Stories of the Underground Railroad 


Submitted by: Sharon M. Kouns

Ironton Register, February 09, 1888

A lodge of this secret society has been organized in Ironton, and last Monday night the first officers were publicly installed. The ceremony took place in the G. U. O. O. F. Hall. The Order of Twelve is a colored organization exclusively, based upon the secret order that was formed in 1852 to operate the famous underground railway system, and operated since the emancipation upon beneficiary principles similar to many other orders. It has separate departments for men, women and children. The lodge just formed belongs to the second class, though some gentlemen belong to it, and is under the direction of W. A. Craig, who joined the order in Arkansas and bears the title of National Deputy and Grand Mentor. It is the second lodge in Ohio, and has been named “Pride of Ohio Tabernacle, No. 384.” Following were the principal officers installed: Mrs. M. J. Poage, Preceptress; Miss Callie Scott, Vice P.; Mrs. Caroline Scott, Priestess; Mrs. Mary Peebles, Inner Sentinel; Mrs. Annie Watkins, Outer Sentinel; Mrs. Kate Fossett, Chief Recorder; Miss Lena Tyler, Vice R.; Charles Peebles, Chief Tribune; Levi Mitchel and Henry Watkins, assistants.

Ironton Daily Register, January 24, 1917

When the underground railway was in operation through Ohio, a new occupation grew up upon it. Men engaged in the business of catching runaway slaves and returning them to their owners – of course for liberal rewards. It was dangerous business, for those known to be engaged in it had to live in a state of armed warfare with their neighbors, who were for the most part against interference with the operation of the railway.

But those who engaged in it were generally from the South, where they had established confidential relations, and they were adventurous spirits to whom a fight was by not means unwelcome. The return of an occasional runaway slave brought them sufficient money to live on without other employment, so that it was a life of comparative ease that they led, after all.

Professor Siebert of the State university tells an interesting story in connection with the slave catchers in an article published in the State Historical Society Reports some years ago. He got it from Colonel D. W. H. Howard of Wauseon, then 80 years old, whose father was active in the underground railway work and who permitted him sometimes, in his boyhood, to take a trip over it.

His father’s house was a station on the railway in the northwestern part of the state, and because it was known that slave catchers were in the vicinity, the runaway slaves were always moved at night. One night, when a bunch of runaway slaves were to be forwarded to Canada, it was ascertained through Indians that the party was to be intercepted by slave catchers. In spite of the fact that a circuitous route was taken, the party had not gone far before they heard horses coming up from behind.

Placing a young man in concealment alongside the trail, the main party pressed forward with the slaves at top speed. Two horsemen — slave catchers — soon rode up. The rear guard thus posted took careful aim and shot down one of the horses. This ended the pursuit, and the slaves were delivered beyond the Canadian border. Colonel Howard was with this party and told of what he actually saw. It is a great pity that more of these stories of the underground railway in Ohio were not secured before those who took part in the work passed away. —Columbus Dispatch


Semi-Weekly Irontonian, February 13, 1917

MacDonald, W. Va., Feb. 6, ’17
Editor Register:
In the Ironton Register of Jan. 24th, under heading, Underground Railway Adventures,” (copied from Columbus Dispatch) the piece ends with: “It is a great pity that more of these stories of the underground railway in Ohio were not secured before those who took part in the work passed away.” In keeping with the above, I will narrate an incident which occurred to the writer when a little boy in knee breeches, about 1859 or ’60, in Cincinnati. I know it occurred before Fort Sumpter was fired upon, a _he “fugitive slave leave” was in force and I well remember the excitement and stirring scenes following the firing on Ft. Sumpter. The writer is now in his sixty-third year, yet the memory of what my boyish eyes drank in, never has and never will be effaced.

My father, the late Geo. F. Davis, a life long Pork Packer of Cincinnati, was an active and energetic officer of the “Underground Railway” and many a score of slaves were assisted to Canada and freedom thru his efforts. But to my story; one bright summer Sunday morning, I got up early and while running in and out the house, as a small boy would, I noticed my mother and the cook were very busy cooking doughnuts, ringer(?) bread, making ham and chicken sandwiches and filling pint bottles with coffee.

I finally said: “Why mama what are you doing, this is Sunday, we do not have picnics on Sunday.” “Hush! hush! run out and play,” she told me.

Well, my boyish curiosity was _____ and I continued questioning her.

My father called me into the library and said: “Gil, can you keep a secret?”

“Why of course I can,” I replied, feeling very big over the question and confidence bestowed on me.

“Well,” my father said, “Now you keep out of the kitchen and after breakfast we will harness up old black bobtail Charley in the Jennie Lewnd [sic] buggy and I will show you something you never saw before and I hope you will never forget.”

“Well, after breakfast we carried an immense willow basket, covered lightly with some cloth to the buggy. Father and I got in (it was the first house west of the 16th District school, on Southern avenue, but, Auburn, the house in which I was born.) We went down the long sycamore hill and kept straight on down the same street to No. 11, five doors from the public landing, my father’s Pork House.

Father got out, and I remember how carefully he glanced first up, then down the street, (the “fugitive slave law” was in force and he was looking out for detectives). Then he took a big brass key from his pocket and unlocked the front door, walked inside and listened, then came out and we carried that big basket inside, locked the door, went the length of the store and up stairs and opened the door into a store room over the office next to the alley. I then saw a sight that made my eyes nearly bob out of my head. There, sitting on breakfast bacon boxes or astride of ham ____, sat ten or twelve big strapping colored men, all of them too, as still as mice. They turned their heads and looked at us, but not a word escaped them. Father said to me: “Gil, these men are all runaway slaves from the South, they arrived by the underground railway.” Then addressing the slaves he said:

“Boys, this basket contains food enough for four meals apiece for you. If you eat it all now you will have to go without before you reach Canada. Tonight, about ten o’clock, a large, covered farm wagon will stop at the back door, he then told them the raps and pass word they would use, so the slaves would know they were friends and not officers, but what there knocks and pass words were, I have forgotten.) When you get into that wagon, sit down in the straw and stay there, do not talk and above all things, do not stick your heads out, you will be seen. That wagon will take you to Reading, ten miles out and there you will be locked in a box car. You will arrive in Detroit, Mich., tomorrow forenoon. A man will meet you there and see you safely on the ferry to Windsor, Can. Then you must look out for yourselves.

Now boys, you know the fugitive slave law is in force. If we are found out I will be fined and sent to jail and you will all be put in irons and taken back South and you know what your master’s will do to you for running away.

“Dat am all right massa, dat am all right, we will be keerful,” one of them said.

“We will now give you your breakfast” father said. Then with a box lid for ____________(can’t make out from microfilmed copy) The next night they all got safely away.

I had seen slaves several times, but always following their masters, but never saw them but this once as passengers on “The Underground Railway.”

I narrated part of the above in a speech to the Lawrence Co. Republican Convention when I was nominated for coroner of Lawrence county, in the spring of 1895. I hope the above will be of historical interest to your readers.     GILMAN R. DAVIS