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Born A Slave, Died Free--Freed Randolph Slaves' Journey From Virginia to Ohio

The Journey Begins

(This is one of a series of articles that I am writing about the 1800's group of freed African-Americans called the "Randolph Slaves." I first became interested in their plight when my husband and I discovered a small cemetery on the outskirts of Piqua, Ohio. It was in an area that was once known as Rossville, where some of the Randolph slaves had settled. This cemetery was the final resting place of 134 freed slaves and their families. On several of the now-replaced headstones was the caption "Born a Slave, Died Free", which I decided to title this series, in their honor.)

On June 10, 1846, a wagon train pulled out from Charlotte County, Virginia for the long arduous journey to the free state of Ohio. Led by a wagon master named Cardwell, each of the sixteen wagons were pulled by four horses, and carried all of the belongings of 383 former slaves, their ages ranging from a young infant, to a woman know as "Granny Hannah", who was believed to be over 100 years old.

While filled with the joy of being free and being able to make their own choices and decisions, they also realized that their future was going to be fraught with challenges. Because, although Ohio was a free state, the prejudice towards people of a different color was still rife within its borders.
The following is an account of the struggles and travails of a group of African-Americans known in history as the Randolph slaves.

John Randolph of Roanoke Plantation Virginia

John Randolph of Roanoke Plantation Virginia


The Death of John Randolph of Roanoke

In 1833, politician and statesman John Randolph of Roanoke(Plantation), Charlotte County, Virginia, died, leaving behind a substantial estate, including a vast plantation and the 400 slaves it took to take care of it. In his will, he had left his land and wealth to family and close friends, but to his slaves, he left their freedom.

Randolph wrote three wills during his lifetime; in 1819, 1821, and 1832. The first two were similar, and specified that his slaves were to be manumitted(freed). The third, which he wrote while in ill health--physically and mentally-- expressed the desire to have all of his slaves sold. But on his deathbed, he recanted his last will in front of witnesses.

Claiming Randolph was not in his right mind at his death, his brother contested the will, dragging it through the courts for 13 long years. In the end, the courts decided against the brother, and thus began the next chapter in the lives of the now 383 freed men, women and children of the Randolph plantation.

Randolph's close friend and cousin, William Leigh, was appointed the task of purchasing land and making all of the necessary arrangements for the freed Randolph slaves. Leigh traveled to Mercer County in western Ohio, where he arranged to buy 3,200 acres of fertile land, at the cost of $6,000. While there, he contracted with an attorney named Joseph Plunkett to arrange for the building of shelter and the procuring of provisions needed for the settlements of the Randolph slaves once they arrived.

John Randolph of Roanoke

From Virginia to Ohio

Subsequently, the now freed slaves, filled with trepidation for what may lie ahead, but also with jubilation at the thought of being free after waiting 13 long years, set off on their pilgrimage to Ohio. The first 500 miles were formidable, as the wagon train had to travel through Virginia and West Virginia, crossing the Lynchburg and Greenbriar Rivers, Sewel Mountain, and then go around the Kanawha Falls. After following the Kanawha River to Charleston, West Virginia, they boarded a steamer, taking it to the Ohio River and down to Cincinnati, Ohio.

For the next leg of their journey, the Randolph slaves had to walk through Cincinnati, right up Main Street, treating all of the locals to a spectacular sight. This was mentioned in the July 1, 1846 edition of the Cincinnati Daily Chronicle, in which a reporter described as a:

"singular scene--one which never before occurred here, and may never occur again. In front of our office and occupying the center of the street for half a square, was a crowd of Negroes, men, women and children, like a drove of sheep coming to market. They were dressed in coarse cottons, apparently comfortable in bodily circumstances, and walked along from the river to the canal."

At the Miami & Erie Canal, the party boarded canal barges to travel north for the 100 mile trip to Mercer County. Along the way, they met small pockets of resistance in Miami County from folks in the towns of Tippecanoe(now Tipp City), Troy, and in Piqua where the town marshal denied them permission to disembark so they could get water. He claimed it was because of a "water shortage" at the time, and forced them to keep moving up the canal. They traveled just a little farther, to the north of Piqua, where kindhearted folks near the Johnston Farm area invited them to come and to help themselves to water from their spring.

View of present day locks in New Bremen, Ohio

View of present day locks in New Bremen, Ohio

Close up of locks and canal in New Bremen, Ohio

Close up of locks and canal in New Bremen, Ohio

State of Ohio Historical Marker about the Miami & Erie Canal

State of Ohio Historical Marker about the Miami & Erie Canal

Present day sign, showing the location of Rossville and Jackson Cemetery in Piqua, Ohio

Present day sign, showing the location of Rossville and Jackson Cemetery in Piqua, Ohio

Arriving in Mercer County, Ohio

As they continued on, they crossed into Shelby County, passing through the locks of the canal in small towns along the way--Lockfort(now Lockington), then in Berlin(now Fort Loramie), where again they were not permitted to stop and get off the barges.

By this time they had met enough opposition that they approached their final canal port stop in Mercer County, at Bremen(now New Bremen) with apprehension. They had also discovered that word of their imminent arrival had spread throughout the whole state. And although the residents of Bremen and the surrounding area had known well in advance that the freed Randolph slaves were arriving, since many of them had sold the land to William Leigh, and took the money to construct buildings and purchase supplies, they were not happy to see them.

So when the Randolph party docked at the Bremen locks, a large crowd of residents--mostly German immigrants--were waiting. Stories differ here as to what actually happened, but the most common story told is that the Randolph party was permitted to land and disembark for the night, upon protest. The residents had either already had a meeting, or had one immediately afterwards(stories vary here) to discuss the situation.

That evening, residents returned to the Randolph camp, surrounding them. Some stories say they were armed with guns and bayonets, some do not mention any arms at all. Regardless, they announced that three resolutions were passed concerning the freed slaves. Of these, one proclaiming that they:

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"Will not live among the Negroes; as we have settled here first, we have fully determined that we will resist the settlment of blacks and mulattoes in the county to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted."

They then took the wagon master, Cardwell, with them, forcing him to immediately charter two canal boats to take the freed Randolph slaves back down the canal, and out of Mercer county.

So the next day, with heavy hearts and crushed spirits, the freed blacks left what was supposed to have been their permanent home, with an armed escort of German settlers. Some of the freed slaves were said to have slipped off to head towards a known settlement of blacks to the west, called Carthogena. The rest of the party traveled 20 miles south, where they stopped in Lockport for a few days. At this point it's mentioned that many of the slaves departed the group, to head towards another settlement of blacks called Rumley, and more to the town of Sidney, Ohio, which was just east of Rumley.

The rest continued on southward to just above Piqua, Ohio. Many settled there, forming the town of Rossville, while others went farther south to settle in towns named Hanktown, near West Milton, Ohio, and Marshalltown, near Troy, Ohio.

Most of these slaves had been educated, and taught to read and write by John Randolph, and many had learned trade skills, so while they were most certainly heartbroken and bewildered at first, they overcame adversity to make their own way, building lives for themselves and their families, while some also became great successes in their trades.

Sign at the Rossville Cemetary

Sign at the Rossville Cemetary

Headstone in African-Jackson Cemetery in Rossville

Headstone in African-Jackson Cemetery in Rossville

The Court Case and Helen Gilmore

Around forty years after they were turned away from their property in Mercer County, it was suggested to some of them that they try to get either the land back, or the money that it took to buy it originally. They took it to court, but they were told that the 21 year statute of limitations had expired. They appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court, but all courts backed the first decision.

It was also discovered that the attorney Joseph Plunkett, whom William Leigh had contracted to handle the purchase of the land, forged Leigh's name to documents in late 1846, selling all of the land and keeping the profits from it.

One of their ancestors, Helen Gilmore, was raised in Rossville, Ohio as a child, in the home of her uncle York Rial, who was one of the original Randolph slaves. He had built the home himself, having been trained in stone masonry. She moved back there as an adult, and with her husband and many others, set about restoring the old graveyard and turning her former home(which Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore had moved back into) into a museum honoring the Randolph slaves and all those who descended from them. The little town is now all but gone, but the enduring spirits of the Randolph slaves live on in history...

Photos of Two of the Known Freed Randolph Slaves

Shadrack White, better known as "Buddie Shang", one of the freed Randolph slaves. He died in 1912, at the age of 97.

Shadrack White, better known as "Buddie Shang", one of the freed Randolph slaves. He died in 1912, at the age of 97.

Jimmie Jeems Rial, another of the freed Randolph slaves.

Jimmie Jeems Rial, another of the freed Randolph slaves.


Vanessa hunter on October 20, 2019:

I’m searching for information and names of the freed slaves from the separate groups. I have grandparents buried I. The Carthagena cemetery. Jennings, Madden,Cannon, Robinson, immediate family. Bond,Rickman, branches off my family. I’m struggling distinguishing if my family was a Randolph slave, or Wattles group. The marker says the s Jennings was the last black family to leave Carthagena in 1960

Queen Katty on July 08, 2019:

I appreciate your stuff content is so meaningful.

Tom Cornett from Ohio on February 19, 2018:

One of my favorite Hubs. So much of history seems to be distorted by opinion and often politicized by people with self serving agendas. It is nearly impossible to get to the heart of every truth but a good writer can lay out the basics of a true story and let the reader discern each part for themselves. You did that here very well. I am proud of you.

Hermanski on May 11, 2016:

I took a summer course.on local Ohio History at Wright State Branch Campus in Mercer County back in the 80's with Merit Woods being the instructor. We studied the Randolph Slaves through the museum at the Relic Chapel at Maria Stein and also on location at Carthagena. There is a graveyard along State Route 127 at Carthagena where some of the Randolph Slaves were buried. Turns out that when the road was built and widened it got "into" the black portion of the graveyard and some of the graves had to be moved. Also through erosion certain fragments of their coffins could be found along the embankment leading from the graveyard to the road. Our class actually looked for fragments for the Ohio Historical Society under the direction of Merit Wood. I also remember talking with a Precious Blood nun at the relic chapel about the Randolph slaves and the display they had there of the actual land holding of the slaves that stayed in the Carthagena area. I don't think any nuns are present at Maria Steins Relic chapel these days but the display is still there to my knowledge as is the graveyard that we studies at Carthagena.

Randi Simon-Serey from Ohio on September 22, 2014:

The blue house appears cared-for but I don't know that the museum is open any more. The museum phone number is no longer in service. Someplace I came across a post office box and have planned to call the post office to see if they're allowed to tell me if it's still an active box (Rossville Museum, P.O. Box 627, Piqua). I think the son's name is Robert B. Gilmore and he might live in Troy.

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on September 22, 2014:

Hi chowchowgirl--I'm so glad to meet someone else who is interested in the history of the Randolph Slaves, and their cemetery. I'm afraid I don't know where the Gilmore's son is, or if he will continue to keep the little museum open, now that Mr. and Mrs. Gilmore have both passed on.

I haven't been to Rossville or the cemetery for a few months--I need to visit soon. When I do, I'll look to see if the museum is still open.

Thanks for your interest in this fascinating, but sad piece of Piqua, Ohio history!

Randi Simon-Serey from Ohio on September 20, 2014:

I don't believe in ghosts, but something compelled me to find this cemetery a few months ago and now I'm ... obsessed ... no, smitten ... no ... absorbed and moved to do more research to learn more. There isn't much on Google so I was overjoyed to find your excellent Hubs! I hope to take photos throughout the year to show the time passing, autumn leaves, snow, moonlit nights, on and on and on. I contacted a Piqua government source but was told that Rossville is not part of Piqua city proper. Is the Gilmores' son still around? I have a post office box for the little museum house but don't know if it's still active.

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on May 06, 2013:

histry123--Thank you for your comments. In all of the research that I've done on this, I have not come across mention of the Yankee Democrats in reference to the Randolph Slaves. Can you direct me to a link that confirms your statements? I know who Augustus Wattles is, but so far, I have not been able to find anything about Mr. Wattles' letter to the governor.

I want my articles to be as accurate as possible, so if you could show me where to find this information, I will check it out myself.

Although, even from what you say, the Germans did indeed play a part in this unfortunate situation, even if they were under the influence of alcohol--of which, of course, I would like to see confirmed statements from a trustworthy source.

Thank you again for your comments--I do appreciate hearing others' views about this sad piece of history.

histry123 on May 05, 2013:

Thank you for writing this, but I am afraid that there may be a distortion on who is to blame for the travery of the Randolph slaves. It seems that many authors wrongly lay the blame on the German settlers for this. The whole affair was instigated by Yankee Democrats from Celina, and not by the Germans. The Yankee Democrats drew the Germans in to their attack by plying them with free and abundant whiskey. This is attested to by Augustus Wattles in a letter to the governor, wherein he also states that by and large the Germans had no difficulties with the settlement of freed slaves. It is time I think to lay the blame squarely upon the true instigators, the Yankee Democrats, and cease scapegoating the Germans.

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on August 08, 2012:

I will check into that movie, Sligobay...thank you again. :)

sligobay from east of the equator on August 06, 2012:

TamCor: Keep up the good work. Immigrants were the most prejudiced and violent and felt they were competing with blacks for jobs and survival. Watch Gangs of New York. Immigrants brought ignorance and fear with them from abroad.

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on August 06, 2012:

Hi Sligobay! I read all sixteen chapters of "The Journey"--it was wonderful, and very interesting to read all the different views from each author. :)

I'm happy that you enjoyed this article. Ever since the day Tom and I stumbled upon the Randolph slaves' cemetary, I was drawn in and had to know more about them. I was also amazed that the Virginia courts did what they did, especially in that day and age.

But what happened to these poor people in Ohio was just tragic. What angered me the most was that the folks in Mercer County took the former slaves' money for their land and for building homes and putting in supplies, but then refused to allow the Randolph slaves to live there, once they arrived.

The irony is that the majority of the folks who did this were immigrants themselves--I wonder if it occurred to them that the same thing could have happened to them when they relocated there--how would THEY had felt?

I am currently putting info together on another chapter in this series...I had to put it away for awhile, because it affected me so deeply, but I feel ready to tackle it again now.

Thanks again for reading this--I appreciate it! :)

sligobay from east of the equator on August 05, 2012:

Hi Tammy. I was one of the sweet sixteen authors of the Journey with Tom. I love history and this is a great historical piece. Our Court system delayed freedom for 13 years and then took the land from the Randolph slaves by the technicality called "adverse possession". The same "Justice" system ignored the unethical conduct and forgery of one of their own lawyers. Even 180 years ago, the deck was stacked in favor of the rich and powerful. It is extraordinary that the courts of Virginia threw out the 3rd will and awarded the Randolph slaves their freedom. Thanks for this terrific article.

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on April 09, 2012:

You make an interesting point, itakins--that's very well possible. Whatever the reason, though, it is tragic the way this all progressed, isn't it?

Thank you for visiting both of my hubs on the Randolph slaves--I'm glad you liked them.

itakins from Irl on April 08, 2012:

Again fascinating and so well written! - It seems to me that the enslavement of the African-American people has had the longest lasting effects.I would think it was easier for white descendants of slaves to integrate seamlessly,while the Af-Am skin colour was not so easy to conceal,thus making insecure white immigrants feel threatened in some way. This is very interesting and makes extremely touching reading.Voted up++

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on March 17, 2012:

Lilleyth--Thanks for commenting! You're right--there were many other nationalities that were enslaved, too. It's an atrocity, no matter which group it happened to...

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on March 17, 2012:

J'aime--Thanks so much--I am really glad that you like this. I hope you enjoy the others, too! :)

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on March 17, 2012:

Tom...Thank you...I couldn't have gotten so far without you, too... :)

Tammy Cornett (author) from Ohio on March 17, 2012:

Thank you junko--I appreciate your opinions on this. Honestly I have no idea why the Germans treated these freed people that way, but I suppose, at that point in time, it very well could've been just about any nationality doing it.

It was a travesty, no two ways about it.

Suzanne Sheffield from Mid-Atlantic on March 17, 2012:

Such a sad story. I had two coincidences occur regarding this Hub. When I woke up this morning, I turned on the television and the song Born Free was playing on a commercial or something as I went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. My thoughts, at that 5:45 a.m. hour, as I was fixing my coffee, half awake, drifted to the subject of slavery, and how almost all nationalities were used as slaves at some point in their history, not just African Americans...I went back upstairs to my bedroom and The CBS News was on and there was a story of a gorilla who had been given a live bunny for a pet and they mentioned she also had a baby doll that she played with as if it were her own baby...and I thought "how sad" as the screen showed this poor gorilla, caged, just sitting there, staring into space. Then I opened my laptop, went to Hub Pages and your Hub was the second Hub on the page.

J'aime on March 16, 2012:

This was a great story. I know how much research goes into stories such as this, so I appreciate all the heart and soul you put into getting this story out there. Well written Tammy!

Tom Cornett from Ohio on March 16, 2012:

Great job on the Hub, Tammy. I know it took a lot of research and work to get such an amazing and heart wrenching story right. I'm proud of you. :o)

junko on March 16, 2012:

I got so much from this look back in history, I thank you for that reflection. What jump out at me was, I've always heard that German prisoners of war were treated better than black soldiers, in Europe and in the United States I've always wondered how and why it happened that way. This hub made the reason clear. A 100 years or so before German prisoners of war were treated better than black soldiers who were fighting and dieing for America,German immigrants were free to mistreat Randolph Slaves. In a sense it was like the civil war on a world scale reinacted with German brothers against German brother. Very thought provoking.

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