Author Archives: Henry Booth

Meyers and Walker, the Reverse Underground Railroad in Ohio

Slavecatchers grabbing a freedom-seeker.

Slavecatchers grabbing a freedom-seeker (Meyers and Walker)

In July of 1839, Virginia slave catchers caught a man named William “Black Bill” Mitchell in Marion, Ohio. Mitchell, who had escaped from Virginia, was living in Marion since the fall of 1838, where his various talents “quickly made him a valued member of the community.”[1] Mitchell was brought before the court, where it was eventually ruled that the slave catchers were in the wrong because they were bringing Mitchell back to the wrong slaveholder. Chaos broke out immediately after the ruling, as armed slave catchers grabbed Mitchell, “waving their weapons and threatening the lives of all who tried to stop them.”[2] Some local residents chased after them and fought the slave catchers off, allowing Mitchell to escape northward to Canada. In addition, the slave catchers “were found guilty of contempt of court,” and fined accordingly.[3]

The Reverse Underground Railroad in Ohio by David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker describes the  legal, political, social, and often physical conflict between pro and anti-slavery forces in Ohio and Kentucky. While Meyers and Walker make no reference to “slave stampedes,” they document numerous accounts of group escapes by freedom-seekers and other instances of local Ohio abolitionists bringing cases to court to sue for the freedom of enslaved people escaping through Ohio. They use newspapers and other primary sources to show how freedom seekers and abolitionists worked together to fight back against slavery.

Map of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers

Ohio and Mississippi Rivers (Pinterest)

Meyers and Walker documented plenty of group escapes, like the trio of Henry, George, and Reuben, three enslaved musicians who made their escape to Canada. Throughout the late 1830s, the three were allowed by Kentucky slaveholder Dr. Jones Graham to travel with a free Black musician named Henry Williams to places like Louisville, New Orleans, and other southern cities along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.  The  enslaved musicians routinely sent their earned money back to Graham.[4] During the winter of 1840-41, however, the three musicians saw an opportunity for freedom after meeting another enslaved man named Milton Clarke. Clarke told the trio about his plan to cross the Ohio River. [5] They crossed the river together and eventually went north to Canada. After Graham found out, he tried to go after the three enslaved musicians, but failed to recapture them.

Another example of an escape that Meyers and Walker detailed occurred when the surrounding community of abolitionists helped Lewis Williams to his freedom, with abolitionist Levi Coffin helping to plan the escape. In June of 1850, Williams managed to escape from slavery in Flemington, Kentucky. However, in October of 1853 he was caught by slave catchers near Columbus, Ohio and brought before a court after local abolitionists brought Williams’ case to attorney John Jolliffe in Cincinnati.[6] During the trial, abolitionist Levi Coffin devised a plan to help Williams escape from custody. The authors note that Coffin “arranged to temporarily replace Lewis with a man who had a similar complexion.”[7] Williams was able to sneak out through the large crowd gathered to watch the trial, and escaped out of town where he was then hidden away in the churches of Reverend William Troy, a free Black minister, and Levi Coffin, a frequent attendee at the local Congregationalist church. After hiding for a few weeks, and after a few telegrams claiming “that [Williams] had passed through the city on a train bound for Cleveland” or that he had already reached Detroit, he finally escaped northward in the back of a friendly carriage.[8]

Freedom-seekers defending themselves against slavecatchers.

Freedom seekers in a standoff against slave catchers (Meyers and Walker)

Other notable escape tales include the stories of Matilda Lawrence, Mary Towns, and Jerry Finney. Meyers and Walker showed that when thinking of resistance to slavery, both African Americans and white abolitionists were key figures in spearheading the opposition to slavery, and often came up with clever means of escape.



[1] David Meyers and Elise Meyers Walker, The Reverse Underground Railroad in Ohio (Charleston, South Carolina: The History Press, 2022), 35.

[2] Meyers and Walker, 37.

[3] Meyers and Walker, 37.

[4] Meyers and Walker, 72.

[5] Meyers and Walker, 73.

[6] Meyers and Walker, 83.

[7] Meyers and Walker, 86.

[8] Meyers and Walker, 87.





Black Liberation in Kentucky Emancipation and Freedom, Victor B. Howard

General John McAuley Palmer

General John McAuley Palmer (House Divided)

After General John M. Palmer received Union top command in Kentucky during February 1865, he wanted to help abolish the institution of slavery. [1] However as he began contemplating ways to break the grasp of slaveholders in the border state, he realized that most of his efforts were late, because “emancipation had been pretty well established by the blacks themselves.”[2]

In Victor B. Howard’s book Black Liberation in Kentucky Emancipation and Freedom, the word “stampede” does appear. Yet the conditions shaping the growing black liberation in the state clearly derived from numerous wartime group escapes . It was common for freedom-seekers to sneak into the Union Army camps to find shelter.  General John Logan noted how the slaves were  “freeing themselves” in Kentucky. [3]

Howard often points out how the Union Army in Kentucky could be protective of freedom seekers, showing the willingness of at least some soldiers to break orders in the name of helping runaways. One example of this happened in late fall of 1862:

“On the march from Lexington to Frankfort in November 1862, the Twenty-third Wisconsin Infantry took a slave into the ranks. His master immediately appeared and, placing a pistol against the slave’s head, threatened to blow his brains out unless he returned home. The black agreed to obey the slaveholder, but the colonel of the regiment rode up, took custody of the slave, and informed the master that he would need an order from the general before he could recover his property.”[4]

Map of Kentucky

Map of Kentucky during the Civil War (House Divided)

Another instance from June of 1864 occurred when the commandant of a Union army camp ordered a freedom seeker to be remanded to her master. Yet when the guards grabbed her, she begged “the guards to shoot her on the spot rather than deliver her to her cruel master.”[5] Moved by her pleas, some soldiers snuck her out of the camp to safety.

Howard not only details the actions of the various army regiments and how they affected freedom seeking, but also the political infighting over emancipation policy between President Abraham Lincoln, Secretary of State William Seward, and other members of the United States government.



[1] Victor B. Howard, Black Liberation in Kentucky Emancipation and Freedom, 1862-1884 (Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 78.

[2] Howard, 80.

[3] Howard, 17.

[4] Howard, 14.

[5] Howard, 119-120.


Griffler, Front Line of Freedom

Map of the Ohio River Valley

Cincinnati and Ripley, both on the Ohio River, proved to be strong anti-slavery outposts to help enslaved people escape to the North (Front Line of Freedom)

While living in Cincinnati, John Malvin, a formerly enslaved man from Kentucky, became an Underground Railroad operative. While staying in Ohio sometime between 1827 and 1831, he helped a woman by the name of Susan Hall escape. Malvin devised a plan to free her and her two daughters from a steamship on the Ohio River. Motivated by his “abhorrence of slavery,” he snuck onto the steamship and led away Hall, her daughter and three others.[1] He tricked the armed guards on the ship and stole away Hall, one of her daughters, and three other freedom seekers, eventually helping them reach Canada.

Front Line of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley by Keith P. Griffler tells the stories of Malvin and countless other African Americans from the Ohio River valley. In the book, Griffler only uses the term “stampede” once, from a Kentucky newspaper article describing large numbers of freedom seekers escaping from Northern Kentucky and flooding into African American communities in Ohio and elsewhere.[2] Griffler uses a variety of sources, including letters from Levi Coffin to various historical newspapers from around Cincinnati.

Cincinnati in 1848

Cincinnati in 1848, seven years after a brutal clash between pro and anti-slavery forces in the city (Front Line of Freedom)

Griffler details multiple instances of African Americans defending their communities against pro-slavery vigilantes, such in the case of “Major” James Wilkerson (a nickname he was given by either anti-slavery allies). On Friday, September 3, 1841, a group of pro-slavery Kentuckians, angered by the growing African American community and by the lack of enforcement of the 1807 “Black Laws,” came to Cincinnati armed with guns and the intent to threaten the black community.  Wilkerson, a formerly enslaved man whose grandfather fought at the Battle of Saratoga (1777) came out with others from the black community “armed with rifles and muskets.”[3] The Kentuckians forced them to retreat due to a “well-executed counterattack.” [4] After the violence of 1841, Cincinnati began arresting members of the African American community, where “the majority were either required to post bond, or were released upon providing a ‘certificate of nativity.’”[5]

Reverend John Rankin

Reverend John Rankin was a crucial part of Ripley, Ohio’s resistance to slavery (Front Line of Freedom)

Griffler also details other instances of violence. Ripley was also a hotspot of formerly enslaved African Americans who were constantly helping other freedom-seekers to escape during the 1840s. However, slave catchers were frequently surveying the area as well. One incident of a standoff occurred when Richard Rankin threatened a slave hunter with a “revolver to his head.”[6] In 1841, leading abolitionists Reverend John Rankin and Calvin Rankin fought off slave hunters.[7] Luckily, they forced the group into retreat, and continued to help enslaved people to freedom.

Front Line of Freedom ultimately highlights how multi-racial resistance to slavery was strong in places like Cincinnati or Ripley Ohio. Griffler details other notable resistance figures such as  John Parker, J.C. Brown, Charles Langston, John Mason, and Frances Jane Scroggins.



[1] 1. Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), 39-40.

[2] Griffler, 119

[3] Griffler, 54

[4] Griffler, 54-55

[5] Griffler, 56

[6] Griffler, 83

[7] Griffler, 83