Explore the hidden history of the Underground Railroad in Portsmouth, Ohio. Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, and serving as a gateway to the Virginia Military Tract (lands reserved by Congress for Revolutionary War veterans from Virginia), Portsmouth emerged as the largest American settlement between Gallipolis and Cincinnati. With white settlers from Pennsylvania and New England, mixed with white and black settlers from Kentucky and Virginia, Portsmouth developed a Black community early in its history. This community would be key to the operations of the city's Underground Railroad.
The history reminds us that some of the most important chapters in American history happened here. Portsmouth’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 Portsmouth, Ohio, as with other northern communities, 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, Portsmouth and southern Ohio would ultimately prove itself to be a stronghold 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 Adams, Scioto, Lawrence, and Gallia 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.