Underground Railroad - Journey to Freedom Was Risky for Slaves and Guides

by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.

More on the African-American experience in Waterford
Nest of Abolitionists—19th Century Quakers in Lincoln, Virginia

Map of the underground railway in the Northern Virginia Piedmont

Map of the underground railway in the Northern Virginia Piedmont

Each year, I encounter people who have just moved into an old house and have been told that it was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, which was neither underground nor a railroad but instead an informal clandestine network of people who helped slaves escape by guiding them north to freedom.

From about 1817 to 1861, as many as 100,000 slaves fled bondage through the Underground Railroad, and hundreds of them passed through Fauquier and Loudoun counties, often en route to Pennsylvania, just 30 miles from Loudoun. There, abolitionist Quakers welcomed the fugitives, and, after 1847, a state law prohibited enforcement of federal fugitive slave laws.
The federal laws, which mandated return of slaves to their masters and prison sentences and fines for those abetting escapes, dated to 1793 and 1850. But several northern states either did not enforce the laws or enacted their own personal liberty laws to thwart them.

Give such legal uncertainties, many slaves continued their trek to Canada, which in 1826 enacted a law prohibiting return of escaped slaves to their masters.

At least four U.S. communities claim to have coined the term "Underground Railroad." Among them is Ripley, Tenn., where Tice Davids, a fugitive slave, crossed the Mississippi River and couldn't be found. His master said, "He must have gone on an underground road." 

The term "railroad" did not come into popular parlance until real railroads became common in the late 1840s. Such euphemisms as "conductors," who helped "passengers" travel from one "station" to another, first made their way into print several years after Congress repealed fugitive slave laws in June 1864.

Books written after the Civil War name at least 20 slaves who escaped from Loudoun and Fauquier with help from others, but none name the abettors. As the helpers were often neighbors of the slave owners, only the owners' accusations abound.

John Gott, a historian of upper Fauquier, told me recently of two neighbors who lived near present-day Atoka. When several of Ludwell Lake's slaves ran away from Lakeland, he implied that Joshua Hoge, a Quaker who lived at adjoining Woodland (recently Atoka Farm, former home of Sen. John W. Warner), had been "doing an awful lot of traveling to Ohio," as Gott put it.

"Hoge denied having taken Lake's slaves with him," Gott told me, "but people had very little to do with the Hoges. They went all the way to fellowship at the Goose Creek Friends meeting at Waterford," 20 miles from Woodland.

Gott said a close relative of the Hoges, Robert Bashaw, who lived near Fauquier Springs, also was accused "of being a slave runner -- helping slaves to escape." Gott remembers seeing this sentence in an estate settlement: "Nobody liked Bashaw."

Samuel Ellzey, of the Leesburg area, wrote in his reminiscences that a free Negro, "the ferryman at Edwards' Ferry, on the Potomac was the underground agent of these organized thieves . . . and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal [bordering the Potomac in Maryland] was a part of the route which received, on certain boats, fugitives brought over by the ferryman."

Samuel M. Janney, a Quaker educator and historian, recently was identified as a possible Underground Railroad conductor by his great-nephew, the late Werner Janney. As a teenager, Werner Janney lived near Lincoln at Springdale, Samuel Janney's home and school for girls, built in 1832.

Werner Janney told a Washington Post reporter in 1991 that wainscoting covered a hole in the wall near the dining-room fireplace. The hole led to a cavity that opened into a toolshed with an outside entrance.

Nancy Fones, who opened the Springdale Country Inn at the house in 1989 with her husband, Roger, told me that the compartment is still there.

However, Lincoln's Arlene Janney, Werner Janney's sister-in-law, asserts that "Samuel Janney was always on the side of the law" and doubts his involvement in the Underground Railroad. She told me that she had read his 1881 memoir "word by word" and that there is not one inkling of activity relating to escaped slaves.

If Werner Janney's supposition that his great-uncle harbored escapees were true, slaves would not have been hidden in a home. Searchers for fugitives did not enter buildings but often had dogs, and slaves were directed to outbuildings, where the smell of livestock and fodder would mask their presence.

Yardley Taylor, a Quaker mapmaker, historian and nurseryman who lived at Evergreen, near Lincoln, was the one Loudouner known to have been accused of abetting slaves while the Underground Railroad was operating.

A July 1857 broadside -- the signature was torn away when I last saw it -- referred to Goose Creek, now Lincoln, as the center of Loudoun's Underground Railroad and accused Taylor of leading a group of Quakers into Fauquier for the purpose of liberating slaves. "Presumably," my old notes say, "he stopped at Joshua Hoge's." The writer of the broadside called Taylor's activities "Monstrous! Monstrous!"

The accusation, though unproved, could have been damning, for the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Act was strictly enforced in Virginia, and Taylor was then an employee of the U.S. government, carrying the mail by horseback from Leesburg to Purcellville.

Though there are several accounts of slaves who escaped through Loudoun and Fauquier, the runaways never mention help from the Underground Railroad south of the Potomac River. The accounts, however, sometimes indicate escape routes, the main ones traversing the east slopes of the Catoctin and Bull Run mountains, Short Hill Mountain and the Blue Ridge. Springs and natural rock formations proliferated along these forested heights, almost devoid of habitation.

Where these ridges dipped into the Potomac, small islets dotted the river crossings. In 1841, after hiding at the top of Catoctin Mountain, escaped slave Charles Bentley and a companion described their fording: "We tied our provisions into bundles on our backs, and started for Potomac River -- whether to wade it, swim it, or get drowned, we knew not. We waded and we swam, changing ground as the water deepened."

Fugitive slaves from farther south in Virginia often came through Culpeper County, where there were friendly havens in settlements of free blacks at "The Free State" north of the Rapidan River and at Black Hill, west of Jeffersonton and a few miles from the Fauquier line.

Culpeper's Chinquapin Neck, the isthmus separating the Rapidan and Rappahannock rivers, also was an ideal area to trek through because it was wooded and sparsely populated. Rocky fords across the Rappahannock led to similar backcountry regions of lower Fauquier.

Slaves then made their way north via the east slope of Bull Run Mountain, probably helped by freed Virginia blacks who had been emancipated by various state laws dating from 1785. These blacks subsisted on the mountainside. Escapees were then not far from Negro Mountain, northeast of Aldie. Negro Mountain, Loudoun's largest community of free blacks, was less than a day's journey to the Potomac River.

A free black, Leonard Grimes, a hackney driver in the District of Columbia, engineered an astounding escape of seven slaves owned by Joseph Mead, a prosperous planter who lived at Meadowbrook, south of Leesburg. Grimes accomplished this feat not through the backcountry but down the county's well-traveled Leesburg Turnpike, today's Route 7, in late October 1839.

One credible witness, Ann Farr, proprietress of the old Dranesville Hotel and store, gave a deposition read during Grimes's trial in Leesburg. According to the deposition, "Leonard Grimes and his hack had been accustomed, whenever he passed that road, to stop at her [Farr's] husband's house," the Dranesville Hotel, a few miles east of the Loudoun County line in Fairfax County.

On the day the slaves were first missed, Farr's deposition noted, "between twilight and candlelight the said hack approached her house along the turnpike . . . she supposed it would stop as usual, and she immediately called for candles to be taken into the front room; but the said hack passed up on the turnpike without stopping.

"It passed close by where she stood, and looking intently to see how many passengers it contained, she distinctly saw the head of a person, with a hat on, through the small side light in the curtain of the barouche; she thinks the curtain over the door of the carriage was let down; she immediately concluded that the reason why the hack did not stop at her house was that the person who had engaged it preferred going to Mr. Gunnell's a mile further up the road."

Based strictly on this circumstantial evidence and the fact that Grimes's hackney was never again seen in Virginia, Grimes received a two-year penitentiary sentence and a $100 fine -- "the smallest penalty chosen in consequence of the former good character of the Prisoner," noted the Leesburg newspaper, The Genius of Liberty. After serving his two years, Grimes left for Boston and became pastor of 12th Baptist Church, known as "The Fugitives' Church."

Mead's seven escaped slaves -- whose value was placed at more than $5,000, the equivalent of $100,000 today -- succeeded in reaching Canada.

Copyright © Eugene Scheel