The following article was published in the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, 2009, University Press of Kentucky.
Abolitionists. The term abolitionists refers to those in the antebellum U.S. who wished to “abolish” slavery completely. In this way, abolitionists differed from other antislavery proponents such as “emancipationists,” who supported gradual emancipation of slaves with compensation to their owners, and colonizationists, who promoted sending freed slaves to Africa.
The religious base for early abolitionism came directly from Quakers such as Arnold Buffin, Elihu Embree, and Charles Osborne and was well established by 1830. The evangelical basis for national abolitionism began in 1833 with the founding of the American Antislavery Society by William Lloyd Garrison, Lewis and Arthur Tappan, and Thomas Weld among many others. Disagreements emerged among these abolitionists relating to the constitutional framework of the U.S. and how it pertained to slavery. Garrison and others argued that the U.S. Constitution favored slavery and must be overthrown through civil disobedience; James G. Birney and many others argued that political action by amending the U.S. Constitution would achieve the ends of eliminating slavery. Garrison was adamantly against political action believing it would diffuse the religious and moral foundation of the antislavery movement. The Liberty Party ran Birney as an antislavery candidate for president in 1840 and 1844 and Gerrit Smith in 1848, but by then the emerging Free Soil Party had absorbed most of the antislavery abolitionists. Those abolitionists favoring direct action against slavery encouraged boycotting southern goods and services, aiding runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad, and running antislavery candidates for state and national offices. The Tappan brothers were credited with much of the financing of the Underground Railroad and for helping to place its agents along the Ohio River. By the mid-1850s, the American Missionary Association had begun direct confrontation on the issue of slavery by placing colporteurs throughout the South, by bringing Bibles to slaves, and by distributing antislavery tract materials to slave owners and yeomen farmers.
Southern slaveholders retaliated against abolitionists by employing their political power in the U.S. Congress and by direct action to mount posses, pay for detectives, extend the patroller system, and increase the rewards for returning runaway slaves. Once the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Ky. slave owners vigorously challenged Underground Railroad operators in federal courts, winning either large judgments or having large fines levied against these operators for the slave owner’s lost slave properties. In 1849, slaveholders in Ky. won a huge political battle, sending an overwhelming majority of delegates to the Kentucky Constitutional Convention and in the Ky. Legislature that rolled back whatever antislavery legislation and protection free blacks had achieved over the previous fifty years. The abolitionists in Ky. were defeated, demoralized, and in disarray. John G. Fee’s autobiography cites many cases where pro-slavery mobs targeted the remaining few white abolitionists in Ky. and drove many of them out of state.
To abolitionists in the North, by the 1850s moderate tactics had not worked; slave states had aggressively expanded slavery into Tex., Ark., Mo., and threatened to bring it to Kans. The 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery north of longitude 36°30,’ thereby opening up all federal territories to the possibility of slavery. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, abolitionists could no longer trust that the U.S. Congress would rectify the matter of slavery. Likewise, they lost hope in the U.S. Supreme Court which, in the 1857 Dred Scott decision (Scott v. Sandford), declared the Missouri Compromise invalid, made any Congressional attempts to prohibit slavery in the territories unconstitutional, and regarded slaves as property protected by the U.S. . Constitution. With seemingly no recourse left to legislative or judicial action, the war of words erupted into armed aggression. John Brown’s antislavery raids in Kans. and his attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. in October 1859, were the first large-scale overt abolitionist confrontations and helped to divide the nation’s opinion on slavery into opposing camps.
Passive support to aid runaway slaves now became active tactics, emboldening even more slaves to escape from the South. From 1836 to 1840, antislavery societies espousing political, economic, and direct action against the institution of slavery spread throughout Ohio and Ind. Slave losses from the river counties of Ky. and the state’s Bluegrass region mounted significantly during the late 1840s and 1850s. Each time a Ky. posse went into Mich., Ind., or Ohio to retrieve runaway slaves, angry abolitionists determined to wrest the evil from the nation met them. Furthermore, abolitionist “agitators” from these and other Northern states began reaching down into Ky. with greater frequency.
In his 2005 book, Bound for Canaan, Fergus Bordewich points to the 1852 death of Isaac Tatum Hooper in New York City, N.Y., as the end of the early period of the abolitionist movement, a period characterized as being one in which humble and religious friends of fugitives simply were aiding other human beings. In Northern Kentucky, one might mark the watershed of this change to 1847, when armed mobs rebuffed the slave catcher Francis Troutman and his Carroll Co., Ky. posse at Marshall, Mich.; or when the Reverend Benjamin Sebastian and George W. Brazier’s posse from Boone Co., Ky., was confronted at Cass Co., Mich., and summarily dispatched from the state. Further marking these changes were the dramatic incursions of Elijah Anderson and John Fairfield in Ky. into Boone Co. taking dozens of slaves out of this county.
Northern abolitionists who used aggressive strategies sometimes used military terms and tactics. They also sent spies and colporteurs into the South deliberately to confront slaveholders and they routinely accosted any “southern kidnappers” coming into northern antislavery states to capture runaway slaves. The new contemporary popular faces of the abolitionist movement included the talented black orator Frederick Douglass and the soon notorious John Brown.
The continuous uproar from antagonistic abolitionist tactics was not received well in Ky. Conservative antislavery leaders and even Cassius Clay disavowed both this period’s abolitionist leaders and their tactics. The few abolitionists remaining in Ky. were easily targeted for reprisal. John G. Fee and his tiny coterie living in Madison, Lewis, and Bracken counties during the 1850s were particularly vulnerable, because they acted openly and confronted deeply-held local prejudices. Even across the Ohio River in Ripley, Ohio, a number of leading citizens were opposed to the overt abolitionist actives of such locals as Rev. John Rankin and John Parker.
According to an overwhelming majority of Ky.’s citizens, the despised abolitionists were agitators from the North, people who interfered with Ky.’s states rights, who enticed and stole slaves from decent, law abiding citizens, and who broke national, state, and local laws. According to most newspapers in Ky., it was these abolitionists who confronted Ky. posses lawfully trying to retrieve “lost slave property” in Ind., Mich., and Ohio. It was also these zealot abolitionists who persisted in destroying the national unity of the Methodist Episcopal and the Presbyterian denominations by their activities. Moreover, it was these radical abolitionists who forced President Abraham Lincoln (1861–1865) to issue the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863 and to accept Negro troops to fight for the Union. Kentuckians may not have been united on many issues during these difficult times, but they were, generally speaking, united in their abhorrence for the white abolitionists.
Ky.’s abolitionists who were white were easy to spot and few in numbers. On the other hand, Ky.’s abolitionists who were black were numerous and concentrated into the state’s large urban areas–Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort, Northern Kentucky, and across the river in Cincinnati, Ohio. They were also congregated in small separate rural slave churches and were spread out geographically as individuals still in bondage across the hundreds of plantations in the north central and Bluegrass regions of Ky. Although black preachers were suspected of abolitionist leanings, and isolated free blacks certainly were among the first to be accused of aiding fugitive slaves, few slave owners actually thought their own slaves might be abolitionists who were providing direct help to runaway slaves.
As their slave losses mounted, slave owners in Ky. took action against the abolitionists in their midst and also crossed the Ohio River. Bounties were set for people like John Carr, John Fairfield, the Reverend Charles Ide, and other white abolitionists active in the Underground Railroad.
Author Ann Hagedorn tells of several attacks on abolitionists in Brown Co., Ohio, led by Mason Co., Ky., slave owner Col. Edward Towers. In late fall 1844, his posse inflicted more than one hundred lashes of the whip on Harbor Hurley, a longtime free black at Sardinia, Ohio, attacked and killed Robert Miller, lynched a runaway slave, attacked Absalom King and several who were helping to defend him, and burned Miller and King’s homes. The Georgetown, Ohio, sheriff appeared unable to stop the marauding Kentuckians.
The most celebrated attacks by Ky. slave owners were associated with a secretive organization of slave owners established in Covington, Ky., in 1846, modeled after the Western Horsemen’s Association set up in the western U.S. to deal with horse thieves. A spy calling himself Carpenter was hired and sent to Mich. to find runaway slaves from Northern Kentucky. This spy came back with detailed reports that supplied names, places where slaves were hiding, and the names of plantations where they had been enslaved. Based on this information, in December 1846 young Lexington attorney Francis Townsend along with David Giltner, the son of a central Ky. slave holding family, William Franklin Ford, James S. Lee, and several other Kentuckians traveled to Marshall, Mich., to recapture the Adam Crosswhite family, slave runaways from the Giltner Plantation. The invaders from Ky., however, were turned away by an armed mob, arrested, and subsequently fined for having disturbed the peace.
George W. Brazier, a slave jobber, and Benjamin Stevens from Boone Co. in Ky. mounted a posse to recapture as many as fifty runaway slaves identified by a spy known as Carpenter who was sent to Cass Co., Mich. This posse too was met by armed men, arrested, fined and escorted out of the state.
Cassius M. Clay was a dramatic and significant figure in Ky.’s antislavery movement, not only for editing The Lexington True American, but also for his public speeches and frequent bouts with pro-slavery advocates in Ky. Although Clay was feted and applauded as an antislavery Southerner at Abolitionist Society meetings in New York City, he clearly favored gradual emancipation with monetary recompense to slave owners. Of all the colorful episodes in Clay’s experiences, none was more lasting than the 600 acres of land he assigned in Madison Co., Ky., to John G. Fee to start the northern emigrant community of Berea. This community, along with Camp Nelson in Jessamine Co., became the nexus for true abolitionist sentiment and actions in Ky.
Clay and Fee could not remain united in their thinking for long; Fee was disappointed by Clay’s political expediency, and Clay felt that Fee’s radicalism mixing feminism and anti-caste sentiments with antislavery beliefs actually damaged the antislavery case in Ky. The break between the two Ky.-born abolitionists was public and painful. Fee believed that Clay’s denunciation of him led directly to harassment and mob actions to evict the abolitionists from Madison Co. in 1859, however, it is more likely that Berea College with its Oberlin, Ohio, trained teachers as northern abolitionists, and because white and black men and women were being educated together at the college, was enough to create a pro-slavery furor in Berea, with or without Cassius M. Clay’s approval or disapproval. After all, Fee’s closest associates in Bracken and Lewis counties in Ky. were driven out by pro-slavery mobs about the same time, and Clay had nothing to do with those cases. Simultaneously, abolitionist societies, such as the American Missionary Association and particularly the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission at Cincinnati, continued to provide immediate supplies and relief materials to former slaves. Additionally, clothing, building materials, and even garden tools and seeds were being sent to assist free blacks who had remained in the South.
Also active in these sorts of activities were sectarian agencies such as the Baptist Home Missionary Society, the Episcopal Missionary Society, and the Methodist Home Missionary Society. In July 1864, a convention at Indianapolis, Ind., cited the following agencies as cooperating to provide direct aid to freedmen–the Cleveland (Ohio) Freedmen’s Aid Commission, the Contraband Relief Commission at Cincinnati, the Friends’ Aid Committee of Richmond, Ind., the Indiana Freemen’s Aid Commission at Indianapolis, the North-Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission at Chicago, Ill., the Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission at Cincinnati, and the Western Sanitary Commission at St. Louis, Mo. Even following the Civil War, efforts were made to improve the lot of blacks remaining in the South as many of the Freedmen’s Bureau Schools became completely dependent on teachers recruited and paid by abolitionist groups, such as these.
Black Abolitionists of Northern Kentucky Active on the Ohio River
|Madison||Elijah Anderson||1838–46||Conductor, Organizer (200 aided)|
|Lawrenceburg||Elijah Anderson||1846–56||Conductor, Organizer (800 aided)|
|Madison||George De Baptiste||1838–1845||Conductor, Organizer (180 aided)|
|Madison||John Carter||1838–1860||Organizer, Conductor, and Recruiter|
|Madison||Griffin Booth, George Evans, and John Lott||1830–1846||Conductors, safe houses|
|Milton, Ky.||Peter Scott||1840–1850||Local agent, Organizer|
|Eagle Hollow, Ind.||Reverend Chapman Harris||1845–1860||Conductor, Manager River Crossings|
|Hunters Bottom, Ky.||Richard Daly||1845–1856||River Crossing to Eagle Hollow|
||John R. Forcen,Simon Gray, and
|Coopers Bottom, Ky.||Freeman Anderson||1850s||Slave in place, river crossings to S. Hanover|
|Carrollton, Ky.||Wheeling Gaunt and Samuel Lightfoot||1840s, 1850s||Safe houses|
|Warsaw, Ky.||John Brookngs and Lewis Hamilton,||1838–1861||Gallatin Co. grand jury|
|Rising Sun, Ind. Rabbit Hash, Ky.||Samuel Barkshire, Joseph Edington, and William Thompson||1840–1850s||Safe houses, Thompson a conductor from Clarksburg Ind.|
|Covington, Ky.||John R. Bradley||1830–1860||Lane Seminary debates|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||John Malvin||1830s||Aided Susan Hall and 8 children|
|Cincinnati ,Ohio||Henry Boyd||1820–1860||Safe House and organizer|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||Framces Scroggins, Williams Watson, and John Woodson||1830–1840s||Safe House and conductor|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||John Mercer Langston and Major James Wilkerson||1830s-1840s||Organizer, defender against mobs|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||Rev. Allen E. Graham||1840s||Union Baptist Church, Cincinnati, Ohio, columnist for the Palladium of Liberty|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||Joseph Carter Corbin||1850–1860s||Editor, The Colored Citizen, Cincinnati; graduate Ohio University, later president University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff|
|Felicity, Ohio||Will Sleet||1840–1850s||Leader of Free Black community aiding fugitive slaves|
|Red Oak, Ohio||Harbor Hurley and George Williams||1844 1856||100 lashes given by Mason Co., Ky., posse in Ind. unprovoked; Williams jailed in Ky. penitentiary and died, forced confession|
|Ripley, Ohio||Aunt Polly Jackson, Rhoda Jones, Uncle Billy Marshall, and John P. Parker||1840–1850s||Maysville, Ky., Crossings to Ripley, Ohio|
|Bracken Co., Ky.||Arnold Gragston and Julett Miles||1850s||Conductor, Crossing to Ripley, Ohio; Julett a woman jailed at Frankfort, Ky., for trying to get her children to freedom visited by Fee.|
White Abolitionists of Northern Kentucky Active along the Ohio River
|Eagle Hollow||Charles Almond, John Carr, John and Samuel Ledgerwood, Charlie Lutz, Jared Ryker, John Taylor, and William Woolen||1839–1861||Organizer, conductor, safe houses|
|Carroll, Trimble, Gallatin, and Franklin||William Phelps and George Whitehead||American Antislavery Society agents from Wheeling, W.Va.|
|Carrollton, Ky.||Alex Fuller and the William Lee family||1850s||Organizer, conductor|
|Lamb, Ind.||George C. Ash, Captain Hildreth, William and John Shaw, and Thomas Wright||1840s-1861||Ferrymen, safe houses|
|Vevay, Ind.||Rev. James Duncan and Stephen Stevens||1824–1830||Founders of the Liberty Party in Ind.|
|Vevay Ind.||Stephen Girard and John and Stephen H. Pavy||1830–1861||Organizer, safe house, conductors|
|Warsaw, Sugar Creek ,Ky.,and Patriot, Ind.||Alex and Duncan Fuller and Daniel and Johnathan Howe||1840s, 1850s||River crossings and safe houses|
|Florence and Quercus Grove Indiana||Rev. Alexander Sebastian||1840s-1861||River crossings and safe houses, antislavery churches|
|Switzerland and Dearborn counties Ind.||Rev. Charles Ide and Orthaniel H. Reed||1840s||Organizer, bounty set for his capture by slave owners|
|Aurora, Ind.||Daniel Bartholomew, Dr. Myron Harding, John Hope, John Milburn, the Harding, Shockley, and Shattuck families, and William Wymandon||1835–1861||Station Master at Aurora, Ind., managed three major routes, safe houses|
|Manchester, Ind.||John Angevin, John and Ralph Collier, Joseph Hall, Thomas and John Hansell, and Seth Platt||1835–1861||Safe houses, conductors|
|Guilford and Lawrenceburg, Ind.||Henry Beecher, Rev. John Clarke, Martin C. Ewbank, Benjamin Metcalf, and Thomas Smith||1835–1850||Organizer, co-founder of Indiana Antislavery Society, safe houses, members of Dearborn Co. Antislavery Society|
|Covington, Ky.||Thomas Carneal and Rev. Joseph Cabell Harrison||1850s||Political activist, safe house|
|Newport, Ky.||William Shreve Bailey||1839–1850s||Newspaper editor|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||Harriet Beecher, Salmon P. Chase, Levi and Catherine Coffin, Mark Campbell McMaken, Calvin Stowe, Zebulon Strong,, Theodore Weld, Samuel and Sally Wilson||1830–1850||Student, Author, Teacher, Activists, safe house, Free Store, political leader, railroad guide|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||James G. Birney and Cassius M. Clay||1840s-1850s||Newspaper editors|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||John G. Fee, William Hamilton, Thomas Metcalfe, and the Ky. delegates||April 1854||Antislavery convention focused on repeal of 1850 Fugitive Slave Act and repudiation of Kansas-Nebraska bill, Hamilton editor of the Patriot, Metcalfe former governor|
|Cincinnati, Ohio||Rev. D. H. Allen, Rev. C. B. Boynton, Levi Coffin, Edward Harwood, Rev. C. Kingsley, J. F. Larkin, James B. Luplton, Rev. G. M. Maxwell, William P. Nixon, Rev. Adam Poe, Rev. R. H. Pollock, Richard B. Pullan, M. Sawyer, Hon. Bellamy Storer, Rev. H. M. Storrs, Dr. J. Taft, Rev. M. L. P. Thompson, Rev. John M. Walden, and Dr. J. P. Walker||1850–1860s||Western Freedmen’s Aid Commission, relief materials—clothing, supplies, tools, school supplies, and teachers, industrial arts schools,|
|Pendleton Co., Ky. to Clermont Co., Ohio||Rev. Silas Chase, Andrew Coombs, Arthur Fee, Oliver P. S. Fee, Robert Fee, Thomas Fee, Nelson Gibson, Dr. Mathew Givson, Joseph Parrish, and Andrew Powell||1840–1850s||Felicity, Ohio, station master and conductors; Moscow, Ohio, safe houses and conductors|
|Bracken Co., Ky.||James B. Cripps||1850s||Delegate to Free Democratic convention in Pittsburgh, Pa., arrested for aiding fugitive slave falsely|
|Bracken Co., Covington, Mason Co., and Madison Co., Ky.||John G. Fee, Mr. Fields, John D. Gregg and John Humlong at Bracken Co., Ky., Vincent Hamilton (John G. Fee’s father-in- law), Mr. Marsh in Madison and Garrard Co., Ky., Ham Rawlings, William Stapp, James Waters, and W. B. Wright||1840–1860||Organizer, antislavery churches and antislavery societies, major Ky. abolitionist and activist|
||1850s||Teacher at school at Bethesda, Ky., driven out by pro-slavery forces|
|Augusta, Ky.||Arthur Thome||1840–1850s||Organizer, safe house|
|Sardinia, Ohio||John B. Mahan||1840s||Tricked by William Greathouse, tried in Ky. in Mason Co., jailed in Washington, Ky., organizer for Liberty Party and Philanthropist subscriptions, died of tuberculosis contracted in jail|
|Maysville, Ky.—Ripley Ohio||Dr. Alfred Beasley, Dr. Alexander Campbell, Thomas Collins, Rev. James Gilliland, Archibald Leggett, Thomas McCaque, Dr. G. Norton, and Rev. John Rankin||1840s-1861||Organizer, safe houses, conductors, physicians|
|Washington, Ky.||James A. Paxton||1830–1861||Safe house|
|Lewis Co., Ky.||James S. Davis||1850s||Cabin Creek, Ky., antislavery church.|
Abolitionists from Other Regions and States
Active in Northern Kentucky
|Mason Co.||Rev. Calvin Fairbanks and Delia Webster||1844||Escape of Lewis Hayden from Lexington, Ky; from Oberlin, Ohio, and Vt.|
|Boone Co., and other parts of Northern Kentucky||John Fairfield||Late 1840s||Brought 28 out at one time, dare-devil exploits; from Va. and Mich.|
|Bracken Co.||Edward James “Patrick” Doyle||1848||Aborted escape of 40 to 75 runaway slaves from Lexington, Ky., area; from Ireland, Bardstown and Danville, Ky.|
|Boone Co.||Laura S. Haviland||1850s||Disguised as free person of color, went into Boone Co., Ky., to get word to John White’s wife, from Adrian, Mich.|
|Trimble, Carroll, Gallatin, and Franklin counties||William Phelps and George Whitefield||1840s||Agents of American Antislavery Society, organizers establishing routes and safe houses, from Wheeling W.Va.|
|Bracken Co.||Rev. Daniel Worth||June 1853||Wesleyan minister from Ohio, active in AMA; joined John G. Fee in preaching in Bracken Co., Ky.|
|Lewis and Bracken Co.||Rev. Edward Matthews||1850s||Antislavery preacher from the Free Mission Baptists, preached with John G. Fee several times|
|Madison Co.||Wiley Fisk||1850s||Controversial preacher with AMA|
||1853||Colporteur from AMA arrested falsely—charged with aiding fugitive slaves—to break up a protracted meeting of John G. Fee|
|Northern Kentucky||William Haines and James West||1850s||Colporteurs from AMA distributed antislavery literature and Bibles to slaves|
|Berea, Camp Nelson, Pulaski, Jackson, and Garrard counties||John Burnham, George Candee, Dr. Chase of N.H., John G. Hanson, Roger Jones, Bros. Myers, Thomas E. Renfro, Bro. Richardson, John A. R. Rogers, Miss Tucker, and Otis B. Waters||1850–1860s||Close allies, teachers, and companions of John G. Fee|
|Ohio River Valley||Arnold Buffin andRev. Lewis Hicklin||1840||Buffin, president of American Antislavery Society and a Quaker, Hicklin a Methodist Protestant preacher and brother of Thomas Hicklin, a major Underground Railroad activist in Ind., both men associated with early organization of the routes from the Ohio River north to Levi Coffin and other Wayne Co., Ind., safe houses|
|Cabin Creek, Lewis Co.||Francis Hawley||1852–1853||Antislavery Baptist minister came from Syracuse, N.Y., came to baptize John G. Fee and his wife in Cabin Creek, Ky. .|
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LaRoche, Cheryl Jenifer. “On the Edge of Freedom: Free Black Communities, Archaeology, and the Underground Railroad,” Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 2006.
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Diane Perrine Coon