Sympathetic citizens north and south of the Ohio River who treasured the ideals of a free society began to organize a movement that became known as the Underground Railroad. Mason Co. was one of the earlier supporters of public antislavery societies and the Underground Railroad. As early as July 1818, the Maysville Eagle advertised a meeting of the supporters of the Maysville Abolition Society in Mason Co. Church congregations in Mason Co. also assisted fugitive slaves with either food or clothing.
The congregation of the Minerva Baptist Church, built by Lewis Craig in 1793, was one of these. The Minerva Baptists split over the slavery issue in the early 1800s, because some members supported the gradual emancipation of slaves, while others, as abolitionists, called for the immediate end to slavery.
Many church associations in the area approved of the African Colonization movement founded in 1816 in Washington, D.C. Residents Rev. John T. Edgar, Adam Beatty, James Morris, and other well-educated men were early members of the movement in Maysville. Although the original African Colonization Society founded in Maysville did not survive very long, there was later a resurgence of colonization activities, as indicated in the Western Colonizationist on May 27, 1839. This advertisement called for a colonization meeting to be held on that date in Maysville at the Methodist Church.
According to Mason Co. oral tradition, there were abolitionists and conductors whose records cannot be found among the archives at the Maysville courthouse. The earliest conductors mentioned in the writings of Levi Coffin of Cincinnati were members of the Lightfoot family and an unnamed barber living in Maysville. In nearby Washington, the Paxton Inn was often reported to have been a temporary refuge for freedom-seekers. In downtown Maysville, the Phillip’s Folly mansion on Sutton St. also contains concealed areas in which slaves might have been secreted. The mansion had several owners before 1865, and oral tradition suggests that an owner of this house was providing a safe area. On Fourth St., near an area where free persons of color lived, is the Bierbower house, which was owned by carriage-makers Frederick and Jonathan Bierbower. Compelling accounts
from Bierbower family members and from former resident Chris Maher suggest that slaves were secreted in the lower level of the house.
Abolitionists sometimes perpetuated their beliefs even after death, as seen in the 150 or so emancipation records found in the Mason Co. will books.
In most accounts, money and livestock were the assets granted, and at times the wills stipulated that the slaves were to receive their freedom in later
years, particularly on the date December 25.
Neighboring Ohio was home to a number of conductors on the Underground Railroad. John B. Mahan, a tavern owner from Sardinia, Ohio, in Brown Co., was accused at his trial on November 13, 1838, of enticing slaves from Mason Co. who were owned by William Greathouse. While await ing trial, Mahan had to spend several months in the deplorable Maysville jail and over time became weak in body and mind. Fearing his death, Judge Walter Reid finally held his trial, announcing a lengthy verdict of guilty. Mahan was fined nearly $2,000, which he borrowed from William Dunlap of Ripley in order to pay the fine. With his health in dire condition and his spirit broken, the freed Mahan returned to Ohio, where he soon died.
John P. Parker, a freed slave living in Ripley, Ohio, was perhaps the most active conductor of enslaved Africans in Mason Co. from the decade
of the 1850s through the Civil War. According to his interview with newspaperman Frank Gregg, Parker’s working area was “a strip of land along the southern boundary of the free states, which prior to the Civil War could be truthfully called the borderland…. It broadened out to a breadth of fifty miles or more…. Every night of the year saw fugitives singly or in groups, making their way to the northern country.” During Parker’s daring forays, he was supplied with information from his “Grapevine Dispatch” network of allies regarding a large party of runaway slaves from Central Kentucky who were lost and without a guide. By word of mouth, Parker relayed the circumstances of the party to an unidentified white man in Kentucky who agreed to row Parker across the Ohio River and take him to another conductor. When the white man reached a predetermined location,
Parker was startled at the hooting of owls, which he came to find out was another unnamed conductor hiding in an old cabin about eight miles south
of the river. Parker described this man as an “Indian” in the woods, “Indian-like” in his manner in traversing the land quickly and silently. According
to Gregg’s transcript, the last encounter that Parker had with slave owners was his rescue of a young couple and their infant child from the house of
James Shroufe (a worker at his foundry) at South Ripley, Ky., across from Parker’s Ohio home on Ripley’s riverbank. Again, Parker was successful in
bringing the family out of slavery, even though the pursuing owner shot at him.
Working with Rev. John Rankin of Ripley, and perhaps with John Parker, was a young slave conductor from western Mason Co. Arnold Gragston
(1840–1938) was owned by John “Jack”Tabb, whose farm was in Mason Co. on Walton Pk. An account by Gragston provides a strong image of the dangers he faced: “I don’t know how I ever rowed the boat across that river. The current was so strong, and I was trembling. I couldn’t see a thing in the
dark, but Ripley, Ohio, always meant freedom for slaves, if I could get to that light.” Gragston stated that after his escape he resided in Ohio and would often hide freedom-seekers in barns before crossing the fields east of Dover, Ohio, to a skiff hidden at the Ohio River’s edge. He estimated that he
might have rescued as many as 300 slaves in a period of four years. The October 6, 1938, Bracken Chronicle in Ky commemorated Gragston’s contribution to his fellow man with these words: “Conscious of the oppression of his people and shackled down with the fetters of slavery, Mr.
Gragston… became a vital cog in that renowned means of flight from the lash of the slave owners’ whips—the Underground Railroad.”
Sometimes information about the early conductors was mentioned only in a single court entry, and their stories were not published in national
abolitionist journals. One such case occurred in 1834 when Benjamin Gooch (or Googe) was brought before the Mason Co. Court and charged with enticing a female slave, Susan, the property of Mary Morrison. He was indicted for aiding slave Mary in her escape from her owner and spiriting
her into Ohio. In 1849 James Blackburn, a free man of color living in Mason Co., enticed a girl slave, Frances, the property of William Bradford, to leave
for Ohio. Blackburn was found guilty in a trial in August 1850, and the jury recommended that he be confined in the Kentucky State Penitentiary in
Frankfort for a term of nine years. The court set aside his sentence.
However, this new verdict was overruled, the prisoner was again judged guilty, and he was remanded to serve nine years in the penitentiary.
Shortly after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was enacted, John Davis, a free man of color who was living in Maysville, persuaded a slave woman, Tabby, to leave her lawful owner, John Gabby. In 1853 Charles, a free Negro, was indicted on a charge of enticing slaves away from their owner. The case was continued to the April court term of 1856, and bond was supplied for Charles by Thomas C. Newcomb. In the April 1856 trial, Charles did not appear and forfeited the bond paid by Newcomb.
Another case in 1856 involved George Williams, a free man of color, who was charged in Mason Co. with enticing slaves to escape and assisting them in their escape. These slaves were the property of Dr. James E. McDowell. Williams was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in the Kentucky State
Penitentiary. A new trial was granted, but the record of its outcome is not available. The next year, in 1857, Charles, a free Negro, was charged with
feloniously attempting to persuade and entice a Negro woman slave named Cordelia, the property of James Patton. Again, records do not reveal the
outcome of the case. Benjamin Stokes, a free man of color, was prosecuted in 1858 for enticing the slaves of J. B. Pepper to leave his property. Two
Negro boys escaped from Pepper on October 10, 1858, and John Sutherland witnessed the scene.
Stokes was spotted in a skiff on the Ohio River near Beasley’s eddy with two or three other Negro men, matching the descriptions of Pepper’s fugitive slaves. Their skiff was found pulled up on Ripley’s bank with footprints leading north. Stokes was brought to trial with the evidence overwhelmingly pointing to a guilty verdict, but information about the final outcome or sentence has not come to light.
One of the most unusual enticing trials in Mason Co. involved John G. Fee’s colporteur, William Haines, who was sponsored by the American Missionary Association. Officially, Haines was accused of enticing a slave woman, Hannah, and her children, belonging to Hezekiah Jenkins. Haines
admitted under oath that he had encountered and spoken with a black man and asked the man questions as to how a person could obtain a skiff and
where to obtain a likely route across the river.
While awaiting trial, Haines succumbed to a serious case of diarrhea and was under great mental and physical stress. When Fee visited Haines, Fee was attacked by one of his neighbors with a club so brutally that one of the blows to Fee’s head broke the club. Fee was temporarily almost blinded
and enveloped with blood, and shortly afterward his home was burned. The jury voted in Hainess favor and found him not guilty.
Abolitionist Rev. Elisha Green of Maysville was a minister to the enslaved and free people of color in north-central Kentucky and had established Baptist churches in several towns, including Maysville and Paris, Ky. He was able to travel to his congregations because his owner had issued him
a “pass” allowing him to travel on the train. The Dobyns and Warder families in Mason Co. owned Green, but when he was enslaved as a child in Paris, he had witnessed slave coffles walking to the infamous auction sales in Lexington. Green’s only son was kidnapped into a coffle at Blue Lick Springs in Kentucky at age nine. Although Green quickly arranged in Maysville to secure the money necessary to meet the slave trader’s demands, the cofile had moved on before Green could return, and Green
never saw his son again. Several months after the Civil War ended in 1865, Green was indicted in Mason Co. Circuit Court for “harboring a fugitive.” In fact, the fugitive he was hiding was his daughter, who was in danger of being sold. Since the war’s ending did not prohibit the sale of slaves
in Kentucky, the owner was within his legal rights.
Green was found not guilty, however, and was able to secure a home for his third daughter. He had previously purchased his two other daughters and
his wife and had provided the bond to emancipate them.
Strict slave laws, enforced by inhumane slave catchers and bounty hunters, once made it necessary for persons seeking freedom to avoid arrest by temporarily fleeing to Ohio and Canada. For instance, several freed females in Mason Co. were kidnapped and placed on the slave market in nearby Lexington. James McMillen was the slave agent in Mason Co. for Louis Robard and was suspected of these outrageous deeds. In the August 30, 1851, edition of the Maysville Eagle, an article described the kidnapping of Negroes from Aberdeen, Ohio, and their transportation across the Ohio River to the Maysville jail. Although Aberdeen citizens tried to intervene, the individuals kidnapped were quickly sent to Lexington and the
Thousands of enslaved Africans in Mason Co. and the surrounding Kentucky counties were not able to escape to freedom and were thereby sentenced to a life of bare subsistence or constant threats that they would be sold “down South.”Nevertheless, men and women of strong courage continued to press toward the North, and some of them eventually found liberty.
Green, Elisha. Life of the Rev. Elisha W. Green. 1888. http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/greenew/greenew.html (accessed April 2, 2006). Part of the Documenting the American South series.
Hagedorn, Ann. Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
Mason Co. Circuit Court Judgments and Order Books, Maysville, Ky.
Mason Co. Clerk Will Book, Maysville, Ky.
Sprague, Stuart Seely, ed. His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
Caroline R. Miller
Above excerpted from page 904-905 of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NORTHERN KENTUCKY THE UNIVERSITY PRESS OF KENTUCKY ISBN 978-0-8131-2565-7