A Case Study-Underground Railroad


Delivered by Beverly J. Gray, Ohio Underground Railraod Association Southern Coordinator at the UGRR conference in Indianapolis, Indiana on November 21, 1998)

Documenting Underground Railroad sites is a tedious and complex activity. The purpose of this session is to discuss how one documents or rules out a site that is a purported underground railroad station or safehouse. A look at sources of evidence might be helpful in understanding how the documentation process develops.

First, explore the oral tradition of a site. Look at the public stories of a site, take special note of any stories that have been passed down consistently through a particular family. Explore estate records, tax records, fire maps, and land records to ascertain when structures were actually built on a particular site. Consult with architecture experts, often through your local historical society, on the age of structures, additions, and stages of the house evolution..

Secondly, look at the families who have owned or lived in a suspected station or safe house. Use local sources such as anti-slavery records, newspaper articles , church affiliations, political views to get an idea of the philosophy held by individuals that may have helped. Check authorities such as Wilbert Seibert to see if any name recorded on his list matches the individual you are searching Use your local historical and genealogical society as a source to find biographies, unpublished letters, reminiscences that might shed more light on the specific individuals. Check the census records to see what individuals or families lived in the structure..

Inspect, tunnels, holes, cisterns, etc. yourself to determine how they may have been used as hiding places and also look at alternative uses of these places. Place the site on or near known routes and other documented sites. Focus on the location. Develop a timeline of activity for the site, beginning with the first known structure built on the site along with changes in ownership..

Bear in mind that all sites were not used for the duration of the UGRR activity in a region. Some may have been used for a very short period, while others may have been active for longer periods of time..

Other primary sources are church records, free papers, tax records, registration papers of free people of color Be sure to take a look at any published histories, books and pamphlets for accounts of a site..

Two sites in Ross County were looked at for the purposes of documentation..

One site is located about 8 miles southwest of the town of Chillicothe. The two-story sandstone house was built about 1809 on a hillside and affords a view of the Scioto River Valley. The house was one of the first in the township. One of the first owners appears to have had some antislavery leanings. However, there is absolutely no Underground Railroad oral tradition connected with the site. The persons trying to certify the site felt that because the house had portholes on the upper level that overlooked the valley that it must have been an Underground Railroad site. .

Further, they maintained that since a known Underground Railroad conductor owned land adjacent to this property, then it too had to be a stop. The only problem with this logic is that portholes most probably were put there as a hedge against Indian attack. The Indians were still in the area at the time of the building of the house. There was an attempt to show some connection with other safehouses and stations. These connections were not valid because those stationkeepers were not in operation at the time they tried to make the connection..

The owner suspected as a abolitionist died before the UGRR trail became established through this township. There were no hiding places within the structure and no caves or natural hiding places in the vicinity. None of the subsequent owners had ties with the Antislavery movement. Though it is a historically significant site because of the date it was built, it does not have enough evidence to come close to be certified as an Underground Railroad site..

The second site is located in the town of Chillicothe. At the time of the UGRR activity, it was located on the outskirts of town. The site has a strong public tradition of involvement. Some of the oral tradition credits a well -known Civil War Captain (B. F. Stone) as being the UGRR connection..

The house was built in three stages; one stage built prior to the 1830's and the last stage in 1880's. Behind the main house a two-story carriage house is located. In addition to housing the horses etc., the carriage house provided living quarters for a cook and liveryman. The oral tradition seemed to center around the carriage house rather than the main house. Both house and carriage house at one time were enclosed by a brick wall, making it very difficult to observe anything happening inside the walled area..

A woman who is in her 90's and has always lived directly behind the carriage house related to an interviewer that her grandmother had witnessed "the slaves" run from the canal ( the canal was a few hundred feet from this site) to a house next door to her and then from that place to the carriage house where they seemed to disappear..

The public oral tradition said that there was a hiding place inside the carriage house. The location of a tunnel, cavity or the like has been the subject of conversation in modern times. Neighborhood children and adults have often tried to find the tunnels for many years. An engineer and a architectural expert were taken to the site and after a very careful examination, the engineer discovered an irregularity in the floor. Careful scrutiny of the floor revealed a trap door concealed in the floor of the structure and partly covered by a "feed bin". The present owner has for fifty years tried to solve the mystery of where the runaways may have been hidden, but did not know that it (trapdoor) existed. .

After some difficulty, the door was raised and revealed a cistern-like aperture. A closer examination of the hole revealed about three feet of debris on the floor. It appears it has not been opened since the turn of the century..

A closer look at the oral tradition was interesting. B.F. Stone was according to tradition the conductor. An examination of B.F. Stone's personal papers and letters, however, revealed his personal feeling about the "Negro problem" and the whole UGRR movement. He felt staying out of the whole mess was the best course. In addition, he did not own the property until 1870, too late to have been involved in any way with the operation here..

The 1850 census records and the city directory showed that John R. Alston lived in the property at that time. Mr. Alston was a New School Presbyterian according to the records of the First Presbyterian Church. Mr. Alston was known to be very liberal in his views. The Church that he attended was a strong advocate of the abolition of slavery and church records state that "it is a sin NOT to aid runways fleeing from slavery and anyone who does not (assist fugitives) should be barred from the church." Further, the house is located on the western UGRR trail and in proximity to three other sites. Fire maps confirmed a structure on the site prior to 1830. ( The carriage house or stable was built first.).

The strong oral tradition, the eye witness account, the census and church records, the location of cistern(hiding place), the identification of the abolitionist family, the presence of a wall, the location on the UGRR trail , and the proactive abolitionist neighbors together indicate that this site had an involvement in the UGRR. .

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