The Underground Railroad in Ohio

By Daniel J. Ursu, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2019-2020, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the December 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

Our speaker this evening will be focusing on Colored Troops during the Civil War. As many of you know, he also portrays a personage involved with the Underground Railroad. So, it seemed a natural for this evening’s history brief to focus on the Underground Railroad and especially in Ohio.

The Underground Railroad can trace its beginnings to 1804. A system for runaway slaves to escape the South was begun by General Thomas Boude, who served in the Revolutionary War and purchased a slave named Stephen Smith and brought him to Columbia, Pennsylvania. Stephen was soon followed by his mother, who had escaped to find her son. A few weeks later the slaveowner appeared and demanded the return of her slaves. The Boudes refused, and when the other townsfolk gave their support, it was decided going forward as a town to champion the cause of fugitive slaves.

By 1815, this sentiment had spread to Ohio, and soon methods were being explored to help slaves escape. The term “Underground Railroad” came into usage about 1831. There were many secret “roads” along the Ohio River to rescue slaves. At this time, a slave named Tice Davids eluded his pursuers along the Ohio River near Ripley, Ohio southeast of Cincinnati. Davids dove into the water with his slaveowner following close behind in a rowboat, but Davids disappeared from view. The owner became frustrated and gave up his search, stating that Davids “must have gone off on an underground road.”

The Rankin house in Ripley, Ohio
Owned by ardent abolitionist, John Rankin, the Rankin house was one of the most famous stations on the Underground Railroad and is now a National historic Landmark.

This term caught on. In about 1835, antislavery workers began using this metaphor and started to use railroad terminology for their activities: tracks, trains, agents, stationmasters, conductors and stations. Paths of escape were labeled “tracks.” Helpers were known as “conductors” or “stationmasters.” Groups of runaways were “trains,” and homes for hiding them were “stations” or “depots.”

The Underground Railroad was begun by what we call today a “grass roots” movement. But, when professional slave catchers were sent to recover runaway slaves, the system became an elaborate network of secret contacts between free blacks and white sympathizers to move runaways safely and efficiently to the North and then to Canada. However, it could not become an organized business because of the fact that its activities were technically “illegal.”

Branches of escape existed in every state, but extensive networks blossomed in Ohio due to its central location on the Mason-Dixon Line and its border with two important slave states of Virginia and Kentucky. In part because of this geography, Ohio became one of the most successful Underground Railroad states. The Ohio River was extremely important to runaways, and over half of them used it. There were 23 railroad access locations along the Ohio, five departure points on Lake Erie and about 3,000 miles of track in between. Ohioans were credited with operating one of the most effective systems for aiding runaways and was especially critical to those in and coming through Kentucky.

Map showing routes on the Underground Railroad
The extensive network of Underground Railroad tracks in Ohio can be seen.
Map compiled from The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert.

Ohio’s importance was also borne out by statistics. The total known voluntary railroad workers in the North numbered about 3,200, and roughly 1,500 of those were in Ohio – nearly 50%! Major stations were in Marion, Mansfield and Salem with numerous smaller stations throughout the state.

A monument to the Underground Railroad in Oberlin, Ohio
Oberlin played a prominent role in abolitionism and in the Underground Railroad.
No runaway slave in Oberlin was ever returned to bondage.

At first, most runaways were men, but later many women also escaped. Travel was usually by foot, but when women and children started appearing in greater numbers, escorts and vehicles were provided. Conductors carried the runaways in covered wagons, closed carriages and farm wagons specially equipped with hidden compartments. Some were even put in boxes and shipped as freight by rail or boat. Movement usually took place at night for security. When traveling by foot, fugitives were guided by the North Star or the many northward tributaries of the Ohio River. Stations had to be relatively close to make the journey during a night’s long march.

The Cozad-Bates House in Cleveland, Ohio
The Cozad-Bates House reputedly was a station on the Underground Railroad.

For instance, about 16 abolitionists from Salem, Ohio established their homes as stations. Many used secret rooms, hidden staircases, root cellars, false walls and basements to conceal fugitives. Church members were heavily involved, although because of the illegal nature of the endeavor, the churches themselves were not formally involved. For instance in Salem, the Society of Friends, also known as Quakers, Wesleyan Methodists and Presbyterian churches had important members in what was known in Salem as the “Western Anti-Slavery Society” headquartered in Salem. Members provided shelter, clothing, food, medical care and transport for black fugitives.

An antislavery newspaper began in nearby Lisbon in June of 1845 and was soon transferred to Salem in September. It was called the “Anti-Slavery Bugle” with its motto “No Union With Slaveholders.” The final issue came out on May 4, 1861, fittingly 22 days after the start of shelling on Fort Sumter and the beginning of the Civil War itself.

Related link:
The Southbound Underground Railroad