Capt. William McClain's Underground Steamboat

McClain v. Esham (1856) and the Escape of Joshua onboard the Steamer Bostona

A long-overlooked Kentucky lawsuit, known as McClain v. Esham, dating to 1856, provides important insight into the Ohio River operations of what might best be described as an Underground Steamboat. In this case, the Steamer Bostona, owned and captained by William McClain, gave passage to an enslaved man named Joshua who had "embarked upon the boat at Vanceburg, in Lewis county," in company with two white men, and who had then "proceeded with them to Portsmouth, Ohio, and had not returned or been seen since."

Eliza Esham of Nicholas County, Kentucky claimed Joshua as her property and sued Capt. McClain, seeking damages. During a jury trial, witness testimony established that Joshua "at the time [had] no written pass or authority from his mistress ... and that the boy had been accustomed, without restriction of his owner, to hire himself out to whom and whenever he pleased."

Joshua was a skilled carpenter, whose value was set at $1,500 by the jury, citing "his age, habits, vocation, health and character for subordination and obedience, as well as his locality, and the chances or inducements for escape from his owner." The court found "that the escape of a slave to Ohio, was equivalent to a total loss to the owner." And, thus, in finding Captain McClain responsible for the loss of her slave property, the jury awarded $1,500 in damages to Esham.

The Bostona, built in 1854, operated as part of the Cincinnati, Maysville, and Portsmouth Packet Company, which carried the U.S. Mail, leaving Portsmouth three days a week, "touching at all way points." The ship's captain, William McClain was born near Wheeling, Virginia, on 25 December 1809 and he died at Portsmouth on 10 September 1867, with his final resting place in Greenlawn Cemetery.

After working as a pilot and then a steamboat captain, McClain built his first steamer, the Lady Washington, in 1832, placing it in the Cincinnati and Wheeling trade. William and his wife, Sara Thompson McClain, left Wheeling in 1837 and settled on a farm in Clermont county, Ohio. The couple would later relocate to Portsmouth in 1855, where Sara McClain's sister, Amanda Pursell lived.

Over his forty-year career, Captain McClain navigated the waters of the Allegheny, Monongahela, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers, and was "well known from Pittsburg to New Orleans." Much of his boating career, however, was focused on the waters between Portsmouth and Cincinnati, which were run by his beloved Bostona.

One biographer noted that McClain "was a man of great caution, and would never incur unnecessary risks. He gave his personal attention to the minute details of the management of his boat, and had special care not only for the safety, but also for the comfort of his passengers. .... He was a man of great force of character, possessed an iron will, was positive and decided in his opinion, and plain and outspoken in his sentiments."

One of Capt. William McClain's decided opinions appears to have involved the injustices of slavery and the moral duty to lend a helping hand to the freedom seeker who needed safe passage on the Ohio River.