The Story of John Rhoads by A. F. Shirts -1824 - 1905 (transcribed as it appears in Primitive History Of Hamilton County, Ind - 1901) Story written just 58 years after it happened.
**Note: The history recorded by Mr. Shirts was done so in a time before political correctness. We transcribed portions of his work so that the reader may experience it as it was described from 1st and 2nd hand accounts, in authenticity of mood and reflections of its time in history. We honor all those who wove the fabric of this nation's greatness and hope you will celebrate with us by respecting all groups and their contributions to bring us to who we are today through their sacrifice and endurance.
The Underground Railway was the name given to the route over which the friends of slaves spirited these poor, oppressed people from the land of the slaveholder to the land of the free, the destination being, for the most part, in the Dominion of Canada. These friends of the slave gave their time, money and best thoughts to this humane but, at that time, illegal enterprise, many of them risking their lives and liberty in this cause. They engaged in this work without hope of reward other than that of the consciousness that they had helped some poor soul escape from the lash of the cruel task-master to the land where he could enjoy the fruits of his own labor and to a land where there was no more separation of families at the auction block. Hamilton County bears the distinction and the proud honor of being the home of several depots, or stations for on or more lines of these Underground Railways.
Referring to the life of George Boxley, as given in this work, it will be seen that the system of Underground Railway had its origin in the slave States. And, referring to our State Constitution and the laws passed pursuant thereto, it will also be observed that all persons in this State participating in the business of concealing or in any way aiding slaves in their efforts to escape from slavery took great risks upon themselves. But, notwithstanding this fact, many noble men and women in this county did render valuable aid to slaves who were making their escape from bondage. The late Hon. Fred Douglas, in his day one of the most eloquent men in our country, was once a slave and was brought to Westfield by means of the underground railway system on his way to freedom, and remained over night at the home of Ephraim Stout.
But while there were many good men in our county who gave assistance to run-away slaves, perhaps a very large majority of our people not only opposed any such aid to the slave, but were just as strongly opposed to the slave himself. This was shown in many ways. At one time Fred Douglas was advertised to speak in Noblesville, but when th time came for him to speak he was met by a mob that was determined that he should not speak, and his friends were obliged to spirit him away to preserve him from injury. Not far from the same time Douglas was billed to speak at Pendleton, and on that occasion he was actually mobbed and egged, and many men from this county participated in that disgraceful affair. But in the course of a few years the sentiment had wonderfully changed; for after the war he spoke in Noblesville to a very large and enthusiastic audience, all of whom seemed to be glad to do honor to this great orator.
In 1837 John Rhoads and wife Louan, and one child, all colored, were taken to the home of Joseph Bailey, west of Deming, in the night time, in a closely covered wagon, where they were to remain in hiding for a few days for the purpose of resting, when it was expected to proceed on their journey to Canada. At this time John and Louan were slaves and had been toiled from year to year, day in and day out for their lord and master, and frequently received brutal chastisement from a brutal overseer for trivial and possibly no offense whatever. Some have claimed that they were born in Kentucky, but be that as it may, their early lives were probably spent in the cotton and tobacco fields of Missouri.
Just why or how it happened I do not know, but from some reason John and Louan, who had become husband and wife and to who had been born one child, were taken by their master into the state of Illinois for the purpose of working them as slaves upon the prairies of that State. They remained here, just how long I do not remember, working for their master, but it was for a longer time than six months, when the slave owner began to hear it whispered around that John and Louan had lived in a free State long enough to entitle them, by law, to their freedom. He then concluded that it was time for him to remove his human property from that free into a slave State, and this he did. He purchased a place in Missouri and to his plantation he took John and Louan. John had heard of Canada, and while he was in the great free State of Illinois, he also had heard of people that were called abolitionist and of the underground railway, and it is possible that he and his wife had talked over these matters frequently and may be some of their conversations had been overheard by their master. John and Louan were ever on the alert. A stranger from one of the slave States farther south did not do much talking around their master's house without behind heard by these intelligent, liberty-loving slaves, and their watchfulness was at the last rewarded. In one of these 'overheard' conversations they learned that Louan was to be sold to a southern planter and separated from her husband and child. It was then that they began to review all that they had learned of Canada and the underground railway, and it was not long until they began to devise ways to test the worth to the slave of this peculiar railway.
One who had never been a slave could not imagine the feelings of John Rhoads and his wife when they learned that she was to be sold like a dumb brute and separated from her husband and child. Although filled with grave apprehensions and fear, they did not despair. Carefully concealing and suppressing their grief and fears in the presence of the slave dealer and their master, they at once decided upon a desperate effort at escape, and with this idea in their minds they at once began thinking of the possibility, or rather plausibility, of an attempt at escape. They were in a slave State, and among those ready at any moment, should they attempt to escape, to pursue and capture them dead or alive. Unfortunately, also for them, John was at this time quite lame from an accident, but he was nevertheless, strong and active. They at once began making preparations. John secured a saw, an ax and a hammer and paced them into a small bundle. John was to take charge of these and Louan was to take charge of the little boy. Thus prepared they stole out into the darkness from their little cabin i their race for liberty. They had traveled over a road from Illinois to their master's plantation in Missouri, and of course had some knowledge of the country through which they could pass, provided they should take the same route, and this they decided to do.
They left their cabin as early as possible in the evening and traveled all night, and about morning of the next day, providentially, as it appeared to them, came to the very large swamp. They entered into this swamp and by accident or otherwise, found a place where they could lie down and rest during the day. They were not disturbed during this day, and at nightfall they again resumed their journey, continuing in the same direction in which they started. They traveled as far as they could on this second night and about the break of day found another safe hiding place, and of this they availed themselves for another day's rest, but before another night passed they were in a world of trouble.
As soon as the master discovered that John and his family had left, he knew they were on a runaway trip, but he did not know the course they had taken, and neither did he know their objective point. And after quite an amount of inquiry and search without becoming any the wiser, he resorted to the blood-hound theory which he proceeded to put into practice. The hounds were finally secured and placed upon the tracks of the runaways. It has been said that future events sometimes cast their shadows beforehand. Be this as it may, John Rhoads was much disturbed in his sleep on this last night, for he had what called a vision. In his sleep he saw two fugitive slaves with a child fleeing from a brutal slave-owner and his hounds. He had the feelings of a husband and father that this awful scene meant that they might be torn to pieces by the savage blood-hounds, or that what was worse, family ties broken, himself sent to one portion of the Gulf States and his wife to another, and still his little boy to another where there was incessant toil with nothing but despair and unrequited service for unfeeling and inhuman task-masters. John awoke in excitement. It was near nightfall. They hastily partook of the little remnant of food they had taken with them, emerged from their hiding place and again began their journey. They continued traveling in this way, sleeping and resting in the daytime and traveling at night, and all the time subsisting upon corn, potatoes and such things as they could gather without being seen. They were conscious most of the time a that they were being pursued by hounds, and this was the case; but they managed in some way to throw them off their trail. At last they came to the Mississippi River, and John at once began the construction of a raft. This rude boat was made from logs and poles cut from the banks of the river. These were tied together with hickory bark and pliant saplings. At last all was ready. He cut a good pole for a paddle, placed the tools upon the raft with which it had been constructed, and after he, his wife and child had placed themselves upon this rude craft, John pushed for the opposite shore on the Illinois side. When about one third of the way over his pursuers, with their dogs reached the banks of the river, and they hastily prepared a raft, but before they could get it ready John and his family were safely on the opposite shore. They reached the shore at a point where no one lived and started for the interior of the country as fast as they could go, and before their pursuers could get their raft ready and had crossed to the Illinois side, John was far beyond them. The pursuers, however, did not give up the chase, but began hunting the trail, and offered large rewards for their capture, and advertised extensively for information. By these means they were able to learn the direction the fugitives took and at last found their trail. John, in the meantime, was going on his way for liberty as fast as he could travel, but at last he was caught and he and his family were placed in jail to await the procurement of the proper papers to enable him to remove slaves out of a free State back into a slave State.
The reflections of these poor people were anything but pleasant, for if this effort to escape should result in nothing but a return to slavery, their lot would be all the worse for having made the effort. But the news of their capture flew like 'wild-fire' and as there were abolitionists in that section of the State, John's help was much nearer than he supposed. Meetings were held by these abolitionists and resolutions were adopted looking to the rescue of these liberty-loving people. Communications were on opened up with John, and this resulted in a plan for the release of him and his little family. The time was fixed for the rescue, and so perfectly had all been planned that John and Louan and their child were taken from the jail and placed up the underground railway. by this means they were spirited across the State of Illinois into Indiana, and finally into Hamilton County, landing as before stated at the home of Joseph Bailey, near the little town of Deming. John's pursuers had lost trace of him as completely as if he had been drowned in the river and they finally returned to the State of Missouri.
John's purpose was to go on to Canada, but his many friends around Deming prevailed upon him to remain there, assuring him that he could never be taken from there, so the counsel of his friends prevailed. He and his family were almost worn out and almost starved, but after resting a while they entered upon the career as a freemen. Some one furnished them a home and this neighbor gave them one thing and that one some something else, until they were prepared to go to house keeping and to work. They found plenty of work which they performed willingly and well. At last John purchased a little patch of ground upon which he built a cabin and lived in his own home, but he slept as it were with one eye open. No window was ever placed in this cabin and there was but one door. John never did feel absolutely secure. He always had an ax at the head of his bed. He feared that under the laws as they were he might yet be captured and taken back into slavery, and as after events proved, he had ample reason for harboring such fears.
A man by the name of Mr. Vaughn claimed to be the owner and master of the Rhoads family, and he was that followed them closely with his human hunters and blood-hounds. The slave name of John Rhoads was Sam Burk. On account of this assumed name it made it all the harder for Vaughn to get any trace of his former slaves, and the way he finally obtained information concerning them illustrates how an innocent remark may, at times, do an innocent party much wrong, or cause him a great deal of trouble.
A kind-hearted old Christian gentleman by the name of Abel Gibson moved from near Mooresville, Morgan County, this State to Adams Township, this county and learned of the history of the Rhoads family, and after ward, when making a visit back to his former home in Morgan County, stopped over night on his way with an acquaintance, near Bridgeport, by the name of Merritt, and to this man he innocently related the story of the Rhoads family up to that date. This man Merritt afterward moved to Missouri and by chance, located near the Vaughn plantation and became a neighbor of Mr. Vaughn. Vaughn related his story of the loss of his former slaves to Mr. Merritt, and Merritt revealed the whereabouts of that unfortunate family and came all the way with the slave hunter to Indiana to help capture them. Merritt visited his old friend Abel Gibson and pretended to want to see John Rhoads for the purpose of buying fur of him, and so learned the way to his house. He called at the Rhoads cabin and while pretending to talk business, examined the house inside and out, and learned all the approaches, and on that very night lead the slave hunters to the cabin. Before that night, however, the slave hunters procured proper papers from Squire Tyson a Justice of the Peace at Strawtown, which would enable him to place the Rhoads family under arrest. So, with Merritt as a guide, and with proper officer, the slave hunting party proceeded to the home of John Rhoads in the time time. John, as usual, had securely fastened the door and had his ax standing at the head of the bed. As stated before, the cabin was purposely built without a window, so the only way to get in was either through the door or chimney. At last when the forces were properly distributed around the cabin and all was ready, Rhoads was called upon to surrender himself and his family and peaceably go with his old master back to Missouri, but this John emphatically refused to do. John had lived here a number of years by this time and his family had increased in size, and while preparations were going on the outside, preparations were also going on the inside of the house. John and his faithful wife hastily made a sort of breastworks out of the little furniture they had for the protection of their children, and then John took his station at the door with his ax and his wife at the fireplace, which had ordinary pioneer stick chimney. Louan kept up a fire in the fireplace to prevent them climbing down the chimney. An assault, however, was made upon the chimney and door at the same time. The door resisted the first assault, but the clay and stick chimney soon gave way of the fireplace, but Louan stood there with a long stick of hard burnt clay in each hand, declaring her intention of killing the first man who undertook to enter the cabin, and John and his trusty ax did not look at all inviting at the door. Since all had refused to obey orders, Vaughn concluded to make the attempt himself, but no sooner did he undertake it than Louan knocked him down with a lump of clay which sent him sprawling quite a little distance from the chimney opening, and still Louan stood at her post as defiant as ever, inviting the next one to make an attempt to enter, but the next one did not care about having Vaughn's experience. John and Louan, in the meantime, had called loudly for help and Owen Williams and Jesse Baker were the first to respond, but they were halted by the slave hunting party and officers who were well supplied with arms. Joseph Baker next arrived, and the men ordered him to assist them in making the arrest, but this he refused to do, and made for the door of the cabin which john opened for him. John and Louan had made a gallant fight, indeed, but they were largely outnumbered and began to despair, but Joseph Baker's appearance gave them new courage and they were again ready for the fight. Owen Williams and Jesse Baker soon spread the news, and it was not long until the people from Deming and Westfireld heard of this attempted arrest and were upon the scene. John Rhoads' friends by this time outnumbered his enemies and they demanded to know wht Vaughn's intentions were toward the colored family, and he said that he wanted to take them before a magistrate so thathe might legally identify them. This resorted in a srot of parley and it was suggested that he had worked his former slaves in a free State long enough to entitle them to their freedom; but John's friends finally suggested that the family be taken to Westfield, saying they would let that be done if he would agree to it. This was agreed upon, or at least Rhoads' friends accepted upon that under standing, and the entire party - slaves, masters and all - were taken to the home of Martin Anthony for breakfast. After procuring a team and wagon the Rhoads family was loaded into the wagon and a start was made for Westfield, as the friends of Rhoads supposed, the friends of the family remaining with the party. But Vaughn was determined that the wagon should be driven toward Noblesville, and threatened to shoot any man who attempted to drive toward Westfield with Rhoads family. This place of partly was at the cross roads near what is known as No. 1 school house in Washington Township. At that place the Lafayette diagonal road leading toward Noblesville was crossed by another diagonal road, leading in a southwesternly direction toward Westfireld. When the Missourian made his threat a man by the name of Emsley Wade said, "Drive on, I'll catch the shot," and at the same time held out his hands as though he was in the act of trying to catch a ball. Vaughn and his men had placed themselves in front of the team, but a young man by the name of Daniel F. Jones, then of Westfield, sprang into the wagon, seized the reins, which for the former driver only too gladly gave up, ordered the men to get out of the sway, told them to shoot if they dared, gave the spirited horses a sharp cut with the whip and turned toward Westfield. The horses sprang forward so suddenly that the tongue of the wagon struck the horse of the one of the officers, hurling him out of the road and at the same time disarmed him. Jones started toward Westfield in a lively trot and had to drive near the old Dismal Swamp that all the old settlers in this part of the country know about. Jones looked steadily ahead, attending strictly to his driving and while doing so his passengers spilled out through the cracks of the wagon bed and Jones drove on to Westfield with his empty wagon. Vaughn and his party, seeing they were out generaled as well as outnumbered, turned toward Noblesville soon after Jones had distanced them in his drive toward Westfield. Vaughn employed lawyers and began suit against those who ad assisted in the escape of his former slaves. A long, protracted trial followed (a change of venue having been taken to Marion County), which resulted in a finding that John Rhoads and family, having been worked in a free State for a period of six months and over, were entitled to their freedom. This trial cost the defendants about $600 in attorney's fees and much loss of time, but they have saved this poor family from separation one form the other and from being again doomed to the condition of slavery.
The first night after John Rhoads and family had 'spilled' out of the wagon, they were taken to a haystack, belonging to Robert Tomlinson, where they remained till morning. Early the next morning Riley Moon brought them across the Dismal Swamp, wet as they could be, to the home of Lindley, where they were provided with food and dry clothing. They were thenconcealed in a large piece of timber near the Lindley home for the day and at night brought to the house again, where they were provided with a warm meal. They remained concealed in the woods and the 'swamp' until it was safe for them to emerge again from hiding, and after the trial they settled on a piece of land in the northern part of the county belonging to Lindley, where John resumed his old occupation of doing good days work. There lived, undisturbed as to slavery, until death claimed him and his brave and faithful Louan for his own.