Underground Railroad & abolitionist history in Belmont County
Updated: Sep 10, 2022
September is Underground Railroad Month. Belmont County has a rich Quaker history. The influx of settlers who believed slavery was wrong and its location along the Ohio River meant that Belmont County was an essential part of the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist movement. Quaker Benjamin Lundy, the Father of Abolitionism, founded the Union Humane Society in 1815 in his home in St. Clairsville and abolitionist Frederick Douglas spoke in Lloydsville.
Benjamin Lundy was one of the first Abolitionists in the country. He has been called the “Father of Abolitionism. Born to Quaker parents on a farm in Hardwick, Sussex County, N.J., in 1789, Lundy began working as an apprentice saddler in Wheeling. His advocacy began in there upon witnessing a slave auction. At that time, he entered in his diary – “I heard the wail of the captive; I felt his pang of distress, and the iron entered my soul.”
He married and then moved to St. Clairsville, where at age 26 in 1815, he, along with five others, established an anti-slavery association called the Union Humane Society. In a short time, the society grew to 500 members, including prominent people of that period: Charles Hammond, James Wilson (grandfather to President Woodrow Wilson), and Joseph Howells. Lundy would eventually travel around the country, setting up groups and giving lectures. He is said to have logged tens of thousands of miles on foot. Lundy helped produce the abolitionist paper, The Philanthropist, at nearby Mt. Pleasant.
Most active during the three decades before the Civil War, the Underground Railroad primarily took place in the regions bordering slave states, with the Ohio River being the center of much of the activity. Slaves were forbidden north of the Ohio River by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which was the framework for government in the new territory. With the advent and spread of the railroad from east to west, those terms were adopted for the Underground Railroad operation. Places that harbored slaves were “stations,” the heads of those households were “agents,” and those who conveyed slaves from one station to another became “conductors.”
In the early 1800s, a large community of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) moved into Belmont County on advice from other Friends who had already settled in Ohio. According to Annie Tanks’ Martins Ferry, for the first 15 years, most Quakers settled around the Concord Quaker Meeting House (the oldest Quaker Meeting House in Ohio). However, the nearby town of Colerain was named by Scotch-Irish, who settled in the same area. Later, some of those groups moved on to found Mt. Pleasant in nearby Jefferson County, where they built the Friends Yearly Meeting House, now maintained by the Ohio Historical Society.
The Quakers brought with them their strong opposition to slavery; This led to several locations in Belmont County being stations on the Underground Railroad. There were 120 miles of the Underground Railroad in Belmont County.
One of those stations was located half a mile up Glenn's Run, not far from Martins Ferry. According to Tanks’ Martins Ferry, it was operated by Tobe Hance, who employed two free black workers to run it, Samuel Cooper and Richard Naylor. Samuel’s son, Henry, helped his father to hide enslaved people and escort them to the next station until Henry came under suspicion and fled to Canada. Tobe eventually joined Henry in Canada. Naylor stayed longer and reportedly used the guise of being drunk to hang around the slave market without attracting attention, meanwhile passing word of the Glenn's Run station. Eventually, Naylor, too, fled for Canada. Thomas Pointer, a formerly enslaved person from Virginia, who lived in Buckeye Hollow near Martins Ferry, took over the operation of that station.
Ellis B. Steele, of Morning View in Pease Township, who was himself a conductor on the Underground Railroad, recalled his part in the Underground Railroad that was transcribed by Carol LaRue and included in Centennial History of Belmont County, Ohio, and Representative Citizens edited by A. T. McKelvey, 1905.
He said that the road from the Ohio River to the lake was divided into sections, each with a station. These stations were five to 10 miles apart so that in an emergency, a change of horses and a fresh driver could be procured, and in a few hours, the fugitive slave would be spirited far on his journey toward Canada and out of reach of his pursuers.
Steele recalled, “The first station I have any recollection of was in the woods and underbrush that crowned the hills between Martin's Ferry and Burlington. This station was located by Richard Naylor and Samuel Cooper (both colored), and the station was known and approved by their white confederates and co-workers. Naylor was born into slavery with an innate hatred of the institution of slavery. After obtaining his freedom, he engaged in the hazardous business of receiving fugitive slaves, via the Underground Railroad, from Virginia (now West Virginia), opposite, and would ferry them over the river to the first station back of Martin's Ferry. There Samuel Cooper and his son, Henry, received them, and as better and safer service could begiven to road patrons on the night train, the fugitives were hurried to the next station. If the night was not far advanced and it was dangerous to operate the road, the passenger was at once given in charge of the conductor, who would lead him through the woods, and by lonely paths to some previously selected point at the second station in Concord settlement, now Colerain. Sometimes this station would be at Joshua Steele's old log barn, where beneath its puncheon floor, many a poor fugitive slave spent the day in fear and trembling, waiting for the night train to carry him on his journey to Canada.
At other times the fugitives would be conducted to a safe hiding place on Joseph Parker's farm, thence to be conducted in like manner to the next station. Frequently it was expedient to conduct the fugitives to the home of Joshua Cope, who owned and operated the old log flour mill near the head-waters of Glenn's Run. Here they received a cordial welcome, and their needs were supplied. As soon as practicable they were conveyed to the third station, which was conducted by William Robison, a life-long friend of the slave, and his energetic and earnest assistant, George Clark. These gentlemen would see that all fugitive slaves arriving at their station were provided free tickets to Canada by way of the Underground Railroad.” Steele recalled that the home of Dr. Caleb Cope of Farmington was another station where “kindly services were rendered to the needy fugitive."
Steele noted that only a few fugitives arrived at the riverfront station at long intervals. During the fall of 1858, business revived somewhat, but the Dred Scott Decision had thrown such a damper upon the workers that few conductors could be employed to run the trains. In August 1859, Steele and his uncle, O. C. Parker, conducted nine fugitive slaves from the first station near Martins Ferry to the second station at his father's old home, where his brother, Wesley had a team ready to convey them to the third station where his friend Robison took charge of the. They returned, reaching home at daylight. This was the last full train that passed this way. After this time, fugitive slaves traveled the public highways, sometimes stopping at Steele’s place to inquire the way to some friend in Mount Pleasant or Trenton.
Another station, also located on Glenn's Run, was a mill built by Quaker Borden Stanton. He provided a cave excavated into the hillside in the basement of his mill. Tanks describes the station thus, “The entrance to it was through the water chute. When the mill was idle, the water ran down the other side of the chute. A board at the bottom of the inner chute could be lifted, giving access to the cave, and fastened again from beneath so that anyone testing the chute would find it solid.” Stanton sold his mill to Joshua Cope, who operated it as an Underground Railroad Station.
Two main routes ran from Martins Ferry to Mount Pleasant. One went on to Cadiz and the other on to Smithfield.
From Mount Pleasant stations were located at the Hargrave home, across the street was Joel Woods’ to the home of Jacob Van Pelt, which overlooked Martins Ferry. Then it was on to Thomas Pointer and the Clark cabins, both of which were located on Van Pelt’s property. One of the most famous stations in the area was at Cope’s Mill, where hundreds of enslaved people were hidden behind the water wheel. The last remaining enslaved person from eastern Ohio to go through the UGRR was Phoebe Richardson from Mount Pleasant. From the lower end of Martins Ferry, the UGRR probably started with Pointer’s Mill and then on to Joshua Steele’s home or Isaac Vickers. The next stop was the Solomon Bracken home and the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Mitchells residence, just outside Mount Pleasant on Township Road 100.
Two other stations were located closer to the riverfront. Joel Wood, a prominent Quaker who moved from Smithfield to Martins Ferry, operated a nursery. His house on North Third St. became a station. Sitting on the high ground above the mills and stores on the bottom lands, his white house was conspicuous and could be reached by enslaved people who came north from the slave market and then swam the river. It is not known where the enslaved people were hidden at Wood’s house. However, when the house was torn down for the extension of the hospital, those watching said there was a small enclosed space in the basement behind the chimney.
From Wood’s house, enslaved people could be sent up the hill to the Van Pelt House on Ferryview Road. The house was built on land that had initially belonged to Betty Zane Clark. After her death, her husband, Jacob Clark, sold the property to Jacob Van Pelt and moved away. Van Pelt built a large house overlooking the valley. The hiding place was on the second floor.
According to Bonnie Belmont, written by Judge John S. Cochran, enslaved people were then taken over the hill to Tom Pointer’s or a deserted cabin in Buckeye Hollow. Cope’s Mill might be the next stop before Mount Pleasant, where there was a network of houses and farms, many belonging to Quakers. The route could vary depending upon the circumstances and the pursuit of slave catchers.
In the Colerain area, stations could be found at the homes of Charles Wright, Dr. William Millhouse, Joshua Maules’ General Store, The Stanton Hotel, and at the home of the known abolitionist David Updegraff. From there, one would go to the homes of William Robinson (in Emerson); the Evans home, Ezra Cattell, and Cyrus Mendenhalls’ were all known stations.
The Underground Railroad also moved west through Belmont County. The Black Horse Inn in Morristown, the original portion of which was erected in 1807, was the site of Duncan Morrison’s tavern and is reputed to have been a station on the Underground Railroad.
Barnesville, founded by Quaker James Barnes, undoubtedly had stations. The Stillwater Friends Meeting House is still in operation outside of village limits on the campus of Olney Friends Boarding School.
Located near Barnesville was Captina, an African American farming community established in the 1820s with the aid of Harper, who was the community’s leader. It was the only free settlement of African Americans in Ohio before the Civil War and was the first in Belmont County. Originally called Guinea, it became a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Guinea had cross connections to Somerton, where Dr. William Schooley helped the fugitives. Stops were also located in Belmont, Quaker City, and Barnesville. Guinea was known as a safe stop where the residents were reportedly well-armed.
Eli Nichols was a conductor on the Underground Railroad in New Castle, Ohio. Nichols was born in 1799 in Loudoun County, Virginia. While still a child, Nichols and his parents moved to New Castle in Belmont County, Ohio. Nichols' parents raised their son as a Quaker, but as an adult, Nichols ended his membership in the Society of Friends. He became a farmer and worked as one of the first attorneys in Belmont County. Nichols also became involved in politics, winning the election to the Ohio legislature.
Nichols was also active in the abolition movement. Despite facing bodily threats from pro-slavery people, Nichols routinely presented slavery's injustices. He also served as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, opening his home to fugitive slaves. Most runaway slaves whom Nichols aided escaped from eastern Tennessee and Kentucky.
Although not everyone in Ohio nor the Quaker community strongly opposed slavery, there are many stories of people helping fugitives escape by impeding slave catchers and U.S. Marshals. No records were kept by those involved with the Underground Railroad for apparent reasons. Therefore only stories remain oral traditions handed down through the decades. The last “train” of fugitive slaves to come through the area was in 1859 to the Steele farm on Mt. Pleasant Pike (now Ohio 647). Ellis B. Steele was the conductor who took them to Mt. Pleasant. By that time, the hunting of fugitive slaves was put on the back burner as secession loomed. The Underground Railroad ended when the Civil War began.
Be sure to visit the Underground Railroad Museum on Saturday, Sept. 17, during Ohio Open Doors, for a free presentation of "Dangerfield Newby's Fight For Freedom" from 11 am - 3 pm.