Northeast Ohio and the Underground Railroad

Northeast Ohio map

 US Gov't Map

Northeast Ohio played an important part in the Abolitionist Movement and in the Underground Railroad during the mid-19th century. This area was a natural choice as a route to freedom for southern slaves. Parts of Ashtabula County's Lake Erie coastline were less than 100 miles from the south (the "tail" of West Virginia, then part of Virginia). In fact, Ohio had the most active network in the Underground Railway, with approximately 3000 miles of routes running from the Ohio River to Lake Erie. Many area "stations" still stand and several can even be toured.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Ohio Abolitionist Movement

Harriet Beecher Stowe
(National Archives and Records Administration/public domain photo)

Ohio was a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment during the mid-19th century. Among the most articulate Ohio abolitionists was Harriet Beecher Stowe. Though born in Connecticut, Stowe lived in Cincinnati a large portion of her life and she and her husband housed slaves en route via the Underground Railroad in their home. Her novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," published in 1852 depicted the unvarnished life of an American slave, a life she witnessed firsthand across the Ohio River in Kentucky. The book, which was an instant bestseller, served to solidify anti-slavery sentiment, both in the United States and abroad.
The Harriet Beecher Stowe House, where she spent much of her growing up years, is now a museum and open to the public.

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John Brown's Ohio Connections

(John Bowles c. 1856)

John Brown, whose raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) helped to spark the Civil War, spend a good part of his youth in Hudson, Ohio and his father, Owen Brown was an early supporter of Oberlin College (which would also play a key role in the Abolitionist Movement.) Brown remained in northeast Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania, living in Akron, Meadville, PA, and Ashtabula County, Ohio before traveling around the United States drumming up support for his radical anti-slavery views.
Brown returned to Ohio periodically and it was in southern Ashtabula County, near Orwell, that he and his supporters stored their arsenal of weapons before embarking on the raid at Harpers Ferry. After the raid, Brown was tried and convicted of treason. He was represented by a lawyer from Cleveland, Hiram Griswold.

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Northeast Ohio Politics and the Abolitionist Movement

(Matthew Brady)

In the days leading up to the Civil War, two of the most powerful men in Congress hailed from Jefferson, Ohio (the county seat of Ashtabula County.) They were Benjamin Wade (pictured above) and Joshua Giddings. Wade (no relation to Cleveland's Jeptha Wade) was a lawyer and prosecuting attorney in Ashtabula County before being elected to the US Senate in 1837. He served two terms and was a very vocal advocate for African-American rights. In fact, he often criticized President Lincoln for not going far enough to secure equal rights for former slaves.
Giddings, the former law partner of Wade, represented Ohio in the US House of Representatives between 1838 and 1859. He was a vocal proponent of the Anti-Slavery Act and at home, an active participant in the area's Underground Railroad. His former law office still stands in downtown Jefferson.

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Unionville Tavern in Unionville

Unionville Tavern
(© 2011 S. Mitchell)

The Unionville Tavern, which sits along County Line Road and SR 84 in Lake County, just steps away from Ashtabula County, was one of many area inns, taverns and private homes in northeast Ohio that sheltered slaves making their way from the south to safety and freedom across Lake Erie in Canada. The Tavern, which is ​diagonal across from Alexander Harper Memorial Cemetery in Unionville, had a tunnel from the cemetery to the basement of the tavern, so slaves could arrive unnoticed by the tavern's patrons.
The Tavern, believed to be the oldest tavern in Ohio, closed in 2003.

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Rider's Inn Painesville

Rider Inn Painesville Ohio
(Courtesy Rider Inn)

Rider's Inn, located on Route 20 in Painesville's historic district, opened in 1812 as a stagecoach pub and inn. During the mid-19th century, the inn was both a stop along the Underground Railroad as well as a haven for Union soldiers returning from the war. Rider's Inn is still thriving today.

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