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Slavery a Key Issue that Led to West Virginia Statehood

June 20, 2013
By JENNIFER COMPSTON-STROUGH - City Editor , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register



City Editor

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Slaves were bought and sold at this end of the Market House and Town Hall at 10th and Market streets in Wheeling prior to the Civil War.

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The corner of 10th and Market streets was a bustling site in the 1850s, a place where people could buy daily necessities or where children could pick up a sweet treat.

It also was a place where families were torn apart as members were sold into slavery.

A slave auction block - a wooden platform about 2 1/2 feet high and 6 feet square - was situated on the west side of the upper end of a market house that once stood there, according to accounts recorded in "Bonnie Belmont: A Historical Romance of the Days of Slavery and the Civil War" by Judge John Salisbury Cochran, published in 1907. Cochran, who grew up near present-day Martins Ferry, wrote about witnessing the sale of several individuals in June 1851 - a sight that changed his outlook on the entire institution of slavery.

Slave pens, or holding cells, could be found throughout what was then Wheeling, Va., according to John Mattox, founder and curator of the Underground Railroad Museum in Flushing. Blacks captured and removed from their homes in Africa were brought to cities across the United States and held in such pens until they could be sold at auction. The same was true of others who already had been living as slaves but were sold when their former owners died or fell on hard times, Mattox said.

The fate of a slave on the auction block in Wheeling was hard to predict, Mattox noted.

Some individuals were sold to plantation owners from the Deep South who had traveled up the Mississippi and Ohio rivers to Wheeling seeking to expand their work force. These were the "really unlucky" ones, according to Mattox, because these slaves almost always were forced to do hard labor in the hot, humid conditions of tobacco, hemp, cotton and sugar plantations in states such as Mississippi and Louisiana.

Others might be sold to families in Wheeling, where slavery was legal before the state of West Virginia was formed in 1863. Mattox said while these people still suffered the indignity of being "owned" by another, their lives likely were a bit easier than they would have been in the Deep South.

Noting that about 15 percent of Wheeling families owned slaves, Mattox said saddlery was an important industry in the city. He said local slaves worked in that profession and served as carpenters, blacksmiths, domestic servants and more.

Local slaves also helped build the National Road, he said, citing a connection to his own family. Mattox said the great-great-grandfather of his late wife Rosalind worked on the highway about 1826.

A few slaves sold in Wheeling saw their lives change for the better, thanks to the large population of Quakers living in the Ohio Valley. Mattox said members of the Society of Friends came to the area, in part, because they strongly opposed slavery in regions such as the Carolinas where they previously lived.

An account in "Bonnie Belmont" cites the purchase of Matilda Taylor by Joshua Cope, a Quaker and neighbor of the Cochrans. After outbidding men from Mississippi and Louisiana, Cope paid $125 to buy "Aunt Tilda," whom he promptly freed.

"There were free people of color living in Martins Ferry and working in Wheeling," Mattox said, pointing out that only the Ohio River separated slave country from Ohio, where slavery was illegal. "They (free blacks and slaves) were working right next to each other. The free men told the slaves they could walk to freedom in Ohio or Pennsylvania."

The proximity of freedom must have been quite the temptation for slaves in the Northern Panhandle. But what sounded like a simple, life-changing stroll of just a few miles actually was a treacherous journey that did not end when state lines were crossed.

For those who successfully crossed into Ohio, a network of helpful people and clever hiding places known as the Underground Railroad awaited. In Ohio's riverfront communities such as Martins Ferry and Mount Pleasant, "conductors" helped conceal runaway slaves as they made their way north - further distancing themselves from their owners with some eventually making it to Canada.

The runaways would take refuge wherever it could be found, crowding into tiny spaces beneath staircases or hiding in barns or wagons under piles of straw. According to Mattox, where space allowed they would arm themselves with common tools such as pitchforks, hoping to avoid capture by fighting off anyone who discovered them.

But those who remained in the United States - even in free states such as pennsylvania and Ohio -faced the constant threat of capture. The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required citizens to assist in the recovery of runaway slaves. The law made it possible for bounty hunters to pursue runaways, even across states and territories where the practice of slavery was banned.

Mattox pointed out that the last person pursued and returned to their owner under the Fugitive Slave Act was Lucy Bagby, a Wheeling slave belonging to the Goshorn family who escaped and ran away to Cleveland. Once members of the Goshorn family followed her trail to Cleveland, Bagby was quickly arrested and placed in jail. Several Cleveland residents hired an attorney who secured her release, but she was returned to jail following a hearing on the matter.

Tension surrounding her arrest was high, with crowds gathering in the Cleveland streets. Physical conflicts broke out, including a confrontation in the courtroom. An 1861 trial resulted in an order for Bagby to be returned to her master, who took her back with him to Wheeling, where she was placed in jail.

The case also sparked controversy in Wheeling, according to accounts in the Dec. 10, 1860 Wheeling Daily Intelligencer. "On Saturday afternoon one Phil Herbert ... who has been confined in jail for several weeks charged with assisting in the escape of Lucy, a slave girl belonging to Mr. Wm. Goshorn, had a hearing in the Sheriff's office before Col. Knox. Thirty-one (blacks) were examined. ... They knew the slave girl Lucy. ... They knew Phil only slightly. One or two even knew that Phil went to Pittsburgh about the same time that the girl disappeared, but they didn't know what he went for, or if they did they wouldn't tell. Col. Knox discharged Phil and admonished him to be careful in the future and he said he would. ... The colored population were never before in such a flurry."

Slavery eventually would be one of the major issues that led the western counties to split from Virginia and form their own state.

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