Imagine 1840. There were 17 million free and 2.5 million slaves in the United States. In Ohio there were 1.5 million free citizens and 3 slaves (according to US census figures). The Underground Railroad is operating at full speed, with more of the escaped seeking freedom through Ohio than through any other state. A constant stream of thousands of fugitives every year are traveling across Ohio, and Ohio has just 1.5 million residents. It has only just become a state not long before and much of Ohio is still wilderness. Imagine you are running for your life, and you know if you were caught your nightmare of slavery would resume, except this time maybe your foot would be cut off so you could not run away again. Or maybe you or your child would be simply killed, ~burned to death, shot or hung. As an example to other slaves thinking of running. What would you do? Every person you meet, every decision you make, every single day, may mean life or death.
As you travel north out of the slave holding states, you would finally come to the Ohio River. You manage to cross it, then what? If you head west on the Ohio River, you would come to Indiana which only became a state in 1816. There are just 700,000 residents there in 1840. And, you would have to continue going quite a bit farther west to get to the mouth of the Wabash River in order to head north. There just aren't as many people to help you, the state is less developed and the topography is less favorable. Ohio is easier.
Ohio is roughly divided on a diagonal line from SW to NE. The end of the Appalachian foothills lay to the east and much flatter till plains to the west. There are good rivers heading north in the east, and there are hills and valleys and deep woods. To the northwest, flat land, swamps and not nearly as good of cover. In the east there are more people and churches, and as you go farther north more Connecticut Yankees. To the west fewer people in the Underground Railroad to help you, and much less cover in which to hide. The Miami & Ohio provides a good path north to Dayton, but N.W. Ohio isn't as nearly as favorable for travel. There are few good roads, just several hundred miles of walking on rutted dirt roads and paths. The only major road of note is the National Road, but that only runs east to west, through Cambridge to Columbus and on the Springfield. Not really helpful for heading north.
It is interesting to look at a chart by W. H. Seibert. In 1951 he created the most often cited map of the stops and trails of the Underground. It is clear on his map that most escaped followed that diagonal line across Ohio, walking the rolling foothills, along rivers and in the cover of abundant woods. They knew they needed cover to hide in when a stranger might pass by, but they also knew that if the land got too wet or too hilly (or mountainous as in Western Virginia) the escape would be much harder. The "trails" they followed up through east-central Ohio were nearly ideal.
As most country folk know the escaped also knew: travel north by pointing your right hand at the morning Sun and left hand at the evening Sun during the day; look for the North Star for north and Orion's Belt for east and west at night. (This is one of the reasons Frederick Douglas's newspaper was called "The North Star".) They knew the best ways to gain a "wild" meal. They knew going up a river was easier than walking the woods. They knew when and how to seek cover. And the successful ones knew how to judge friend or foe. So most of them often followed the river valleys like the Tuscarawas, Scioto and Miami, and followed the course of the newly built canals in Ohio.
If you follow the Ohio-Erie Canal north, there is a split at Coshocton. The left branch heads west to Newcastle and the right heads on north to Bolivar, then Akron and Cleveland. If you go to Newcastle you can then walk on north to Holmes County with its large population of the very helpful and very safe Amish, and then on to Smithville, Seville and Hinckley. If you stay with the eastern route of the canal you come to Akron, and then have three choices of going to Richfield, stay on the Canal, or head for Hudson.
It is small wonder that John Brown spent so much of his life in the area. It was where so many of the escaped were passing through. They choose these routes partly because it was where the Underground Railroad was best organized by those newly arrived Yankees. And it was partly because it was where the topography was most ideal for their escape route. Happily, it also happened to be where some of the best soil, abundant water supply and good climate all combined to give the farmers of that time and place the ability to grow great crops and raise large herds of horses, cattle and sheep so they could conduct , as John Brown wrote, "a business it bid fair to afford him the means of carrying out his greatest and principled object." By which he meant he could easily enough make a living to support his family and still be able to spend considerable time and effort in helping others to freedom.
In a post by the National Park Service, they wrote: "..the Ohio & Erie Canal clearly presented advantages to slaves trying to cross Ohio. This 308-mile canal was a well-marked route connecting the Ohio River to Lake Erie. It is highly likely that slaves walked or ran under cover of night along the canal’s towpath—north to Cleveland. Other runaways might have reached Cleveland hidden aboard canal boats." We know this is so because, for example, John Malvin of Cleveland was a negro of very staunch abolitionist beliefs and a canal boat owner and captain, operating on the northern end of the Canal. We don't know for sure from his own writings, it was simply too dangerous to record such things, but it is fairly obvious he would have done all he could to help. We also know that the canal town of Canal Fulton, 31 miles south of Peninsula and a days journey by boat south of Cleveland, was a well used stop on the UGRR. Records show that 500 to 600 escaped were hidden in the McLaughlin canal side house cellar and barn. (The house and barn can still be seen present day along the restored canal.)
As the escaped traveled the northern reaches of the Underground some of them may have met John Brown as he delivered wool to the Canal in Peninsula, or maybe just heard (perhaps from John Malvin) that Brown lived a short distance up Streetsboro Rd. in Richfield. And decided it was safer to continue on with him, then chance going through the big city of Cleveland. While others who had followed what later became known as Cleveland-Massillon Rd. from the canal stop in Massillon to Navarre to Loyal Oak to Richfield. Either way, once in Richfield the escaped had many options. Receive help to head west to Oberlin, continue on to Cleveland on Cleve-Mass. Rd., or go east to reconnect with the canal or on to Hudson. So come to Richfield, many of them did.
Copyright © Jim Fry 2018