article appearing in the
October 16, 1884 (Specially prepared for the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph
OLD SLAVERY DAYS: History of the Underground Railroad
Thrilling Story of an Organization without an Officer---
Facts Concealed for Twenty---Four Years
How the Oppressed were made free
And who did it---Light upon a Subject
Heretofore Veiled in Mystery
Thousands join in the refrain, "John Brown's body lies mouldering in the ground," to which the words convey little meaning. The mass of young men who are assuming the various responsibilities of life; even the teachers in our public schools, not only in the Eastern and newly erected Western States, but in Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, where the lines of the Underground Railroad were laid, and in which the managers, agents and conductors lived and operated, know little or nothing of the wonderful organization which interposed between the slave and his master when the latter pursued him into the free States gave the trembling refugee assurance, and safe and often speedy passage to Canada, the Canaan of the colored race throughout a generation. Of the oppressed who turned their eyes hopefully to the North, and avalied themselves in large numbers of the noiseless machinery of the great Underground Railway, the rising generation is wholly ignorant
history of the Underground Railroad would prove to be one of the most thrilling
and instructive histories of the human faction ever written. Such a thing as a
complete history of the Underground Railroad however, is impossible. It was an
organization without a President, Secretary or Treasurer; it dispensed with the
services of an Auditor, had no use for an Auditing committee; issued no bonds;
depended solely upon human trusts the most perfect framework that could be
devised. The shareholders were each and every one masters; absolute owners of
depots, stations and rolling stock. Every transaction was so complete in itself
that no records were necessary, and the dividends were declared in heaven. The
roadbed was as irregular as the flight of birds; while it seemed in the eyes of
the perplexed slaveholders to embrace every part of free soil between the slave
In short, the underground railroad was operated so noiselessly and in such a mysterious manner that many slave owners, unable to account for the sudden disappearance of their slaves, who seemed to be swallowed up by the earth, since the strictest search failed to disclose their where-abouts, or any clue to the means by which they were spirited away, began to speculate seriously upon the possibilities of a subterranean passage.
This implies a compliment to the presence of mind, tact, discretion and courage of the managers, agents and conductors of the Underground Railroad, which was hardly earned. In all they did, they never let the right hand know what the left hand was doing. Parents concealed the part they acted from their children, brothers aided the movement unknown to each other, and in some instances husbands and wives contributed their aid and means without the other's knowledge. Especially was this secrecy resorted to for self-protection after the passage of what was termed the Fugitive slave law; the penalities imposed were as severe and far-reaching as to punish the hand that gave a cup of water to a slave fleeing from his master. Prior to the enactment in 1850 of a law that aroused the indignation of the people of the free States, existing laws, had they been enforced, would have sufficed the slave owner, but when these were disregarded, and the discussion of the slave question reached the point where the right of the master to his property in human flesh and blood was questioned; in short when the Underground Railroad was making tremendous inroads in the border slave States and began to be sensibly felt in the cotton and sugar growing States, the slave power succeeded in procuring an enactment that was regarded by the people of the free States as "the last hair on the camel's back" to employ a common figure.
All who were
conscientiously opposed to slavery pronounced the law infamous; even these who
by silence seemed to tacitly endorse slavery were averse to a law that
compelled them to assist the master in regaining his slaves, for the provisions
of the law rendered all amenable who refused to give their aid when the master
was in a strait, or when called on to assist in placing shackles upon a fugitive.
Men suffered imprisonment for merely looking on when the whip was taken from
the master's hand, placed in that of the fleeing slave, and by him applied to
the master's back. Not only a heavy fine, but imprisonment awaited all who
violated a law, designed to arrest runaway slaves in the
The heart of the mass of the Northern people had long revolted from what was termed, as the angry discussion between the South and North was prolonged, "the twin relic of barbarism," now the brain as well as the heart of the North revolted. The attempt to transform the machinery of a government founded on universal freedom into a police system or the protection of property in slaves, and the perpetuation of slavery, and this, too, at a time when the heart and brain of the country had protested against the extension of slave territory, was resented. The slave owners overshot the mark. Instead of relaxing their efforts, the managers, agents, and conductors of the Underground Railroad, manifested greater activity than ever. They renewed their exertions in behalf of the refugees in defiance of the law, and in doing this they incurred extraordinary risks, and exhibited a devotion to principle as rare as any to be found in the history of the world.
Gathering The Threads
The severe penalties warranted a degree of secrecy in the operations of the Underground Railroad that renders it imposible at this late day to present anything like a complete record even if it were desirable. Those who were most active for obvious reasons kept their own counsel so long that they are unable to recall names and dates with certainty. The foremost and most resolute among them have gone to their final account. Their children, men and women, for the resons stated, can give but vague, and fragmentary statements. It is noteworthy that these, without exception, are corroborative. Owing to the disjointed or disconnected form in which narratives of the Underground Railroad are presented, it is necessary in order to insure a continuous coherent statement with the details essential to completeness to consult numbers of people. As the depots and stations of the Underground Railroad were under the charge of individuals at intervals a few miles apart to follow the flight of a party of refugees from the edge of Virginia to Canada, the investigator is perforce compelled to pick up a link here and there, or, to employ a better comparison, the stations were so interwoven in out-of-the-way places, highways and towns, as to form a huge and close network, the threads of which must be carefully followed in order to understand the eccentric operations of a system that sometimes reminds one of the doubling of a hare.
It has happened---not
once, but a core of times---that a story begun in
In the present instance all that is attempted is to describe the operations of that portion of the Underground Railroad which embraced Washington, Greene and Allegheny counties. In doing this, the parts played by prominent and highly respected citizens long dead, and men still living among us, will be described. Many of the incidents are of such a romantic character that we would hesitate to give them were they not as well authenticated as any narrative which obtains instant credence on account of the high standing and character of the witness living. These embrace all classes, from the slaves who periled their lives to gain freedom, to the wealthiest farmers and merchants and the most distinguished in the professions; Judges (not a few), officers of the United States Government; superannuated (i.e. retired) clergymen, all figure in the unwritten records of the Underground Railway.
Stories Illustrating the Subject
The first story
will serve to illustrate the operations of the Underground Railroad and the
truthfulness of a series of narratives related in a disconnected form by three
different witnesses, none of whom knew or could have any knowldege
of the statements made by the others. The witnesses referred to are colored,
but the statements they made separately and apart from each other were
corroborated by white citizens of the highest standing in
In 1859, nine
slaves belonging to a man named Ross, residing near
Ross, with a
number of friends making a party of eighteen or twenty including officers,
pursued and overtook the refugees upon the road in broad daylight. The refugees
carried their corn-cutters with them as a means of defense. There is a story
current that they engaged in breaking stones on the road for the purpose of
diverting attention from them until they could be forwarded to Waynesburg or
West Alexander. However that may have been they were surprised by their owner
and his friends upon a part of the road covered with newly broken stones.
Instead of relying upon the corn knives, they opened the battle with stones.
The whites spurring their horses forward, strove to ride them down, but the
refugees fought them off with stones, laming one of the horses and inflicting
serious injuries upon several of their pursuers. The refugees succeeded in
driving Ross' party from the ground then disappeared. The Ross party rallied
after a time and renewed the pursuit, pushing on to Waynesburg. Here Ross and
his posse instituted a rigid search for the runaways, but failed to discover
any clue to them. The party of nine were under such safe-guards as could be
devised by the agents and conductors of the Underground Railroad. Boyd Crumrine, in his history of
Ermin Cain enjoys the confidence and hearty good will of all who know him. He is regarded as entirely trustworthy in all the serious affairs of life. His sense of humor is very strong; he displays in a remarkable degree the jovial disposition characteristic of his race. He fairly bubbles over with fun. He is 56 years old, but no one would think him more than 40 or 45 at most. A yellow man, born free, intelligent, keen witted, and keeps up with the times. A great reader---manifest extraordinary interest in the political campaign.
We will let Ermin tell the part he played in the drama referred to premising that the chief points in his statement were corroborated by the testimony of others, who were interviewed before and after Ermin was seen.
Ermin Cain's Story
slaves," Ermin pricked up his ears. "Yes, I
know all about that lot. O! you want to know the master's name? Why they
belonged to a man named Cyprus Ross. Yes, that's the lot that fought the battle
at Blacksville. I ought to know just how many there
were. There were nine. I'll never forget that party. I never was so scared in
my life. Begin at the beginning. Well, I was born and raised on old Dr.
Wheeler's farm in
Here a listener
interjected "Luther McCraken, now practicing at
to know how they came to me? Well, we had lots of ways. To get into the secret
of the matter, there were the places to hide them all over Greene and
Washington counties. Yes, I can start in with the first point after they cross
the line that was at Blacksville. Part of the town
fight Elisha was on hand and he took them into his house. Somehow Ross' party
suspected they went that way, and they followed. Well, when they went up to the
house, "Elisha, who was powerfully strong for a little man---he didn't
care for no man---he stood right in the door with his gun. He didn't tell
me---I heard this from Ross' slaves-they were inside, in under the bed, in the
kitchen and up in the loft, tremblin' for their lives
because Ross' party was ready to shoot. But 'Lisha
was just as ready. He stood in his door and asked them to show their warrant
for searching his house. He knew what was and what was not law, and he swore
he'd kill the first man that crossed his doorstep---and that cowed them. They
went oft swearing after a warrant and Lisha, he sent
the slaves out the back way into a cornfield, and then they hid in the woods,
and when Ross came back with the warrant of course there was no body 'round. 'Lisha, he and another man brought them right into
Waynesburg, or near it, and I put them in Sam Jewell's dry house well on in the
morning. There was another station in towards the
never had anything to do on to
"There was a very funny thing happened after Ross came back to town after giving up the chase." Here Ermin's eyes sparkled, and he shook with repressed laughter. "One of the party was riding a mule. You know the white stuff that is in them percussion caps. Well, he'd snapped his pistol and got the nipple full of it, and he got swearing mad and got something to pull the nipple out, and he was sitting on his mule, you know!---when he pulled the nipple, the pistol went off, and the bullet went right down between the mule's ears---deed it did---it's as true as gospel, I ain't telling no lie!---ha, ha! And killed the mule. It dropped right in its tracks and Ross he shouted, "Nine niggers and a mule gone!" Ermin's narrative ended with a ripple of laughter that was infectious.
Old George Wall's Story
John C. McNary, Esq. a prominent citizen of Canonsburg, in response to an inquiry referring to the operations of the Underground Railroad, writes:
Walls, a colored man living in
Old George Walls, although 72, is still a sturdy man, able to do his day's work in the field. Born free, a mulatto, with a very strong face; all the lines indicate resolution. His straightforward, simple manners invite confidence. His frame is powerful, well-knit. In his time he had exhibited extraodinary strength. It is pleasant to record that this man, who is regarded by those in the secrets of the Underground Railroad as one of its most trusty, courageous and active conductors, owns the house he lives in, and another beside it on the corner of Chestnut and Lincoln streets, in Washington, PA. Sitting face to face with him, one easily recognizes in George Walls the qualities which fitted him for the peculiar work performed.
The tasks he
voluntarily assumed required rare presence of mind, perfect self-command and
tact---in a word, the degree of shrewdness which enables men to cope with the
world and conduct hazardous enterprises to a successful issue. A man of strong
mold and very honest is Old George Walls. In
Old George was interviewed before Ermin Cain was spoken to. He was not prompted in any manner. Requested to relate some of the incidents which made the deepest impression upon him, he related off-hand, without pause or hindrance, (save when a name escaped his memory and his wife supplied the missing link,) some of he most thrilling stories the writer has ever heard. His memory of the extraordinary scenes he has witnessed, and in which he was a prominent figure, is so clear that his narratives present the most vivid pictures of the operations of the Underground Railroad that mind can conceive. The third story he related takes up the refugees who ran away from Cyprus Ross after they left Jimmy Hansbury's hands.
"One of the
biggest parties I helped to forward, was a passel that came from somewhere out
friends there and near West Alexander---thought it seems to me before that they
went north. You see, their master made a terrible fuss over it. Mrs. McFarland
knows more than I do about that. She's living here in town. Her husband---he's
dead now---Major Sam McFarland, and a man named
"It was pretty well on in the morning when I got to McNary's. I told them to stay back till I woke McNary's up.. I rapped, and after awhile Mrs. McNary asked, "Who's there?"
"I told her it was me. Then she came to the window. 'I want to make a contract with you, Mrs. McNary, to board some friends.' 'Oh!' says she---you see, she was mighty active--her heart was in it--then she came down, opened the door, and when we got in, and a light was struck, you never saw such a look as them poor fellows had."
'We took you for
a white man,' they said. Then I told them I overheard their talk on the road.
The next night I went into
the point was to move them all at once. Well, there was a man---'Squire
turned out right; they all got through to Saw Mill. Peck passed them on to Canade from
was considerable expenses. It cost money to get that lot on to
Austin Bryant's Story
Austin Bryant is
employed at the Fulton Hotel, Washington. Rumor ascribes to
know as much about these matters as plenty of other people. I think Henry
Bolden could tell you more--I know he could. You want to know the incident that
impressed me most. Well, that happened, let me see, it was the year of the big
frost. I think it was in 1859. I was working at the Monongahela House, when
somebody woke me up and told me a man wanted to see me. It was about two
o'clock in the morning. I went down, and out on
before these stories were related by the actors warrant the opinion that John
Peck, Samuel Bruce and James McMasters, citizens of
The Underground Railroad
An article on the seventh page of this paper today, the first of a series on the subject, that of the underground railway, will awaken many thrilling memories in the old citizens of this region. And it may be said that the article breaks new ground in the field of history. The work of leading runaway blacks from slavery to freedom is remembered by but comparatively few and they are fast losing names and dates, while thrilling incidents, which illuminate history, were fast fading out of memory. In a few years more the opportunity of recording the story of the underground railway would have been lost. As it is now, the facts have to be obtained by long search over a large field, and by dint of repeated inquiry and and jogging the memories which have grown feeble. These articles will furnish important material for the future historian, as they have been written with conscientious care.
[The first of these articles will be found elsewhere in this issue of the Observer and we will publish the others from time to time as they appear. Editors Observer.]
article was transcribed by Patricia Stavovy from
photocopies of original news article provided to W&J Professor Thomas
Mainwaring, by the Washington County Historical Society,
17 Mar 08---transcribed by Bill Davison