The Network to Freedom: A stop on the Underground Railroad

Mount Pleasant, Ohio, is kind of like Mayberry. Everyone knows everyone by their first name, and you don’t see much traffic. Off the beaten track, atop the highest point in Jefferson County, it doesn’t have even one stop light. But what makes this unfairly neglected hamlet special is that it played an important role in the battle to end slavery.

“Everyone here participated in the Underground Railroad,” says Sherry Sawchuck, president of the Mount Pleasant Historical Society.

While that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration, it’s no idle claim. Mount Pleasant was indeed part of the legendary network. The Network to Freedom, established by the National Parks Service to identify important places along the Underground Railroad, honored the village after its standard meticulous scrutiny.

Local awareness of Mount Pleasant’s Underground Railroad past has long been a tradition. Sawchuck, who grew up in Pleasant Grove, a hamlet five miles away, attended school in Mount Pleasant and said the story of the Underground Railroad was part of her grade school curriculum. The Mount Pleasant Historical Society, which was founded in 1948, began offering an annual pilgrimage of the village’s historic homes and she got involved when she was a teenager as a guide. During the 1980s she became a director of the society and was installed as its president in 1990.

“We still have an annual summer event,” she said, “with a different theme each year. Sometimes it’s a pilgrimage, or it might be a home and garden tour, or a lantern tour in which guides impersonate Underground Railroad conductors.”

It’s part of the society’s effort to raise funds to keep it afloat. One of those efforts was the publication of an educational picture book about Mount Pleasant’s history targeting grade schoolers that includes activities teachers can use to illustrate the history. Finances have been a problem for the hamlet because of its location. It’s difficult for businesses to survive.

“We had an antiques dealer,” Sawchuck explained, “and an inn that operated as a bed and breakfast that has closed.” She remains hopeful, however, that someone will come along and give them another try. The area has other attractions, she said. Among them are the Farm Restaurant, a remodeled farmhouse about two miles outside the village and the Black Sheep winery that opened this December about a mile from the restaurant. In Martins Ferry less than 10 miles south, is an auction house and across the river, off I-70, in Wheeling is a casino. Not far from Wheeling is Oglebay Park, a large recreational area with a golf course, skiing, and a children’s zoo. Plenty of accommodations are available in Wheeling or St. Clairsville, about 10 miles southwest and also off I-70.

Mount Pleasant’s significance, though, lay with its history. It was founded in 1803 by Quakers, who were part of the great migration of Friends from North Carolina to the Northwest Territory that began in 1800 and lasted into the mid-1820s. As many as perhaps 8,000 Quakers migrated to Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois after a law was passed in North Carolina stipulating that any slaves who were freed could immediately be re-enslaved.

“Jesse-Bob Town” was what they called Mount Pleasant during its early years, taking its name after Robert Carothers and Jesse Thomas, the men who laid out the village. By 1814 there were a reported 1,693 Quaker families in Ohio and Mount Pleasant was chosen to be the site of the Ohio Yearly Meeting’s first annual convention. A large plain two-story brick building with an A-frame roof, it can accommodate 2,000 people and originally had a folding partition inside to separate the sections for women and men. The meeting house, which has been carefully preserved by the Ohio Historical Society, remains today as the village’s most significant historic building.

The first annual convention of the Ohio Yearly Meeting in 1815 was a festive affair, as they all traditionally would become. The featured speaker was Charles Osborn, a Quaker from Tennessee, who the previous year had formed the nation’s first society calling for the immediate end to slavery. Among the resolutions passed was that Friends should be “careful to hear testimony against slavery and to provide for such people of color as have had their freedom secured and to instruct them in learning.” Though it didn’t say anything about fugitive slaves, such language was an invitation to accommodate them.

Also attending the meeting was a young man whose name would become synonymous with the antislavery movement, Benjamin Lundy. He had moved to Mount Pleasant in 1811 and got a job working as a saddle maker for Jesse Thomas. Originally from New Jersey, he moved to Wheeling, W. Va., just across the Ohio River, less than 10 miles from Mount Pleasant where he learned the saddle and harness making trade. It was in Wheeling, which lay between the slave breeding centers of Maryland and Virginia, and the new developing plantations in need of slaves in Kentucky and Missouri, where he saw the chain gangs with as many as 100 slaves shackled to each other on their way to their new masters. It compelled Lundy to write in his diary that his “heart was deeply grieved at the gross abomination; I heard the wail of the captive; I felt his pang of distress, and the iron entered my soul.”

Lundy moved about 10 miles south to St. Clairsville in 1816 and formed the area’s first antislavery society, the Union Humane Society. Its first meeting was held in his home and was attended by five persons. But within six months, eight local chapters had formed with a total of 500 members. Antislavery sentiment was so strong in the region that it persuaded Osborn to move to Mount Pleasant and publish the nation’s first antislavery newspaper, The Philanthropist, in 1817. Lundy, who had previously written a circular expressing his opposition to slavery under the pseudonym of “Philo Justitia” was enthusiastic about the paper and began submitting articles under that name. Following a trip to Missouri, and learning upon his return that Osborn had given up the paper, Lundy moved back to Mount Pleasant in 1821 and began publishing his own antislavery paper, The Genius of Emancipation. The house where Lundy lived during his second residence in Mount Pleasant remains today and is a National Historic Landmark and on the National Register of Historic Places. It later shared a common wall with the village’s Free Labor Store, which sold goods not produced through the toil of slaves and which operated from 1848 to 1857.

Lundy only lived in Mount Pleasant for about a year before moving on again. It was the beginning of his one man crusade to end slavery and led to the publication of The Genius in many locations. His crusade separated him from family, and saw the premature death of his wife in 1826 and the raising of his five children for much of the time by friends. It also took him to such various locations as Haiti, Mexico, and Canada in search of places for the colonization of fugitive slaves and free blacks. He died in 1839 in Illinois, reunited with his children, but never seeing the fruits of his efforts.

By the time of the first convention of the Ohio Yearly Meeting, Mount Pleasant is believed to have begun aiding fugitive slaves. It was during the War of 1812 when slaves served the American army that they became aware of the freedom that awaited them in Ohio and other places north of the Mason-Dixon Line. They would escape through Wheeling, Va., swimming across the Ohio River to Martins Ferry. On occasion, it is said that David and Benjamin Stanton, members of one of Mount Pleasant’s earliest pioneer families, visited the marketplace in Wheeling and took fugitive slaves to Ohio, concealed in their wagons, by way of Martins Ferry. With the antislavery publications coming out of Mount Pleasant, word spread that the village was a haven for fugitive slaves. Michigan Underground Railroad conductor Nathan Thomas, who grew up in Mount Pleasant and left during the 1820s, wrote in his autobiography that “many a panting fugitive from slavery” passed through the village. Thomas described two specific incidents: one in which a fugitive slave was rescued by a former slave who lived in Mount Pleasant, and another incident in which a fugitive slave who had been settled in Mount Pleasant for three years was apprehended by his former master but managed to escape and was forwarded to a place of safety in northern Ohio.

Adding circumstantial evidence to the claims of Underground Railroad activity was the substantial number of free blacks in the area. In close proximity were at least two black settlements, one of about 40 families, who mainly comprised the slaves of Virginian Thomas Beaufort, who were manumitted in 1825 and provided with a 200 acre tract near Smithfield, which was known as the McIntyre settlement. Another small settlement called New Trenton was located just south about a mile west of the Short Creek. Black settlements are known to have been magnets for fugitive slaves.

Local legend testifies to the participation of a number of residents in the Underground Railroad. Since it was bypassed by the National Road, the canals, and finally the railroads that developed during the 1850s and after, which stunted its growth, much of its pre-Civil War architecture has been preserved. A total of 44 structures are listed in the National Historic Register with the Benjamin Lundy House and Free Labor Store, a National Historic Landmark.

Most of these homes in the village’s Historic District are of Federal and Italianate style architecture, and a number of them belonged to those who were said to have participated in the Underground Railroad.

Entering the village from the southeast side of the county is the Jonathan Binns house at 20 Union Street, an Italianate and Greek Revival structure built in 1856 and located at the highest spot in the county. It is said that it had a trap door leading to a hiding place for fugitive slaves in the roof of the kitchen. According to legend a lantern was placed at night there in its captains’ walk that sent a beacon that could be seen as far as the Ohio River.

To the north of Union Street, up Quaker Hill, is the home of George Jenkins, who was president of the village’s Free Labor Store in 1848 and who purchased slaves in order to emancipate them. Back to Union Street and heading west at 287 Union Street was the John Hogg mansion, a large opulent structure built in 1813 that had a passage from a well that led to vats for tanning hides where fugitive slaves were hidden.

A couple blocks farther on Union is the David Updegraff house at 388 Union Street, which also had a captain’s walk that was used as a lookout place for fugitive slaves. A little farther at 437 Union is the home of the aforementioned Benjamin Stanton. Farther west is the Lundy house and the Harris-Bone log cabin, built in 1806 and the village’s oldest remaining structure though not identified as part of the Underground Railroad. And heading west about a mile outside the village is the William Robinson house, which had a tunnel leading from its basement that is believed to have been used to hide fugitive slaves.

For those looking for a unique getaway rich in history, you might consider Mount Pleasant.

“We’re a step back in time,” Sawchuck said. “Many of our homes predate 1860, and we’re also on a scenic byway.”

For more information about Mount Pleasant, Ohio, call Sherry Sawchuck at 800-752-2631 or 740-769-2893.

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