The Underground Railroad was a system that was created in order to help fugitive slaves reach
Canada or a free state. When the government passed the Fugitive Slave Act it caused the
government to “actively assist slave owners in recapturing their runaway slaves…the slave
owners had the right to reclaim slaves who ran away to Free states.”(Ohio History Central).
Before the Fugitive Slave Act, if a slave got caught then they were killed or tortured in a public
scene in order to scare other slaves who might be attempting to run, but after the law was passed
most of the slaves got fair trial and jail time (Connors).
Though this helped the southern many northern abolitionists opposed this act since it “favored
the slave owners, anyone caught hiding or assisting runaway slaves faced stiff penalties. If the
commissioner ruled in favor of the white man, he received ten dollars, but if he ruled against the
slave holder he only received five dollars.” The Quakers were those who believed that “slavery
should be abolished and with a religious conviction that slavery was against the will of God.
Though some south Quakers had slaves they usually allowed them to buy their freedom because
they felt uncomfortable with having slaves.”(Underground Railroad).
When the slaves got tired of being treated poorly they made attempts for escape. This started the
Underground Railroad, though no one really knows where this got its name there is one story
that I found more than five times throughout my research. “A slave named Tice Davids escaped
across the river and his slave master was furious when he could not find him, and he said he must
have escaped on an underground railroad. This story was found most frequently throughout my
The Ohio River was a major part of the Underground Railroad due to the fact that it was the
border between Kentucky, a slave state, and Ohio, a free state. When slaves where brought over
on slave ships they usually where auctioned off to the highest bidder, then where shipped off to
the southern states to work in fields. Though no one really knows when the first slaves ran they
do know that they ran north as far as they could. So once the Fugitive Slaves Act was passed the
slave owners and sometimes bounty hunters would chase the slaves with hound dogs. Before the
Slave Act was passed the slaves who were caught were usually killed or punished in the eyes of
the public, but this changed when the Slave Act was passed and most likely those who were
captured were sentenced to jail time by a jury.
The cases below show how Ohioans viewed slavery and what happened to fugitive slaves once
they were caught by authorities:
Slave mother- when a mother started to cross the Ohio River she got trapped by slave catchers
and being with her three or four children she started to kill her children, but only managed to kill
two of the children, in order to keep them from going back to slavery. This shows how a slave
tried to escape but instead of getting to total freedom she got caught and didn’t want her children
to be in slavery she decided to kill them to protect them.
Slaves in Cincinnati- “It seems that a gentleman from Mississippi having purchased three slaves
in the state of Virginia delivered them into the hands of an agent to be moved to his plantation in
Mississippi. The agent took passage on a steamboat down the river as far as Cincinnati.” He
expected to land in Kentucky but ended up in Cincinnati due to the river being shallow, so he
proceeded across the river to Covington. “When it became generally known the court ruled the
slaves to the custody of the agent, upon the ground that the act of landing the slaves in the state
of Ohio was not voluntary on the part of the agent” –The New York Times.
Jane-Marietta- This case “revealed the early public attitude of citizens of Marietta on slavery and
the stand of the governor of Ohio, who, in reply to the request for the banishment of Jane by the
governor of Virginia, stated that the fugitive slave law of 1793 did not authorize the executive of
a state to interfere with the apprehension of a slave.” This case actually started Charlestown,
Virginia when Jane was charged with stealing. She was sentenced to be hung but instead she was
to be sold and taken out of Virginia. “Before the governor’s action could be known the door of
the jail was lift open deliberately, and Jane was allowed to walk out. She spent two days in
Charlestown and then crossed the Ohio River to Marietta. The public officials knew she was in
town but did nothing. For some time no one attempted to have her arrested for more than one
year. When she was married with a child Jacob Beeson appeared and attempted to carry off Jane
and her child without evidence that he represented the agent appointed by the governor of
Virginia to sell and transport Jane out of state. Beeson was unable to get Jane because the town
people hid her. A number of citizens of Marietta had sent a petition to Gov. Samuel Huntington
asking him not to surrender Jane, contending that she was entitled to her liberty.” This was all
settled with Beeson returning Jane to Virginia and her being sold. – Ohio historical society
1812-Sandusky- This case was in 1812 in the central part of Ohio and was of public interest due
to the fact that it “demonstrated that a judges personal feelings often influenced the status of a
negro seeking refuge in a state where slavery did not exist. An assumed runaway was seized at
Delaware, taken away from the custody of his captor by a crowd and brought before Col. James
Kilbourne, the justice of peace, who is known for his antislavery convictions, and ordered the
Negro released. The runaway was then sent north on a government wagon that was carrying
supplies to Sandusky.” – Ohio Historical Society journal.
Matilda- A case in 1837, which caused public attention, “Salmon P. Chase, lawyer of the time,
appeared as counsel for a fugitive slave, a result of the case was the prosecution of James
Birney, employer of Matilda, for harboring a slave in violation of the Ohio statute of 1807.” This
case started in Virginia when Matilda’s owner was using steamboat when traveling to Missouri
and docked at Cincinnati. “He went ashore as well as Matilda and was concealed by some
Negroes. Mr. Birney assumed she was free and employed her. Her owner went on to Missouri,
but left agents to find Matilda. Birney and his family believed she was free in as much as Matilda
had landed in Ohio with the consent of her master. Chase argued that when a slave owner
voluntarily brought a slave into a free state the slave automatically became free and could not be
reclaimed as a fugitive under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, but she was sent back to her
owner.” - Ohio Historical Society Journal.
Greenhouse v. Dunlap- This case was decided in December of 1843. “Alleged assistance of an
Ohioan, John Mahan, in the escape of a Kentucky slave, the significance of this case was the
question of the validity of a bond which was put up for Mahan rather than the rendition of
assistance to a slave escaping into Ohio from Kentucky. Mahan was indicted for aiding a slave,
named John, who was owned by William Greathouse. Greathouse undertook legal proceedings
against him with the result that he was extradited, and committed to the Mason county jail.
Mahan was released from jail when William Dunlap, who was from Brown County, Ohio, put up
a bond for him.” But Dunlap was charged with Mahan’s fees because he gave the bond freely. –
Ohio Historical Society Journal.
Richardson v. Beebee- This case was important because the Ohio Supreme Court said that the
“Ohio law against kidnapping, revived in 1843, unconstitutional if it applied persons carrying
escaped slaves out of the State according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, without the aid of
state authorities. William Richardson had been arrested by Huron Beebee for taking Alfred Berry
out of the county without first taking him before a judge to establish his property right.
Richardson was prosecuted since he had not established proof of ownership. Richardson was
found not guilty of kidnapping, because he was removing a slave from the state. – Ohio historical
Jones v. Van Zandt – this was a case that lasted from 1842 until 1847 and reached the United
States Supreme Court. “If afforded considerable publicity on the question of the legality of the
Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. Defending Van Zandt when his appeal was made before the
Supreme Court were Chase and William Seward. Involved was the question of interpreting the
nature of notice under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. John Zandt was an abolitionist, a
Kentuckian who had migrated into Ohio, and was active in aiding to escape.” What happened
was nine slaves went from Kentucky to Ohio, “while Zandt was returning to his farm near
Cincinnati he found the nine slaves on the road and picked them up. Zandt was stopped about
fifteen miles north of Cincinnati and caught all but two of the slaves. Those captured were
immediately sent to Kentucky and jailed without any trials. In the end Zandt ended up paying
Wharton Jones, the owner of the slaves.” – Ohio Historical Society Journal
Fugitive Slave Cases before 1840 in Ohio were fewer in number than after this time. Between
1850 and 1860, 343 African Americans appeared before federal commissioners, of these 332
were sent to slavery in the south.
Every case was different depending on many factors, though mostly fugitive slaves were able to
have a fair trial most of the time they ended back into slavery. A lot of the cases were difficult
because once the fugitives crossed into Ohio it was a federal case and no longer was black and
white case. Many fugitive slaves did find their way to freedom but unfortunately that was not the
case for some. As we can see a lot of Ohioans stood up for the fugitive slaves and tried to make a
case for their freedom, but not always succeeded in this.
Cincinnati Commercial. (1859, November 2). The Fugitive Slave Case at Columbus, Ohio. New
York Times .
Cincinnati Commmercial. (1853, August 22). Fugitive Slave Case in Cincinnati. New York Times
Cincinnati Gazette. (1856, March 3). The Fugitive Slaves in Cincinnati. The New Yourk Times .
Connors, T. (n.d.). The Fugitive Slave Act. Retrieved June 6, 2009, from How Stuff Works:
Ohio Historical Society. (1998). Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly. The Scholarly
Journal of the Ohio Historical Sociey , 169-184.
Ohio History Central. (n.d.). Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from
Ohio State Journal. (1853, August 31). Another Slave Case. New York Times .
Snow, B. (n.d.). Slave Narratives-Clark County. Retrieved June 3, 2009, from Sory of Peter
Bruner, a former slave:
The Cincinnati Slave Case. (1856, March 11). New York Times .
Underground Railroad. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2009, from