Eliza Crosses the River at Ripley
Written by Ned Lodwick, U.S. Grant Homestead Association
“Where did the Civil War Begin?”
Most people think that the Civil War began in Charleston, South Carolina when the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, some contest it was in Columbia when South Carolina succeeded from the Union, and others argue it was in Montgomery, Alabama when the Confederate government was formed. At least one man, President Abraham Lincoln, thought it began in Rev. John Rankin’s parlor when Harriet Beecher Stowe heard the story of Elisa crossing the Ohio River to freedom.
Miss Stowe was living in Cincinnati and came to Ripley to visit her friends the Rankins. One night while they all sat in the Rankin’s small parlor Reverend Rankin told the story of Eliza Harris. The story began one cold night the week before Christmas, 1837. The Rankin’s were awakened in the middle of the right by a black man and women. The couple were escaped slaves on their way to Canada. The man had fallen into the icy Ohio and was nearly frozen. The woman, named Eliza told her husband to go on but she would return to free her children.
Eliza was the property of Thomas Davis of Dover, Kentucky. He was not happy that Eliza’s husband had escaped and feared she would try to run again so he arranged to sell her "down the river". Eliza had six children and wanted to take them all to Canada. The February night before she was to be sold she grabbed her youngest child, only an infant, and ran to the Ohio again. She had heard that the river was completely frozen, but when she reached the river the ice had broken into thousands of moving ice flows. Eliza could hear the dogs on her trail and knew she had reached the point of no return. She wrapped her child in a shawl and tied him on her back. She took a rail from a fence for balance and stepped onto the ice flow.
She jumped from one ice flow to the next. Several times she nearly fell into the deadly river but each time regained her balance and moved closer to the Ohio bank. The slave chasers watched Eliza from the southern shore and Chance Shaw watched from the northern shore. Shaw was a notorious slave catcher and this woman would bring him $500 dollars. All he had to do was reach out when she reached the Ohio shore. He kept out of sight and watched Eliza’s amazing progress. Finally, she was only inches away from Ohio but slipped again and was surely going into the water when Shaw reached out for her. All Eliza saw was a hand and took it. The man’s strong grip lifted her and her child to dry ground but also into the clutches of a slaver. Shaw looked at the woman, thought a moment of her desperate escape, and then said, “Surely you have won your freedom tonight.”
Moments later the two runways were up the steps to Liberty Hill and in the Rankin’s care. Eliza and her baby were sent North via Greenfield and Sandusky and in a few weeks had rejoined her husband in Canada.
Eliza had told the Rankins that she would return to free the rest of her family. In June she returned dressed as a man. She again crossed the river and returned to Dover. This time she didn’t show herself until her oldest daughter saw her hiding in a clump of bushes. Eliza had all of the children bundle up their clothes and be ready to leave that night. The little group trudged along the eleven mile route to the river crossing. The smaller children wore out and had to be carried by Eliza and the older children. The progress was slow and the troup didn’t reach the river until dawn.
The Rankins could see the events across the river and didn’t like what they saw. Eliza and the children had found a safe house to hide in but dozens of men and dogs were searching for them. The Reverend and his sons took boats across the river and drew the slave hunters upstream and away from Eliza. Once the slavers were gone, Eliza and her children went downstream to another set of boats and freedom.
For two weeks the pressure was so high around the Rankin’s house that Eliza couldn’t be moved. Finally the family was hidden in a loaded wagon of flour and bran. After a few weeks the entire Harris family was reunited in Canada where they lived as freemen the rest of their lives.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s visit in Ripley lasted three months and she used her time researching other stories of slavery. When she returned to Cincinnati she wrote a short novel in 1852 that she called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”. The book sold over two million copies in the first ten years, second only to the Bible. It brought the horrors of slavery to more of the public than any previous publication.
During the war Harriet Beecher Stowe was introduced to President Lincoln at the White House. He took her hand and said, “So this is the little lady that wrote the book that started this big war!” Now you know the story and I will leave it up to you to decide where the Civil War began.