Uncovering the history

The details of Mt. Healthy’s participation in the Underground Railroad have become obscured over the years.  We still want to know: Who were the people involved? What were their stories?

Silence was necessary during the active abolition years, when aiding the enslaved to escape bondage was a felony crime, and could invite death or physical injury at the hands of pro-slavery mobs. Secrecy was needed to protect the freedom seekers themselves in their journeys. In the aftermath of the Civil War, stories were shared about those who worked in the cause, and repeated from generation to generation.

After the Civil War, people wanted to be on the right side of history. By the 1880s, when Wilbur Siebert was collecting his thousands of testimonials from people across the country about the Underground Railroad, there was an element of glamour about that dangerous clandestine work. That was the era when people could look back with gratitude upon the work of abolitionists, who were so despised during their time. Levi Coffin, President of the Underground Railroad, wrote his memoirs in the 1880s.

Those who were close to the abolition years, the children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews of the abolitionists, and sometimes their neighbors, told the first stories. Later generations accepted the stories at face value and repeated them, handing them down to their children in turn. The next generations who passed along the stories did not bother with primary source documents for proof; they believed the oral histories.

Many stories have simply been lost to history, carried to the grave by those who died without telling them. We are lucky when there is a story, for perhaps there is a grain of truth embedded within. Perhaps though at the core is a fabrication by someone who wished to retroactively bring honor to their ancestor.

Now, in the 21st century, we have legend and lore, and a lot of historical uncertainty. We look for clues in the historical documents, trying to get closer to the truth. One rule of thumb in historical research is that if two independent sources give the same story or the same information, it is reasonable to treat it as potentially credible evidence. Or if independent sources have circumstantial evidence that support each other, then that provides some credibility.

Following are some of the Mt. Healthy residents who may have been connected with the Underground Railroad, along with the stories told about them, and some of the evidence that is being uncovered now. The process of discovering anew continues.

Karen Arnett, February 2014

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