Mixed-Race History in Washington County, Ohio
The Mixed-Race Groups of
Washington County, Ohio
By Connie Cartmell, The Marietta Times
Early families provide foundation for today
In early spring, when March winds blow cold, the swollen
Ohio is wide and deep from winter snows and a deadly
current glides silently just below the surface.Only the most determined dare cross.
The year is 1855.
Joseph Burke trudges ahead, alone, leaving his wife
and dozen young scampering children to catch up,
along the dirt trail in the woods near the river.
Burke's leather boots sink into dark mud along
the Virginia bank as he searches for a narrow
space in the river, a safe crossing to Ohio country.As the story goes, Burke and his family
crossed to the Newport area, but only briefly.
Just 11 days after they arrived, Joseph Burke died."They didn't even have time to plant or
settle in a place," Robert Burke, of Lowell, said.
"Joseph got pneumonia after the river crossing.
The family, with 14 or 16 kids, moved north into
Monroe County, around Stafford, and started marrying off."Burke represents one of the largest extended African-American
families in Washington County, but there are others, many others.
Through the decades, the progeny of these early "black"
settlers have made significant contributions, blending
and melding into the mainstream of life in the valley."My mother and I have been researching
family history for about 10 years,"
Sara Burke, 23, of Marietta said.
"It began for me as a 4-H project and now
I just want to do more and more research."The young women is the family historian, in a very real sense.
Robert Burke is Sara's grandfather, Ila, her grandmother.
The elder Burkes live at Lowell."My people were Armstrongs," Ila Burke, 79, said.
"We all lived at Cedar Ridge in the Rainbow area.
Most everyone farmed. I was born at
Coal Run and later married Bob Burke.""They were mostly farmers in those early days,"
her husband, Robert Burke said.
"There wasn't much else for them to do."James and Hanah Armstrong reunion (1923).A number of those who came out of southern states to
Ila Burke is in the first row sixth person form the left.
The Ohio River offered the northern border for Virginia
and West Virginia (after the American Civil War).
Ohio, like the Barnetts, who settled at Barnett Ridge,
were free men, others freed former slaves looking for
a better life and work in the north after the Civil War.Ernie Thode, manager of local history and genealogy
at Washington County Public Library, said there is
a wealth of information about this relatively small
group who settled here over the last 200 years.
Thode believes if we don't pay attention to the history
of groups and people, "things will get lost."
He said every single person has something to contribute."Some say we are the melting pot in America, but if
you have too much melting, you have mush," Thode said.
"I like to think of all our different groups and peoples more
like a stew, with bits and pieces, each important to the whole."
Family names still familiar today
Curtis, Armstrong, Metz, Sullivan, Norman, Cook, Fisher, Fletcher,
Milligan, Barnett, Mayle, Hill, Croston, Dalton, Kennedy are among
the most recognized early pioneering "black" families in the region.
Vernie and Georgiana Armstrong's wedding picture.
Many of those are families who came to Washington
County prior to 1900, and some came even prior to 1850.
The names of those families are still familiar family names today.
Ernie Thode, of the Washington County Public Library
History and Genealogy Department, said many of the early
African-American families in the area came from Virginia.
After the Civil War, they came from what then became
West Virginia in the Barbour County region of that state.
Many of the families settled in the western part of Washington
County in the Decatur and Wesley township areas.
Also they settled in the three-corner area of Athens,
Morgan and Washington counties.
Another settlement was in Stafford in Monroe County.
Some came to Marietta to the Rainbow
area, up the Muskingum River.
"The list is by no means complete because some of
the families later mixed with others and got the more
common names of Smith and Jackson," Thode said.
But these names are some of the most common
names found in Benjamin Bain's four-volume book,
"The Multi-Racial Pioneers of the Mid-Ohio Valley."
Bain's book is considered one of the most
complete and extensive histories of the region.
It chronicles 6,500 "black" individuals who
lived in Washington County prior to 1900.
"Richard Fisher was the first "black" man I found who purchased
property in Washington County, in 1814 in Salem Township,"
Bain said. "[The] "black" families were represented in the
county as early as 1789, when Christopher Putnam came
to Marietta, brought as a servant of Gen. Israel Putnam."
Bain said early families were accepted into local
society, particularly in the rural areas.
Ruth Mayle, a retired history teacher with Warren Local Schools,
was born and spent most of her young life on Barnett Ridge.
Her husband's family, the Mayle's came from England.
"Through my research, I discovered that the largest group
of "black" people, prior to 1900, were the Mayles," Bain said.
"They first spelled their name `Male,' changing
it to today's spelling, with a 'y', after 1900."
"We had a school up there when I was
growing up," Mayle said of Barnett Ridge.
"At one time there were 30 children in eight grades."
"All the children were "black" children", she said.
"The "black" population is decreasing,
especially on Barnett Ridge," Mayle said.
The Barnett family appears frequently in the
historical accounts of Washington County.
"Grandpa was born during slavery
in Virginia, but wasn't a slave himself.
He was a free man," Maxine Barnett,
of Barnett Ridge in western Washington
County, said in an earlier article about
her family home at Barnett Ridge.
Barnett and others came to Washington
County in 1835, returned to Virginia,
then came back here in 1845 and stayed.
"He landed in Belpre, by boat, with 15 cents in his pocket
and eventually settled on Barnett Ridge," she said.
Today, members of the family still live on Barnett Ridge.
"Back when Grandpa came, you
had to have someone speak for you.
A white gentleman in Belpre spoke for him.
What they got then, I call `Freedom Papers.'
Every person in their group had to be
described in detail, right down to the scars.
Grandpa Barnett worked on other farms,
saving money to buy his own land.
They built a log house up here on the Ridge.
The Barnetts have been here ever since."
Gene Burke, 72, of Marietta, likes to tell the story of
his mother, Helen Burke, who was instrumental in
growing cotton, of all things, in downtown Marietta.
"Somebody had brought back cotton plants from
the South and gave them to attorney Robert Noll.
This was in the 1940s, I think," he said.
"My mother worked some for Noll.
He asked if she would try to plant it.
She did and it grew.
A lot of people talked
about the cotton growing.
People couldn't believe it."
Sarah Dalton, wife of John Dalton
Region also tied to Underground Railroad
When Jane Reid was a little girl living in
Marietta , she never realized her own family
was directly linked to the Underground Railroad.
In fact, the Palmer family, decedents of a
well-known and prominent Marietta citizen,
Jewett Palmer, rarely spoke of the connection.
Her own parents didn't even know, she said.
The Under-ground Railroad was the secret network of "safe"
houses, back roads, rural barns, farms and tunnels that helped
more than 40,000 [enslaved people] make their way through
22 states to freedom before and during The Civil War.
The network included many stops from the slave state
of Virginia (now West Virginia ) across the Ohio River
to freedom in Marietta and Washington County .
While there are many myths and legends surrounding
the Underground Railroad, recent interest in the issue
by local historians has been aimed at telling the truth
about what happened before and during The Civil War.
"Some of the former slaves running away
simply stayed here after they crossed the river,"
Ben Bain, local writer and historian, said.
"They were, after all, in the North
(where slavery wasn't allowed).
Others continued northward.
The big place to go was Michigan .
Many also went into Canada just to get far, far away."
Bordering the Ohio River, a natural divider of North and
South, Washington County saw more than its share of
[people who were escaping the chatel-slavery system].
Marietta itself was a hotbed of abolitionist activity.
Abolitionists were people who favored the abolition
of [chattel-slavery], and many [even assisted the
people who were attempting to escape this plight.]
Jewett Palmer is among the wealthy and influential
who belonged to a healthy "abolitionist society"
that helped individuals and families move
undetected through the city and county to safety.
"My mom and dad never knew.
I found out through articles in The Marietta Times," Reid said.
"Jewett Palmer was my great-great-grandfather and his son,
also named Jewett, was mayor of Marietta and was in the Civil War."
This summer, Reid hopes to take her son and young granddaughter,
who live in California , to visit ancestral land north of Marietta at
Palmer Station, where his great- great-grandfather had his farm.
"They were seldom kept in town for fear of being caught,"
said Harley Noland, a local businessman with
a keen interest in the Underground Railroad.
"A lot of wealthy people had farms outside of Marietta
and that's where the people would be taken."
Scores of descendants of these early abolitionists,
such as Reid, still live in the city and county today, he said.
"We can tie into Marietta citizens
today in many, many ways," Noland said.
Every summer at his popular riverfront restaurant, The Levee
House Cafe, on Ohio Street , Noland offers a photographic
exhibit about the Underground Railroad in the region.
Photographs prepared by Charles Fogle, with text and
stories by Henry Burke, both local men, are featured.
For five years the exhibit has been part of the Marietta scene.
In addition, there have been tours of stops on the Underground
Railroad that begin at The Levee House aboard the Marietta Trolley.
Interest in the railroad, particularly from tourists to the region,
remains strong. Noland's continued involvement has helped
keep an awareness of the Underground Railroad alive.
"We believe Marietta was the beginning
of the Underground Railroad," Noland said.
"The Northwest Territory ordinance, written in Marietta ,
was the first federal document to prohibit slavery."
David Putnam, another prominent local citizen of long ago,
was a major player in the abolitionist society, Noland said.
He risked prison and losing his fortune and family when he
was sued for his activities (which at that time were called theft).
"He risked a lot," Noland said. "But no slave was ever
found in his house and the suit was never proven."
Noland tells the story of the "ferry boatman,"
[an enslaved person] named Josephus, of the Box
Plantation in Williamstown , Va. , who spent 20 years helping
other [enslaved people attain] freedom across the Ohio River .
"By day [the person who held him in slaver] ran the ferry
service across the river and after dark Josephus used the
ferry to bring lots and lots of people across," Noland said.
"I've heard the crossing was upstream a bit from Marietta .
They first went to the island, then to the Ohio side.".
Local businessman Harley Noland has been a proponent of keeping
the history of the Underground Railroad alive in southeast Ohio.
Every summer, Noland displays an exhibit in his Levee House
Cafe on Ohio Street in Marietta in an effort to make the public
aware of the route's deeply rooted history in this area.
There have been scores of stories, legends, and folklore
surrounding the Underground Railroad and its ties to Marietta .
"This may be `old hat,' but I am always amazed at how
many people don't realize the Underground Railroad is a
method, a system of escape, more than a tangible route,"
Al Adams, president of the Multicultural
Genealogical Center at Chesterhill , said.
The genealogical group meets in Chesterhill at
the Friend's Meeting House, built in 1839, at
7 p.m. the second Tuesday each month.
Local interest in railroad "stations" has been
encouraged and perpetuated by art and
photographic exhibits every summer at
The Levee House Cafe, 127 Ohio St.
Tours have been offered from the restaurant on
the banks of the Ohio River to Henderson Hall
at Boaz , W.Va. , a former slave plantation.
There are documented stops along Duck Creek
Underground Railroad route, to Stafford in
Monroe , County, and sometimes to landing sites
along the Ohio River , such as the Old Ferry Landing.
Underground Railroad stations in the Belpre
area include the more than 200-year-old
Sawyer-Curtis House in Little Hocking.
"Probably every old-timer who grew up around
Marietta has heard that The Anchorage was
a station on the Underground Railroad,"writer
Henry Burke said in a column in The Marietta Times.
Burke's family has lived in
Washington County since the 1840s.
Researching his genealogy, local "black" history
and the Underground Railroad in southeast
Ohio has been a lifelong avocation.
At 3 p.m., Saturday, Burke is speaking at Ohio
University , Athens , in the 1804 Room at Baker
Center , about the Underground Railroad
and Ephraim Cutler's involvement.
There is no charge for the program.
Most recently, Burke and Dick Croy wrote "The River
Jordan, A True Story of the Underground Railroad."
Burke is also author of "The Escape of
Jane," an account of a young [enslaved]
woman's escape north with her children.
[Those people who were attempting to escape the
chattel-slavery system and who later were unfairly
labeled as `fugitives'] were seldom hidden in Marietta
within the city unless something went terribly wrong, Burke said.
Under the best conditions, s [people
who were attempting to escape the
chattel-slavery system] traveled up
the Muskingum River to Thomas
Ridgeway's station at Rainbow.
"There's just been too much embellishment,
not enough fact, over the years," researcher
and historian Ben Bain, of Marietta said.
"The tunnel story from The Anchorage, is a good
example. I've been all over the property myself,
the Washington County Historical Society has
looked into it, and there is nothing to that."
Douglas Putnam, owner of The Anchorage at
the time, had nothing to do with the railroad.
It was his brother, David, who was
involved with the abolitionist movement.
David's house was also in Harmar, but
several blocks from the famous mansion.
That's often where the stories get tangled.
Local historians agree that the Underground Railroad
began in Washington County in the 19th century,
but they also agree that the county will likely never
see appropriate recognition for that contribution.
As the National Underground Railroad Freedom
Center prepares to open in Cincinnati next year,
Washington County has only three historical
markers to commemorate its part in helping
to transport slaves into free northern states.
"It's political," said Nancy Sams, president
of the Belpre Historical Society.
"We're a rural area that's less
industrious and less populous.
In the bigger Ohio cities, they have more clout
because they have more population."
Members of Underground Railroad-themed groups like the
Friends of Freedom, based in Columbus , typically focus
on Ohio 's major cities, said Underground Railroad
researcher and Marietta resident Henry Burke.
"I've made attempts to get recognition for us here but the
presidents of those groups ignore our efforts," said Burke.
"The fact that we have a low population here is a benefit
because more people here are aware of our history, but at
the same time, we get less attention because we are small.
There's so much evidence of our importance but we are still ignored."
Fewer slaves ultimately passed through Washington County
than in other areas of the state as well, Burke said.
"That's another contributing factor," he said.
"This portion of Ohio didn't have as much traffic
because the slaves were coming from southern Virginia and
Kentucky so more passed through the southern part of Ohio ."
Burke said he and other historians have estimated that
about 1,200 fugitive slaves passed through Washington
County while the Underground Railroad system was in place.
It was established largely through the work of Judge Ephraim
Cutler, who lived in Constitution, between Marietta and Belpre.
"The idea for an Underground Railroad, where
slaves would move from station to station to make
it safely north, started right here with Cutler in
conjunction with other supporters," Burke said.
"There were also homes in Marietta that were
definitely used to hide slaves during their journey."
Marietta College also played a part in the
Underground Railroad, according to Burke.
" Marietta College students and some faculty were
involved, particularly professor Samuel Hall," he said.
"The Washington County Abolitionist Society was formed
by Hall and students with the leading citizens of Marietta .
In the early days, when there was mob violence associated
with the slavery debate, Marietta College students
would arm themselves with strong sticks to
defend those who attended the meetings."
There are still homes in Belpre, Cutler and Vincent that
were used as safe stations for slaves, Burke said.
Others, like the David Putnam House
in Marietta , have been destroyed.
"Our houses here in Marietta are gone," Burke said.
"They get to be really costly to maintain unless
individuals are willing to commit personal dollars.
Inevitably, development is going to overtake the sites."
In more than 20 years of researching the
Underground Railroad, Burke has documented the
sites so that while gone they are still remembered.
The Belpre Historical Society has also worked to preserve
the county's Underground Railroad contributions,
opening a display at the Farmer's Castle Museum
and Education Center , 509 Ridge St. , in April.
Area locations of the Underground Railroad
Built in 1789, Sawyer-Curtis House was the first
Underground Railroad Station in The Northwest Territory.
It is located overlooking the Ohio River at Little Hocking.
The house has a commanding view across the river to what
once was the Old South of plantations and slave owners.
In the basement of the old house are two
sections where stones were obviously replaced,
perhaps to hide a secret passage or tunnel.
Abolitionist Horace Curtis owned the house.
Col. John Stone Station
Col. John Stone operated his Underground Railroad
station from a house that was built on land settled
by his father, Capt. Jonathan Stone 30 years earlier.
The house along the Ohio River at Belpre is still standing.
Col. Stone passed fugitives brought to him by Aunt
Jenny and others along to Barlow Station.
Constitution Station was operated by Judge Ephraim
Cutler, who cast the deciding vote prohibiting slavery
in Ohio at the statehood convention in 1803.
Constitution was once a busy port on the Ohio
River between Belpre and Marietta .
The village no longer exists, although manufacturers
along Ohio 7 at Constitution still ship from its banks.
Rural community, mostly farming, between Barlow and Marietta .
If you were a runaway, you might get out of Marietta
or Constitution into Tunnel the first night to hide out.
Tunnel is north of Ohio 550 near Pinehurst.
(David Putnam, Jr.)
Marietta had two safe houses operating as part of the
Underground Railroad network in the 1830s and1840s.
The first, Marietta Station, was
the residence of David Putnam.
He lived in a house in Harmar, located where the
western end of the Putnam Bridge now stands.
The house was torn down in 1947.
The second Marietta station Eells House was
located on the campus of Marietta College where the
McKinney Media Center parking lot is now located.
It was called an "emergency" station.
As the name indicates, this station was used only when
the Marietta station was being watched by the law.
Actually, experts say fugitives seldom stayed in town long.
There was too much danger of being caught.
The first priority was to get to the country.
Formerly the Big House of Henderson Plantation , Henderson
Hall has been restored to its former splendor, by descendants
of the original owners and is open to the public for scheduled tours.
The mansion, which is still standing and a residence, is
at Boaz,W.Va., along West Virginia 14 near Williamstown
Old Ferry Landing
Josephus, the ferry boatman, a slave who rowed two or three
escaping slaves across the river a month for years in the 1830s
and 1840s, may well have used this route frequently.
This landing is located at Williamstown, across from Marietta .
Bull Creek Landing
Bull Creek Landing, at Waverly, was where one night in
August of 1843, the save Jane and her three friends,
and seven children, met Josephus and were ferried
across the Ohio River and downstream to the mouth
of the Little Muskingum, where they met Underground
Railroad conductor, David Putnam, Jr. and began
their long and harrowing journey north.
Duck Creek Landing
Duck Creek Landing, which led to a route heading up Duck
Creek and several more westerly routes, was the landing
of choice for Josephus and local freight haulers.
Rainbow Station, named for proximity to Rainbow Creek,
operated by stationmaster Thomas Ridgeway, who also
operated a ferry service across the Muskingum River .
This made Rainbow Station a crossroad point for
Underground Railroad routes coming from the near
southeast and far southwest and occasional two-way
fugitive traffic along the river road fronting his land.
Near modern-day St. Marys , W.Va. , Vaucluse's
Auction Block, like the large one at Parkersburg
and much larger site at Wheeling , was located
at the western end of an old overland route,
from the original colonies on the Eastern Seaboard.
All three were part of the slave dealers' network
used to transport U.S.-born slaves north.
From Reno Landing, fugitives tended either to follow
the Little Muskingum River northeast or split off in a
more northerly direction at Hills Crossing to parallel
what is now called Washington County 17
Source: Henry Burke and Charlie Fogle, 2001.
(Article: The African-American color Influence in Washington County, Ohio)