Category Archives: Scholarship

Joe William Trotter – River Jordan (1998)

Joe William Trotter explores the creation and transformation of Black urban life by analyzing data from four cities along the Ohio River: Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Evansville. Trotter details how Black urban life is underscored by the history of slavery. Specifically, Trotter posits that the inception of Black urban life in the Ohio River valley was driven by the need for African Americans to secure their freedom and the freedom of their enslaved brethren. 

For freedom seekers the Ohio River paralleled the biblical significance of the River Jordan as it had represented a path to the north, to freedom, to “the land of hope.” [1] Trotter reveals that the promise of the Ohio River did not live up to reality, not until Black Americans committed to creating a community that pursued freedom. 

Taylor Alley or “Little Bucktown” — a predominantly black area in Cincinnati’s West End (River Jordan)

What had awaited freedom seekers north of the Ohio River were harsh systems that were designed to hinder any prospect of community building. Trotter analyzes a series of discriminatory anti-migration acts that prohibited “free blacks” from settling in these states. Trotter also cites Kentucky’s 1818 legislation that prevented free black men and women from immigrating to the state and the state’s 1834 law that forced black men and women to post bond in order to remain in the state. [2] 

According to Trotter, the decrease in the African American population in the Ohio Valley from 1800-1850 serves to illustrate the intensity of these discriminatory acts. Cincinnati’s black population declined from 4.8 percent to 2.8 percent from 1840-1850. Pittsburgh’s population also declined from 4.0 percent to 3.3 from 1820-1840 but slightly increased to 4.3 in 1850. And Louisville’s black population declined from 36.4 to 16 percent from 1810-1850. Trotter attributes the population decline to mob violence, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the tendencies of slave catchers to enslave freedmen and women under false pretenses. [3]

Table of Cincinnati’s population from 1810 -1860 (River Jordan)

Simultaneously, however, the occupations of the black population diversified, as did the number of black property holders. According to Trotter, diversity in occupation was instrumental in the underground railroad. Trotter highlights the role of black employees at hotels in hiding runaway slaves and collecting information from slave owners who would often frequent their establishments. Totter includes the escape of two women in June 1848. He emphasizes that it was the assistance of the “blacks working at the Pittsburgh Merchants Hotel [that] helped two female slaves escape from a visiting planter.” [4] Trotter also details a letter from August 1841 from a Cincinnati “fugitive” to his enslaved wife.  The letter served as an instruction for escape revealing the names of a barber, William O’Hara, and George (William) Casey, a riverman,who both aided in the escape of the fugitive’s wife and her friends. [5]  Another operative, John Hatfield stated “I never felt better pleased with anything I ever did in my life, than in getting a slave woman clear, when her master was taking her from Virginia.” [6]

Trotter’s book contains valuable information  about the development of black urban life, but does not include much information about group escapes. There was also no mention of the term “slave stampedes.”


[1] Joe William Trotter Jr., River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. (1st ed. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), xiv

[2]  Trotter, River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. 26

[3] Trotter, 37

[4] Trotter, 45

[5] Trotter, 45

[6] Trotter, 46

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.


William Townsend uses Abraham Lincoln’s diaries and letters along with newspaper articles to help showcase the development of Lincoln’s views slavery. Specifically, Townsend captures Lincoln’s response to key moments like the running away of slaves in Kentucky. 

 Townsend’s book is a treasure trove of primary sources. However, the term “slave stampede” is absent from the book. In its place, Townsend includes about three instances of group escapes. Townsend details the punishment of preacher Calvin Fairbank and teacher Delia Ann Webster for assisting three freedom seekers in 1844. The successful escape resulted in the arrest of Fairbank who was tortured and placed in solitary confinement while Webster was placed in a “debtors room.” Israel, the black driver who transported them was whipped fifty times. [1] airbank pleaded guilty in 1845 and was sentenced to fifteen years of imprisonment. In 1849, however, Governor John Crittenden pardoned him. However he was caught again in 1851 “stealing slaves” in Louisville and sentenced to another 15 years.  He eventually was released in 1864. [2]

Although Townsend does not use the term stampede, he does cover mass escapes which contemporaries labeled ‘stampedes,’ such as the 1848 Lexington Stampede. On August 5th, 1848 in Fayette County, Kentucky, an estimated seventy-five slaves attempted to escape from their masters. The slaves were armed and led by a white operative named Patrick Doyle. According to William M. Pratt, a pastor at the First Baptist Church in Lexington, “there has been a great disturbance in the country on account of some 60 or 70 negroes running off in a gang & hundreds have been in pursuit, nearly all taken.” The men in pursuit met at the Fayette courthouse to discuss ways of “detection and punishment of abolitionists and others in enticing slaves from their owners.” [3] The Fairbank case had left a staunch residual opposition to runaway slaves and those aiding them. According to the Observer, abolitionists under “the false pretext of philanthropy, and with unexampled audacity” were “perpetrating their foul practice in our midst.” The solution according to the paper was to make “a more severe example . . . of these wretches.” The paper called on local residents to “be on alert to detect and bring them to punishment.” Most of the freedom seekers were caught a couple of days later. The freedom seekers who survived the confrontation were either killed or “sent down the river.” [4]

Shortly before the Emancipation Proclamation, Judge George Robertson met with a union officer to bring back his runaway slave who was being harbored by the army. The officer refused. Furious, Judge Roberson sent a letter to President Lincoln, whom he knew, and when he didn’t receive the answer he wanted, he sued the officer in a Kentucky court for  “harboring a slave and aiding” in the escape of a fugitive.  [5] Townsend suggests that the Union officer (Utley) may have harbored many fugitive slaves. According to Townsend, this dispute encapsulated a wider problem in Kentucky which was the conflict between the state’s pro-slavery constitution and the Union’s evolving antislavery wartime policies. 

[1] Joe William Trotter Jr., River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. (1st ed. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), xiv

[2]  Trotter, River Jordan: African American Urban Life in the Ohio Valley. 26

[3] Trotter, 37

[4] Trotter, 45

[5] Trotter, 45

[6] Trotter, 46

Rebels on the Border by Dr. Aaron Astor

‘Rebels on the Border’ Cover, from Target Bookstore

In the summer of 1848, dozens of enslaved Kentuckians set out on the dangerous path to freedom.  According to Aaron Astoer, “The largest plot in the Bluegrass…involved [reportedly] seventy-five slaves who had escaped Fayette and Bourbon countries with the help of a white abolitionist at Danville’s Centre College and numerous free blacks.” 1  The freedom seekers had armed themselves and had been traveling in the direction of the Ohio River before being recaptured in the city of Cynthiana.  Astor only uses the term ‘stampede’ in his 2012 book Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri twice, and does not use it to refer to such organized group escapes.  The author mentions that locals of Lexington were particularly flabbergasted by this event, as “most of the participating slaves were ‘trusted house servants of Lexington’s most socially prominent families.’”2

In the beginning of Astor’s narrative, he describes some other antebellum examples of enslaved people rebelling against slaveholders.  “One large slave ‘conspiracy’ in the western border states occurred not in the Bluegrass but in western Kentucky’s Hopkinsville, where a foiled Christmas insurrection in 1856 spurred panic and ‘excitement’ throughout the entire state,” Astor writes, noting that even rumors of this sort of activity were terrifying to the slaveholders, who were extremely averse to the suggestion that their power over the people they had enslaved could be challenged.3

Enslaved Persons’ Rebellion, from ThoughtCo

Even though the journey out of bondage was perilous and sometimes unsuccessful, it was also an obvious reclamation of power by the freedom seekers.  Astor acknowledges that “[o]ther than outright insurrection, running away was the slave’s gravest political act of resistance.  It directly usurped the master’s authority…”4  White enslavers experienced a growing anxiety over the threat of enslaved people running away or arming themselves en masse, especially as the tensions which led to the Civil War heightened.  It got to the point that untrue rumors of rebellion circulated amongst the townspeople routinely: “The appearance of slave conspiracies during seminal events…underscores the latent political power vested in the ‘apolitical’ slave population.” 5  Astor notes that even though many of the feared insurgent plots seemed to have been conjured up entirely in the minds of slaveholders, the enslaved were able to observe their enslavers’ panic and use it against them.  Enslaved people’s different forms of rebellion shattered the wishful illusion that this system was morally neutral and could continue without consequences.

During wartime, Astor notes the examples of stampedes behind Union lines, and how the “rush of slaves off the farms of Little Dixie and the Bluegrass stunned white conservatives and Union military officials alike.  Sporadic violence against enlistees hardly stemmed the tide of black men –and often black women as well– who stampeded into the army of liberation.”6  Astor refers to black people as ‘stampeding’ into the army twice in his book.  Fighting in the Civil War for the right of all enslaved people to be freed was the ultimate revolution in which freedom seekers could have taken part, and the use of the word “stampede” to describe their fervor for enlistment is apt.



[1] Aaron Astor, Rebels on the Border: Civil War, Emancipation, and the Reconstruction of Kentucky and Missouri (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012), 67-68.

[2] Astor, 68.

[3] Astor, 68.

[4] Astor, 69.

[5] Astor, 70.

[6] Astor, 144.

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



Matthew Salafia — Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River (2013)

Map Showing the Ohio River as a Border Between Slavery and Freedom (American Literature & Culture)

“While the lower North was uniquely southern and the upper South was uniquely northern,” writes Matthew Salafia in Slavery’s Borderland (2013), “the result was a region defined by its blend of influences.”[1]  The author examines the importance of the Ohio River as a geographical, cultural, social, and political marker throughout the antebellum period and into the Civil War. Although opinions were strong and tensions were high between the North and the South in the years leading to the war, Salafia claims that the Ohio River Valley region remained committed to coexistence. Borderland residents rejected the sectionalism experienced throughout the rest of the country.[2]

Of significance to this project, Salafia discusses the “role of location, power, and politics in the institution of slavery.”[3] He uses a historical lens to explore the differences and similarities between the wage labor and chattel slavery systems that existed simultaneously along the banks of the Ohio River. Salafia explains that between the sentiments of White abolitionists, Black abolitionists, and pro-slavery sentiments, a form of “conservative antislavery” ultimately prevailed.[4] Salafia specifically discusses the experiences of freedom seekers in his book, who  had to cross “shared social boundaries between slavery and freedom.”[5] Escaped bondsmen and women often attempted to blend in with the free Black population in Ohio by shedding their identity as enslaved persons and adopting that of a wage laborer before relocating to further safety. Salafia also mentions that freedom seekers would weigh the benefits of escaping slavery against the possible limitations before attempting to flee. Those who decided not to flee likely realized that in practice, the “freedom” in the nearby borderland was often tainted by practices of forced labor that closely resembled the same system they were attempting to evade.[6]

Historical Marker that Describes the Journey of Eliza Across the Ohio River (New York Times)

Salafia does not use the term “stampede” in his book, but he does mention various family escape attempts. He explains that it was often difficult for enslaved individuals and their families to escape as a unit, and they only did so when they foresaw no possible alternatives. He emphasizes that “many slaves along the border escaped only after a triggering event threatened to tear them away from their community or forced them to reevaluate their enslaved condition.”[7] The borderland had additionally become more legally defined following the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793.[8] T

“The Modern Medea” (1867), Painting of Margaret Garner’s Actions by Thomas Noble (Library of Congress)

With specific reference to the limited number of group escapes, Salafia explains that the close bonds of family members often made their escape together difficult. “Group flight presented multiple challenges,” he writes, “making it more difficult for runaways to blend into the surroundings, find shelter, and gather food, but individual escape required fugitives to abandon their families to the yoke of bondage.”[9] Specifically, Salafia mentions George Ramsey, J.D. Green, Mary Younger, William Brown, John Moore, Henry Bibb, Charlotte, and Margaret Garner as enslaved people who had to make difficult decisions about escape and the future of their families.[10] These men and women had to consider the benefits, costs, and risks associated with escape before planning a course of action. If they were caught, some—such as Margaret Garner—were so distraught by the idea of being returned to slavery that they believed death was the better and necessary alternative.[11]

To help with slave escapes, several Black and white community members provided their homes, businesses, communication, money, and other services to men, women, and children seeking freedom. Prominent members who helped freedom seekers in free territories included Salmon P. Chase, a prominent abolitionist attorney and politician; Elijah Kite and his wife, who opened their home to Margaret Garner and her family; and the community of free African Americans in general, who provided “emotional, psychic, and sometimes physical support.”[12] Overall, Matthew Salafia uses the scope of his book to discuss the institution of slavery through the geographic consideration of the Ohio River Valley.


[1] Matthew Salafia, Slavery’s Borderland: Freedom and Bondage along the Ohio River (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 2.

[2] Salafia, 3.

[3] Salafia, 5.

[4] Salafia, 7.

[5] Salafia, 10.

[6] Salafia, 11.

[7] Salafia, 168.

[8] Salafia, 76-78.

[9] Salafia, 175.

[10] Salafia, 175-180.

[11] Salafia, 180.

[12] Salafia, 166 & 180.

Images of America: Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad by Richard Cooper and Eric Jackson (2014)

Published in 2014, Images of America: Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad by Richard Cooper and Eric R. Jackson contains dozens of portraits of prominent abolitionists and photographs of locations which were useful to freedom-seekers.  The book offers a useful chronological image map of historical events through the Civil War era.  There are several profiles of more well-known figures such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison.  In addition, Images of America also highlights more obscure abolitionists, such as Reverend John G. Fee (who was “eventually disowned” by his family for harboring “radical antislavery opinions”), James Birney (a Princeton alumnus who “founded the abolitionist newspaper The Philanthropist in 1836”), and Anna Donaldson (who worked against slavery alongside her sons).1

The term “stampede” does not appear in this book.  Instead, Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad describes various types of escapes and the support systems which aided them.  According to the authors, for example, “The city’s emerging steamboat industry granted employment opportunities for African Americans and provided a way to transport black Americans escaping from the South to the North without detection.”2   

The authors note that some freedom-seekers “travel(ed) at night or hid(–) aboard sailing vessels as well as in safe-houses…  Those who were lucky enough to escape concealed themselves, used various disguises, obtained free papers, and traveled the back roads to gain their freedom”, and “On foot, runaways seldom traveled more than 10 to 15 miles per night.  Another way…was through the use of various creeks and small streams that fed into a larger waterway, especially in the northern Kentucky and southwest Ohio regions.”3

Co-author Richard Cooper provides several primary-source photographs of monuments or buildings connected to the Underground Railroad or Civil War, or which concern individual Black people and their accomplishments.  His images of the Black Brigade Monument (which honors an all-Black “military unit organized during the Civil War to protect the city from being attacked by the Confederates”), Father Wallace Shelton’s gravesite in Union Baptist Cemetery (“which contains the remains of…a number of African American Civil War veterans” and “is the oldest Baptist African American cemetery in the city”), and a statue of James Bradley (who was “the first African American student at Oberlin College”) are originals.4


[1] Cooper and Jackson, Images of America: Cincinnati’s Underground Railroad, (Arcadia Publishing in, 2014), 46; 50; 59.

[2] Cooper and Jackson, 36.

[3] Cooper and Jackson, 76; 77.

[4] Cooper and Jackson, 47; 173; 192.

Nikki M. Taylor — Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (2016)

Garner mural

A Mural of the Garner Family Crossing the Ohio River (Historical Marker Database)

According to historian Nikki Taylor, “African American women are at the heart of American history and its many subfields.”[1] This statement certainly captures the essence of Taylor’s argument in Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio, which describes the life of Margaret Garner and the sad fate of her enslaved family. Their experiences are used to analyze the pain that African American women endured in the antebellum period. Like many enslaved women, Garner had endured unthinkable traumas on the plantation she was bound to in Richwood, Kentucky. In addition to the forced labor she completed, she was also subject to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse in many forms.[2] According to Taylor, the tragic events that occurred following the Garners’ escape from slavery likely stemmed from this trauma.

Taylor does not discuss the term “stampede” as a form of slave escapes in her book. She does, however, acknowledge the obstacles and potential successes of slave escapes in general. Taylor explains that the most likely demographic to make it to freedom were younger men who traveled alone. Yet the Garner family traveled as a group of eight, with the youngest member at nine months old and the eldest in their fifties.[3] Margaret Garner’s husband, Simon Jr. (later named Robert), had the most geographic experience of the group because his slaveholder had granted him jobs away from the plantation.[4] According to Taylor, enslaved people in Kentucky were unlikely to escape relative to other areas due to the close ratio of white slaveholders to enslaved people. In Kentucky, it was more likely for enslaved people to engage in acts of resistance rather than attempt escape.[5]

“The Modern Medea” (1867), Painting of Margaret Garner’s Actions by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (Library of Congress)

The Garners were set on freedom, however, despite the grim circumstances. They deliberated for over a month to determine their route to Ohio, which was just sixteen miles away.[6] They left the plantation at 10:00 pm on January 27, 1856, with a sled pulled by two horses. They had to cross the frozen—yet still dangerous—Ohio River, but their escape was successful. The family arrived in the free territory of Cincinnati, Ohio at 8:00 am on January 28.[7] Their relief was short-lived, however. Slaveholders quickly noticed the Garners were missing and began their pursuit. Once in Ohio, Archibald Gaines and Thomas Marshall obtained a warrant under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act to repossess the Garners as their property. When a deputized group of people arrived at the home where the Garners were staying, they decided to fight rather than return to slavery. Robert shot a deputy and tensions escalated.[8] Assuming they would not make it out, Margaret grabbed a knife and slit the throat of her two-year-old daughter. She wanted her children to die rather than remain enslaved. She attempted to kill the rest of her children, but she was stopped by the owners of the house. Later, in an interview with Reverend Horace Bushnell, Garner claimed it was better for her children “to go home to God than back to slavery.”[9] The deputies forced their way through the door to take the pistol away from Robert. In a final attempt to prevent the enslavement of her children, Margaret hit her nine-month-old daughter in the face with a shovel.[10]

Newspaper Headline of the Garner Escape and Killings (St. Louis, MO Globe-Democrat)

The Garners’ fugitive slave trial transfixed people in Cincinnati. Crowds of Black and White anti-slavery protestors came to the courthouse each day. Groups of women also came to protest the separate murder trial involving Margaret Garner. This was significant because, according to Taylor, they were “the first documented collective and public protests by Black women on behalf of another Black woman in US history.”[11] On February 26, 1856, the court decided the Garners would be returned to their owners. In Kentucky, and an arrest warrant was issued for the Garner parents concerning their daughter’s murder. To prevent their arrest by Ohio officials, the slaveholders and their allies had the Garners sent on a steamboat to New Orleans. Yet on this journey, the boat collided with another, and Margaret’s youngest daughter was thrown from her hands into the water. Margaret appeared to be relieved that her daughter was finally free from slavery.[12]

Taylor uses the psychological concept of “soul murder” to place “physical, sexual, and mental trauma, abuse, and torture” alongside Margaret Garner’s story.[13] Overall, her book aims to utilize the trauma endured by Margaret and her family as a lens through which to analyze a mother’s murderous actions. Taylor writes that “there is a direct relationship between racist and sexist insults, sexual and physical assaults—injustice in any form—and psychological pain.”[14] Her literature seeks to make this relationship clear to her readers and give Margaret the voice she deserves. Previously, her story had been regarded as “non-narratable” by many historians and scholars, but Taylor’s work seeks to unravel the “black feminist interpretation” of Margaret’s choices.[15] According to Taylor, the spiral of psychological torture throughout Margaret’s life could only end with her tragic attempts to end her children’s enslavement.


[1] Nikki M. Taylor, Driven Toward Madness: The Fugitive Slave Margaret Garner and Tragedy on the Ohio (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2016), 6.

[2] Taylor, 27.

[3] Taylor, 8.

[4] Taylor, 9-10.

[5] Taylor, 10-11.

[6] Taylor, 12.

[7] Taylor, 15-17.

[8] Taylor, 20.

[9] Taylor, 74.

[10] Taylor, 21-22.

[11] Taylor, 66.

[12] Taylor, 84-87.

[13] Taylor, 3.

[14] Taylor, 3.

[15] Taylor, 5.

Dr. Darrel E. Bigham – On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (2006)

A photograph portrait of Dr. Darrel E. Bigham, the author of 'On Jordan's Banks'

Dr. Darrel E. Bigham, from

An enslaved mother made the urgent decision to escape after she learned of her owner’s plans to sell several of her eight children.  Because she was trusted to sell vegetables in the local market, she was able to hide her possessions in a wagon underneath a layer of produce.  Then, she drove the cart to a spot south of Covington, Kentucky, on the Ohio River.  Her husband and children met her there, and began their clandestine operation to cross the river into freedom officially underway.  This was a success story: “She and her family eventually reached Canada,” Darrel E. Bigham writes in his 2006 book On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and Its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley.  While his book does not use the term ‘stampede’, it does include accounts of families, individual freedom seekers, and organized groups of people escaping.  In addition, Bigham writes of enslaved people rebelling against slaveholders in a variety of ways.

Bigham writes, “[Slaves] who could not look forward to emancipation expressed opposition in many ways, mostly nonviolent – ranging from humor and music to work slowdowns or temporarily running away.”1   Even though many enslaved people knew that they would not be able to escape in the immediate future, they still purposefully rebelled against the slaveholders.  One case involved an enslaved man who strangled his overseer “with his own suspenders.”2  Because the enslavers knew they were outnumbered, they often relied on intimidation to make their enslaved people believe that rebelling was not worth the danger they would be in afterward.  “[O]wners took slaves to hangings, hoping to make an impression on them,”3 Bigham recounts.  Clearly, enslaved people’s defiance made an impact.

Enslaved man running away from two pursuers

Enslaved Man Escaping, from NYPL Public Domain Archive.

Interestingly, Bigham counters an assertion that this sort of pushback was “[enslaved people’s] most successful resistance.”4  He continues, “The error is not in celebrating their counterculture, but rather in failing to appreciate that only running away allowed blacks to ‘outplay whites in the divide-and-conquer’ game.”5  Even better, this form of mobile rebellion did not scare slaveholders in a way which caused them to retaliate violently against the slaves who had stayed.  This leads into Bigham’s discussion of escapes.  He writes that Black people took initiative in organizing their escapes, and emphasizes “that the Underground Railroad depended heavily on black agents” who were sometimes newly-free people who had taken similar routes out of slaveholding territory.6  Bigham includes several references to individual Black people escaping from their bondage with the help of abolitionists.  For example, he relays the story repeated by “[t]he great-niece of a slave named Lewis Barnett” about her great-uncle, who “escaped with twelve others traveling through New Albany”, where they were hidden by a Black family for two days before being unfortunately recaptured.7

Brick church building with a clocktower

The Second Baptist Church, New Albany, VA, from Darrel Bigham.

Bigham includes a significant amount of geographical and cultural information about the Underground Railroad’s operations, and he makes a point to mention names and provides short accounts of both white and free black people who helped the runaways in their escapes.  At the end of his book, Bigham includes pictures of primary sources, some of which are newspapers about anti-Black initiatives, an autographed autobiography of a Black reverend, and two nineteenth-century schools for African Americans.   Those last photos are from the author’s collection.  In fact, Bigham personally provides several pictures of important buildings like schools or churches which used to serve as stops on the Underground Railroad.


[1] Darrel Bigham, On Jordan’s Banks: Emancipation and its Aftermath in the Ohio River Valley (University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 22.

[2] Bigham, 22.

[3] Bigham, 22.

[4] Bigham, 22.

[5] Bigham, 22.

[6] Bigham, 24.

[7] Bigham, 47.