This month marks the 155th anniversary of the famous Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue of 1858. Anyone interested in nineteenth-century Lorain County history, who has not read Nat Brandt’s The Town that Started the Civil War, should immediately head for the nearest public library. It is a marvelous account, and for someone like me who wants to understand what daily life in Wellington was like during the 1800s, it is a vivid snapshot in time.
I resolved when I began this blog to stay away from the “known” elements of town history, such as biographies of painter Archibald Willard or Governor Myron T. Herrick, or the Slave Rescue. Those narratives really fall outside of the project that I have been doing, and I did not feel that I had anything new to contribute to the scholarship on Wellington’s past in those areas. That having been said, I have been rereading Brandt’s book as the anniversary of the Rescue approached, and finding fascinating connections to individuals I have already profiled in this blog.
Readers may be asking, “What is the ‘famous’ Oberlin-Wellington Slave Rescue? I’ve never heard of it.” In the 1850s, the most controversial law in the United States was the Fugitive Slave Act. It stipulated that slaveowners had a right to pursue runaway slaves even into states where slavery was not legal and bring them back by whatever means necessary; it further stated that any citizen was forbidden from assisting a runaway slave, and in fact, could be pressed into the service of a slaveholder to secure a slave’s capture and return. Nineteenth-century northern Ohio was one of the most ardently anti-slavery regions of the nation, and no municipality was more passionately committed to abolition than Oberlin. Needless to say, the vast majority of Oberlin citizens found the Act repugnant, and refused to comply with it. Consequently, many freeborn and formerly-enslaved black people came to the town to build a life for themselves; between 1850 and 1860, the black population of Lorain County increased over 100%, settling mainly around Oberlin (Brandt, pg. 45). Knowing this, slave catchers trolled the town–in the face of open hostility and, in some cases, armed resistance by the population–looking for runaways.
In 1858, a group of men from Kentucky crossed into Ohio looking for an escaped slave. They located the man living and working in Oberlin, calling himself John Price. They paid a local teenager to lure Price away from town and abducted him, moving south to Wellington by horse-drawn carriage. Their plan was to wait at a hotel called The Wadsworth House (later The American House) until the 5PM train to Columbus arrived. Word of Price’s kidnapping reached Oberlin, and a crowd of residents, including students and professors from the college, rushed to stop the men from getting on the train. Coincidentally, there had been a large fire in the businesses on the west side of Wellington’s South Main Street that day, directly across from the hotel. Scores of people were gathered watching the aftermath of the fire. These Oberlin and Wellington crowds converged and demanded Price’s release. After many tense hours and attempts at negotiation, a group of men rushed the hotel room and forcibly removed Price, spiriting him away to Oberlin, where he was hidden until he was smuggled to Canada and freedom.
Interfering in the capture and return of a runaway slave was a federal crime in 1858. Thirty-seven men from Oberlin and Wellington, thereafter referred to as “the Rescuers,” were indicted for their roles in the day’s events or simply for being a known abolitionist or conductor on the Underground Railroad. Months of trials followed and I strongly encourage everyone to read Brandt’s very thorough treatment of the legal proceedings and their historical consequences.
The innkeepers that day were Oliver Wadsworth and his wife, Alma. Oliver was the older brother of David Wadsworth, whom we met in my last post. Oliver was a Democrat, at a time when both Wellington and Oberlin were overwhelmingly Republican. He seems to have taken pains to protect the group of Kentucky slave catchers staying in his hotel, though in his later testimony he stated only his desire to avoid having his house “ransacked by a mob” and that “there was a legal way to get at it without having a riot” (History of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, 1859, pg. 34). Yet when the Kentucky men were arrested on kidnapping charges after the Rescue, Oliver was part of a group of county Democrats that put up the bail money to free them from jail (Brandt, pg. 222), so perhaps his actions were also motivated by political leanings or racial attitudes.
William Howk, whom we met previously, appeared briefly at the hotel that afternoon. He was called in his capacity as Justice of the Peace to come and review the legal documents held by the Kentucky group. He had such a bad cold that he could not speak, and realized when he arrived at the hotel that he had forgotten his eye glasses, preventing him from reading anything. He later testified that he saw David Wadsworth in the hotel room with the Kentucky group and John Price (History, pg. 39); perhaps Oliver placed his brother in this key security position. Once Howk talked to the men and assured himself that their actions were technically legal, however distasteful–the ugly distinction between a federally-protected “return” of a slave and the illegal kidnapping of a free person of color–he left the premises quickly.
David Wadsworth, as mentioned, was present in his brother’s hotel that day. His specific actions are unclear, but Oliver Wadsworth had “closed off the hotel and stationed employees and friends at its entrances and on the stairways” to keep the angry and unpredictable crowd at bay (Brandt, pg. 90). In Commemorative Biographical Record of the Counties of Huron and Lorain, Ohio (1894), David’s entry notes, “Mr. Wadsworth’s political faith dated from the famous ‘Rescue Case’ of 1858, after which time he was a Democrat. In 1861 he became an ardent, zealous and enthusiastic War Democrat…Although the district in which Mr. Wadsworth lived has always been Republican, yet he received many political honors” (pg. 707).
Reading that David Wadsworth was a Democrat, and possibly a supporter of the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, reminded me of a public political dispute Wadsworth had with Noah Huckins twenty years later. Huckins was elected the president of the Republican Club of Wellington in 1879. There was an election for state senate held that year, and David Wadsworth ran as the Democratic candidate against Rollin Albert Horr, brother of cheese magnate Charles W. Horr, and twin of Roswell Gilbert Horr, who had worked for the legal defense of the Rescuers in the 1850s.
On September 25, 1879, Noah Huckins published a lengthy article in The Wellington Enterprise, in which he claimed to reproduce documents written by others “to show to Republicans and Democrats of this district the spirit and manner with which Mr. Wadsworth conducts the campaign” (pg. 2). The documents accused David Wadsworth of slandering Horr, Warner & Co.–and by extension, N. Huckins & Co.–by spreading false rumors that they overcharged farmers for cheese boxes; of inflating his own political credentials; and of lying to the press about his campaign-related actions. One of the documents includes the indignant and hilarious assertion, “Mr. Wadsworth, at quite a liberal outlay of money, procured the insertion of a picture of his residence in the Lorain county history.” Wadsworth responded in print the following week, writing in part, “I shall not now, or at any future time, stoop to reply to such a conglomerate botch of trash…” (10-2-1879, pg. 2). He was defeated by Horr, nonetheless. This seemingly personal conflict between the two men makes the 1881 sale of his cheese box factory by Wadsworth to Huckins, and then its return sale two years later, all the more curious.
As a sidebar, I have been wondering lately if Noah Huckins was an abolitionist, and if perhaps that was part of his motivation for moving from Canada to Lorain County. Brandt writes that “according to conservative estimates, at least twenty thousand black men and women [fugitive slaves] crossed into British North America–mostly in the area around Ontario known as Canada West–in the decade between 1850 and 1860” (pgs. 17-18). Canada West is where Noah Huckins was born. His brother, George Huckins, kept a diary now held by Duke University, in which he wrote, “[M]ay God speed the day when the sin of Slavery may be washed from our garments as a nation–if necessary with blood” (12-7-1859). Both brothers volunteered to fight a war in a country to which they were relatively recent arrivals, and Noah Huckins joined Company C of the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the so-called Monroe Rifles. This company was formed by one hundred Oberlin College students and named after Oberlin professor and noted abolitionist James Monroe.
This post is already far too long. I will discuss the complete history of The American House in a later installment.