A Quaker Cannon
Written by Ned Lodwick, President, Brown County Historical Society
“Life along the Border”
Brown County was one of the many counties that lined the border between North and South. The border put opposite sides of the war at very close distances. Brown County was only the width of the Ohio River away from Kentucky, a slave state with strong southern ties.
Before the war Ohioans and Kentuckians were constantly at odds. Slave owners and their supporters lived next door to abolitionists in Northern Kentucky and though slavery was not legal in Ohio the controversy was as hot or hotter in Brown County. There is no way to know exactly what percentages of people were on each side of the struggle but we know it was more than a war of words.
Today’s peaceful Brown County was anything but peaceful before the Civil War. Vigilantes of both sides rode the county’s roads at night. Neither side was safe from reprisals. People were beaten and whipped. Houses, barns, schools, and churches were entered without warrants in search of runaway slaves, and some were burned.
The abolitionists of Brown County were well known throughout the movement nationally as well as locally. Rev. John Rankin and John Parker of Ripley both carried a $1,000 reward on their heads from Kentucky slave owners for their capture or death.
The title ‘Underground Railroad’ was coined in Ripley in 1831 when runaway slave, Tice Davids, swan across the Ohio River on his search for freedom. His owner in a boat a short distance behind him landed at the Ripley wharf and was amazed to find that Tice
had disappeared among the cellars, attics, and alleys. Tice’s owner later told his friends that it was like Tice had boarded an ‘Underground Railroad’.
The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made the division between the two sides even wider. Now anyone that helped a slave escape could be held responsible for the slave’s value. Only a few times did such a case come to court but one involved a Brown Countian. His name was Bishop. It was not his first name or his last name, it was just Bishop. He was born a slave in Kentucky and hated it with all his soul. Sometime around 1854 he ran from his master, swam the Ohio River, and walked to Decatur where he derided to stay.
His master had trained him as a blacksmith which he disliked but now he loved the skill for it not only made him free but also self supported. One day his master rode into town and Bishop had to run. And run he did. He ran as fast as he could to the north into the corn fields. He could hear his master and his friends close behind him and getting closer. As he thought all was lost he ran into Sam Kirkpatrick picking corn. Sam unhitched his lead horse and Bishop rode to freedom but Sam was sued under the Fugitive Slave law and lost his farm for helping Bishop. A heavy price but many Brown County residents took the risk for the freedom of their fellow man.
John Mahan was the minister of the Sardinia Presbyterian Church and an integral part of the Underground Railroad. In 1838 he was charged with helping slaves escape by the Mason County Kentucky Sheriff. He was taken to Kentucky, a slave state, tried and found innocent. He was then charged with the same crime by the Brown County Sheriff and was arrested and taken to Georgetown and tried in a free state. In a trial that drew spectators and reporters from over a hundred miles, Mahan was found guilty. He was sentenced to ten days in jail. He served it in chains in the dungeon of the Brown County Jail fed only bread and water. He was released after his ten days but never regained his strength and died for his belief that all men were created equal.
Ohio was a Free State but not freedom for a runaway or sometimes not even for a freed slave. Slave hunters from Brown County and Kentucky roamed the county in search of bounties. Eliza Jane Johnson lived in the Gist Settlement east of Sardinia for three years with her husband, Gabriel, and her five children. One day a slave hunter took her from her home, beat her, and took her to Washington, Kentucky, for a reward. There, her supposed owner said she was not his runaway after all but now in Kentucky she was assumed to be someone’s slave so she could he kept one year and if not claimed could be sold and Mason County would receive the money. A year passed and Eliza was legally sold back into slavery never to be heard from again.
The fight on the border went on for years before the war. It went back and forth between friend, neighbor, and family. It flared up at times and cooled down at others.
When the South fired on Fort Sumter much of the bickering ended and the fire of patriotism swept away everything except the hope of saving the Union.
The busy river town of Levanna spent a day erecting a tall flag pole and running a large 34-Star U.S. Flag to the top of it. They were so proud of their work that they took the ferry across the river to Dover, Kentucky and asked Dover to repeat their actions. The men of Dover refused and the men of Levanna said that by tomorrow they wanted to see ‘Old Glory’ or else.
At sunrise the next day no flag was to he seen in Dover but beside Levanna’s flag was a very large cannon aimed directly at the center of Dover. A flurry of activity began in Dover and in a few hours the ‘Star- Spangled Banner’ was fluttery over Dover. The following day a group of men from Dover rode the ferry to Levanna and found the artillery piece they feared was only a ‘Quaker Gun’, a large painted log and two wagon wheels, thus ending the “Battle of Dover”.
For more information about life on the border and the Underground Railroad in Brown County see Ann Hagadorn’s book, “Beyond the River”.