How Some Runaway Slaves Were Not Caught

(by John G. Wilson)
No. 31. From: Folklore and Legends

Submitted by: Sharon M. Kouns

Ironton Register, Thursday, February 06, 1896

For the Register.

About the year 1856, when Ironton was in her infancy, there came word to Burlington, that some half dozen slaves had escaped from Kentucky, and that they would cross, it was supposed at or near Ironton. We had at that time several citizens, both in and near our little town, who were willing to apprehend those who were escaping from bondage. They were soon equipped and as soon as night came on, were on their way to Ironton to stop the poor fugitives for the sake of a few paltry dollars. They were three in number and mounted on their horses rode swiftly down the river road towards the town.

They had received sure word that the slaves would cross that night, about where the East Ironton grade now is, then a woodyard kept to sell wood to steamboats, which burned wood for fuel. The wood was piled in long rows or ricks on the top of the bank and was sold to the brickyards as well as the boats. The three men hunters arrived about 10 o’clock, and after placing one of them (who was my informant) on the top of one of the long ricks of wood, near where a road was, which descended to the river told him, that they would go down into the town and find out all they could, as to whether those who were, also, of like feelings as themselves knew about the runaways. The one left made up his mind that stopping men who were escaping from bondage, was not the easiest thing and that he did not think, on the whole that it was exactly right; and sitting up there in the cool frosty night, his blood got cool and he resolved that if they came he would let them go by unchallenged, and so, with that conclusion, he stretched himself out on the woodpile to await results.

His comrades had told him to keep strict watch, and when he saw them come across the river, to await them at the road and take them into custody and hold them until they returned; that they would be back soon. He said he waited very impatiently for several hours, but neither his comrades nor the runaways made their appearance, and he was about to go and get his horse and ride home, when he thought he heard the faint echo of the oars, in the rowlock of a skiff, putting off from the Kentucky shore. His heart beat rapidly as he saw the boat coming near and when it pulled to the shores, he saw five stalwart blacks get out of the boat, while the 6th who was probably a white man, though he could not tell, rowed his boat back to the other shore. The slaves came up the bank slowly and were evidently looking for someone but they did not pause but came on and passed within a few yards of where he was concealed. He said they were powerful men, in the prime of life, and each one had a large club on his shoulder. They passed on as silent as ghosts and he drew a long breath when they disappeared in the darkness.

About an hour passed by when his comrades came back; the dawn was beginning to mark the approach of day. They wanted to know if he had seen anything; he told them what he had seen when they expressed great surprise that he did not stop them. He said he endured their talk and brag as they told what they would have done had they been there, when he said that he could stand it no longer, but told them that they were a parcel of fools or idiots to think that he was fool enough to try and stop five men armed with clubs, fleeing from bondage, and that they went to town on purpose to escape having trouble if the slaves should come; and as far as he himself was concerned he was glad that they had got away and he was done forever hunting runaways. He said they stormed awhile, but took good care to go home with him and to not follow those who were fleeing.

Afterward it was ascertained that the same band was stopped at the bridge near Getaway, and those who stopped them were badly used up, one having his jaw almost broken and another knocked senseless by the clubs of the runaways. However they escaped and made their way to Canada, the land of refuge for the slave. My informant said he came home with the determination that those who wanted to might hunt runaway slaves but as far as for him he was out of the business.