“Sufferers’ Land” Post #41 – Henry Buckingham and the Underground Railroad –

In 1842, Henry Buckingham still had not recovered financially from the loss of the Norwalk Manufacturing Company. Looking for a steady source of income, he ran for and was elected Treasurer of Huron County, a position he held when he first came to Norwalk.

Henry continued to be highly regarded in the community. People liked and respected him for being of a good nature, courteous and kind, even if they did not always agree with him. One issue where he departed from most of his fellow citizens was slavery – specifically the problem of runaway slaves who passed through the Firelands on their way to freedom in Canada.

By this time, slavery had polarized the United States. Ohio was a microcosm of the divide that split the nation. In southern Ohio, where many settlers had come from Virginia and Kentucky, the sentiment was decidedly pro-slavery. In 1837, a mob destroyed the office of an abolition newspaper in Cincinnati and killed the editor. [1]

In contrast, the Western Reserve, to include the Firelands, was more inclined to be anti-slavery due to the preponderance of settlers from New England. However, even here, the sentiment was not for openly helping fugitive slaves.

After the Civil War, a Sandusky lawyer who openly fought for the release of captured runaway slaves during the 1840s and 1850s would write about this issue.

An intelligent understanding of the question has required me to point out the unpopularity of anti-slavery movements, and compare the prevailing sentiments of those days with that which succeeded later. Thus will you also see why such an institution as the “Underground Railroad” was introduced. For in the light of the present day it seems almost impossible that it should have been necessary to resort to such secret measures to help a poor bondman to freedom in this free State of Ohio, and especially across these Firelands, settled as they were with a liberty-loving people. But slavery was not then regarded as it was afterwards; slaves were looked upon as the rightful property of their owners, and it was incumbent on law-abiding citizens to return them rather than aid them to escape. While people perhaps would not actively oppose the attempt of these fugitives to escape, they did not openly espouse their cause, and the popular feeling at this time may safely be said to have been unfavorable to aid being afforded them to escape. [2]

Many heated debates took place around dinner tables in Norwalk, to include the Benedict and Buckingham households. Although some members of these families took the antislavery position — Hallet Gallup and Henry Buckingham for instance — even they were not in favor of immediate emancipation or openly providing assistance for runaway slaves. They valued property rights and were torn between recognition of the rights of slaveholders to their property and the rights of all human beings to be free.

However, in spite what he said in public, one of the earliest stops on the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves in Norwalk was the home of Henry Buckingham. His grandson later wrote: I remember well the feeling of the majority of the people towards Abolitionists in the early days, for my grandfather was one of the leading anti-slavery men of Ohio. He was a Henry Clay emancipationist, differing from the doctrines taught by Garrison. That he was an active “director” in the Underground Railroad, there is no question, though he never admitted it. When remonstrated with by his friends about it, he would say: “When a human being comes to my house whether at noon or midnight, and asks for something to eat, I give it to him; and I do not inquire whether he is white or black, bond or free; nor do I ask him if he is going to Canada or Kentucky. Every human being is entitled to something to eat and aid when in distress, where no crime has been committed. [3]

For years, Henry Buckingham was reluctant to speak openly of his convictions. However, in 1842, two events occurred that caused him to act, even if to do so risked the censure of the community.

Please like this post and let me know what you think in the comments. Thank you.

GO TO NEXT POST – An Abolitionist Comes to Norwalk

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[1] From “The Underground Railroad of the Firelands,” by Hon. Rush R. Sloane, The Firelands Pioneer, July 1888, p. 30.

[2] This quote is from “The Underground Railroad of the Firelands,” by Hon. Rush R. Sloane, The Firelands Pioneer, July 1888, p. 32.

[3] This quote is from “The Ohio Fugitive Slave Law,” by G.T. Stewart, The Firelands Pioneer, July 1888, pp. 75-77.

© 2009 by David W. Barton. All rights reserved

2 Responses

  1. Hello Dave,

    My name is Jim Sullivan. My mother and father both were born and grew-up in Norwalk, OH. There have long been rumors concerning the home of my 97 year-old grandmother, Betty Esker, at 97 Woodlawn Ave. as a safe-house on along the Underground Railroad. For one, an apparently “secret” room was discovered in the basement in the 1950’s leading to talk of it possibly being a hiding place for running away black slaves on the last or one of the last legs on a very long route to freedom in Canada. The other was talk about by relatives of possible links between the house and one or more known abolitionists families in the area.

    The house itself is officially dated to 1870 as it has a gold plague on the front porch stating such. However, that’s only because the earliest public record found locally relating to it is from that year. It is likely quite a bit older. Just how much older is not really known. But one clue stems from a piece of furniture. When my grandparents bought the house in 1940, it was almost fully furnished. From what I remember, the former occupants were a couple of elderly sisters, who were then in an “old folks home”. A hall tree (where you hang coats and hats) originally from the house remained in the same spot for decades. That is until my grandmother had it refurbished. The mirror on it was removed to reveal behind it crumpled newspaper from Norwalk Conn from the 1830’s or possibly earlier. I should call my grandmother (still sharp as a tack!) to get the date on that. As you pointed out, abolitionists tended to be from the North East.

    I fully realize that there were thousands of such people in Huron County, “The Firelands” from there, as well as hundreds if not thousands of homes remaining from that period. And the clues I’ve put forward are hardly proof that the house was used as a stop along the Underground Railroad. Yet, the possibly seems irresistible and a challenge to get to the bottom of it. I suppose, one thing that hasn’t been done is a little “archeological dig” in the very room, which I’m in the planning stages for. If you have any suggestions or clues on how I might proceed further, please enlighten me one way or the other.

    Thank You, JIM S.


  2. Thanks for your fascinating story, Jim. I don’t have a background in archaeology, so I can’t advise you there. Perhaps another reader of this post can help. Have you checked with the clerk of courts about the age of the house. Perhaps the present structure was built in 1870 to replace a previous one. That is what my great-great grandfather David Benedict did.


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