Runaway Slave Advertisements in Portsmouth, Ohio

Recovering the Story of Harriet's Escape on the Underground Railroad

As a river town, bordering the slave state of Kentucky, the newspapers of Portsmouth, Ohio, would occasionally publish runaway slave advertisements, paid for by slaveowners in Kentucky, Virginia, and other states to the south. As a major intermodal transportation hub, connected by river, canal, turnpike, and eventually railroads, Portsmouth developed a significant black population as early as the 1820s, one that attracted runaways and would facilitate the transportation of freedom seekers on what became known as the Underground Railroad. Advertisers had good reason to think their runaways might be spotted in the city.  

Nelson W. Evans was the first local historian to examine Portsmouth's history of runaway advertisements. In an essay entitled, "Relics of Barbarism," published in 1902, Evans wrote that "fugitive slave notices ... were usually headed 'Runaway Slaves,' and had a rough cut of a Negro, with a stick across his shoulder and a bundle at the end of the stick, in the act of running. The bloodhounds and the human dogs, who made a business of hunting the poor creatures, were not inserted in the picture."

As Evans made clear, much of the horrors of slavery were left out of "the picture," but the text of these advertisements are now valued for the important details provided of lives lived by courageous individuals who fled their oppression, seeking freedom in Ohio and beyond. Often they are the only historical records we have today that provide any biographical detail of the men, women, and children who escaped on the Underground Railroad.

In his research, Evans identified twelve examples of these "odious advertisements," which dated from 1820 up to 1855. He found that "the first notice of a runaway slave appeared in the Scioto Telegraph, of April 4, 1820. Thomas B. King advertised a runaway Negro from his place four miles above Portsmouth. The slave's name was Gabriel, and he was twenty-one years of age. A reward of $50 was offered." And, the last notice appeared on January 2, 1855, offering "one hundred dollars reward for George, property of Mrs. Hannah Parker. He was twenty years of age and five feet seven inches high."

Evans' research missed an unknown number of advertisements, including one from January 1854, which involved a nineteen-year-old woman named Harriet, whose notice in the Portsmouth Daily Evening Tribune led to a long-forgotten editorial controversy involving the morality of such advertisements and the operations of the Underground Railroad.

Within a week of Harriet's disappearance, her enslaver, Hannah Warner of Greenup County, Kentucky, visited Portsmouth and placed an advertisement for her “recovery” in the columns of the Tribune. At the time, the paper was printed at the Tribune's "Publishing Office On Front Street, over S. D. Bishop's Store.” Edited by Albert McFarland, the Tribune was known for its Whig Party politics in the 1840s and 50s and would back Lincoln and the Republican Party in the 1860s.

Soon after the advertisement's publication on January 10, 1854, Harriet’s notice caught the eye of George M. Swan, the editor of a Free Soil Party newspaper in Columbus, Ohio. “We hope Mr. McFarland gets well paid for services scrupulous men would refuse to perform,” declared Swan’s Elevator.

Swan’s criticism stung McFarland and placed him on the defensive, leading him to pen an editorial to justify his actions and the Tribune's advertising policies. In the process, he provided additional information on Harriet and the circumstances of her disappearance, shedding light on the operations of Portsmouth’s Underground Railroad, as well as the attitudes of the city's white residents.

McFarland’s views on slavery and the operations of the Underground Railroad in the mid-1850s appear largely representative of the city and the region’s conservative Whig majority. He was no defender of hereditary human bondage: “We are no advocate of slavery. We believe it a great national and social evil; and would rejoice to see it abolished, if it could be done in justice to the slave-holder and the slave.” Yet, while clearly in favor of some future abolition, McFarland explained that “we are not among those who believe in taking advantage of the opportunities incident to a position like Cincinnati, Maysville or Portsmouth, to decoy slaves from their masters."

McFarland was also no defender of Underground Railroad operators who encouraged African Americans to escape from their bondage. "We consider the practice not only calculated to engender feelings of animosity between the slave-holding and the free States, and thereby doubly rivet the chains of the slave; but believe that the very object sought by such philanthropy is, in nine cases out of ten, a failure." Like so many others in the North and South, McFarland blamed the victims themselves, with their so-called "failure" demonstrated by high rates of poverty in the free black population. Rates that are best understood to be caused by discriminatory immigration and labor laws (for example, see Ohio's infamous "Black Laws"), but also a more generalized culture of racial discrimination that priviledged white citizens.

McFarland’s opposition to the Underground Railroad and his more general, anti-abolitionst views reflected a consensus among white northerners in the 1850s that, in McFarland's words, “the slave is in no condition to be decoyed from his master and ushered into the unbridled excess of freedom. — There may be an occasional exception; and such exceptions have formed the theme of many ‘star-spangled-banner spasms,’ on the part of demagogues and enthusiasts, as also, perhaps some well-disposed but misled persons.”

McFarland was no supporter of Portsmouth's Underground Railroad operations, but he was willing to grant that in some instances African Americans were “perfectly justified in escaping, and to assist, would be but the discharge of a simple duty man owes to his fellow man.” He concluded that “in this matter, as in all others, circumstances alter cases.”

As for the particular circumstances of Harriet’s enslavement, McFarland clearly thought she had no moral justification for running away, nor was there any moral duty to provide aid and comfort to the freedom seeker. He noted that “the subject of the advertisement … was a favorite servant in the family of a good old widow lady, living on the opposite side of the river. Between the servant and the mistress there had ever existed a mutual feeling of kindness and sympathy unknown to parties of a similar relationship on this side of the river. The servant not only possessed a home where she enjoyed all the comforts and many of the luxuries of life, but she was surrounded by those whom nature and education had fitted for her associates. She was well dressed, well fed, and sick or well, always taken care of. But in an evil hour, while enjoying a parole visit on this side of the river, she allowed unwise counsels to prevail, and became a fugitive.”

From the text of Harreit's advertisement and McFarland’s editorial we gather that Hannah Warner, her enslaver, had given Harriet a special pass to visit Portsmouth over the Christmas holidays; it was then and there that she made her connection to the Underground Railroad. Rather than recogize Harriet's agency -- her courage and determination to shape her own destiny-- McFarland would conclude that she had been lured away -- "decoyed" by local supporters of abolition, whom he had described as "perhaps well-disposed but misled persons.”

By the time the advertisement appeared chances were that Harriet was already well on her way North, on what was known locally as the “regular line” that ran from Portsmouth up the Scioto Trail (modern-day US Route 23) to the next station in Huston Hollow, a free black community located nine miles north of the city.

Who exactly helped Harriet escape remains a mystery, but there is no doubt she was aided by members of Portsmouth's black community, with whom she was visiting, and a network of white allies. What Harriet found in Portsmouth was opportunity and she seized it. With no known published reports of Harriet’s “recovery,” it is reasonable to hope, she made it all the way to Canada and lived out the remainder of her life as a free person, without fear of capture and re-enslavement.