Born A Slave, Died Free--Freed Randolph Slaves' Journey From Virginia to Ohio
The Journey Begins
(This is one of a series of articles that I am writing about the 1800's group of freed African-Americans called the "Randolph Slaves." I first became interested in their plight when my husband and I discovered a small cemetery on the outskirts of Piqua, Ohio. It was in an area that was once known as Rossville, where some of the Randolph slaves had settled. This cemetery was the final resting place of 134 freed slaves and their families. On several of the now-replaced headstones was the caption "Born a Slave, Died Free", which I decided to title this series, in their honor.)
On June 10, 1846, a wagon train pulled out from Charlotte County, Virginia for the long arduous journey to the free state of Ohio. Led by a wagon master named Cardwell, each of the sixteen wagons were pulled by four horses, and carried all of the belongings of 383 former slaves, their ages ranging from a young infant, to a woman know as "Granny Hannah", who was believed to be over 100 years old.
While filled with the joy of being free and being able to make their own choices and decisions, they also realized that their future was going to be fraught with challenges. Because, although Ohio was a free state, the prejudice towards people of a different color was still rife within its borders.
The following is an account of the struggles and travails of a group of African-Americans known in history as the Randolph slaves.
The Death of John Randolph of Roanoke
In 1833, politician and statesman John Randolph of Roanoke(Plantation), Charlotte County, Virginia, died, leaving behind a substantial estate, including a vast plantation and the 400 slaves it took to take care of it. In his will, he had left his land and wealth to family and close friends, but to his slaves, he left their freedom.
Randolph wrote three wills during his lifetime; in 1819, 1821, and 1832. The first two were similar, and specified that his slaves were to be manumitted(freed). The third, which he wrote while in ill health--physically and mentally-- expressed the desire to have all of his slaves sold. But on his deathbed, he recanted his last will in front of witnesses.
Claiming Randolph was not in his right mind at his death, his brother contested the will, dragging it through the courts for 13 long years. In the end, the courts decided against the brother, and thus began the next chapter in the lives of the now 383 freed men, women and children of the Randolph plantation.
Randolph's close friend and cousin, William Leigh, was appointed the task of purchasing land and making all of the necessary arrangements for the freed Randolph slaves. Leigh traveled to Mercer County in western Ohio, where he arranged to buy 3,200 acres of fertile land, at the cost of $6,000. While there, he contracted with an attorney named Joseph Plunkett to arrange for the building of shelter and the procuring of provisions needed for the settlements of the Randolph slaves once they arrived.
John Randolph of Roanoke
From Virginia to Ohio
Subsequently, the now freed slaves, filled with trepidation for what may lie ahead, but also with jubilation at the thought of being free after waiting 13 long years, set off on their pilgrimage to Ohio. The first 500 miles were formidable, as the wagon train had to travel through Virginia and West Virginia, crossing the Lynchburg and Greenbriar Rivers, Sewel Mountain, and then go around the Kanawha Falls. After following the Kanawha River to Charleston, West Virginia, they boarded a steamer, taking it to the Ohio River and down to Cincinnati, Ohio.
For the next leg of their journey, the Randolph slaves had to walk through Cincinnati, right up Main Street, treating all of the locals to a spectacular sight. This was mentioned in the July 1, 1846 edition of the Cincinnati Daily Chronicle, in which a reporter described as a:
"singular scene--one which never before occurred here, and may never occur again. In front of our office and occupying the center of the street for half a square, was a crowd of Negroes, men, women and children, like a drove of sheep coming to market. They were dressed in coarse cottons, apparently comfortable in bodily circumstances, and walked along from the river to the canal."
At the Miami & Erie Canal, the party boarded canal barges to travel north for the 100 mile trip to Mercer County. Along the way, they met small pockets of resistance in Miami County from folks in the towns of Tippecanoe(now Tipp City), Troy, and in Piqua where the town marshal denied them permission to disembark so they could get water. He claimed it was because of a "water shortage" at the time, and forced them to keep moving up the canal. They traveled just a little farther, to the north of Piqua, where kindhearted folks near the Johnston Farm area invited them to come and to help themselves to water from their spring.
Arriving in Mercer County, Ohio
As they continued on, they crossed into Shelby County, passing through the locks of the canal in small towns along the way--Lockfort(now Lockington), then in Berlin(now Fort Loramie), where again they were not permitted to stop and get off the barges.
By this time they had met enough opposition that they approached their final canal port stop in Mercer County, at Bremen(now New Bremen) with apprehension. They had also discovered that word of their imminent arrival had spread throughout the whole state. And although the residents of Bremen and the surrounding area had known well in advance that the freed Randolph slaves were arriving, since many of them had sold the land to William Leigh, and took the money to construct buildings and purchase supplies, they were not happy to see them.
So when the Randolph party docked at the Bremen locks, a large crowd of residents--mostly German immigrants--were waiting. Stories differ here as to what actually happened, but the most common story told is that the Randolph party was permitted to land and disembark for the night, upon protest. The residents had either already had a meeting, or had one immediately afterwards(stories vary here) to discuss the situation.
That evening, residents returned to the Randolph camp, surrounding them. Some stories say they were armed with guns and bayonets, some do not mention any arms at all. Regardless, they announced that three resolutions were passed concerning the freed slaves. Of these, one proclaiming that they:
"Will not live among the Negroes; as we have settled here first, we have fully determined that we will resist the settlment of blacks and mulattoes in the county to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted."
They then took the wagon master, Cardwell, with them, forcing him to immediately charter two canal boats to take the freed Randolph slaves back down the canal, and out of Mercer county.
So the next day, with heavy hearts and crushed spirits, the freed blacks left what was supposed to have been their permanent home, with an armed escort of German settlers. Some of the freed slaves were said to have slipped off to head towards a known settlement of blacks to the west, called Carthogena. The rest of the party traveled 20 miles south, where they stopped in Lockport for a few days. At this point it's mentioned that many of the slaves departed the group, to head towards another settlement of blacks called Rumley, and more to the town of Sidney, Ohio, which was just east of Rumley.
The rest continued on southward to just above Piqua, Ohio. Many settled there, forming the town of Rossville, while others went farther south to settle in towns named Hanktown, near West Milton, Ohio, and Marshalltown, near Troy, Ohio.
Most of these slaves had been educated, and taught to read and write by John Randolph, and many had learned trade skills, so while they were most certainly heartbroken and bewildered at first, they overcame adversity to make their own way, building lives for themselves and their families, while some also became great successes in their trades.
The Court Case and Helen Gilmore
Around forty years after they were turned away from their property in Mercer County, it was suggested to some of them that they try to get either the land back, or the money that it took to buy it originally. They took it to court, but they were told that the 21 year statute of limitations had expired. They appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, but all courts backed the first decision.
It was also discovered that the attorney Joseph Plunkett, whom William Leigh had contracted to handle the purchase of the land, forged Leigh's name to documents in late 1846, selling all of the land and keeping the profits from it.
One of their ancestors, Helen Gilmore, was raised in Rossville, Ohio as a child, in the home of her uncle York Rial, who was one of the original Randolph slaves. He had built the home himself, having been trained in stone masonry. She moved back there as an adult, and with her husband and many others, set about restoring the old graveyard and turning her former home(which Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore had moved back into) into a museum honoring the Randolph slaves and all those who descended from them. The little town is now all but gone, but the enduring spirits of the Randolph slaves live on in history...
Photos of Two of the Known Freed Randolph Slaves
Links to more in the Born A Slave, Died Free series
- Born A Slave, Died Free--AFRICAN JACKSON CEMETERY--ROSSVILLE, OHIO
This hub describes the final resting place of over 100 of the freed Randolph slaves.