Sunday, June 12, 2011

Haven't I Heard This Story Before?

Chancey Shaw was not a model citizen in his hometown of Ripley, Ohio. He liked his drink and had been arrested a couple of times for assault. Although he lived in a hotbed of Underground Railroad activity, his goal wasn’t to help escaped slaves on the road to freedom, but prevent them from doing so while padding his pockets a bit in the process. Chancey was a nephew of my fifth great-grandfather, Russell Shaw. Peter Shaw, Russell’s brother, was Chancey’s father. 

 The Ohio River was the dividing line between slave state of Kentucky and possible freedom in Ohio. In Ripley, on the bluff overlooking the river, was the home of Reverend John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister and outspoken abolitionist. His home was a landmark for escaping slaves, who looked for the lighted lantern the family left in a window. The Rankin family and some other Ripley residents would hide slaves in their homes, then transport them north to another stop on the Underground Railroad. The residents of Ripley were well-aware of the Rankin family’s abolitionist activities.

John Rankin House, Ripley Ohio
NHL-NPS Photo
http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/oh3.htm
The Ohio River had frozen over in February 1838, creating what could be an easier escape  for slaves than rowing across the river in a skiff. Later in the month, though, the ice had started to thaw. On a frigid late February night, Chancey Shaw positioned himself on the banks of the Ohio River hoping to nab an escaping slave and collect a reward from a grateful slave owner. When he heard the splashing of water and the cracking of ice, he must have thought that this would be his lucky night.

A slave woman and her two year old child struggled to cross the river on the thawing ice. In her desperate escape, the woman fell through the ice three times. Chancey heard her coming and met her on the Ohio shore. He grabbed her arm and, surprisingly, said, “Any woman who crossed that river carrying her baby has won her freedom.” Then Chancey Shaw directed the woman to the Rankin home, where he told her she would find help. I would love to know what made the slave catcher give up a reward of possibly hundreds of dollars and have mercy on this woman and her child.

Does this story sound vaguely familiar?

A few years later after this incident, Reverend Rankin was visiting one of his sons at Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati. There, he related the story of the woman’s incredible escape to a professor at the seminary, Calvin Stowe, and his wife, Harriet Beecher Stowe. Years later in her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mrs. Stowe based the character of Eliza, a slave woman who jumped with her child from ice floe to ice floe to cross the Ohio River to freedom, on the courageous woman who risked her life and the life of her child to flee the bondage of slavery.


If you are interested in the rich history of the Underground Railroad in Brown County, Ohio, I highly recommend Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad by Ann Hagedorn.


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