Elijah Anderson, Underground Railroad Conductor

This article was published in the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, 2009, University Press of Kentucky

Anderson, Elijah (b. ca. 1808, Fluvanna Co., Va.; d. Frankfort, Ky., March 4, 1861). Dubbed the “General Superintendent” of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) by Rush R. Sloane, an abolitionist in northwest Ohio, Elijah Anderson became a major “conductor,” bringing hundreds of runaway slaves to freedom from Northern Kentucky counties.

Born a free person of color in Va., Elijah Anderson was forced from his native state by restrictive black laws passed after the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion. Sometime before 1835, Elijah relocated to Cincinnati, Ohio. Trained as a blacksmith and skilled in making wrought iron undercarriages and decorative fences, Elijah found ready employment as a laborer fixing metal and steam fittings on Ohio River steamboats. . He forged strong friendships with other free blacks—George De Baptiste, Chapman Harris, and John Lott—as well as John Carter, a Lexington, Ky. native who had settled in Cincinnati among the large free black community. Carter fled to Canada during the 1830 riots and then returned when things calmed.

Both De Baptiste, a barber, and Carter, a grocer, worked as stewards, a high-ranking position for free blacks. According to Lott, these men were introduced to Ohio Underground Railroad (UGGR) leaders through Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who, during the 1830s, was at Cincinnati’s Lane Seminary and also at his first pastorate, the Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Presbyterian Church. Between December 1837 and early 1840, all five of these free blacks relocated to Madison, Ind., and soon provided energy and impetus to the UGGR’s operations there. Elijah met and married Mary J., a native of Ohio ten years his junior. Their only child, Martha, was born in 1840 at Madison. Elijah established his blacksmith shop on the southeast corner of Third and Walnut Sts. He prospered and, before early 1842, had purchased a brick town home valued at $800 in the Georgetown section of Madison on Walnut St. near Fifth St. taxed at $3.00. He was listed as the owner and taxpayer on that property through 1847.

Soon, Elijah attained leadership in the Madison UGGR. He excelled at opening and developing secure routes. Often he went over into Ky., particularly along the Kentucky River artery, contacting free blacks and slaves on plantations. Elijah Anderson developed a solid relationship with free blacks at Carrollton, Ky., Frankfort, Ky., and Lawrenceburg, Ind. He worked well with white abolitionists. By 1845, the black conductors at Madison managed most of the Ohio River crossing points. These free blacks, shifted Madison’s UGGR operations from a passive to an active state. George De Baptiste claimed to have aided 108 runaways before 1846; Elijah said that he brought 200 through before 1850.

In 1845, two top agents of the American Anti-Slavery League—William Phelps and George Whitefield—originally from Wheeling, Va. (W.Va. today), but most recently working out of Cincinnati, came to Madison and over the next three years developed routes on Ky. soil, giving recruited plantation slaves information on safe routes and pick-up times and places. Later that year, a wealthy black abolitionist, John Simmons, was welcomed to Madison. Shortly thereafter, major routes were compromised and near captures occurred. Elijah Anderson, Chapman Harris, John Lott, and a number of other activists believed that Simmons had betrayed their cause for monetary reward; they beat Simmons severely and threatened him with death. Simmons sued in Ind.’s Jefferson Co. court; the legal fees over six years caused Anderson to lose his property at Madison.

A one-hundred-man posse of Kentuckians and local sympathizers marauded through Madison targeting the UGRR leadership. Free black activists, charged with inciting a riot, were fined sums of fifty and twenty-five dollars. George De Baptiste fled to Detroit, Mich., and became active there. John Lott headed for Canada. Chapman Harris hunkered down in nearby Eagle Hollow Indiana becoming a major leader during the 1850s. Griffin Booth was nearly drowned in the Ohio River by a mob. Amos Phillips was shot several times, recuperating at Lancaster, In. and then moved to the Little Africa settlement south of Vernon, Ind. It took Harris and Carter three to five years to rebuild the UGRR base back to its original capabilities.

As a result of increased danger, the fines levied against him, and the Madison riots, Elijah Anderson moved his operations base to Lawrenceburg, Ind. Both Elijah and Mary J. were fair-skinned, and in the 1850 Dearborn Co. Ind., census they both apparently passed as white. Quite likely at this time, Elijah became an agent of the American Anti-Slavery League or was funded in part from Detroit’s African-American leadership because he spent months on the road away from his blacksmith business. His Madison experience was helpful because Lawrenceburg, Ind., was hostile to free blacks and, by 1861, was trying to evict them from the city. During the early 1850s, Elijah was frequently linked to Cincinnati and to routes to Cleveland and Sandusky, Ohio.

As an experienced conductor, Anderson realized that bringing fugitives across by ones and twos was inefficient and likely to run afoul of the runaway-slave patrollers.  Working with William Wyman, station master at Aurora, Ind., with American Anti-Slavery League peddlers and ferrymen agents, and with his own local free black recruits, Elijah Anderson soon was able to bring large groups of fugitives out through Boone Co., Ky. Results showed almost immediately. In 1847, the David Powell family of six vanished from the John Norris plantation between the Lawrenceburg and Aurora, Ind., ferry landings. In May 1848, eight slaves owned by Benjamin Stevens opposite Rising Sun, Ind., made their escape. Gabriel Smith, an aged free black from Brookville, Ind., participated in helping Elijah bring fifty slaves north to Sandusky, Ohio. Boone Co., Ky., slave owners reported that twenty-nine slaves escaped between September 1 and November 17, 1852; in April 1853, they lost another forty slaves.

One clue as to how Elijah recruited among free blacks came from Lawrenceburg’s city records. On January 1, 1853, Israel Moody, as executor of the estate of Sandford Moody (deceased), sued the trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), claiming that Sandford had paid several debts owed by the trustees, including $6.50 to Elijah Anderson. The other debts claimed were for wood and plastering. The a.m.E. congregations along the Ohio River Valley supplied many of the Underground Railroad activists during the 1850s.

During summer 1856, Elijah took a group of fugitives to Cleveland, Ohio, via the railroad’s network. He sought work to earn money before returning to Lawrenceburg. An abolitionist gave him the name of a person in Detroit, and Elijah worked in Detroit through fall 1856. He returned through Cincinnati and boarded a steamboat there.

In a case of mistaken identity, a Madison UGRR activist, William J. Anderson, was arrested at Carrollton, Ky., and accused of pirating hundreds of runaway slaves and carrying incendiary abolitionist materials into Ky. Anderson, who claimed in his defensive autobiography, that he had never worked south of the Ohio River and only had loaned his carriage to the UGRR, was defended by anti-slavery lawyers from Madison and released. Within a day or so, Elijah Anderson was recognized at Cincinnati or turned in, and Delos Blythe of the Alan Pinkerton Detective Agency at Louisville, Ky., came up to arrest him once the steamboat was underway. The free black community at Madison was certain that William J. Anderson had bought his way out of jail by turning in Elijah Anderson, and he was forced to flee to safer ground at Indianapolis, Ind.

At Carrollton, Ky., Elijah Anderson was accused of enticing a slave owned by Gen. William O. Butler, a peculiar charge since Butler had emancipated most of his slaves when he returned from the Mexican War in the late 1840s. It was among Butler’s freed slaves living near the mouth of the Kentucky River that Elijah Anderson likely had established a solid base for UGRR routes from the Bluegrass State. One of those freed slaves, Sandy Duncan, moved to Madison.

James T. Allison, an anti-slavery attorney from Madison, represented Elijah at Carrollton and won acquittal. But on the steps of the courthouse at Bedford, Ky., the Trimble Co. Sheriff arrested Elijah and incarcerated him. At Bedford, Elijah was accused of assisting and abetting a Negro boy named George to run away from his master living in Henry Co., Ky. Elijah claimed to have gone north for work. Found upon his person was a chatty letter he had written but not mailed to Mary J. that gave the name of several abolitionist friends in Cleveland and Detroit. Sensationalist newspaper accounts in Louisville claimed that finding the letters broke the back of a ring of abolitionists that had been stealing slaves in Ky. Depositions from G. W. Burrows of Cleveland, Ohio, stated that Elijah Anderson was in Cleveland on September 1, 1856, and sought employment from him, and that he had referred Elijah to a friend in Watertown, Wisc. A second deposition from John P. Clark stated that he had hired Elijah from November 1 to December 13, 1856, at his blacksmith shop at a Springwell, Mich. dry-dock.

But it was the eyewitness testimony of Right Ray, who headed a ring of slave-catchers operating in southeastern Ind., that led to Elijah Anderson’s ten-year sentence at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Frankfort, Ky. Right Ray testified that he had seen Elijah Anderson in Madison on May 11, 1856, ascending the Texas deck of a mail boat headed to Cincinnati. Elijah had a carpetbag and was in company of a boy answering the description of George, a runaway slave owned by John Scott of Henry Co. The boy escaped on May 8, and Scott had come to seek the services of Right Ray at Madison on May12, 1856.

During the next few months, Chapman Harris, then a leader of the free blacks and slaves active in the Madison UGRR, attempted twice to mount a posse to free Elijah from jail. Meanwhile the anti-slavery attorneys at Madison tried to negotiate an interstate gubernatorial pardon. When Elijah’s daughter, Martha, came to Frankfort to pick him up in April 1861 he was found dead in his cell of unexplained causes. The body was released to his family for burial. According to Wilbur Siebert and the Firelands Pioneer, Elijah Anderson claimed in 1855 to have brought out more than 1,000 runaway slaves, 800 after passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act.

Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan, the Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America. New York: Amistad of Harper Collins, 2005.

Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. Elijah Anderson from Trimble Co. Circuit Court, Governors Papers, Ky. Libraries and Archives, Frankfort, Ky.

Dearborn Co. Civil Cases: Israel Moody vs. The Trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Church January 1, 1853.

Griffler, Keith P. Front Line of Freedom, African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2004.

Hudson, J. Blaine. Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2002.

Jefferson Co. (Ind.) Deed Book 6:320.

Lawrenceburg Register, May 11, 1848; November 17, 1852; November 14, 1853.

Madison, Ind., annotated plat C. 1848–50.

Madison Tax Assessment Book 2: 1838–1847.

Siebert, Wilbur H. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. New York: The McMillan Company, 1898.

Diane Perrine Coon


Post publication author’s note: 

Elijah Anderson, like several other African American conductors of the Underground Railroad, had a skilled craft as a blacksmith working with wrought iron for steam fittings, under-carriage fasteners, and iron fencing. So long as he was in Madison, Indiana, he was making a living, purchased a house and could still conduct fugitives up into Ripley County, Indiana, chiefly because there were so many other active Free Blacks in the UGRR there. However, once the Madison race riot occurred in 1845-46, the subsequent fines and attorney fees forced Elijah to move his family to Lawrenceburgh, Indiana. There the Free Black base for his operations was much smaller and his strategy of going down into Kentucky, to Boone and the other river counties to bring out a dozen or more fugitives at a time, taking them as far as Sandusky and Cleveland, Ohio, put strains on his financial support for his family. He was almost totally reliant on funds from abolitionist sources or from working at odd jobs in Ohio and Michigan.  Almost desperate at times to get resources back to Mary in Lawrenceburgh, Elijah came off as a charlatan to some Ohio abolitionists, to others who saw the effectiveness of his conducting tactics he was the “General Superintendent of the Underground Railroad.”

Once Elijah was jailed in the penitentiary at Frankfort, Kentucky, his friend and colleage, Rev. Chapman Harris, tried twice to recruit arms and men to break Elijah out of jail. Harris was arrested in Louisville trying to obtain one or more guns, but he managed to cook up a story that he was going to a church function in Indiana and his boat drifted with a high current to the Kentucky side. dpc