History of the Underground Railroad in Madison County


By Stephen Jackson | For The Times-Post

By Stephen Jackson | For The Times-Post

Several years ago, I attended an Indiana County Historian Round Table meeting at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis.

It is an annual meeting designed to provide Indiana’s county historians with information that will allow them to conduct their assignments better. Information is available in several formats, one of which is lectures by persons well-versed in the subject matter.

One lecture involved the Underground Railroad activity in Indiana. The presenter used an Indiana map displaying the counties with known routes followed by the enslaved people as they passed through our state on their way to freedom either in the North or, for some, in Canada.

She displayed the routes showing the counties where the documented activity occurred. Every county that touches Madison County: Hancock, Hamilton, Tipton, Grant, Delaware and Henry displayed dots that pinpointed recorded activity, with lines connecting the dots to show the routes traveled through that county graphically.

To my amazement, Madison County was utterly blank.

During a break, I asked the presenter why Madison County was blank. The answer, no verified activity has been found.

I found that extremely hard to believe, actually impossible, considering there is documented activity in all of our surrounding counties.

From that moment, I wanted to find something that proved there was Underground Railroad activity in Madison County. But, before continuing, a little background is necessary.

There have been people unhappy with slavery from the beginning, especially those people enslaved.

Many ran away to escape captivity, but that does not imply it was a simple matter. When you ran, you never knew who would help or capture you. Unescorted enslaved people found the topography hostile and wild animals looking to make them a meal. You had to run at night and rest what you could during the day.

Eventually, a system was developed by sympathetic people to move enslaved people to freedom. We know this system to be the Underground Railroad.

The term is vague, and no one knows precisely where it originated. It simply meant how enslaved people found help and freedom from slavery.

The Underground Railroad is not a railroad, a road or a specific route. It’s more of a group of unrelated people with the single cause of helping free enslaved people. We call houses where food and shelter could be available “stations;” those who went south to find potential enslaved people “pilots;” those who guided enslaved people “conductors,” and the enslaved people were called “passengers.”

The Underground Railroad did not include tunnels, hidden rooms or secret passages. It was composed of human beings who allowed enslaved people into their homes and offered what assistance they could. People did not talk about their participation or keep records of their work. This type of information sharing could quickly get them arrested. Hence, it is so difficult to find evidence of activity.

In 1850, The Fugitive Slave Law was passed, which made it easier to capture runaway enslaved people and punish those who helped. If an enslaved person was caught, all the enslaver had to do was testify that the person was enslaved. The enslaved person could not testify in their defense.

With that explanation, the Madison County story continues.

The following information comes from the writings of Chester A. Garretson, a rural Pendleton resident, who wrote of his grandfather Joel Garretson’s experiences. Here was the credible evidence for which I had been searching.

In 1852, two neighboring farmers, Edward Roberts and Joel Garretson, who lived four miles east of Pendleton, drove their herds of hogs to the market at Cincinnati. While there, they met and talked with several men who were sympathizers in the anti-slavery movement. They were moved by the stories of enslaved people crossing the Ohio River into Indiana, where they received help from farmers who could hide them by day in secret hideouts such as haymows and house attics. Also moving was the ever-present reality that the enslaver could follow, capture the runaway, and take them back, which was entirely lawful.

The only real hope of freedom the enslaved person had was to make it to Canada, where they became free men and could not be claimed by their masters.

After returning home, Roberts and Garretson made plans to help a slave couple and their two children, who they had learned were on their way from Richmond, Indiana, to points north via the Underground Railroad.

A false bottom was constructed for their box-bed wagon. When the family of enslaved people arrived at the appointed time and place a few miles east of Pendleton, they were quickly loaded into the secret compartment of the wagon, which was covered with loose hay and sacks of corn and wheat, which were to be taken to a grist mill at Wabash.

It was pretty typical for farmers to haul wheat and corn to Wabash to have it milled into flour and meal, so the wagon, with its hidden passengers, continued to that city where arrangements were made for the enslaved people to be transported north by other conductors towards their final goal of freedom.

Two other names, not mentioned in Chester Garretson’s account, have surfaced as people who acted as conductors during the pre-Civil War era east of Pendleton. Their names were John Boston and Charles Jacobs. Was there a connection between the four? The answer is yes.

One of the earliest and best plat maps of Fall Creek Township is dated 1876 — a plat map shows, among other things, who lived where at that time.

In the southeastern section of the township can be found the symbol for an improved road that enters Madison County from neighboring Hancock County to the south and continues north to Anderson. This road has had several names over the years. One was the Madison and Hancock Pike, and the other was the Warrington Road. Near Anderson, it is called Main Street Road.

It was along or very near this old road that all four family names from this story appear as property owners, and probably not by coincidence. A short distance north of the properties, the old road enters an area of Fall Creek Township known as Spring Valley.

In this same Spring Valley area, the injured Frederick Douglass was nursed back to health by the Society of Friends, the Quakers, after being attacked by a mob of protesters during his speech in 1843 at Pendleton.

Joel Garretson, Charles Jacobs and Edward Roberts rest in Fall Creek/Spring Valley Friends Cemetery today.

Generally speaking, Quakers rejected the legitimacy of slavery — it was not simply wrong, slavery was illegitimate, and no Federal law could make it right.

Fortunately, for those runaway enslaved people who made it to Madison County, there were those such as the four mentioned and countless unnamed others in the county who cared enough to risk their freedom so that others less fortunate could taste and enjoy that same freedom.

Stephen Jackson is Madison County Historian.