The Untold Story of the Underground Railroad in Ohio
My goal is to create an interactive map in multiple formats (Google, MicroMaps, and mobile), to document the people and places on the Underground Railroad. This project will document the Ripley line, which runs through Ohio, beginning at the Kentucky border near Maysville and Dover, and runs just across the River to Ripley on up through Ohio and into Canada. The first phase of the project will feature a separate map for both Ripley (see http://ripley.micromaps.com/ ) and Oberlin, linking them to the Ohio map which will have points at all the stops big or small (& some no longer exist by that name), and will include the names of all the conductors and safe houses, and stories where they are found.
Some communities with several conductors like Red Oak, Urbana, Russellville and Sardinia may become inset maps detailing those places if enough information is found. I am using old maps to recreate new ones; The Ripley map is based on three different ones but the majority is from one in David Rumseys Collection 1872, the Ohio Map or the Ripley line is based on Wilbur H. Seiberts map from the 1890's. Oberlin will likely be several maps as close to the actual time period as I can find. The Ripley line intersects with several other lines which I would also like to create maps for in the future, or depending on how far the money goes, but I want this to be thoroughly researched and leave no conductor behind, so exhausting all resources and completing the Ripley line is my stated goal. It is possible that I may need to go county by county if many more names are discovered along the way. By digging through genealogies, manuscripts, court houses, newspapers, maps and place histories, lots of people seldom heard of are given credit for and named as participants in this ‘illegal act’ of civil disobedience that brought about the Civil War.
In Ripley and Oberlin, where it is available, I would like to document each person with where they lived, their story, pictures of what their home or town looks like now, pictures of them if available, and links and sources of where to find more information. In Ripley, I have a list of 20 people I know were involved but cannot find an exact location yet; they may get entered as a group of individuals who we can place in the town, but not a set site for where their house was. Many had died or moved on before the end of the war. If found in a census, I might be able to approximate where they lived based on neighbors. Many rented or moved a few times and many conductors didn’t live in safe houses or stations but it is most important they are identified. The points on the Ohio Map are easier because I am not trying to find houses unless it is a known safe house; I am trying to name all the conductors, their location and stories. This is a web-based map that will have a mobile component, so the sites will be mapped and documented for personal exploration or easily browsed for a virtual tour at home or school (multiple formats for multiple devises). There are several websites that contain great information. Rather than duplicate it, I would like others to access them and use them through links where permitted. Of course, it is all free to everyone!
My goal is to document what I can about the lesser known people—the unsung heroes we can’t find much about and the places they lived and the stories in which they can be found. Since this will be ongoing and updated continuously, you can follow updates as I make them. Construction will be visible the whole way so keep checking back. When walls are hit, I post ‘more to come’ and keep looking. Often while posting information on genealogy websites, I am contacted by others whose family trees are part of my research. Collaborating with them helps both of us find sources and information we were looking for and helps correct misinformation that we are bound to pick up too. I have found several different versions of the same story. Sometimes they conflict greatly. If possible, I would like to give all versions so the viewer can see the differences. If space is an issue, I will include a note for other versions, such as “see***source.”
Of particular interest are the African American settlements that were numerous within fifty miles of the Ohio River and the first place a freedom seeker would look to for help. African Americans were the front line of the Underground Railroad, yet historically, they receive very little credit for it. Names are hard to find, but they do exist, and it is time they are acknowledged and researched. Much of what we were taught in textbooks came from the era just past the Civil War when historians were romancing the stories of the Underground Railroad. That narrative is of blacks being victims of slavery and whites liberating and rescuing them. This is due partially to the racism of the time and a mistrust of whites asking questions, but it is also a result of the silence that served as a form of protection from some of the retaliation blacks lived with for centuries.
The Underground Railroad was initially a movement driven by blacks, but white abolitionists raised in this racist society could be the most vocal and used their influences to speak out and change minds. They often provided defense for those without say in the government and risked their own lives, freedoms and fortunes—as well as those of their families—to help strangers escape to freedom, often with the scorn of their neighbors. Every individual had their own motivation. Some did so because they knew first hand what it was to be enslaved, or how desperate it felt to have their children sold away never to see them again, or because they believed they were doing the work of God, or because they were once slave holders who witnessed the evils of the institution and brought their slaves to Ohio to free them so they would never be slaves again. This last scenario happened far more than I expected in the earliest days of Ohio history. The UGRR was also very commonly a family affair in both the black and white communities. Some have three generations of conductors. Often while researching the family of one person with ties to the Underground Railroad, several more individuals and several more families are uncovered, and this is where my interests in genealogy have really paid off.
I chose the Ripley line because of it's diversity of people working together, it wasn't just Quakers, or abolitionist's. Some were rich and some were poor. Some once owned slaves and some were slaves. Some very religious others not religious at all. Hating slavery was not enough to end it. Taking an active role, risking everything, willing to break the law is what forced a country that stood for Liberty and Justice for All to be the nation that it was intended to be, instead of what it pretended to be. It was the inter-connectivity that people had with each other in this time and place that made this happen, and finding those connections makes this research an extremely worthwhile and rewarding endeavor.
While my labor is free and the maps will be too, nothing else is: the software, the servers, the hosting and cost of research and permission for use of historic photos. On the Ripley map, I spent $400 out of pocket for permission for one-time use of historical photographs. I was a professional photographer for twenty years, so taking new photos myself helps reduce the cost a lot, and doing this research through a nonprofit organization, Three Scale Research, benefits this project with discounts on expenses that nonprofits are able to receive. I am also using some of the organization’s computers and software, like Adobe Illustrator, that would cost $1,600 alone. The funding I seek will help pay for all the things I don’t have access to and all the things I can’t do out of pocket on a larger scale.
The genealogy I am doing to find the information is currently available on Ancestry as a public tree, but I would like to make it available at a free site like RootsWeb, but haven’t gotten that far yet. I also have a spreadsheet of all the early abolitionists who signed the 1830's Anti-Slavery Society’s book and researching their family lines, not everyone who was an active conductor was out of the closet enough to have a public profile with their views and at times, this was an advantage. Those people who did sign are often extended family of others who were known conductors, leaving me to believe they offered aid and support and may have been safe houses when needed. The actual conducting (taking people from one place to another) typically was done by an able bodied male who knew his way around and had access to horses. The Rankin family, who are credited with helping 2,000 people, relied heavily on its many sons to take freedom seekers to the next stop but every member of the household played a role. Many other people brought food and clothing to the Rankin home, but were not named as conductors or safe houses, but that is a good place to start looking for family and associates who were.
With Ripley, I began with several names, but researching those led me to twice as many, and I have at least 20 not placed yet. The majority of this should be done by November. Not having to find the exact house will certainly speed up the process on the Ohio route map. Ripley and Oberlin will be harder but Ripley is nearly as complete as I can get it now. The beauty of doing this online is that I can keep adding as I find them, correcting mistakes, and like genealogy, it is never finished, it just continues to grow.
- (60 days)