One of the most celebrated stops in Underground Railroad history, Ripley in Brown County is synonymous with the exploits of the Rankin family, whose house still sits atop that high hill overlooking the Ohio River, and whose 30-foot, candletopped pole outside their home was a beacon of liberty for slaves in northern Kentucky.
View of Rankin House from shoreline of Ohio River
The Underground Railroad in Ripley involved many more individuals than the Rankins. Hundreds of locals participated and even before Rankin family patriarch, Rev. John Rankin, moved to Ripley in 1822, it is believed that more than 1,000 fugitive slaves had been aided there.
The Underground Railroad in the Ripley area had three interlocking components. The first were Presbyterian ministers, most of whom were Southerners, who had begun around the year 1800 to come north to escape the horrific climate of slavery. Later, united through an administrative body known as the Chillicothe Presbytery, they formed an established web of relationships that linked Ripley to Red Oak, Sardinia, Russellville, and other towns in southern Ohio.
The second component included activist abolitionists. The Ripley Anti-Slavery Society, which held its organizational meeting in Red Oak at the Presbyterian church of Rev. James Gilliland, enlisted 337 members in its first year, an exceptionally large number by comparison with other community antislavery societies. They elected Alexander Campbell, president; Gilliland, vice-president; and Rankin, secretary. Five years later, John Mahan of Sardinia led a small group in Brown County who supported the Liberty Party. Rankin did not join them until 1843, though his son Lowry was one of the original Liberty Party men in Ripley.
The third component was a sizable population of free blacks and a small number of courageous slaves who lived across the river in Kentucky in Mason and Bracken counties. Most of the free blacks were members of the two Gist settlements, just north of Ripley, which were comprised mainly of slaves and their ancestors from Virginia, who had been emancipated after the death of their master, Samuel Gist, in 1819.
John Parker House
Among Ripley's most important Underground Railroad agents were Dr. Alexander Campbell, one of the community's first abolitionists; Nathaniel Collins and his sons, Thomas and Theodore, who often collaborated with John Rankin's sons; Tom and Kitty McCague, owners of the largest pork packing factory and flour mill on the Ohio River; and black businessman, John P. Parker, who often crossed the river into Kentucky to rescue slaves.
Perhaps the most famous fugitive slave who was aided in Ripley was Eliza Harris, who was later immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Reputed Location Where Eliza Crossed Across the Ice
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