Returned to slavery: Tale of Marietta woman shows conflicts of the time
Despite the best intentions of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, life in Ohio for African Americans in the early decades of the territory and statehood could be perilous.
Law at the time lacked the clarity and development of being tested in courts and in the arena of public policy, and the stories of some who escaped slavery by crossing the Ohio River had bitter endings.
The story of the woman known to history only as Jane was set down in a book by Marietta author and historian Henry Burke and co-author Dick Croy, became the subject of play produced in 2000 and is the subject of several accounts in historical documents.
Jane is first mentioned as a slave of the Tomlinson family in what was then Brooke County, Virginia, and is now the community of Wellsburg on the West Virginia northern panhandle. She was arrested in 1808 on a charge of theft – accused of taking $4 of goods from a merchant, for whom by one account she had done work but not been paid. She was convicted on Oct. 22, 1808, and sentenced to death by hanging. The sentence shocked the community and came to the attention of the governor, who used a legal provision enacted a few years previously to order Jane resold as a slave rather than being executed.
However, before word of that decision reached Charlestown, her jailer left the door to her cell open – by one account, he was paid to do so by townspeople — and on Nov. 9, she walked out. Jane made her way downriver and across to Marietta, settled in, married a free black man and had a child.
Her freedom lasted less than two years.
As Stephen Middleton writes in The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio, “The severe penalty imposed on Jane for a relatively petty theft was typical of Virginia, where merely the fear of recalcitrant slaves led to stringent laws and harsh penalties … In this atmosphere, many slaves who had committed only minor infractions suffered grave punishments.”
In late 1809 Jacob Beeson, a fugitive slave hunter from Virginia, took note of Jane while in Marietta and, concluding that she was an escaped slave, sought unsuccessfully to apprehend Jane and her child. Beeson then sought a warrant from Virginia Gov. John Tyler – who would later become president – which was issued by Tyler. Beeson served the warrant on Abner Lord in Marietta, but Lord and a group of neighbors, slavery opponents which included Rufus Putnam, refused to comply.
Beeson sought the assistance of Ohio Gov. Samuel Huntington to carry out the warrant, but Marietta citizens sent Huntington correspondence urging him to resist. Huntington, caught in legal tension between the Northwest Ordinance, which outlawed slavery in Ohio, and the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, elected to decline assistance to Virginia, reasoning that Ohio was under no obligation to enforce the federal law.
Tyler, not wanting to go to the mat on the fugitive slave law, then issued a request that Jane be returned to Virginia by Beeson as a fugitive from justice under her conviction for theft, and Huntington reluctantly complied, directing police in Marietta to deliver Jane and her family to Beeson’s custody.
On May 21, 1810, she was returned to Virginia, and at that point she and her family vanish from historical documentation, her surname unknown, after less than two years of freedom. Historians assume she was sold back into slavery, as one put it: “It is reasonable to assume that they lived out their lives in bondage.”
Tyler, who was reportedly furious with Tomlinson, Jane’s owner, for having accepted government compensation of $350 for her loss to the gallows and then not repaid it, directed Beeson to sell the family and reimburse the state government $500.
Beeson at that point also disappears from history. Tyler went on to run with William Henry Harrison and was elected vice president, then became the 10th president of the U.S. when Harrison died after only a month in office. He holds the record for the longest term of anyone who became president without being elected to the office, and his opponents in Congress gave him the nickname “His Accidency.” He later presided over the opening of the Confederate Succession Convention in 1861.
Washington County historian Jean Yost said Jane’s case highlights the tensions of the times, between legal concepts and moral convictions.
“It does illustrate attitudes,” he said. “When you look at the fact the ordinance in 1787 laid it out, that there would be no slavery here, it wasn’t perfect.”
Many of the black people who settled the area early on were veterans of the Revolutionary War and clearly freed people, but the Fugitive Slave Act complicated matters for those who escaped slavery to settle in the area, especially with the near proximity of slave-holding Virginia, which in those days was just across the river.
“Wood County, for example, locked up some people from Washington County because they helped the escape of a group of slaves, but they kept postponing the trial because they knew they would lose in federal court,” Yost said. “There were a lot of cases that went back and forth, and people on both sides of the river knew how to get around the law. It made it hard on people who were helping on this side of the river.”
If not for the theft charge, Jane might well have remained in Marietta. Yost said there are numerous examples of former slaves migrating from the south and staying undisturbed in Washington County rather than journeying northward to Canada.
“For example, after the Blennerhassetts left, the man who was one of the slaves on the island moved across the river and lived out a long life in Waterford,” he said. “He lived among everyone there, it wasn’t a big deal for them. The neighborhood protected the people who lived there.”
And if not for a $4 allegation of theft, the case of Jane might have had a very different ending.
•Oct. 22, 1808 – Jane is found guilty of theft ($4 in goods) and condemned to death in Charlestown, Virginia (now Wellsburg, W.Va., in Brooke County).
•Nov. 9, 1808 – The jailer leaves the door to her cell open, and Jane escapes.
•Nov. 11, 1808 – Jane arrives in Marietta and finds employment with Abner Lord.
•Late 1809 – Jane is seen by fugitive slave hunter Jacob Beeson.
•February-April 1810 – Jane is the subject of correspondence between the governors of Virginia and Ohio.
•May 21, 1810 – An arrest warrant is granted for Jane on the original charge of theft.
•June 1810 – Beeson is given warrant by the governor of Virginia to sell Jane back into slavery.
Sources: Ohio History Central, annual report of the American Historical Association, 1893, courtesy of Linda Showalter, Marietta College Legacy Library Special Collections.
Black History Month at Marietta College
•What: Q&A with Shirlethia Franklin.
•When: 6 p.m. Monday.
•Where: McDonough Auditorium.
•About: Franklin’s experience as deputy chief of staff and counselor for the attorney general in the Barack Obama administration, and the evolution of her career as a woman of color from Mississippi.
Source: Marietta College.