By the 1820’s, several thousand African Americans had settled in Ohio. Early slave laws discouraged black settlement. In spite of the severe fines and penalties imposed by these laws, Ohioans were quite active in aiding fugitive slaves on their journey north to freedom in Canada on the Underground Railroad network.
A number of small black communities sprang up in southeastern Ohio and quite often served as “stations” along this network of safe houses. By necessity, the routes of the Underground Railroad generally avoided cities, where more people meant a greater risk of being caught. They were often across areas of marginal farmland and wooded areas where houses were few.
Anyone willing to take the risk might have been a conductor: abolitionists, clergy, farmers, teachers, whites, free blacks, mulattoes, Native Americans, rich or poor. Some, like Harriet Tubman are famous for their sacrifices. But others worked in secret, and never told even their families of their involvement.
“The threats of local proslavery people did not frighten the Abolitionists,” says Norris Franz Schneider in Bridge City: The Story of Zanesville and Muskingum County, Ohio.
“They not only held firmly to their opinions, but also helped escaping slaves to reach freedom in Canada. For this aid they were subject to a fine of $1,000 and imprisonment for six months under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. At least twenty-five Muskingum County families risked this punishment by operating stations on the Underground Railroad.
“This was a series of stations for transporting slaves secretly to Canada. Escaping slaves crossed the Ohio River near Parkersburg or Point Pleasant and were conducted through Deavertown to Zanesville and westward to New Concord on the way to Bloomfield and Coshocton.
“Two northbound Underground Railroad lines through Rosseau and Pennsville came together at the home of Thomas L. Gray, a harness maker in Deavertown. One of Gray’s trusted assistants was Rial Cheadle, teacher, peddler, keelboatman, and maker of pewter buttons. On peddling trips to the South, Cheadle posed as a halfwit and entertained the slaves with eccentric songs. The plantation owners saw no connection between Cheadle’s visits and the departure of their slaves. But Cheadle always had several slaves with him when he knocked at the door of friends and hummed softly, “I’m on my way to Canada, where colored men are free.”
“The first station one mile north of Deavertown was operated by Mrs. Affadilla Deaver. Two miles farther slaves were kept at the home of Henry Weller. Avoiding Roseville, the runaways found their next refuge at the home of Lydia Stokely.
“The store and tan yard of Andrew Dugan two and one-half miles above the Stokely farm gave the next haven. Two miles farther north the escaping slaves found safety at the grist mill of Josephus Powell. Stations between this mill and Putnam were kept at the Five Mile House, and the William Wiley, Cyrus Merriam, and Jenkins homes.
“As these people concealed slaves during the day and smuggled them to other stations at night, they had many amusing and exciting adventures. Gray once started to Roseville with three slaves and realized that he was being watched. He had the three boys lie on the floor of the wagon and hold up their hands and feet. Then he threw a sheet over them. When some proslavery men asked him what he was hauling, Gray replied: “Oh, I’m just taking three pigs to market.”
“Affadilla Deaver started to Roseville one morning with several slaves concealed on the bottom of the wagon beneath straw and produce. At the bottom of Wigton’s hill the wagon stuck in the mud. Not daring to remove her load, she asked four proslavery farmers to assist her. Unknowingly they helped the slaves on their way to Canada.”
Sources: “Bridge City: The Story of Zanesville and Muskingum County, Ohio,” by Norris Franz Schneider , The World Publishing Company, Cleveland and New York, 1950, pages 207-8.
Underground Railroad and Freedom Trails on the National Forests, Wayne National Forest website, Nelsonville, OH: http://bit.ly/f2QJeY