Reminiscences of Slavery Times

Transcribed by Phil Ford from the original hand written letter by John Tibbets about his risky adventures on the Underground Railroad. Maps

Written by Grandfather Tibbets in his 70th Year (John Henry Tibbets, born 1818).

In the fall of 1838 I saw the first fugitive from slavery. It was a man not more than thirty years of age. A young man by the name of Thomas Coombs and myself took him on horseback to a man living near Brownstown, Clermont County, Ohio, Mr. Hoover. I do not remember his name. We went in the night for it was very risky business. We had to make the trip there and back before morning and it was about fifteen miles. Coombs was about sixteen years of age and I not more than eighteen.

About two years after the incident just related a man by the name of John Oliver Butler came to my father's house (Dr. Samuel Tibbets, living in Clermont County, Ohio) and stated there was a colored man and his wife at his house, fugitives from slavery that had been skulking in the woods for days but were forced by hunger to come to his house. He did not know what to do so came to see my father and myself, knowing we were Abolitionists.

I told him I thought I could take them to a place of safety but I did not know of any underground stations at that time except Deacon Barwood of Cincinnati but I told Mr. Butler I could not furnish a team as we had hands at work for us that could not be trusted and I could not go away with our team without being suspected. Mr. Butler said he had a good light carriage and a fine horse that never had been worked in fields(?) and was not safe any place but if I would risk it he would risk the mare. I told him I would so we agreed to start that night at nine o'clock. I was to drive to Cincinnati, a distance of twenty-two miles and it must be driven before daylight. I had three toll gates to go through, which made it very risky business as almost every man at that time was an enemy to the poor fugitive and also the Abolitionist and anything done to aid our fellowman to obtain his God-given rights must be done in the night.

We hitched the race horse to the buggy, two men held her until I got in the buggy. Mr. Butler said "do not spare the horse but save yourselves, I will risk the horse."

The first gate was in Amelia, Clermont County, Ohio, on what was called the Ohio Turnpike. Goram Peas was toll man. We got through without any trouble. The next gate was at Withamsville on the same road. The man keeping the gate was not to be trusted and to get through that gate was my greatest fear. He did not live in the toll house but some two or three rods from the road. I had some difficulty getting him to open the gate, he tried to look into the buggy. If he succeeded all would be lost and I knew it would never do to allow him to look in. I tried to prevent him from holding his lantern so as to see who was in the buggy, it was covered and curtains down all around. I caused my horse to jump against him which caused him to run and open the gate and let me through.

I then proceeded on my way without any further adventure. This was my last underground trip in Ohio as I moved a few years after to Jefferson County, Indiana, where I had many adventures of the kind.

In the fall of 1844, September 22, I was married to Sarah Ann Nelson, daughter of James and Lucy Nelson, who were strong Anti-slavery people and a few years after our marriage there was a reward of $500.00 for James Nelson offered by citizens of Kentucky on account of his Anti-slavery principles.

My first adventure after I moved to Indiana was in the August of 1845. I received word from George Debaptist of Madison Indiana, that there would be a lot of ten to leave Hunter's Bottom on Sunday night and he wished me to make arrangements to transport them on the underground road that I was acquainted with.

About five o'clock in the evening my wife and myself got into my big covered wagon and started for my wife's uncle, Lyman Hoyt. He lived about three miles from where we lived on the road to Madison. After dark I drove to the place agreed upon to meet in a piece of woods one mile from the town of Wirt. I had been at the appointed place but a very short time when Mr. Debaptist sang out, "Here is $10,000 from Hunter's Bottom tonight." A good negro at that time would fetch from $1,000.00 up. We loaded them in, drew down the curtains and started with the cargo of human charges towards the North Star. We always made good time and close connection. At a given point my wife's brother, James Joseph Nelson and Leonidas Cushman and nephew of mine were in waiting with a fresh team to put to the wagon and drive as far as possible before (daylight). They drove to Albert Allies beyond where they took breakfast, rested and the next day to James Hamilton's, seven miles from Greensburgh on Sand Creek. It was as good a station as I ever struck in all of my underground work.

Albert Allie was a son-in-law of Burnett of Abolition fame, of Cincinnati. He had a large confectionary and was mobbed several times for his abolition principles.

In the fall of 1846 in November I received a note from Albert Allie that I was wanted at his house as soon as I could possibly get there. It was four o'clock in the evening when I received the word. I started as soon as possible, had fourteen miles to ride. When I got to Mr. Allie's about nine o'clock that night I found he had two men that had been skulking in the woods between Virnon and Louisville, Kentuchy, for about ten days. One of the men was from Mississippi. He had traveled on foot from Mississippi to Louisville, was betrayed by a colored man, was advertised but he would not give his master's name. He was then sold according to slave laws to pay his jail fees. A New Orleans trader bought him to ship with a gang he had on hand. The night before he was to sail the next day, he with another man made their escape, crossed the Ohio River and wandered in the woods nightly and hid through the day until they got to Mr. Allie's.

When I got there I felt too much fatigued to attempt a forty mile ride that night so we concluded to rest until the next night and then have a suitable guide as I did not wish to travel on the public road as we deemed it best to go on horseback, thinking we could better dodge our pursuers as we knew there were men on the track. Allie's house was watched all that night by a man named Sumpter. He lived in Virnon and saw me go to Allie's so he watched. He was what was termed a Nigger Catcher, one of the meanest and lowest men in Jenning County.

At the time fixed for starting which was as soon as dark set in, James Stott and myself started, Stott riding in advance, the two men following and I brought up the rear. We rode single file but aimed to keep in speaking distance. It commenced raining about the time we started and rained until four o'clock in the morning when it commenced snowing and a November rain and snow is not warm in Indiana.

About twelve o'clock we came to a little town called Westport, counted one of the hardest places in the country. We lost our way soon after we left the town, hitched our horses at one side of the road and had to walk a half mile to find the road. We rode on and crossed Sand Creek and soon found we were on the wrong road. We hailed a house and was told we were wrong, that it was seven miles to Greensburgh and it was four o'clock in the morning. We would have fourteen miles to go to get to James Hamilton's and could not get through the town before daylight as our horses were jaded.

We held a council what to do. Mr. Stott said he knew a man living seven miles from where we had crossed the creek, his name was Courtney, a free-will Baptist preacher, was a good man but very poor and had a son, a young man that was not as good as he should be and might betray us. I told him I could take care of the boy if he could get us there before daylight. He thought he could. The men were so near chilled through by this time that they could hardly keep on their horses. I had to ride by the side of one of them and keep slapping him for I believe he would have fallen from his horse.

We arrived at Mr. Courtney's a little after daylight, snow about four inches and quite cold. We called the folks up and got our human cargo in as soon as possible. The family lived in a log house. It was a double cabin. They occupied but one room, I occupied the other with my Southern friends, soon had a good fire of logs and soon a warm breakfast. The boys soon became cheerful and lively.

Mr. Stott lay down to rest so as to start about noon for Mr. Hamilton's and send a pilot back to take us safe over the road. I took young Courtney in charge and kept him close to me all day, did not let him get out of my reach. We spent the day cracking walnuts and telling stories. I got the young man interested and made him promise to pilot us across Sand Creek seven miles from his house where we would take a new conductor. I told Courtney he was into the business just as much as I was for he had harbored and fed them. I was told he had before this betrayed and caused some poor fugitives to be taken back to slavery.

A little after sundown we started by taking a short cut through the woods and missing several houses, arrived at the crossing of Sand Creek without any adventures but found the creek very high from the night before rain, but we crossed in safety and found our new conductor, dismissed our old one with many thanks and received from him good wishes and he became a fast friend to the poor fugitives.

I must say there that Mr. Courtney, the young man's father, was away from home at the time and we did not see him. His wife was very kind and did all in her power to make us comfortable. I shall always remember her kindness to us.

We arrived at Mr. James Hamilton's about twelve o'clock that night and found the family up, a good warm supper in waiting. The Reverend John Rankin of Ripley, Ohio, was there. He was an old friend of my father's. I was very tired but a good warm supper and a good bed helped me very much. In the morning Mr. Stott and I started for home, but our cargo had been shipped on another train and went through safe. Before I reached my home I met my wife. She had got so concerned about me, I had been gone so much longer than she thought I would be, she could not rest so started to hunt me up. I need not say we were glad to see each other. It was not a safe business and I never engaged in it without feeling that trouble might befall me and my wife although she entered into it as heartily as I did yet she always felt that something might befall me and perhaps we would never meet again in this life, if I should be overtaken there would be a desperate struggle as I always was determined my cargo should not be captured.

I have seen some very hard times but always felt paid to hear the poor creatures pray God's blessing on me and the thanks I received would, I think, soften a heart of stone.

I was living at this time with or in a part of the house with my father-in- law, James Nelson on Neel's Creek, Jefferson County, Indiana. I soon after removed to a little place called Fairmount on the Michigan Road on top of the hill back of Madison, Indiana. I there opened up a harness and collar shop. I had lived there but a short time when I was called on by a man by the name of Carter who lived in Madison. He was colored. He informed me that he would have a cargo of seven the next night. I told him I would be ready for him, he would pilot them up Crooked Creek over the hill to the back of my lot and I had a wagon in readiness. We left my place at nine o'clock, had to go through North Madison and Pressburgh.

In going down Pressburgh Hill my wagon tongue dropped down and it took some fifteen minutes to fix it. We were in great danger all the time, but the good Lord protected us as I firmly believe He always did. I never engaged in a work of that kind without making His blessing and protection. I am a firm believer in prayer and pray to God daily.

We continued our journey and arrived at James Bexter's. He lived near the head of Middlefork creek, Monroe Township. He ran them through to what was called the Hickland settlement on Graham Creek. There were Thomas and Lewis Hickland, James Stott, Thomas Denny and one or two others that were always ready to help the poor fugitives to a land of liberty but they all long since went to Oregon.

There used to be some funny things connected with our business. One day about the time of the incident just related a man from Kentucky rode up to Thomas Hickland's in great rage and demanded of Hickland his slave woman. Said he had tracked her to his house and swore if Hickland did not give her up he would kill him. Hickland says to him, "Was she your wife?" "Sir, no!" Was she your sister?" "No". "Well," says he, "I suppose she was near kin, you appear so anxious to find her." The slave holder raved and swore eternal vengeance on all Abolitionists. Hickland says, "Get down, Sir and have your horse fed and come in and have dinner. I will assure you your woman is not here. I do not harbor runaway slaves." He persuaded on him to stop and they soon entered into an animated discussion on slavery. The man got in good spirits. Hickland's aim was to keep him as long as possible for the slave woman had but left as her master rode up and he wanted to gain as much time as possible. The man finally bade goodbye and started home for he said it was no use trying to overtake her as Hickland was (too much) for him and said, "Mr. Hickland, if ever you come to (Kentucky) you must come to see me and you will be treated like a gentleman as you are."

The Hicklands were both radical Methodist preachers. Thomas has been dead many years. They were true friends to the poor slave.

There was an old colored man living in Kentucky that was a very trusty slave. His master used to send him to Madison to do marketing and also to do much of his trading. His master was not afraid of his running off. When he would be in Madison he would see accidentally such men as George Debaptist, John Carter, (Carter kept a grocery) Chapman Harris or Elija Anderson and would let them know by signs when a party would cross the Ohio River, how many and what kind. This trusty old Darkey had a skiff that was kept for him to market in and with that he would ferry a lot over and be back before morning and was never suspected. Finally he concluded to leave with a lot he had ferried over. I did not have anything to do with them but they were captured by one Wright Ray, a noted negro catcher. He was also sheriff of Jefferson County for many years and used his office for that purpose, was known all over Kentucky and was always applied to when a slave got away and by this means he obtained (many) rewards, but this time when he crossed the river with them and returned them to their masters. The master of this old man commenced to upbraid the (old man) for running off but he replied to his master (he would not have done so but Ray persuaded him). The slave holder believed this to be true and told Ray if he did not he would kill him and would not pay the reward. They were ready to get clear of paying the reward. I have been told that Ray never dared to return to Kentucky after that but in a few years after was found below Madison in the Ohio River drowned.

One day while I had my harness shop near Madison a man called and left a note. He said a man in the city handed it to him. The note stated that Chapman Harris wanted five mule halters by a certain time. I understood at once and made my arrangements to help five fugitives on their way to Canada which I did on the next night. We always or nearly so had to run our trains after dark but I do not think we loved darkness rather than light for I do not think the deeds were (lawless).

I met the five human mules about half a mile from my place on the Michigan Road. We always had a conveyance ready to take them but perhaps it was not always first class car, but my trains always made close connections and was sure to go through and never had collision with another train and never lost a mule. Again we went to James Baxter's and he went to the Hickland neighborhood.

Once I was sent for to go to Madison as there was business of importance and a man by the name of Elija Anderson wished to see me. He lived near Crooked Creek in the city. I got to his place after dark, put up my team and went to bed. About twelve o'clock in the night we heard a rapping on the door which we understood. Mr. Anderson opened the door very cautiously and demanded, "Who is there". He received a friend and let them in. The party was composed of men and women. It was a very dark night and our movements had to be very cautious, we did not dare to have a lantern as we did not know but Ray might be on our tracks. As soon as possible our train started for the north and we made as good time as we possibly could, not allowing any grass to grow under our horses' feet. They all made Canada in safety and good time as they were not allowed to halt more than two hours at any station.

At one time Ray and a Southern fiend in human shape, I do not know what they called him, pursued a poor panting fugitive into Wain County, Indiana and caught him. They got a room to lodge in that night. They tied the negro and made him lie down on the floor and then lay down one on each side of him. The negro was very tired and soon fell into a sound sleep. When his captors were sure he was asleep they commenced laying plans and also talking how near they came to losing him. Ray said if he had once got to Richmond among the Quakers all hell could not get him, the poor captive heard it all and he concluded that he wanted to get to Richmond, he was planning while his captors were talking. Soon they fell into a deep sleep and the darkey slipped his halter and left. The next morning when they awoke their man was in Richmond and they had to return home without him.

One other time this same Ray and a party of Kentuckians were in pursuit of a man that had left some miles from Madison on the Michigan Road. They saw a foot man, Ray was sure it was his man so he put spurs to his horse and left the others. When he got in hailing distance he called to the man to halt. He obeyed, Ray jumped from his horse and ran with a rope to tie him but when he got to his man, instead of capturing him the negro knocked him down with a club and beat him nearly to death and then fled into a thicket before the other pursuers got up. The poor fellow got away.

There was a family came from New Orleans to Madison, Indiana to spend the summer. They brought a slave woman with them. After they had been in Madison a few weeks the case became known to some colored folks. A Mr. Elija Anderson came to me to know what we could do with her. We concluded to secret her until pursuit would be over. One night she was brought over to our place and from there to my father's who was living in North Madison at that time. She was put in his garret and kept for a few days then run to Mr. Lyman Hoyt on Middlefork Creek, secreted for a few nights, from there Issiah Walton's and hid until we considered it safe to run her to Greensburgh. She was missed in a very short time after she left and the hunt was kept up for three weeks or more. As soon as we considered it safe, my brother, Dr. E. T. Tibbets and myself took a covered two horse buggy and started to a Mr. Andrew Cady living in Ripley County. Mr. Lyman Hoyt was to meet us at a given point on the Michigan Road at twelve o'clock in the night which he did promptly. The woman was well dressed and had on a veil. We drew down the curtains, she sat on the back seat. We kept right on. When it became light we discovered that Wright Ray and another human blood hound were on our track. I drove fast and succeeded in giving them the (dodge).

We got to Mr. Cady's about ten o'clock in the morning and found a house full of women picking wool, it was what was called a wool picking. We did not dare to unload but drove one mile down the (road) to Mr. Jabes Cady and left our cargo, went back to Cady's to see what could be done. Mrs. Cady was not an Abolitionist at that time but when the case was explained to her she entered at once in to the work and said she could put it through. Her mother lived near Greensburgh and she would tell the ladies present she was going to the carding machine that afternoon and make her mother a visit. Se we all had a good dinner and a good time. After dinner she dismissed the ladies and pickers and she and her husband bundled up their wool and started for Mr. Herman Craven on Sand Creek near Greensburgh where he arrived in safety so we learned. We started back to our homes. We had gone but a few miles when Ray came up with us and we had some talk but I do not remember what he did, did not get any satisfaction and we arrived home safe without any other adventure.

I have had many adventures of the kind that I do not remember distinctly enough to sketch down. My wife and I were going to Indianapolis one time. We boarded the train at Dupont. Soon after we got a boost, I turned my head and saw Mr. Anderson. He gave me a sign and I noticed two colored men sitting behind him. He had taken them on the train and was going through with them to Canada which he did in safety.

About the Spring of '58 Mr. Anderson came to me to know if he could get any assistance. I was living at College Hill on Middle Fork Creek. He knew I was watched very closely by Ray and his hoard of blood hounds. He stated that a certain man had made his escape some years before to Canada and had accumulated considerable property. This man had become acquainted with him sometime when he had taken a cargo through which he had often done. This colored man had a wife and four grown daughters in slavery. He told Anderson he would pay him if he would bring them through which he promised to do and that was his business with me at the time I write. He had been to their home in Kentucky and made the arrangements for them to cross the Ohio River the next Sunday night. He had engaged a trusty man to ferry them over, they would land at what is called Hanover Landing, a few miles below the City of Madison. It was a very rainy time and anybody acquainted with Indiana clay roads will know something about the traveling. He had made his arrangements to get them to my house, would be there near twelve o'clock that night. Elder Wm. B. Lewis was preaching for the College Hill Baptist Church at that time and that was our regular time for meeting. Elder Lewis made our house his stopping place. My father was living with us at that time. When meeting time came my wife wanted to know of my father which would be her duty, to go to meeting that night or stay at home and cook for the fugitives. His reply was to always feed the hungry.

I had one or two hired hands at that time which were good trusty men but we did not let them know what was up for if they did not know anything they could not be used as witnesses. As soon as we got home from meeting we had worship and all went to bed except my wife and myself. Brother Lewis remarked the next morning that he thought Brother John was in a bigger hurry to get them all to bed than usual.

About twelve o'clock the party arrived. We were up, had a good fire to warm and dry their clothes. The colored ladies were well dressed, had acted on the principle that the children of Israel did when they left Egypt, they had borrowed of their mistress and were well supplied with clothing. I think some, if not all, had on silk dresses. They took a good rest and arrived in Dupont at six o'clock in the morning and took the morning train for Indianapolis and went through safe and in due time. It was said the telegraph wires would not work.

A man living in Dupont at that time took the train for Madison, got there about seven o'clock. When he stepped on the platform Ray met him and wanted to know if he came from Dupont. He told him he did. "Was there any niggers got on the train at that point" "Yes," said Mr. Reaves, "there is black, white, blue and green getting on and off of every train since I have lived in the place." Ray remarked, "That's them," and started in pursuit but was too late as they all got through safe.

A short time after the incident just related, Mr. Elija Anderson was on board a steamboat between Cincinnati and Louisville. Some Kentuckians on board found him out, had him arrested, tried by Kentucky laws and sent to the penitentiary and in a short time he died in prison as a martyr.

A few years before that a young man by the name of Dillingham from one of the eastern states went to Missouri on that business, was arrested, tried, found guilty and sent to Missouri penitentiary and in a few years he died in his cell. That is some of the workings of American Slavery. I was some acquainted with Dillingham. He was a very nice appearing man.

These incidents are all written from memory as I did not keep a journal. I might give several other incidents but think I have written more than will be of interest to anyone and perhaps some that I might relate have already been published to the world. I will relate one or two more that will show how men were treated that did not believe in that horrid system.

A young man named Amos Dessor, a Presbyterian preacher, went to Tennessee selling books and bibles. He attended a Presbyterian camp meeting. In showing his books there was found a copy or two of Philanthrophist, an Abolition paper edited by James G. Burney in Cincinnati. As soon as these papers were found, Dressor was taken, stripped, tied to a tree and whipped and then compelled to leave the state and lose all he had. I afterwards became well acquainted with him and heard him preach often. He was a noble man.


John H. Tibbets, born June 27, 1818. Married to Sarah Ann Nelson in Jefferson County, Indiana, Sept 22, 1844. Moved to Kansas 1870. Died Jan 10, 1907. Buried on Tibbets Farm in Lavette County, Kansas.

Summary of Letter Above
1831 With Thomas Coombs took a slave to Mr. Hoover, Brownstown, Ohio

1833 From request by John Butler, transported slaves to Cincinnati.

Moved to Indiana

1844 Married Sarah Ann Nelson

1845 From request by George Debaptist of Madison Indiana took 10 slaves to James Joseph Nelson and Leonidas Cushman, who took them to James Hamilton's, seven miles from Greensburgh on Sand Creek.

1846 With James Stott aided slaves to Mr Hamilton's. Got lost for awhile around Sand Creek. Reverend John Rankin was there at Mr Hamilton's.

Moved to Madison, Indiana, opened harness and collar shop

With Carter transported slaves to James Bexter's, Monroe Township.

Describes Thomas Hickland as "true friends to the poor slave".

From request by Chapman Harris transported 5 slaves to Baxter's on way to Canada.

From request by Elija Anderson transported slaves eventually to Canada.

Slave escaped from Wright Ray and made it to safety in Richmond.

With Elija Anderson and Lyman Hoyt helped slave lady escape to Greensburgh and then Andrew Cady living in Ripley County and then to Mr. Herman Craven on Sand Creek.

Aided group of slave ladies to Indianapolis

Dillingham sent to prison and died shortly after

Elija Anderson sent to prison and died shortly after

Amos Dessor, a Presbyterian preacher and abolitionist, tied to a tree and whipped and then compelled to leave the state and lose all he had.