The Randolph People had traveled the majority of the trip on foot, camping in tents by the roadside. When they reached Kanawa in present-day West Virginia, they boarded a steamboat that took them to Cincinnati. Local newspapers, like the Cincinnati Gazette, described the procession of weary travelers as they walked through the Public Square to the Miami Erie Canal and onward to their final destination.
The refugees had nearly made it to their new home when they faced local animosity. According to newspaper accounts and folklore, thirst took hold near Piqua and they attempted to dock. The town marshal stopped them, telling them there was a water shortage. However, there were at least a few allies within the existing community. John Johnston, a famed Indian Agent and farmer, is supposed to have brought them much needed refreshment. However, evidence to support this claim has eluded modern researchers.
When they finally reached St. Mary's, they faced overwhelming aggression. A group of white German settlers met them at the riverbank. In the days leading up to their impending arrival, the residents of Mercer County had organized and were determined to prevent the Randolph Freedpeople from claiming their land. The group informed Mr. Cardwell that they were to leave by ten o'clock the next morning. Desperately, Cardwell attempted to stave off the angry citizens until Judge Leigh arrived. He offered to be placed in jail and would post $1,000 as bond to ensure their safety, but the crowd refused. Furthermore, they explained the Randolphs would receive no compensation for the loss of land. To ensure their message was taken seriously, they came armed, at the very least to intimidate. Some accounts suggest the freedpeople were beaten with stones.
In response to the arrival of the Randolph Freedpeople, the citizens of Mercer County put forth three resolutions for their removal, the first of which read, "Resolved. That we will not live among Negroes, as we have settled here first, we have fully determined that we will resist the settlement of blacks and mulattoes in this country to the full extent of our means, the bayonet not excepted."
In spite of these criminal acts, the emancipated people pressed on. They boarded the canal boats and headed back towards Piqua, unsure of their fate. Aurora reports made their way to the Johnston Farm, where they had experienced small kindnesses days before. Thankfully, local Quakers formed a committee of men and women to assist them. They located willing white families to hire the refugees, providing them with much needed income and provisions in exchange for their labor. Although this hardly made up for the crimes committed against them, the communities born were fairly successful.
Although many of these details come from newspapers and oral histories recorded well after their initial migration, minutes from the West Branch church verify the basic details of this account. They wrote that a large group of people who were formerly enslaved by John Randolph arrived in Mercer County and were forced back to settle in Piqua and nearby communities. These documents are preserved in the Friends Collection at Earlham College's Lilly Library in Richmond, Indiana.
Get bundled up and head out to one of these Ohio History Connection sites this winter to get out of the house and get a new perspective on our state’s incredible natural history.