African Americans squared off against Kentucky slave hunters in 1852
In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published a novel that altered the nation’s moral compass.
Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which illustrated the tragedy of slavery to readers unfamiliar with the institution, bolstered the fight for abolition and weakened support for the Fugitive Slave Act.
Made law two years earlier as part of the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act required runaway slaves to be returned to their owners, even when they had fled to free soil. It also required U.S. marshals to assist in the return of escaped men, women, and children. Enslavers in border states like Kentucky were especially supportive of the act, because their slaves, living on the line between slavery and freedom, were more likely to reach northern soil.
There are multiple cases that show the effectiveness of the act. In December 1850, for example, an enslaved man belonging to a doctor in Memphis, Tennessee, fled northward. Captured in Marion, Illinois, he was sent back to his enslaver. The act also pushed fugitive slaves living in the north to rush to Canada to avoid being sent back into bondage. In October 1850, the Pittsburgh Post exclaimed that, “We had before no idea that so many of the . . . people of this city were runaway slaves. Many who have stood high in the estimation of the public, and who were considered freemen by birth, turn out to be fugitives from the South.” In New York City that same month, authorities arrested an escaped slave named James Hamlet, who had been living there for two years. They sent Hamlet back to his owner in Baltimore.
Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin was fiction, real events that showed the brutality of slavery helped erode public support for the Fugitive Slave Act. The same year that Stowe’s novel was published, American and European newspapers reported the mass escape of enslaved men and women from Kentucky. In many newspapers, their race for freedom was characterized as a “stampede.”
On September 26, 1852, more than thirty enslaved African Americans fled farms and homes in northeastern Kentucky and crossed the Ohio River. The episode sparked an armed standoff in Ripley, Ohio, and demonstrated how northern communities could nullify laws that were meant to enforce the return of fugitive slaves.
Because the Ohio River separated Kentucky from the free states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, Bluegrass State slave owners understood that they were in constant risk of losing their human property. In fact, one of the main characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was reputedly based on the 1838 story of an enslaved woman who had escaped across the Ohio River.
In 1852, the year of the mass escape, other runaway slaves also made headlines. In early September, just weeks before the armed standoff at Ripley, eight enslaved African Americans in Mason County, Kentucky, fled across the river. Highlighting Kentuckians’ near constant paranoia about abolitionists living in their midst, the Louisville Daily Courier reported that “they were aided by white confederates in crossing the river.”
As I explain in my new book, Murder on the Ohio Belle, the Ohio River created geographical, legal, and moral boundaries between free states and the slave state of Kentucky. The Ripley incident, however, highlights the fluidity that border. While slaves could escape across the water, armed men could also head north to hunt them down without fear of legal interference.
When the Kentucky “stampede” occurred In September 1852, at least thirty-one enslaved people slipped away from neighboring Bracken and Mason counties. Upon reaching the town of Dover, they crossed the Ohio River to Ripley, Ohio.
Although there were more slaves in the Bluegrass Region of central Kentucky, there were a significant number of slaves in Bracken and Mason counties. In 1860, Bracken County had a population of about 11,000 residents, with 750 of them being enslaved by 176 slave owners. In adjacent Mason County, the numbers were much higher. That county had 18,222 citizens, with 727 owners having 3,772 slaves. There were also free African Americans living in those counties, with 83 in Bracken and 385 in Mason. Residents surely eyed those freemen suspiciously, especially when slaves slipped across the Ohio River to escape.
Although the institution of slavery was strong in that region of Kentucky, some antislavery sentiment did exist. The Reverend John G. Fee, for example, was a Bracken County native and abolitionist who had preached in the region for years. The son of slave owners, Fee’s antislavery views emerged after attending Lane Seminary in Cincinnati. In 1850, authorities in nearby Lewis County, Kentucky, arrested him for supposedly persuading slaves to run away. Twelve years later, when Fee passed through his hometown of Augusta during the Civil War, local citizens seized him. “These professedly Union men hated Abolitionists more than they did the rebels,” Fee exclaimed. To rid themselves of Fee, his former townspeople banished him across the Ohio River. One leading citizen, who was also Fee’s distant relative, told him, “if you come back again I will hang you if it be the last act of my life.” Fee responded, “Do your duty, and I will try to do mine.”
Despite constant threats against his life in proslavery Kentucky, Fee established Berea College in Madison County, Kentucky. He was also instrumental in helping enslaved families at Camp Nelson, a Union recruiting camp, during the Civil War. When Fee died in 1901, one obituary stated, “Fee’s early years were tempestuous, as might be supposed of an abolitionist in a slave state.”
Fee faced threats and intimidation at Augusta for his antislavery sentiments. Just ten miles upriver, however, the community of Ripley, Ohio, contained an active cadre of abolitionists who frequently assisted escaped slaves. Those who fled to Ripley during the September 1852 stampede knew that they would find allies there. The Reverend John Rankin, for example, was a Presbyterian minister and influential abolitionist in Ripley who helped shelter runaways. Moreover, John Parker, an African American abolitionist and inventor, helped scores of fugitives escape on the Underground Railroad. It is likely that Parker protected the Kentucky slaves at Ripley in 1852. When Bluegrass State slave hunters came calling during that incident, he certainly faced threats.
When the slaves escaped, there were two primary ways for their owners to retrieve them. First, the enslavers could cross the Ohio River, recapture them, and forcibly return them to Kentucky. Second, if the enslaved people were captured and identified, their owners could use the court system to enforce fugitive slave laws. The first option, however, was faster, and each passing day meant that the escapees had likely moved farther away from the Bluegrass State. Fearing that the slaves could make their way to Canada, the owners hired men to track them down. Providing rewards for slave catchers also avoided any legal entanglements. Therefore, when the slaves slipped into Ohio, slave hunters tracked them to Ripley.
By 1852, some Kentucky enslavers had taken broad measures to prevent their chattel property from escaping into Canada. This included hiring Ohioans to watch for fugitive slaves. One writer noted that they employed a man named Sroupe, who lived in Sandusky, Ohio, located on Lake Erie across from Canada, to scout “for fugitives — the Kentuckians pay him 30 dollars per month — as soon as any are known to escape, he is immediately notified, and of course is on the look out.” The writer, who had antislavery sentiments, sarcastically called him “the Noble grand hound of the county.”
Shortly after the slaves reached Ripley, dozens of armed Kentuckians — some reporting as many as a hundred — reached the town. A reporter wrote that “the presence of the fugitives and their pursuers, created great excitement in Ripley.”
These slave catchers were not, however, members of the Bluegrass aristocracy. “These men were not slave owners — in fact many of them looked as if they were too poor to own anything, save a red nose and a bloated face,” a Ripley resident wrote. “They were the tools of the Slave owner, working for the reward which is always paid for the capture of runaways.” Another simply called them “armed ruffians.”
The slave hunters began searching businesses and private homes for the escaped men and women. When residents refused to let them search their property, the Kentuckians turned to authorities, claiming that they had the right based on the Fugitive Slave Act. Local officials, however, refused to give them warrants to search suspected hiding places. This rejection angered Kentuckians, who believed that they had a constitutional right, reinforced by the Fugitive Slave Act, to seize their wayward property. One reporter said that the refusal “created the utmost indignation” across the river in Maysville, Kentucky. Shortly thereafter, another newspaper contended that “The Kentuckians have declared a determination to recover them.”
Despite authorities’ refusal to grant warrants, the slave hunters did capture a handful of the escaped men and women. Instead of remaining in Ripley, as most of the runaways likely did, five fled past the town. Tracked down on the road, three of them were overtaken, seized, and returned to Kentucky. One Ripley resident called the men hunting them, “poor miserable soulless tools bearing the shape of men.”
The seizure of the three slaves was, however, only a small victory. Angered over the rejection of the warrant request, several of the frustrated slave hunters proclaimed that they would capture Ripley resident John Parker, the African American abolitionist, and carry him to Kentucky in order to “make an example of him” to free blacks in the Bluegrass State. Because of these threats, and since armed men were roaming the town, African Americans in Ripley decided to defend themselves. Dozens of them procured firearms, and, a reporter wrote, decided to “surround the hotel where the Kentuckians stopped.”
One Ripley resident described the scene. “This very moment . . . our town is in arms,” he wrote. “A party of 30 or 40, mostly negroes all armed with guns or pistols, organized this evening and are now out on watch.” They were, he added, protecting the escaped slaves “from a Kentucky mob.”
A correspondent from New York’s Buffalo Commercial, who happened to be in the area, remarked that the escape had created “much excitement.” He added that, “the free negroes, and their companions, the white-skinned abolitionists, assembled in force, armed with guns, and surrounded the hotel at which the Kentuckians were staying, keeping strict watch upon their movements.” He was concerned that the standoff would end in violence, writing that “very serious consequences may be anticipated, for the Kentuckians are so constantly injured and annoyed by the abolition law-breakers along the river, that their patience is well nigh exhausted.” In addition, when word spread across the river about the armed standoff, fears spread that more armed Kentuckians would arrive to “crush the black armed mob.”
Fortunately, however, the situation did not escalate. There was no shootout in the streets of Ripley between Kentucky slave catchers and African American residents. When it became apparent that the slaves would not be turned over to them, the dejected Kentuckians returned home empty handed. The runaway slaves likely resumed their northward journey, seeking a secure freedom in Canada, away from the Fugitive Slave Act.
Reports about the standoff received broad media coverage. The story appeared in newspapers across the nation and was also reprinted in the Ottawa Daily Citizen in Canada, the Courier and Argus in Dundee, Scotland, and the Liverpool Mercury and London Daily News in England. Because Uncle Tom’s Cabin had brought attention to slaves escaping bondage by crossing the Ohio River, the story of the Ripley affair made international headlines. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s literary legacy, therefore, continued to have influence.
Although armed slave catchers had descended upon Ripley, other enslaved African Americans were not deterred from escaping to that Ohio town. In early October 1852, as reports of the “stampede” appeared newspapers across the nation, one Ripley resident wrote a letter to the Anti-Slavery Bugle in Lisbon, Ohio. He reported that, in only two nights, nineteen escaped slaves “paid our town a flying visit, and all passed safely (on the under ground railroad of course) through, and I am happy to state that in spite of the Fugitive Slave Law they are safe.”
Those slaves made their way northward, yet Kentucky slave catchers continued to chase those on the run. That October, just weeks after the Ripley standoff, nine slaves owned by Joseph Taylor, who lived in Kentucky across from Chilo, Ohio, escaped. The next day, one hundred Kentuckians searched Clermont and Brown counties in Ohio but did not find the refugees. The Louisville Daily Courier wrote indignantly, “Those slaves were to be free in four years from this time, and, it is said, were as well treated as any whites in the neighborhood.” A month later, another “stampede” made headlines when twenty-five enslaved men and women fled Bourbon County, Kentucky, on horseback. While some were captured, most escaped and continued their race for the Ohio River.
In January 1856, one of the most famous fugitive slaves, Margaret Garner, shocked the nation after she and several family members crossed the Ohio River and hid in Cincinnati. When U.S. Marshals closed in, Garner slit the throat of her young daughter in order to keep the child out of slavery. Instead of being tried for murder, Garner was returned to her master, who sent her to the deep South. This grim tale has inspired artists and writers, including Toni Morrison, who based her novel Beloved on Margaret Garner’s story.
Kentuckians needed the Fugitive Slave Act in order to protect their human property. Although scores of escaped slaves were returned southward because of that act, the Ripley episode demonstrated that committed antislavery residents could nullify those laws by refusing to help slave catchers. By rebuffing those who wanted to search homes and businesses, residents and the authorities who refused to grant warrants ultimately made the slave hunters back down. Furthermore, as local African Americans armed themselves, they stood up for their community, protected local abolitionists, and helped the runaway slaves avoid capture.
In reporting the episode, the Burlington Courier in Vermont clearly understood that the events in Ripley had made a dent in slavery’s armor. The newspaper said that the incident “seems to indicate that the Fugitive slave law has had no effect in preventing the black people of the south from leaving their masters.”
The hundreds of enslaved African Americans who sought to liberate themselves by fleeing across the Ohio River certainly would have agreed.
Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books, including Murder on the Ohio Belle.