Slavery in Northern Kentucky

The American form of slavery had already been codified by constitutional provisions, legislative acts, and municipal ordinances in Virginia and other English colonies when Dr. Thomas Walker in 1750, Christopher Gist in 1751, and James McBride in 1751 began to map the eastern and northern regions of Kentucky. As prescribed by these laws in the colonies, slaves were, for the first time in history, defined as chattel, as property; slavery was perpetual, that is, slave status was inherited, and legal racism was embedded in slavery because slaves were defined as being black and of African descent. The economic benefits to white slave owners in the United States through chattel slavery developed over the next 100 years through the transatlantic slave market and the domestic buying and selling of slaves. As the Civil War neared in 1860 nearly 4.5 million people of African descent were working for white landowners for free or for a pittance and millions more had died in servitude.

There were counterforces. By the time Kentucky became a state in 1792, Vermont, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts had already abolished slavery in various forms. The Northwest Territories had also been declared free of institutional slavery, making Ohio and Indiana free states as they entered the Union in 1803 and 1816, respectively. And earlier, in 1795, France had declared all slaves free both on its native soil and throughout its colonies.

At the Kentucky Constitutional Convention at Danville in 1792, Rev. David Rice and other ministers fought against Article 9, which would legalize slavery. Their efforts met with defeat, however, and slavery was permitted within the new commonwealth of Kentucky’s boundaries. Sixteen men voted against Article 9, including Northern Kentuckians Miles Withers Conway and George Lewis of Mason Co. and John Wilson of Woodford Co. (which then covered all of Boone, Campbell, Grant, Kenton, and Owen counties). Later, by virtue of a provision in the 1799 Kentucky Constitution, slaves became perpetual chattel, and the importation of slaves subsequently began in earnest; 165,213 slaves had entered the commonwealth of Kentucky or had been born into slavery in the state by 1830. By 1860 there were 225,483 slaves, 11,483 of them living in Northern Kentucky.

Put into perspective, Northern Kentucky had 0.2 percent of the nation’s slaves and the state of Kentucky about 5 percent. The human misery of
those enslaved is recorded in hundreds of slave in terviews, now accessible in collections and books.

Historians, sociologists, novelists, and poets have published the stories of individual slaves and slave families, creating fully dimensional people from
the myths, stereotypes, and cartoon figures of recent memory. And several of Northern Kentucky’s slaves have been immortalized in books, music,
poems, and even, in the case of Margaret Garner of Boone Co., recently in an opera.

Active slave trading occurred in Northern Kentucky at slave markets in Maysville and Washington. Slaves in the region built houses and fences,
cleared fields, planted, harvested, took produce to market, and worked the steamboats and river craft, all through forced slave labor. Even though the
counties of Northern Kentucky had just 6 percent of the state’s slaves, institutional slavery played its part in this region’s history.

In 1833 the Kentucky General Assembly banned importation of slaves into Kentucky except by emigration, inheritance, or marriage. This new law was generally ignored. In 1849 the advocates of slavery in Kentucky, flush with their victory at that year’s State Constitutional Convention, gained yet another victory when the Kentucky legislature repealed the Non-Importation Act of 1833 and passed the third-strictest set of restrictions on free people of color and slaves in the nation, rivaling the codes of the Deep South. Furthermore, in 1865, 1868, and 1870, Kentucky failed to ratify the three U.S. constitutional amendments that made former slaves citizens of the nation. Dismayed, Union general Clinton B. Fisk characterized members of the Kentucky legislature as “the meanest, unsubjugated, and unreconstructed rascally rebellious revolutionists” he had ever had the displeasure of encountering.

Local municipal ordinances, particularly in the northern counties of Kentucky bordering the Ohio River, frequently prohibited a slave owner
from hiring out his or her slaves, yet that became a common practice during the 1830s and 1840s.

Grand juries in Gallatin and Carroll counties indicted several slaveholders for violating this law; however, hiring out slaves for a season or for the
year was lucrative, and the fines were too modest to prevent this practice.
Slave trading in Northern Kentucky was basically unregulated and, except for the regular slave market held in Mason Co., small in scale. Buying and selling of human chattel took place in the large slave markets at Lexington and Louisville on a regular schedule. By comparison, the slave market conducted at Washington in Mason Co. was not large. Often it involved small numbers of slaves in coffles brought by traders passing through the area or sales conducted by local slave owners themselves.

In Northern Kentucky, the density of the slave population was highly dependent on the type of underlying farmland. The planter culture, mimicking Virginia’s patricians, took root immediately in the rich river bottoms and upland grasslands of Mason, Boone, and northern Owen counties. Mason and Boone counties, with more than 6,400 slaves in 1840, accounted for 55 percent of all slaves held in Northern Kentucky. In 1840 Campbell and Grant counties had only 289 and 348 slaves, respectively.

Rural areas within Boone and Mason counties rivaled the Bluegrass region of Kentucky, with more than 40 percent slave populations. Mason Co., in particular,jumped from 1,747 slaves in 1800 to 4,309 by 1840. Boone Co., in the same period, climbed from 325 slaves in 1800 to 2,183 in 1840. Numbers in Gallatin Co., part of which went to form Carroll Co. in 1838, rose from 329 slaves in 1800 to 604 slaves in Gallatin Co. plus 731 slaves in Carroll Co. in 1840. Among Northern Kentucky counties, Owen Co. had the third-largest slave population in 1840, 1,281; that number increased in 1860 to a peak of 1,660 slaves, almost all of whom resided in the upland pastureland between Owenton and New Liberty. The urban areas that developed along the Ohio River, Maysville, Augusta, Newport, Covington, Fredericksburg (Warsaw),
and Port William (Carrollton), had less than 20 percent slave populations before the Civil War.

There were many slave owners in Boone Co., about 36 percent of all families, but the number of slaves per plantation was generally fewer than 10 per household. In the villages, only 1 or 2 slaves were owned by about 20 percent of the families.

The total number of slaves in Boone Co. grew rapidly from 629 in 1810 to 2,183 in 1840 and then declined as the impact of the Underground Railroad and the selling of excess slaves to the Deep South began to reduce slave numbers in this county. By 1860 there were 1,745 slaves and 11,118 whites in Boone Co. However, the value of these slaves as property had increased substantially.

Slaves were only 15 percent of the tax base in 1850 but had climbed to 24 percent by 1860. Boone Co. never had many free people of color; there were only 27 free blacks in 1840, 37 in 1850, and 48 in 1860. After the Civil War, the black population of Boone Co. declined severely. In 1840 blacks made up 21.8 percent of the population; in 1870 they were only 9.5 percent, representing a loss of more than 1,170 black citizens from the county.

By 1840 the slaves in Mason, Boone, and Owen counties accounted for 28 percent, 22 percent, and 16 percent, respectively, of the total population, compared to 50 percent in Fayette Co., in the heart of the Bluegrass region. Counties in the northern portions of Kentucky such as Lewis, Grant, and later Robertson, where the more rugged hill country dominated, counties
that were settled chiefly by yeomen with small landholdings, had slave populations of less than 10 percent. The urbanized counties Campbell and Kenton had few slaves. In Bracken Co. slave density approximated 30 percent in certain upland districts, while in other areas the population was less than 10 percent slaves.

Kentucky remained a part of the international slave trade until 1808, when federal law banned the importation of slaves. However, by 1833, when
the Kentucky legislature forbade any further importation of slaves, more than 150,000 slaves had entered Kentucky with landowners or through
inheritance. After the 1808 federal ban on the importation of slaves into the United States, a domestic slave trade sprang up and thrived in Kentucky.

Mason Co., with its tobacco-based economy, established the earliest recorded domestic slave-trading market in Kentucky at Washington, which is located on a hill above Maysville. In about 1826, Capt. John W. Anderson, who lived near Washington in Mason Co., took over the northern region’s major slave trading operations from Edward Stone of adjoining Harrison Co. Stone had been killed in a slave revolt. The domestic slave market at Washington later became famous as the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She had observed the selling of human beings in the center of Washington during her visit to the Marshall Key house in Mason Co. The height of Anderson’s domestic slave sales operation was
reached about 1830; slaves from Mason Co. were shipped through the Dover landing in Kentucky to Natchez, Miss. Anderson was taking in $50,000 in revenues each year, nearly $1 million in terms of today’s monetary values. When he died, legend has it that he was chasing a runaway slave. James McMillen then took over Anderson’s domestic
slave trade business and also served as an agent for Bolton, Dickson & Co., large-scale slave traders at Lexington; Memphis; Charleston, S.C.; Natchez, Miss.; St. Louis; and New Orleans.

Slave Pen used to hold slaves prior to shipment south

From 1830 to 1863, slave trading in Kentucky constituted a major component of the U.S. domestic slave trade; thousands of Kentucky-born slaves were sold south through Vicksburg and Natchez, Miss., and New Orleans markets. It was common for local slavers to go to Washington or to Lexington and pick up a small coffle of slaves to sell in the rural areas. By the 1840s, slavers were taking excess slaves from these same rural areas to sell into the Southern markets at prices reaching $800 to $1,000 per male slave. By the mid-1840s, selling slaves south became one of the largest sources of cash in Northern Kentucky.

Locally, slave owners did their own trading quietly among themselves and frequently hired slaves out for cash to support increasingly expensive private schools, household furnishings, and especially horse racing. The Kentucky Gazette, the Maysville Eagle, the Licking Valley Register, and the Bracken Sentinel all carried numerous advertisements to buy or sell individual slaves, announcements of estate sales of slaves, and notices
of rewards for runaway slaves.

Slaves designated as prime field hands brought $300 to $400 in 1820, but with the opening of the Vicksburg and New Orleans slave markets, prices
rose substantially. It was not uncommon by 1860 for a male slave to fetch $800 to $1,000 or some times even more in the Lexington market. And
Northern Kentucky’s slave owners tended to pay the highest prices for mulatto, or mixed-race, slaves, a preference established originally by landed Virginia owners. Obviously, these mulatto men, women, and children sold at auction were sons and daughters of white slave owners, a fact the Northern abolitionists found abhorrent, immoral, and unacceptable.

The patrollers searching for runaway slaves were known to the slaves as paddywhackers, or padrolers. The patroller system was instituted in the Ohio River counties of Kentucky quite early in the history of these counties administrative courts as a form of control to keep slaves from running away. In the June 1799 Gallatin Co. Court Order Book 1, it was ordered that Benjamin Craig, Simeon Crosby, and Martin Hawkins be appointed patrollers for three months from that date, along with George Burton and Nicholas Lindsay. Among the earliest court orders in Boone Co. was the 1808 authorization for slave patrollers to receive one dollar per 10 hours worked. The court collected a special poll tax on slave owners to pay for these patrols. Patrollers were generally slave owners, and working as patrollers often served as a rite of passage for older sons; the patrollers were assigned 10 to 12-mile circuits along the Ohio River that they
were to guard at night. Because of the distances involved, most patrollers along the Ohio River used horses. Patrollers were also authorized to whip any slave caught, with the prescribed numbers of lashes codified in Kentucky law.

By the early 1840s, as the numbers of runaway slaves became politically sensitive, legislators in Kentucky acted to expand patroller controls; counties farther removed from the Ohio River created patroller systems aligned with constable jurisdictions. Thus, in practice, the controlling of runaway slaves became a matter supported by all taxpayers,
not just owners.

Many of the Underground Railroad’s stories from Indiana about small Kentucky posses trying to recapture runaway slaves actually described patrollers on duty at night who had access to a skiff or a ferry. As the slave losses mounted in Boone Co. and the surrounding region, patrollers used scent dogs to aid them in their attempts to recapture runaway slaves. A brutal bloodhound named Nero figured in the following runaway-slave story that took place in Boone Co. at Cooper’s Bottom. Lindsay Cooper of Cooper’s Bottom owned between 8 and 10 slaves before 1850. Ike, one of Cooper’s slaves, purchased his freedom and that of his wife and settled just across the river in Indiana. When they tried to purchase their four children, Cooper refused. He bought or borrowed John G. Moore’s savage dog Nero to prevent runaways, but the four children of Ike poisoned the dog and escaped across the Ohio River. By 1860 Cooper owned only one slave; the rest had gone.

Slave codes and local municipal ordinances established a vehicle for violence against slaves. Because of the economic value of slaves, the punishment of slaves was most often provided by whipping,
rather than penal offenses. For example, for a particular crime, whites would be incarcerated in the penitentiary, but slaves would be punished at the whipping post or killed. White offenders during slavery times were executed only for murder and certain kinds of rape. Slaves were put to death for murder; manslaughter; rape of a white woman; attempting to commit crimes of robbery, arson, or burglary; conspiring to rebel, administering poison with intent to cause death; shooting and wounding a white person; and shooting without wounding. Although slave patrollers were limited in the number of whiplashes they could administer if a runaway slave was caught, slave owners and slave traders had no such restrictions.

Long before the Ku Klux Klan marauded through Central Kentucky, along, sordid history of violence, lynchings, false accusations, rape of slave
women, and brutal whippings of slaves and freedmen had become part of Kentucky’s history. The various historical collections of slave eyewitness reports refer to the occurrence of such outrages before 1865, while George C. Wright’s Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865–1940 catalogs the hundreds of
lynchings and brutal violence against slaves and free people of color occurring after the Civil War.

Slaves’ quest for escape from bondage was continuous. Slaves escaped from and through Northern Kentucky before 1787, when the Kentucky Gazette first began posting runaway want ads. Only a strong motivation to achieve freedom or to find their separated family members would cause a slave on the frontier to run into forests controlled by Indian tribes. Slaves in Northern Kentucky counties along the Ohio River had the most opportunity to flee, but as the slave density in the Bluegrass region approached 40 percent, slave escapes increased in spite of patrollers and the increasing use of slave-catchers, detectives, and other forms of control. For the first 30 years of the 19th century, runaway slaves made it to the Ohio River on their own, found some kind of raft or conveyance, and trekked through the North
west Territories, sometimes finding a friendly person, sometimes melting into the populations of free black agricultural communities or into
friendly Indian tribes. Once the antislavery societies were organized in Ohio and Indiana during the late 1830s, aid to runaway slaves improved
from the haphazard fits and starts of earlier times.

In Northern Kentucky, Patrick Doyle’s abortive attempt to bring a group (somewhere between 40 and 75) of slaves from Lexington through Bracken Co. occurred in 1848. Rev. Calvin Fairbank and Delia Webster helped Lewis, Harriet, and Jo Hayden successfully escape through Maysville in 1844, but both Fairbank and Webster were imprisoned upon their return to Kentucky. John Fairfield successfully led 15 slaves in crossing from Boone Co. into Indiana during the early 1850s. Robert and Margaret Garner’s tragic attempt to escape from Boone Co. in 1856 has been immortalized in books and an opera.

When Elijah Anderson moved his base of operations from Madison to Lawrenceburg, Ind., in 1846, Boone Co. slave owners began to experience the loss of slaves almost immediately. By 1853 Boone Co. was losing 50 slaves a month. Anderson himself claimed to have helped 1,000 slaves escape Kentucky between 1850 and 1856; in 1856 he was arrested and sent to prison at Frankfort, Ky.

Some of the most famous stories in Northern Kentucky of slaves reaching freedom involve these individuals:

  • Eliza Harris, Mason Co., whose escape across the icy Ohio River was codified for all time in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
  • Henry Bibb, who escaped from Bedford, Trimble Co., Ky., was jailed at Covington in Kenton Co., and became the first black editor of a newspaper in Windsor, Canada. He and his wife Mary were designated persons of distinction by the Canadian legislature.
  • Andrew Gagnon of Bracken Co., who, trying to impress a young woman, learned how to conduct runaway slaves to Ripley, Ohio, and maintained a regular passage to freedom during the 1850s.
  • John White, who escaped from Rabbit Hash, Boone Co., and with the aid of Michigan abolitionist Laura Haviland, returned to Kentucky in an abortive attempt to rescue his wife. He eventually made it back to Michigan.
  • Richard Daly of Hunter’s Bottom, Carroll Co., who aided 30 runaway slaves in their escapes before taking his own family of five in 1856 to freedom in Canada.
  • Adam Crosswhite, who took his family of five to Marshall, Mich., with the aid of the Madison, Ind., Underground Railroad. When pursued by a Kentucky posse, the Crosswhites were helped by local black and white citizens of Marshall and taken to Windsor, Canada. After the Civil War, the Crosswhite family returned to Marshall, and a bronze tablet was later placed at the site of their cabin by the Michigan Historical Society.
  • Wheeling Gaunt, a Carroll Co. slave, who purchased his own and his family’s freedom, moved to Yellow Springs, Ohio, after the Civil War, amassed a fortune of more than $30,000, and became a leading Ohio philanthropist, aiding Wilberforce College.
  • Rev. Elisha W. Green, a Baptist preacher at Maysville and Paris and founder of the Consolidated Baptist movement after the Civil War.
  • Jacob Price, a businessman and community leader in Covington, who organized the William Grant School.
  • James Bradley, born in Africa and enslaved in South Carolina, who purchased his freedom, gained an education, and participated in the Lane Seminary debates with Theodore Weld in 1833; his statue is in Covington today.
  • John P. Parker, enslaved in Virginia and Alabama, a trained foundry worker, who gained his freedom in 1845 and migrated to Jeffersonville, Ind., to New Albany, Ind., to Cincinnati, and eventually to Ripley, Ohio. He was chiefly responsible for transporting hundreds of runaway slaves across the Ohio River from Mason Co. to the Ohio Underground Railroad activists.


  • Blassingame, John W. Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ.Press, 1977.
  • Coleman, J. Winston. Slavery Times in Kentucky. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1940.
  • Collins, Richard H. History of Kentucky. Vol. 1. Covington, Ky. Collins, 1882.
  • Fisk, Gen. Clinton B., to Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, House Executive Document No. 70, 39th Cong, 1st sess., 1865–1866, p. 230.
  • Hudson, J. Blaine. Encyclopedia of the Underground Railroad. Jefferson, N.C.; McFarland, 2006.
  • —. Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002.
  • Lewin, H., ed. The Lawyers and Lawmakers of Kentucky. Chicago: Lewis, 1897.
  • Lucas, Marion B. A History of Blacks in Kentucky. Vol. 1, From Slavery to Segregation, 1760–1891. Frankfort. Kentucky Historical Society, 1992.
  • Miller, Carolyn R., comp. African-American Records: Bracken County, Kentucky, 1997–1999. Brooksville, Ky. Bracken Co. Historical Society, 1999.
  • Works Projects Administration. Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves. Vol. 7, Kentucky Narratives. Washington, D.C.: Federal Writer’s Project of the WPA, 1941.
  • Wright, George C. Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865–1940. Baton Rouge. Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1996

Diane Perrine Coon

Above excerpted from page 834 – 837 of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTHERN KENTUCKY THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY ISBN 978-0-8131-2565-7