Overview In the early 1800s, the founders of the Hopewell Church left South Carolina because of their passionate opposition to slavery. They settled in Israel township and formed the Hopewell Church in 1808.
Cathy Nelson, Founder of the Friends of Freedom Society, and John Ittel
In honoring their values, the members of the church forbid people from joining unless they freed their slaves. For instance, one man who sold his slaves in the South attempted to join the church. He was told by the members of Hopewell that he would not be allowed to join unless he freed the slaves he sold. The man traveled back to South Carolina where be bought back the slaves, then traveled with them to Ohio where he freed them and built them homes. He was then allowed to join the church as were the free black families.
In 1826 the Hopewell members made it a mission to convince church hierarchy to condemn slavery. The first minister of the church, Reverend Porter, was a leader in traveling to other towns to advocate for abolition.
The members of the Historic Hopewell Church not only spoke against slavery; they took action. Members of the Hopewell Church risked financial penalties, imprisonment, and their lives to help those traveling on the Underground Railroad.
The Bunker Hill House in Fairhaven where Hopewell member Gabriel Smith hid runaway slaves.
Many members of the Hopewell Church were conductors on the railroad, guiding slaves to freedom. A nearby creek, Four Mile Creek, was a well-used route on the railroad. One conductor and member of the Hopewell Church who faced even greater risks was Gabriel Smith, or 'Old Gabe.' Smith was a free black man, and former slave, who was freed in Ohio in the 1830s. He lived in the Bunker Hill House in Fairhaven, now an Ohio Historical Marker, and hid slaves in the closet under the stairway of the house.
Because of the courage of the Hopewell congregation, many slaves were able to escape to freedom and that is why the church is recognized as a National Landmark and as an Ohio Historical site today.
Bicentennial Speech on the Underground Railroad & Hopewell Church A Comprehensive Recounting
Walter Mast presenting the Bicentennial Speech
Written and Presented by Walter Mast, July 12th, 2008, reprinted here in its entirety This Hopewell church is special! It is special because this fine old building on this peaceful country road stands as a silent witness to bygone days, to a quieter time, to a time when nothing traveled faster than a horse, not people, not merchandise, not news, not even ideas.
One can almost see the line of buggies slowly winding their way up these roads on a Sunday morning, the horses trotting along with bells jingling, the people all dressed in their Sunday finery. This old church probably looks today as much as they did nearly two centuries ago. It is the only addition of tombstones in the cemetery that marks the passing of time. But this old church is most special because the people who founded it were special. They were special because they took a stand against slavery and did what they could to end what was legal in this country, but which they knew was wrong. The Underground Railroad has been shrouded in mystery since its inception, so it is sometimes difficult to tell facts from fiction. The information I will share today is published in what I believe to be reliable documents:
The first source of information is Levi Coffin's autobiography. Coffin was known as the President of the Underground Railroad. He moved from North Carolina to Fountain City Indiana, about 20 miles north of Richmond in 1826. He lived there a little over 20 years and eventually moved to Cincinnati in 1847.
The second source of data was published by Wilbur Seibart, a renowned Ohio State University history professor for over 40 years. He started documenting details of the Underground Railroad in Ohio and published several books on his findings.
The third source of information are the "History of Preble County" books published in 1881 and 1915.
Based upon these sources, there is little doubt this Hopewell congregation was adamantly against slavery. They were so strongly against slavery that they abandoned their homes in the south. They traveled by horse and wagon on a 500 mile odyssey across endless hills and valleys and streams to start anew in the wilderness in the non-slave state of Ohio. They would not let anyone join this church unless they freed their slaves. One man who sold slaves in the south attempted to join the church. He was told he could not become a member of the church. He then traveled by horse to South Carolina, bought back his slaves, traveled with them to Ohio where he freed them and built them homes on his property. He was then allowed to join the church.
Starting in 1826, this Hopewell Church repeatedly sent to the church hierarchy a number of resolutions condemning slavery. Despite their repeated efforts, their church did not take a stand against slavery. Reverend Porter, the first minister of this church and a dominant figure not only among his parishioners, but in the community and in the state, even traveled to Chillicothe to meet with the church hierarchy and convince them to renounce slavery. The trip was to no avail. When all else failed, members of this congregation defied the laws of the land and became conductors on the Underground Railroad. They risked financial ruin, imprisonment, and probably even their lives, so that others could be free.
The duration and extent of the Underground Railroad operation through this area is unknown and probably unknowable. Levi Coffin documented that fugitives were already moving through the area in 1826 when he moved to Fountain City. Given that slavery and thus the need for the Underground Railroad ended with the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Underground Railroad operated in the area for over 40 years.It has been estimated that 100,000 slaves ran away from the south and that 40,000 of those runaways escaped through Ohio. Professor Seibert documented that Levi Coffin forwarded over three thousand runaways over the Ohio and Indiana lines.
There is little doubt that one of the principal Underground Railroad routes to Canada passed through Morning Sun and Fairhaven. There are four historical documents confirming this route.
The first document is In Levi Coffin's autobiography. In it he wrote "Three principle lines of the Underground Railroad converged at my house: one from Cincinnati, one from Madison and one from Jeffersonville, Indiana. The roads were always in running order, the conductors active and zealous, and there was no lack of passengers."
The second document was a map prepared in 1848 by Lewis Falley. The map identified three main routes of the Underground Railroad through Indiana and Western Ohio. The Cincinnati route of the Underground Railroad that traveled north from Cincinnati to Hamilton, then northwest along State route 177 through Morning Sun and Fairhaven to Richmond and on to Fountain City.
The third document is a detailed map showing Ohio Underground Railroad routes prepared by Professor Seibert in 1898. This map confirms the route from Hamilton to Darrtown to Morning Sun and Fairhaven. It also identified another main route from Hamilton to West Elkton to Morning Sun and Fairhaven.
The fourth document is the "History of Preble County" published in 1881. It states: "Levi Coffin, president of the Underground Railroad, had one branch of his road through Israel Township. Whenever the colored refugees reached College Hill, near Cincinnati, they were sure to go Canada via the Israel Township route."
There is also little doubt members of the Hopewell Church were conductors on the Underground Railroad. The "History of Preble County" published in 1881 identifies Ebenezer Elliott, Nathan Brown, and Gabriel Smith as conductors on the Underground Railroad. Professor Seibert confirmed that Gabriel Smith, Nathan Brown, and Ebenezer Elliott were conductors, as well as Ebenezer's son, Hugh. All were members of the Hopewell Church.
There were also several Underground Railroad stations in the area where the slaves were hidden. The Elliott's farm, just south of Morning Sun road, had a bank barn on the property. In the bank of the barn is a secret concrete bunker where the slaves were hidden. Gabriel Smith lived in a Bunker Hill House in Fairhaven. The slaves were hidden in the cellar under the summer kitchen and in the attic behind the second floor servant's quarters. This Bunker Hill House has been a designated both an Ohio and National Underground Railroad site.
Several Underground Railroad incidents have been documented in the area:
From Professor Siebert, "A party of runaway was overtaken by a rider on the pike out of Oxford. He intended to lead their master to them and followed them until they entered the house of 'Old Gabe' Smith, a colored character living in Fairhaven. While the rider contentedly bided his time, 'Old Gabe' let the pilgrims out through a back window and ran them through a cornfield and woods into Indiana."
In a documented letter from A.T. Maddock in 1894 to Professor Seibert says, "The road started in Cincinnati, went through College Hill and thence to West Elkton where my father was a station keeper. From there the next stop was near Fairhaven where a man by the name of Brown as the agent. The rain arrived at Mr. Brown's about 10 or 11 o'clock at night. A gentle rap on the door was the password. Brown always knew the knocks. He would hitch up and continue the journey the same night. "
In a letter from Nathan Brown's son to Professor Seibert states, "Nathan Brown settled on land about a mile northwest of Morning Sun. He embraced the doctrines of the 'Abolitionists' which demanded the immediate and unconditional emancipation of slaves in the southern states. A society was formed upon that basis of which he was secretary. Slaves from the south appeared among the abolitionists without previous concert or arrangement, were taken care of and forwarded to others farther north. Over this many companies were conveyed and none were ever retaken, though often pursued by bands of Kentuckians full of wrath (and whiskey). The fugitives were generally concealed by day and conveyed to the next station by night in covered wagons."
A letter from J.S. Faris of Morning Sun to Professor Seibert states: “Near Morning Sun, a man by the name of Hugh Elliott was a rabid abolitionist. An old neighbor had seen him in the morning after finding all things right, would call and the blacks would come out of the corn and get their breakfast.”
In "The History of Preble County" published in 1915 relates another story: "Near Morning Sun one evening, two or three runaways landed and were put away. Next morning, a man rode up at great speed and notified the man that a party was coming that day from Hamilton searching for runaways. A young man immediately shouldered his rifle, and with the Negroes disappeared in the hills of Hopewell Creek. In about two hours, the hunters came with their dog, and started on the trail. After going a half mile, the hunters met the young man coming back carrying a couple of squirrels. When the young man saw the dog, he surmised its purpose and promptly shot it, pretending that he was afraid and thought it was after him. The Negroes thus escaped."
These Hopewell Church members took tremendous risks on the Underground Railroad. For instance, Levi Coffin wrote that he often received anonymous letter warning him that his business and home would be burned to the ground. He also wrote that slave hunters threatened to kill him and a reward was offered for his death. He simply stated that, "The word was its own reward."
Professor Seibert wrote that John Van Zandt, an alley of Coffin, was caught in Cincinnati conveying nine fugitives in his market wagon. After a 5-year battle, including the U.S. Supreme Court, Van Zandt lost his legal fight and, as a result, lost his farm, spent time in jail, was barred from his church and died within a year of the legal decision.
The Bunker Hill House Ohio Historical Marker
Gabriel Smith took even greater risks. Being black and a former slave, he faced the risk of being captured and resold into slavery. He was born a lowly slave in the Maryland in 1803 and somehow ended up a free man in Ohio in the 1830's. He played music for dances in the Bunker Hill House ballroom, was a music teacher, a saddler by trade, and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He has been alternately described as the "fiddler of the county" and "known all over the country." However, despite his renown, when he died and where he is buried are known but to God.
Of course, the conductor's risk paled in comparison to the perils faced by the runaways. For instance, the runaways left behind family and friends, probably never to see them again. They left behind all their worldly possessions, meager as they might be. They abandoned the only life they had ever known to journey through the unknown lands to live in a county they had never visited. They traveled in the dark of night not knowing where they would find food and shelter. They were aided by people they did not know, yet with whom they entrusted their life. They were often pursued by slave hunters and sometimes chased by slave hunter's dogs.
In short, they risked everything including their lives to be free. There was no easy path from slavery to freedom. But thanks to the people like the founders of this Hopewell Church, at least there was a path to freedom, albeit a difficult one.