the eldest son of Ezra and Sarah, was active in the church's affairs, and, in time, inherited his father's lands on Turkey Creek. On 14 October 1847, Littleton was appointed the community's first Post Master, and, as a result, he was given the honor of naming the village. Why Bradford chose the name Friendship, which has Quaker (and antislavery) connotations, remains a bit of a mystery. However, his family's abolitionist history, along with those of his pioneer neighbors in Nile and Washington Township, some of whom were secret operatives on the West Side Line of Scioto County's Underground Railroad, provides good reasons to believe the name reflects the antislavery sentiments of the community's pioneer families.
Charles Wesley Veach became the first physician of Nile Township, serving the community until his death in October 1850. We know little of Sylvester Veach, other than his marriage to Harriet Custis on 24 March 1822 and US Census records from 1830 and 1840 that place him in Portsmouth, Ohio, and then later census counts from 1850 that place him back on the West Side in Washington Township, with the occupation of farmer. Both Sylvester and his brother Charles Wesley passed away in 1850.
Scioto County historian Nelson W. Evans tells us that William Veach was also an active member of Friendship Methodist, even though he subscribed to the Campbellite (Disciples of Christ) faith, there being no such congregation on the West Side. William began his political career as a Whig, "but sympathized with the Know Nothing party while it lasted and became a Republican at the founding of that party. He was a live politician and with great energy worked for his party’s interest."
After the death of Littleton Bradford, William Veach would be appointed Post Master of Friendship on 30 December 1854 and held the office until 6 August 1857. He also won election as a Scioto County Commissioner in 1855 and was re-elected in 1858, serving until 1861. Notably, William Veach served in the Civil War, enlisting on 2 May 1864, “when he was seventy years of age, but giving his age as sixty-eight." William was enrolled in Company I, 140th Ohio Volunteer Infantry for one hundred days, and served until 3 September 1864.
According to Evans, three generations of Veaches served in the Civil War - William, plus five sons and one grandson wore Blue. William Veach died of cholera, 4 August 1866, and is buried along with his wife, Ruth, and brother Charles, in the Friendship Cemetery. In his assessment of Veach's life, Evans concluded that "he sought to see justice done every man." And, one wonders whether this may have been code for "Veach was an abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor."
James Ashley's connections to the Veach family and other antislavery residents on the West Side have their origins in a disagreement a fourteen-year-old James had with his father, the Rev. John Clinton Ashley, who was a minister in the Campbellite (Disciples of Christ) Church. His father wanted Ashley to attend Alexander Campbell's new Bethany College, which would prepare him for the ministry. James, however, had become disillusioned with his father's faith, which included a pro-slavery reading of the Scriptures. The Campbellite Church, at this time, was divided on the question of slavery, and John C. Ashley was siding with the anti-abolitionists and proslavery faction.
Later in life, Ashley would recall, "the leaders of the church to which my father belonged, and, indeed, the leaders in all Southern churches in those days, publicly affirmed 'that slavery PER SE could exist without sin,' a doctrine which I regarded then, as I do now, as a perversion of the teachings of Christ. It has always been a source of satisfaction to me that my mother, who was a conservative woman, never gave in her adhesion to this rascally defense of the 'sum of villainies.'" In that sense, Ashley's mother supported her son's abolitionist faith and, undoubtedly, should be credited with helping shape his moral compass.
When the disagreement came to a head in 1838, at the age of fourteen, Ashley left his parent's house in Portsmouth, and found a new home on the West Side of the Scioto River, taking up residence with Joshua and Elizabeth Nurse, a family with reportedly Quaker roots and abolitionist sentiments. Elizabeth Nurse was said to have been a close friend of Sarah Ashley, and she happily opened her home to James. It was while staying with the Nurses and being part of the larger antislavery community centered on Turkey Creek that Ashley fully embraced the cause of abolition.
James, or Jim, as he was known, helped out on the Nurse's farm and found additional work labeling medicine bottles, which were sold by Littleton Bradford, who served as an agent for Silvester's Hygeian Vegetable Universal Medicine. However, when Jim's father announced that he was coming to the Nurses to bring him home, the younger Ashley ran away, finding passage on a flatboat that carried him to Cincinnati. He eventually secured a position as a cabin boy on the steamer Waucusta and over the next two years he would work on a number of boats in positions of increasing responsibilities, so that he eventually ended up as the Chief Clerk on the Gazelle, which served the New Orleans trade.
River boat life in the south only added to his youthful antislavery sentiments. Ashley once recalled witnessing free born African Americans, fellow shipmates, accused of being fugitive slaves, arrested and placed in jail. Without funds for an attorney to plead their cases, and without an owner stepping forward to claim them, they were held "the length of time prescribed by law" and then "publicly sold into slavery for life," to pay the "jail fees" charged for keeping them.
Following his time on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, which appears to have left him exhausted, Ashley returned to live with the Nurses in 1840. After recovering his health and then visiting Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1841, where he attended the inauguration of William Henry Harrison, Ashley took a job in a Virginia logging camp, but, as one biographer put it, he was "invited to leave because of his anti-slavery sentiments." Ashley then returned to the Portsmouth area, and briefly took up residence near Greenup, Kentucky.
It was then, before the cold of winter set in, that Ashley helped his first group of runaway slaves, delivering them to members of the Veach family on the West Side, who made sure the seven freedom seekers arrived at their next stop. The exact route they took remains a mystery, but they may have been placed on the Ohio-Erie Canal, a route that would have run up what is now State Route 104, or they may have been taken by wagon up Turkey Creek, along what is now State Route 125 to Underground Railroad stations in Adams County.
Friendship's connection to the operations of the Underground Railroad continued into the 1850s. Beginning in 1854, Captain William McClain operated the steamer Bostona, which served as the US Mail Packet Line, between Portsmouth and Cincinnati. McClain is remembered today as a conductor of an "Underground Steamboat," with the Bostona picking up runaways on the Kentucky shore and delivering them to Portsmouth and other Ohio towns, which had connections to the larger Underground Railroad. As his ship's pilot, McClain would hire Mitchell Evans (1820-1908), a trustee of the Friendship Methodist Church, and the husband of Maria Bradford (1831-1867), who was a granddaughter of Ezra and Sarah Bradford.
Mitchell Evans, a native of Bracken County, Kentucky, had married Maria Bradford on 9 November 1854, which opens the possibility that Evans was the Bostona's pilot back in September, 1855, when a skilled, African American carpenter, named Joshua, boarded the the Bostona at Vanceburg, Kentucky, and disembarked in Portsmouth, Ohio, where the city's network of Underground Railroad operators quickly moved him to a safe house in Huston Hollow, the African American community located north of the city.
While there are no records detailing any Underground Railroad activity by Mitchell or Maria Evans, it is clear that the pilot of the Bostona, as well as its captain, were part of a larger social and familial network of antislavery activists in Scioto County. Today one can visit Friendship Methodist Church and the adjoining Friendship Cemetery, where one finds the final resting place of Mitchel and Maria (Bradford) Evans, Dr. Charles Wesley and Elizabeth (Burris) Veach, William and Ruth (Burriss) Veach, and Littleton Bradford, along with other Scioto county pioneers who embodied the abolitionist spirit and name of their village on Turkey Creek.
Western Christian Advocate, 22 September 1839