When many people think of the Underground Railroad used in the decades before and during the American Civil War, they think of the famous conducted Harriet Tubman helping escaping African Americans from the deep south reach the safety of the northeastern states.
While the northeastern states played a vital role, often the role of Western Virginia goes overlooked, which is a shame because residents of Wayne County have much to learn and appreciate about the abolitionists in the area.
When the state of Virginia voted on secession(the breaking away from the Federal Union) in the spring of 1861 the eastern counties overwhelmingly voted to follow the rest of the south into the Confederate States of America, but the western counties were a different story altogether. The eastern counties were full of the slavocracy, the upper class of southern society that owned large plantations and benefitted greatly from the enslavement of African Americans.
Obviously, not everyone in the eastern counties owned slaves, but the politicians and the people in power were the driving force behind the vote for secession. This division in sentiment played a significant role in many people in the western counties deciding to take part in the Underground Railroad, the loose collection of safe houses and people who helped slaves escape to the north.
The most important stop on the Underground Railroad for Wayne Countians is the Ramsdell House in Ceredo.
Local lore has it that there is a subterranean tunnel connecting the backyard of the Ramsdell House to the bank of the Ohio River a few hundred yards behind the house. Escaping slaves would be directed to the Ramsdell House and other safehouses along the Ohio River, and there the slaves would be fed, clothed and given a place to sleep. The escaping slaves would wait until the perfect conditions existed, most notably a frozen Ohio River in the winter, and a full moon to make their move.
Quaker Bottom, Ohio, named for the pacifist religious sect that played a significant role in abolitionism was the first stop of freedom, today that town is known as Proctorville. Multiple conductors worked the Ohio River area in from the 1840s until the end of the war to do their part in righting the unbelievable wrong of human bondage.
The history of Wayne County abolitionists deserve celebrating and notice, it’s essential we understand the role our area played in divided Virginia.
Thanks to the West Virginia Encyclopedia for the source material for this article.