Myths from the Northern State

John Randolph lived in Virginia where he owned a great deal of land and 400 people. By 1819 he had decided that it was wrong to enslave other humans and so in the first of three wills he made provisions for manumission of these workers, but not until after he died. In 1845 his executor William Leigh hired Samuel Jay to purchase 3,200 acres of land in Mercer County, Ohio to be held in trust for the people that would soon be escorted to freedom and their won land. Leigh, provided $38,000 to transport and settle the freedmen on land in the rich farmland in Ohio. In his will Randolph had required that all men over the age of 40 be provide at least 10 acres. Only 383 actually came to Mercer County though, and the reasons appear lost as to where the other 17 may have gone.

Ohio may have been a free state, but it should in no way be understood to mean that it was filled with people welcoming Black men and women to live here. Ohio had failed by a single vote to legalize slavery at its convention of 1802. In order to push forward with statehood we assumed that Blacks were not really citizens nor were they intellectually capable of participating in society any more than Indians and so many other undocumented immigrants, so the conventioneers didn’t fight it and left us a free state. By 1804 though we were cranking on Black Laws that threw up deterrents from even walking on through to somewhere else if your melanin levels were high enough. If there were some notorious and determined abolitionists here that rule about equal and opposite surely held. Ohio was not a place of freedom and democracy for all that you might have understood from your fourth grade Ohio history studies.

The area of Carthagena near New Bremen right next to the Precious Blood Seminary had already an interesting history when Randolph sent his emissary north. By 1835 Augustus Wattles had established a school and farm to educate Black children there and in 1840, a Black man named Charles Moore had purchased and platted 64 lots that established the community of Carthegena. In this same time frame, a wealthy Quaker dropped some cash on Wattles to set up a school for black boys that became the Emlen Institute. So, Randolph or Jay may have known about these settlements and assumed this additional 400 people would be welcomed and well served in this location.

By the time the newly free people got to Cincinnati papers were writing about their arrival. For 400 freed slaves to be moving en masse to Ohio was highly unusual. The Dayton paper covered their passing through the city on the new Miami Erie Canal to their destination north. The good people of Mercer County would have read these papers and discussed this huge influx of immigrants. A great number of them would have read about this and discussed it in German since many were themselves newly settled, having left the feudal systems that were still in place in their home countries. My female ancestors would not have read about it as they were all illiterate at that time and so entirely dependent on the opinions and thoughts of their men. However they heard about their new neighbors the the people of the county were not pleased.

Before the Randolph people arrived the settlers at the Wattles place had been harassed to point that the governor had assured the Black settlers that they would be protected. In response to the governor, white residents issued a three-point resolution, the first point stating: Resolved, We will not live among Negroes. As we have settled here first, we have fully determined that we will resist the settlement of blacks and mulattoes in this county to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted.

There were two other points, but you get the idea.

On the July day when the freedmen arrived at New Bremen armed whites surrounded the boats from the docks and refused to allow them to disembark. The next morning they escorted them over the Mercer County line with warnings. The whole affair was widely discussed on Ohio papers, apparently mostly agreeing with the poor put-upon white people. The people of Mercer county had sold their land for the settling, constructed buildings on the property, for which they had been paid, but then when it was time for the new landowners to finally live in their new homes, they were forced to leave.

Leigh eventually found housing and some land for the people in the area. Some settled in Troy others in Piqua or in the swampy country side. One man actually returned to Virginia to work again as a house servant. He said that he preferred his old situation to living among the people of Ohio. He had felt better treated as an enslaved man than he had been here in Ohio.

None of John Randolph’s freed slaves ever saw the land they were supposed to have been given. Wattles eventually lost the land on which the Emlen Institute stood and it was over 50 years later that someone began the process of trying to legally claiming their property purchased by Randolph . In 1917 the Ohio Supreme Court declared that there could be no claim as too much time had passed and they were unable to prove that they indeed were entitled to the land as Leigh and Jay had died and a courthouse fire had destroyed Randolph’s will. According to Mathias, “no heir had received anything other than the free trip to Ohio.”

Back in 1996 When I went to the Mercer County Historical Society and asked about this incident I was told that story was a myth. The woman who was running the museum there was a professional historian by education and practice. She was not just some local retiree who did this work as a hobby. Her husband’s family was local so she had personal ties to the community as well.

Before coming to the museum I had found bits of this story at the seminary library where I had been invited to use their stacks as I needed by a retired brother living there who was also interested in local history. In fact, he had showed me the properties around the seminary and talked about the difficulties of the people adapting to their new settlement.

When the director of the County Historical Society denied that this was a true story I whipped out my copies of the newspaper article provided at the seminary and the only other reference to the incident. That reference was to a dissertation that was said to be on-file at the historical society. I was told to go ahead check their file cabinets, but she said she had never seen or heard of such a paper. So I did. And it was there. When I showed her the document she took it away from me and said she could not let me use the original copy; she would have to make a copy for me. Now, she had a copier in the room with the file cabinets, but I was told that it wouldn’t work and I’d have to come back the next day. So I drove the 2 hours home and back to return the next day. Of the probably 50 pages that I had held the day before, my copy (which wasn’t ready when I returned—I had to leave and come back later) had only about 10 pages. When I asked where the rest of it was I was told that that was all there and this woman was angry that I would suggest otherwise. She had not copied any references to that incident, only the pages that seemed to imply a peaceful, uneventful settlement by these “poor souls.“

I went back another day when she was not in and checked the file cabinets and the whole document was gone. I asked around at some other places like the library and an antiques store and no one had ever heard of this story. The librarian seemed to think that it couldn’t have happened because after all, “they were in the north and they were Catholic”—as if those two facts couldn’t exist along with an event of that nature. This entire community had disappeared a historical incident that had the attention of all of Ohio when it happened, but did not reflect well on the county in the late 20th Century.

I tried to contact the author of the article but I never got a reply to my email. This makes me think I want to try harder to find him. I hope the Mercer County Historical Society didn’t off this guy because he knew too much!

Gaslighting is the name for denying history. People are told that what they know or have been told is not true. Entire families and their stories can be made to have never existed. Sometimes entire communities are made to disappear. Like 383 people who would have known each other and shared a common history, common hardships, caring for each other’s children and elders, attended burials, caught each others babies and held them when their mothers had to immediately get up to care for their owners. So often we have erased or participated in erasing histories without fully realizing the impact this has on all of us. My history is your history and your story is mine. In order to for me to make your past disappear I have to disappear some of mine and without our past we become sick. We cannot survive without our ancestors. None of us.

Denying a terrible truth doesn’t cause the underlying issues to go away. It adds new problems, like distrust. I since have come across the article below published in the Journal of Southern History by Frank Mathias in 1973. Mathias was an associate professor of history at UD back then. I stopped looking for primary sources. I trust him. He’s saved a history.

Mathias, Frank F. “John Randolph’s Freedmen: The Thwarting of a Will.” The Journal of Southern History 39, no. 2 (1973): 263-72. Accessed June 19, 2020. doi:10.2307/2205617.

2 thoughts on “Myths from the Northern State

  1. Teri – Recently read The Bone and Sinew of the Land by Anna-Lisa Cox. It describes the first migration of free blacks in the US to the Northwest Territory which, by its’ charter, banned slavery and how, as the territories became states, they were cheated out of their land, murdered, and enslaved right her in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. So much for the virtuous North. I’ve got it if you’d like to read it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s