Iberia’s role in the Underground Railroad and anti-slavery movement was the subject at the Morrow County Historical Society’s meeting July 25.
President Ann Artrip gave an account of her research on the Rev. George Gordon who was Iberia’s Free Presbyterian minister and fierce anti-slavery advocate.
After a picnic lunch at the recreation area in Iberia, Historical Society members went to the Iberia Cemetery to hear Artrip tell the stories of Gordon and Iberia citizens who aided runaway slaves.
“You can’t make this stuff up,” said Artrip as she gave an account of Gordon’s activities with the Underground Railroad that at one time is believed to have had as many as 19 “stations” in Morrow County.
As you drive up Iberia Road from Mount Gilead, it’s easy to imagine how escaping slaves hid in the woods, fields, barns and homes along the route on their journey to freedom in Canada.
Gordon was a supporter of the anti-slavery movement. He thought the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 that allowed slaves being recaptured was an “abomination.”
Several families in the Iberia area were “stations” on the Underground Railroad. They were considered by some to be radical for breaking the law and harboring slaves.
Iberia College established
Artrip said that Gordon, who was born in 1806, came from Pennsylvania. He was considered a conservative pastor in the Presbyterian Church where he was ordained in 1836. He became part of the Free Presbyterian Church which broke away from the main church primarily over the issue of anti-slavery.
The Free Presbyterians not only supported the anti-slavery movement, they opposed the Fugitive Slave Law and actually encouraged disobedience to it by harboring runaway slaves.
The Free Presbyterians thought it was important to have an educational institution for the church and established Iberia College (later named Ohio Central College where Warren G. Harding graduated.) Gordon was selected to be the first president of the college, which accepted both black and white students.
Runaway slaves escape capture
Artrip told the story of a raid in 1860 by a U.S. Marshal from Cincinnati. He came with a party of eight to collect three runaway slaves from Kentucky that were said to be hiding on farms south of Iberia.
One slave was caught and hustled on to the train in St. James to be returned to his Kentucky owner. An armed group of about 30 men in the community heard about the chase and came to rescue the two other slaves. They caught the Marshall and his men and proceeded to whip them. Since Gordon was one of those standing by, he was questioned and brought to trial for aiding slaves in disobedience of the Fugitive Slave Law.
Before the trial could begin, Gordon escaped to Toronto, Canada and stayed there until April 1861 following Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. It was almost a year after Lincoln came to office that Gordon was brought to trial with six other Iberia residents.
Gordon’s trial and legacy
Gordon’s trial was in Cleveland in November 1861. He didn’t call witnesses in his defense because he didn’t want to incriminate his fellow Iberians. He was found guilty of obstructing the Fugitive Slave Law, sentenced to six months in prison, and fined $300 plus court costs estimated between $1,000 and $1,500.
Initially Gordon was given a private room with a desk instead of a jail cell and could receive visitors. However when his roommate escaped, Gordon was put into a damp basement cell and contracted inflammatory rheumatism.
Gordon’s friends and relatives petitioned President Lincoln who pardoned Gordon on April 3, 1862. Gordon refused the pardon because he denied the legality of the prosecution.
Friends and relatives encouraged him to accept the pardon and six days after the pardon, he finally did accept it and returned to Iberia after his release. Gordon lived to see the Emancipation Proclamation that freed the slaves and passed away December 11, 1867.
In the Journal of Presbyterian History, John R. McKivigan writes, “George Gordon’s violation of the Fugitive Slave Law made a small, but significant contribution to the anti-slavery movement. Veteran anti-slavery propagandists enlisted thousands of non-abolitionist churchmen and politicians to protest against Gordon’s imprisonment.”
Their demonstrations and petitions eventually convinced Republicans that the war of secession should be a war against slavery.
Artrip said much of her information came from the Journal of Presbyterian History. A detailed article about Gordon and the Free Presbyterians can be found at www.jstor.org. and in the History of Morrow County 1880, pages 402-404.
Morrow County Historical reports
• Historical Society member Russ Mayer gave an account of his grandparents, Raymond L Mayer, Sr. and Dorothy M. Tuttle Mayer. The Mayers and the Tuttles are buried beside each other in the Iberia Cemetery.
• The next meeting of the Morrow County Historical Society will be Saturday, Aug. 22 at 2 p.m. in St. John’s Lutheran Church 1.5 miles south of Johnsville at 6808 SR 314. The program will be the History of the Morrow County Fair.