By: Raymond Greiner
The Macintyre’s descended from Scottish wealth and immigrated to the United States. They acquired eight hundred acres of prime agricultural land in Alabama in the early nineteenth century and built a luxurious plantation house. Laborers were purchased from slave traders who commandeered Native Africans and crammed them into holds of ships and transported to America to be sold into a lifetime of bondage. The Macintyre’s owned one hundred slaves. Slave labor was a necessity to harvest cotton crops. During this period of early American Anglo civil structure southern states were economically dependent on agriculture whereas northern states combined industry with agriculture without reliance on slave labor. Northern farms typically occupied less acreage and family provided labor needs. These distinct social formats conflicted, as northern ideology regarded slavery as cruel and immoral.
Christianity was the prominent religion in both northern and southern cultures; although, southern Christians viewed commandeered African slaves as inferior beings and were disallowed basic human rights. Routine daily functions were monitored and controlled. Slave quarters were squalid and plantation owners applied minimal effort toward comfort and quality of life. This was a dismal time in American history.
The slave master, William McClellan, was a gruesome man without compassion using threat and intimidation as methods to manage slaves. McClellan often mercilessly beat slaves for minor infractions or fabricated reasons. Slave owners during this historic time were unrestricted by local laws and if a slave died of injuries caused from beatings criminal charges were not levied.
Northern legislators attempted to pass anti slavery laws. The South aggressively resisted this effort. Abraham Lincoln’s election as president formed a tipping point, as he had spoken against slavery since he was a young lawyer in Illinois. Southern leaders felt their established culture was being threatened, which eventually led to the formation of its own government and secession from the Union, also as a maneuver to avoid Union imposed taxation. Jefferson Davis was elected president of the United Southern States and the new southern government established its own military.
McClellan, the evil-minded slave master, frequently beat the slave Eli Johnson often without merit as a method to display dominance. Eli’s wife, Mable, was a valuable contributor as cook and housekeeper for the Macintyre’s and highly respected among family members. McClellan’s frequent beating of Mable’s husband was unsettling to the Macintyre’s. Mable was literate, adding an important asset forming a higher bond with the family, as most slaves were illiterate.
Eli and Mable had a ten-year-old son, Joseph. Each evening Mable read passages from the bible to Eli, Joseph and a few other slaves who became fascinated by biblical guidelines. Mable began teaching Joseph how to read and write when he was six years old.
Mable was distraught, as she observed Eli suffer. Victimized by such cruelty haunted the family, and caused confusion and dismay.
One evening Eli told Mable he wanted them as a family to escape to northern states where slavery is unlawful. This is a dangerous ambition, as they will be hunted like wild animals using bloodhounds and men on horseback to retrieve them. It was a frightful plan.
Eli said, “It’s a long journey. We’ll travel at night foraging for food. Ripley, Ohio will be our destination. We must cross the Ohio River from Kentucky. In Ripley lives a Presbyterian minister who rescues escaped slaves and guides them to a better life. He’s a wanted man by southern slave owners, who imposed a ten thousand dollar reward on this minister dead or alive. He has assisted many escaped slaves.”
The plan was established, and on a moonlit night the family moved with stealth into the darkness of the surrounding forest. Their plan was to travel north to gain as much distance as possible from the plantation before their absence is discovered. The bright Moon was a blessing like a guiding beacon leading them from the anguish of oppression.
As the dim morning light improved visibility they continued without rest aware soon a search party will be dispatched. Eli carried Joseph on difficult trail sections and Mable tagged silently along. Their head start was good, and if they kept moving it may allow a clean escaped. Eli periodically chose creek bed trails wading water to destroy their scent, as they knew bloodhounds would be used as trackers to retrieve them. Eli led his family a long distance up one creek then climbed a steep rocky hill and down the other side to another creek transiting this creek to discover a trail north. They came across a patch of blackberries and feasted on these berries to gain energy. Fatigue descended, and the fugitive family slept for a time in the shade of a large oak tree.
They traveled many days without hearing search dogs avoiding any contact knowing typical white southerners would suspect them as runaway slaves and report their presence. They were unaware of their location, but moved steadily north knowing the Ohio River would eventually appear to identify a waypoint.
Eli carried a knife and snare line to trap rabbits as part of their survival plan. They built small fires to avoid detection and cooked rabbit meat on a fabricated spit. Slave life hardened these three, which was advantageous for survival during the challenge of this difficult passage.
After nearly a month trekking north they felt a need to know their location. They observed a nearby town and Eli used wooded cover to approach this town in an attempt to identity its location. An elderly black man was driving a wagon pulled by a mule and headed in the direction of the town. Eli waved the man down, and the old man stopped.
The old man said, “Where’re you headed? Are you an escaped slave?”
Eli hesitated, and then said, “Yes, I escaped from an Alabama plantation with my wife and son, and we’re trying to get to Ripley, Ohio to gain freedom. Where exactly are we?”
The old man said, “You’re just inside the Kentucky border and have a ways to go yet. I’ve been a slave my entire life and often dreamed of escape, but this area is dangerous for travel as a black man. You must avoid contact with white folks they’re aware traveling blacks are likely runaways and have a reward attached. Keep bearing east, and when you get to the Ohio River you’ll be somewhere near Ripley. When you arrive at the river try to contact another slave for directions they all know Ripley.
“The man you’re looking for is John Rankin. He’s a Presbyterian minister and he and his two sons have relocated over a thousand escaped slaves using the Underground Railroad established by abolitionists.”
Eli thanked the old man, and the family continued north traveling during darkness. Eli had learned to swim in a local creek as a child. Mable and Joseph could not swim.
They arrived at the Ohio River in an isolated section with no town in sight. They bathed in the river and slept during daylight hours. Eli reconnoitered east walking along the moonlit bank of the river. He noticed a lantern on a protruding rock where an elderly black woman was fishing. He approached her, and said, “Hello, are you having any luck?”
The old woman answered, “I’ve a stringer full of catfish. I come here each night to fish. I’m a slave on a farm just south of the river, lived here since I was a child. Are you a runaway?”
Eli answered, “Yes, my wife and son are waiting upriver. We’re trying to get to Ripley, Ohio. We escaped from a plantation in Alabama and seeking a better life.”
The woman displayed a slight smile and said, “I’ve heard many deep south plantations treat slaves horribly with frequent beatings. My farm family never beats slaves, but we have poor living conditions. I’m too old to be a runaway, but I surely would escape if I were younger.”
She then pulled a cord from her pocket and attached three catfish and handed them to Eli. “These catfish are delicious. You can feed your family fish tonight. Ripley is about two miles downriver. You’ll see the town easily. Wait until nightfall and look across the river and you’ll see a house high on the riverbank with a lantern hanging from a flagpole. This is the Rankin home. Swim the river and go to this house. The Rankin’s will welcome you and instruct you on the next phase of your escape.”
The next day Eli and his family followed along the riverbank toward Ripley. They located the town and hid among the trees to wait until nightfall. After darkness descended Eli quickly identified the Rankin home with the lantern shining brightly. It was a warm night, as Eli slipped quietly into the water and swam the river toward the light of hope.
Eli was weary and worn from travel in tattered clothing. His family had been on the run for months in a constant state of fear of being captured. They had no shoes, taken from them during warm months by their owners assuming this would discourage escape. Slave’s feet were heavily callused and during summer they were unhindered in movement, as were their African ancestors. As Eli stood at the Rankin’s doorway an odd emotion over came him. He knocked on the door and a tall, young man answered.
No sudden conversation was necessary. The young man was Rankin’s oldest son, James. He beckoned to Eli to enter, and then asked, “How long have you been on the run?”
Eli said, “About three months. I escaped from a plantation in Alabama. My wife Mable and son Joseph are on the Kentucky side hiding near the riverbank they neither know how to swim.”
“What’s your name?” James asked.
Eli responded, “Eli Johnson”.
James said, “My father’s at church meeting with deacons. I’ll row you across the river to retrieve your family. We’ll leave immediately.”
James led Eli down the riverbank to a dock with a large rowboat sitting on top of the dock. The two men launched the boat and Eli pointed in the direction where Mable and Joseph were hiding.
As they approached the bank the two appeared, as they observed the boat and sensed it was Eli returning.
James and Eli pulled the boat onto the riverbank and Mable and Joseph climbed aboard. The two men pushed the boat into the water and the refugees were one mile from freedom.
The family walked up the riverbank to the Rankin home and James took them into the house.
The reverend John Rankin and his wife Mildred greeted them. John said, “Welcome, you’re safe here. Tonight you’ll sleep at our home and tomorrow we’ll take you to the Church basement where there’s a safe facility for you to stay until we arrange the next phase of your escape.”
Mildred heated bath water, and one by one the escaped slaves bathed and the Rankin’s gave each family member clothes and shoes acquired from donations. It seemed like a miracle to Eli and Mable. They had never experienced such kindness from white people.
While the slave family bathed and exchanged their rags for clean clothing Mildred and John prepared a fine meal for their houseguests.
The next morning James led the newly freed Johnson family to the church’s living quarters where they will reside until Rankin’s group arranges their next step toward freedom and independence.
A Central Ohio Amish farmer had contacted Rankin to offer an opportunity for an escaped slave family to live and work with his family on their farm. The Amish community would construct them a home of their own. Two weeks passed and a carriage arrived driven by the Amish farmer Harold Whitaker to transport the Johnson’s to an Amish settlement to begin a new life. Miracles continued, and Eli, Mable and Joseph were in disbelief at the contrast in northern and southern cultures regarding displaced Africans and the north’s rejection of slavery. The Johnsons moved into the Whitaker’s spare room.
The Whitaker’s used mules for plowing. Eli was familiar with handling horses and mules and this enhanced his worth attached to Amish farm life. Corn was the primary crop at the Whitaker farm.
As promised the entire Amish community united and erected a small house for the Johnsons, with a front porch in the shade of three large maple trees. Twenty-five men worked together and women prepared meals during the three-day erection of this small, comfortable home. It’s an Amish tradition, also used in barn erections. Eli and Mable worked with the Amish and Joseph made friends with Amish children present.
The Johnsons also attended Amish Christian services on Sundays held at selected homes and Amish men gave sermons. Whitakers allowed the Johnsons to use the freight wagon and mule team to attend Sunday service. The Johnsons were overwhelmed by Amish kindness and compassion.
Mable continued evening bible readings. Their lives had redirected beyond prediction.
The country was on the cusp of civil war and the southern states were in a celebratory mood anticipating war. Churches opened to praise and bless the looming conflict, and euphoria was ubiquitous as southern leadership was determined to maintain their traditional culture attached economically to slave labor.
Conflicts erupted into bloody battles killing thousands of Union and Confederate troops. A contingency of Ohio Union volunteers mustered a brigade of Calvary and infantry troops to invade Confederate strongholds scattered throughout the south.
The Johnson’s felt blessed to escape slavery as news emerged of turmoil with death and destruction.
The McNeil farm was adjacent to the Whitaker farm and the McNeil’s were long time friends of the Whitaker’s. The McNeil’s were not Amish, but they hired a rescued slave who has lived with them for years. His name was Jeremiah, a skilled and versatile farmhand. He also cooked for the family. The Union Army conscripted Jeremiah as a supply wagon driver and rear echelon camp cook and assigned to assist camp set up and relocation.
Jeremiah visited the Johnson’s on occasion and they discussed their slavery days.
Jeremiah spoke, “The army suggests I hire a young camp helper. I’d like for you to consider allowing Joseph to fill this position. We won’t be near conflicts, a few miles in rear echelon locations. He’ll carry water, set up and take down tents and help with cooking chores. They’ll pay him ten dollars a month. I’ll take care to watch over him. What do you think of this?”
Mable said, “He’s fourteen now, and capable since he’s been working here with us on the farm. We’ll worry about him, but the experience would be invaluable in several ways. I’m in agreement.”
Eli also agreed, and Joseph was overly excited anticipating the adventure.
So, the Ohio Regiment moved south with a mission to destroy Confederate forces they encounter. Joseph rode on a supply wagon driven by Jeremiah. They transited a shallow ford to cross the Ohio River entering Kentucky and continued south. Reconnaissance teams reported entrenched Confederate forces were near the Tennessee border and an attack was planned. Joseph worked with Jeremiah and Union soldiers to establish a rear echelon command encampment to allow officers a base to plan strategy. The recon unit captured a Confederate spy and lashed him to a tree with a guard assigned. The spy was not wearing a Confederate uniform, and was captured while spying on the Union encampment.
Joseph was in disbelief, as he immediately recognized the spy. It was William McClellan the slave master from Macintyre plantation. Joseph’s memory flashed visions of this hateful man unmercifully beating his father with a leather whip, and this memory caused nausea.
One of Joseph’s chores was to carry water for troops. He was carrying two buckets from a creek near the camp and as he filled the water storage tank three officers were seated adjacent to this tank and Joseph overheard their conversation. They were discussing the execution of the spy by firing squad tomorrow, as to not be burdened with him when they moved south.
Joseph’s mother had given him writing paper and envelopes to encourage him to write her. Late that night under the cover of darkness Joseph crept near where McClellan was bound to the tree. The guard was a distance away sitting on a log sound asleep snoring loudly. Joseph approached the tree from behind where McClellan was bound and whispered to him, “They plan to execute you tomorrow.”
Joseph then cut his bindings and motioned McClellan in the direction of the woods. As they entered the wooded cover he handed McClellan an envelope.
Joseph said, “Inside is a letter explaining everything, and a ten dollar bill to help you escape.” McClellan was dumbfounded.
Joseph then disappeared into the woods.
McClellan traveled south. In the early morning light he read Joseph’s letter.
“Mr. McClellan, you don’t remember me, but I remember you. I am Joseph Johnson, the son of Eli and Mable Johnson. We were slaves on the Macintyre plantation where you were the slave master. We escaped, as you know, and are now living in Ohio on an Amish farm and have discovered a new and better life directed by abolitionist John Rankin.
“During our enslavement you frequently beat my father and I hated you with a passion and wanted to kill you. I assume you remain evil aligning with a horrid belief in human slavery.
“When we became settled in our new life my mother corresponded with Mrs. Macintyre. Mrs. Macintyre responded and she was joyful we found freedom, as she felt guilt because of your cruelty. They’ve been corresponding regularly over the years.
“A recent letter from Mrs. Macintyre told the sad story of how rouge Union troops burned their plantation house, and also their cotton crop. They beat Mr. Macintyre causing him to become incapacitated. They now live in the old slave quarters and forage for food. The plantation’s slaves ran off.
“The reason I freed you is to request you to return to Alabama and assist the Macintyre’s in any manner you are able.
“I remain with a sense of hatred toward you, as I visualize how you unjustly and brutally beat my father and other slaves. Jesus taught love, compassion and forgiveness, and His teachings influenced me to forgive your evil-mindedness.
“I’m assigned to assist the Union army with their encampment and after this senseless war ends I’ll return to the Amish farm and resume my life as a freed slave.
“I suggest you read the Holy Scriptures and attempt find salvation. I wish you well on your return journey. Sincerely, Joseph Johnson”
Joseph could not sleep, as he contemplated his life. Questions without answers occupied his thoughts. “How can southern whites justify slavery? How can they profess to be Christians, attend church, pray and worship Christ’s teachings yet imprison innocent black people claiming ownership, viewing them as inferior beings? What causes war’s mass killing and hatred in a quest to gain dominance?”
Joseph’s questions remained unanswered and it was a joyful day when Jeremiah and Joseph return to the life God delivered to them. Mable and Eli prepared a celebration meal inviting the Whitakers and the McNeil’s, and they dined on their porch under the shade of surrounding maple trees. Mr. Whitaker said a prayer, and the camaraderie of this moment in time is seldom experienced to such a grand level as this day revealed. The portal to Joseph’s future opened a bit wider on this glorious day and the presence of love penetrated those attending.