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Wood County slaves freed before Civil War

June 20, 2013
By JOLENE CRAIG ( , Parkersburg News and Sentinel

PARKERSBURG - Although the Civil War abolished slavery throughout the United States, most of Wood County's slaves had been freed before the end of the conflict, a local historian said.

"By the time the Civil War came here there were almost no slaves up and down the Ohio River because of the effectiveness of the (Underground) Railroad," said Dave McKain, director of the Oil and Gas Museum and Henderson Hall.

Because of the proximity of Ohio and the freedom the Northern states could offer runaway slaves, most West Virginia counties bordering the Ohio River had few slaves by the 1860s, said historian Ray Swick with the Blennerhassett Museum.

"The Ohio River separated two very different worlds from the 18th century and through the Civil War," Swick said. "The Yankees in the North and the confederates in the South."

The Underground Railroad effectively rid Wood County of slavery before abolition became law because, in part, of the large number of people willing to help runaway slaves when they reached Washington County.

"There were a lot of people in Marietta and Belpre willing to aid the slaves once they were able to get across the Ohio River," McKain said.

Fact Box

Wood County

Slavery Facts

  • Slavery in Wood County and other areas of West Virginia bordering the Ohio River were largely slave-free by the time the Civil War entered the area, according to a local historian.
  • Because of influence from Ohio residents and the relatively easier access local slaves had to freedom with the aid of abolitionists in Washington County, most slaves in Wood County had been freed by the 1860s, according to Dave McKain, director of the Oil and Gas Museum.
  • Well-known abolitionists included Col. John Stone of Belpre and the Putnam family of Marietta who were known to help escaped slaves although federal law prohibited their work, according to historian Ray Swick.

Swick said there were a number of influential members of the abolitionist movement who openly encouraged slaves to flee their masters and aided those who escaped.

"Col. John Stone of Belpre and the Putnams of Marietta were rabid abolitionists," Swick said. "They did everything they could to help free slaves."

Although it was illegal for people to own slaves north of the Ohio River, it was against federal law for anyone to aid runaway slaves.

"According to federal law at the time, owners of slaves could go into homes in Ohio and other free states to look for their missing slaves," McKain said. "They usually got very little cooperation from homeowners."

In the 1820s, one in seven people registered in Wood County were slaves and by 1860, that number had dropped to less than one, McKain added.

"The Underground Railroad not only worked in helping the slaves escape, but because of the abolitionists, attitudes were changed," he continued. "A lot of slave owners let their slaves go because they saw the writing on the wall and let them go before they had to."

Swick said the Mid-Ohio Valley was different but similar in the time of the Civil War.

"This area was a melting pot of attitudes, which is still the American story," Swick said. "A lot has changed and yet it hasn't."

The Belpre Historical Society's Farmers' Castle Museum on Ridge Street has a permanent exhibit to the Underground Railroad, including a marker of the number one stop on the road to freedom.

The collection of artifacts to the Underground Railroad was based on research by historian and Underground Railroad expert Henry Burke, who passed away in May 2012.

The Underground Railroad display at the museum includes background information on the system that allowed slaves to make it to Canada to become free people as well as specific information on the individual monuments and places.



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