Monday, February 6, 2017


This column first appeared in the February 2017 issue of GreeneSPEAK!

“The Underground Railroad,” Charles T. Wheeler, 1891.

The decade before the Civil War was a turbulent time in Greene County. Like other communities on the Mason-Dixon Line, local residents had strong and divergent opinions. While a few sympathized with the slave-holding South, most believed in preserving the Union, but were ambivalent about slavery.

A few were Abolitionists strongly opposed to slavery. These brave souls, both white and free black, helped slaves escape via the Underground Railroad. While not actually a “railroad,” it had “conductors” and “station masters” managing safe hiding places, meals and transportation in total secrecy. Because penalties were severe if caught, operatives knew little about other participants and did not speak about their roles. In fact, many remained silent for the rest of their lives.  

"Geography of the Underground Railroad" shows a route through Greene County.
Today it’s widely accepted that many slaves escaped through Greene County, entering through one of its two shared borders with Virginia. Our county would have been a dangerous place for slaves and those helping them after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 because slave owners had the right to come into the North to reclaim their “property.” 

1838 poster for a runaway slave. Bardstown, KY

A well-documented episode happened in Waynesburg in July 1856 when nine male slaves escaped from the plantation of Cyrus Ross near Clarksburg. After crossing the border near Mt. Morris, they were attacked by the owner and his armed posse, but escaped to the home of Elisha Purr, a free black man who lived nearby. Purr brought them to the Waynesburg station master, an African American barber named Ermine Cain whose shop was across from the Courthouse. Cain hid them in a lumber yard two blocks away and hurried back to his shop.

View from "Caldwell's Atlas of Greene County," 1876, shows the barber shop located in the basement corner of the building  earlier known as Hamilton House. Before and during the Civil War, it was the shop of Ermine Cain, Underground Railroad station master. 

Soon, the slave owner and his posse arrived, accusing Cain of stealing his property. Cain denied and bravely dragged out the conversation, buying time for the slaves to be moved. Finally, exasperated, Ross offered an enormous bribe of $300 per person, to which Cain replied, “No, sir; if I knowed where your slaves are, all the money in the South wouldn’t get me to tell.”

Sam Jewell ran a wheelwright shop with a "dry yard" full of lumber at the SE corner of High and Richhill Streets. It was replaced in 1882 by this building, known as “Carter’s Corner.” “Waynesburg Prosperous and Beautiful,” Fred High, 1906.

In fact, the slaves had escaped Waynesburg, and were taken to John Adams, a free mulatto on Hargus Creek near Rogersville. After hiding in the woods for a week, they were moved to the Redmonds, a family of free blacks in the area. Next, they hid in the cellar of a Disciples of Christ minister, the Rev. William Leonard of Leonardsville near Holbrook.

From there, they continued north through Graysville and Burnsville to the Abolitionist stronghold of West Middletown, a community led by Matthew and Jane Campbell McKeever. The McKeevers had a connection to Rev. Leonard because Jane’s father and brother had founded the Disciples faith. Her brother also established Bethany College.

Thomas and Jane McKeever House, Main Street, West Middletown. Photo courtesy of Washington County History and Landmarks Foundation.

In Waynesburg, the Suttles house on Greene Street is another site often identified with the Underground Railroad. It is long gone, replaced by the Post Office. 

Other Greene County accounts mention Caleb Davison and the Rev. Tygart family in Blacksville, Bob Maple’s mill near Mapletown, the Eisiminger and Orndoff farms in Whiteley Township, the James Adamson and Judge Ross farms near Ruff Creek, the Joseph Gray farm near Graysville, a Davis family southeast of Waynesburg, Jimmy Hansbury outside of Carmichaels, Isaac Teagarden near Ryerson Station, and Sam Fleming who harbored fugitives on the George Wisecarver farm without the owner’s knowledge. 

Adamson farm, Franklin Township. "Caldwell's Atlas of Greene County," 1876.
In summary, there's a lot more to be learned about the Underground Railroad in Greene County.

In 1859, the “Trial of the Negroes” tore the Waynesburg community apart.  Read about it online in newspaper articles transcribed by Bill Davison, and discover other research findings by Marlene Bransom and Jan Stevens Slater.