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In the early 1800s, the Ohio River was considered to be the River Jordan by fugitive slaves seeking the Promised Land and freedom in the Northern states.
With the majority of the 1,300-mile river making up Kentucky’s northern border – from West Virginia to Missouri – the majority of fugitives passed through the commonwealth to get to freedom, according to area historian Diane P. Coon of Shelbyville.
Coon gave a fact-filled presentation on the Underground Railroad last Thursday, April 11, to a nearly full house at the Trimble County Public Library.
Hundreds of runaway slaves traveled through Trimble County on their way toward Madison, which was one of the major hubs on the UGRR, she said. The terrain in Trimble includes karst (limestone) caves large enough to hide one or two people. One such cave in Jefferson County, Ind., was large enough to hold as many as 20 people.
One of these caves near Bedford was at the heart of a recent battle between preservationists and LG&E, which wanted to use it to store ash from the coal-burning power plant at Wise’s Landing. The preservationists won that fight.
Coon said fugitives would stay in these caves at night, as well as in barns or even under stacks of hay straddling fence lines – anyplace where they could hide from bounty hunters and others who might turn them over to the law. Those assisting them, including slaves living on local plantations, would bring them food and clothing and help them get where they needed to be to cross the river.
From the hilltops, the main routes to reach and cross the river were at Patton’s Creek, Wise’s Landing, Corn Creek, Preston Plantation, Cooper’s Bottom, School Hollow, Broadway Hollow, Milton and Hunter’s Bottom, Coon said.
Carrollton and other locations along the river in Carroll County also were points where fugitives crossed, Coon said. During renovations in the 1990s of the 1812 House on Main Street in Carrollton (across from the Carrollton Inn), Coon said a cellar was discovered underneath the main cellar, and items found there, including spoons and other implements, indicate that fugitives were probably hidden below until they could safely cross the river.
Before the dams were built in the 20th century, the river was not very wide or deep. In the summer when it was dry and in the winter when it was frozen, it was possible to walk across to Indiana.
During those times when a boat or raft was needed, those were easy to find, Coon said.
“There were hundreds of boats on the river – packet boats, shanty boats, flatboats, rafts, ferries,” she said, adding that teenagers often kept their own rafts tied to trees at the river, and sometimes these would be used by fugitives to get across.
Historians believe that loosely connected abolitionists calling themselves the Friends of Fugitives began in earnest assisting escaped slaves beginning as early as 1818 in Indiana, which is about the time the government began selling land grants there, Coon said. An organized Underground Railroad didn’t come into existence until about 1838.
As a historian, Coon said she spends a lot of time “dispelling myths.”
First and foremost, she said, the idea of “kindly slave owners and happy darkies” promoted in books and movies during the late 1800s and into the early to mid-20th century was false.
“Slavery was cruel and often vicious. It made good men evil,” she said.
Second, Coon said there is no documentation to substantiate the idea that barn quilts were used in this area as signposts to help fugitives find safe places to hide or to meet up with sympathizers. Researchers have found that this system only appears to have been used for a period of time around the sea islands of Georgia.
Third, tunnels were rarely used to aid fugitive slaves. They were more often used for hiding “hootch,” valuables and family members when soldiers were in the area during the Civil War, Coon said.
And fourth, despite the numerous stories told of fugitive slaves, running away was dangerous business – not just for the slave but also for anyone helping him.
“It was risky and not very common,” Coon said. “If they were caught, they were often sold into the deep south.”
The main impetus that led blacks to decide to escape to the north, she said, was cruelty at the hands of the slave owners and plantation overseers. In his memoir, “Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, an American Slave,” Bibb, probably the most famous of slaves who fled Trimble County, said he chose to runaway after witnessing the repeated rape of his wife, Malinda, and knowing what would be the fate of their young daughter, Mary Frances, if they stayed.
Bibb writes that he was recaptured a few months later when he returned to the William Gatewood plantation for his family. At one point, he and his family were sold to a slave holder in Vicksburg, Miss., and in his book tells of worse cruelty there than he experienced at the hands of his Kentucky masters.
The second most-common reason for fleeing was finding out that family members were to be sold away. That was the case when Adam and Sarah Crosswhite escaped from the Francis Giltner plantation in Hunters Bottom, just a couple miles from the Trimble County line in Carroll County. They left for the latter reason – their four children were to be sold to another plantation. (See the News-Democrat, March 6, 2013, Page 1, for the full story of the Crosswhites.)
Local operators of the UGRR
On the Fearn plantation, also on Hunter’s Bottom, a slave named Richard Daly was busy helping fugitives get to Madison. Coon said the Fearns spent most of their time in Louisville and not on the plantation, and historians suspect they may have had tacit knowledge of Daly’s activities there.
In nearby Milton, a French immigrant named Christopher Pecar was an active abolitionist working with Peter Scott – the only free black living in Trimble County at the time. Scott worked at the Fearn Mill in Milton and also at the distillery, about a mile out of town on what is now Hwy. 36.
The scandalous Delia Webster, who started the Mount Orison farm with the Rev. Orris Day and J.T.L. Preston, was widely suspected of being a main operative in the UGRR, Coon said.
In fact, at one point Webster was housed in the Old Jail in Bedford as she waited to go on trial for charges of absconding with a slave named Alfred from the Preston Plantation. Coon said Webster was acquitted because there was one abolitionist on the jury who would not vote to convict her, resulting in a hung jury.
Webster remained in the area for only three years, but during that time a lot of work was done via the UGRR while locals focused all their attention on Webster and her activities, Coon said.