Abolitionists & the Underground Railroad

The sectional conflict between the slave states of the South and the free states and territories of the North deeply shaped the history of southern Ohio. Antislavery southerners and northerners were drawn to the region because of its ban on slavery. Free blacks and runaways would seek a life of freedom on its ground and along its waterways.

The region also attracted settlers from Virginia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas who brought with them anti-abolition, white supremacist sentiments. They found themselves in the majority, with other likeminded white settlers from the Northeast. Together these residents secured Ohio's constitutional ban on black voting rights and enacted the state's infamous “black laws."

Passage of these laws in 1804 and 1807 reflected the majority sentiment of the state's white inhabitants. Ohio's law code would turn free black settlers into second-class citizens and transform runaway slaves into illegal immigrants. African-Americans, with free papers, would be required to register with their county clerk, and post a $500 surety bond, co-signed by two-white Ohio property owners.

Slavery may have been banned in Southern Ohio, but it was a land of relative freedom for African-Americans. Its soil proved particularly fertile -- its communities became hotbeds for both abolitionists and anti-abolitionists. Being a border region, where slavery was just across the river, the region became the scene of many dramatic events.

Blacks and whites had been part of the same communities since the earliest days of the frontier in the late eighteenth century. White residents had regular, if not daily, personal encounters and personal relationships with freed slaves and their descendants who had also settled the counties of southern Ohio. Those who lived here were also faced with the physical reality of rebel and runaway slaves - men, women, and children who were passing through their communities, seeking shelter and assistance as they and their families fled North in search of their own Promised Land.

The soil of southern Ohio proved extra fertile for the nation's antislavery movement. Its resident abolitionists helped establish organizations at the local, state, and national levels that championed the cause of liberty and equality. Its Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist ministers and their congregations played critical roles in the slavery debates that roiled the national church governing bodies. Its antislavery petitions lay on the floor of the US Congress. Stories of local slave revolts and mob actions against the region’s abolitionists caught the nation's attention. The political divisions dividing the union of states along sectional lines ran through the region's communities and families. Abolitionism and anti-abolitionism would shape local politics and local history. Over time, unfortunately, the local history of this conflict, like much of the nation's black history, in general, faded from popular memory and were neglected in local histories.

Scioto Historical's "Abolitionists & Underground Railroad" tour is meant to recover and polish some of these lost and forgotten gems of local history, and, in the process, better integrate local black history into the larger story of American history.

One of its free black residents, Edward Jenkins Roye, the son of a freed slave, would join the colonization movement that swept the region in the 1820s and early 1830s, immigrate to Liberia on the west coast of Africa, and be elected its fifth president in 1870. Meanwhile native son, James Ashley of Portsmouth, Ohio, would pursue a political career that led to his authorship of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865.

The history of abolitionism and the Underground Railroad in southern Ohio reminds us that some of the most important chapters in American history happened here. Southern Ohio’s story is the American story. We need not travel far to uncover stories from the days of slavery, when the union of the states was threatened by secession, when proslavery and anti-abolition forces sought to silence their opposition by denying them a free press, blocking their right to peaceably assemble, and refusing to consider their congressional petitions that called for a redress of their grievances.

The region was home to a network of whites and blacks who served as railroad “conductors” and “station masters,” providing food and shelter and assistance in transporting fugitive slaves who had crossed the Ohio River and landed on the northern shore of America’s Jordan. The popular imagination of those Americans who viewed Ohio as a Promised Land, where the lash of the slave driver was never heard and where liberty reigned, did not fully correspond with the actual conditions on the ground. Slavery existed just across the river from Ohio; slaves worked in the iron furnaces in Kentucky; coffles of slaves were transported over the roads that followed the river westward from western Virginia into Kentucky and beyond. The Northwest Ordinance and the Ohio constitution may have banned slavery, but slavery was a part of daily life in southern Ohio.

Much of the history of the Underground Railroad is now lost simply because its operations were conducted underground in secret. Records were not kept. And over time stories of Underground Railroad sites have proliferated in popular local lore, as many of the oldest structures in the region have been identified as locations of Underground Railroad activity. The prevalence of such sites and stories should not, however, distort the history of the region and leave the impression that the abolitionists were in the majority. They were not. The actions of railroad conductors and station masters were considered criminal under Ohio and federal law. The passengers were under constant threat of being apprehended and returned in chains to their “owner” in the southern states. The organizing efforts of the abolitionists were suppressed, their public meetings broken up with threats of mob violence.

Here, in southern Ohio, as with the rest of the northern states, those residents who wanted an immediate end to slavery and those who helped runaway slaves were the radicals of their day, never having anywhere near the popular support of the region's anti-abolitionist majority. Nevertheless, southern Ohio would ultimately prove itself to be a strong hold of support for the Union when it came time to suppress the rebellion of the southern states in the nation’s Civil War. The counties of Scioto, Adams, Pike, Ross, and Lawrence would send forth large numbers of fighting-age men and one of its most famous native sons, Ulysses S. Grant would lead Federal forces to victory.


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, 2004).

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