Wesleyan Cemetery & Escape of the 28 Fugitives Corridor

Designated Underground Railroad Network To Freedom Sites

Abolitionist John Van Zandt's headstone at the Wesleyan Cemetery in Northside.

Abolitionist John Van Zandt’s headstone at the Wesleyan Cemetery in Northside.

In October, 2014, the National Park Service officially announced inclusion of Wesleyan Cemetery and the Escape of the 28 Fugitives Corridor among two of six Cincinnati area sites (5 of which are in the city of Cincinnati) recently approved for the Underground Railroad Network To Freedom (NTF).  Eligibility for inclusion as an Underground Railroad NTF site is based solely on historic documentation, the reliability of the documentations’ sources, the number of historic documents supporting the application and how well this information is used to present an accurate story.

Due to the dedication of several volunteers, Kathy Dahl, Betty Ann Smiddy, Diana Porter, and to a lesser degree, myself, who donated an enormous amount of time over the course of several years searching for supportive documentation, Betty Ann, author of Escape of the 28 Fugitives Corridor, and I, author of Wesleyan Cemetery, were able to prove both as NTF sites.  Provided in the next few paragraphs are the condensed versions of what makes these sites so uniquely distinctive as well as a brief description of the others approved for inclusion.


Abolitionist John Van Zandt’s burial site

John Van Zandt, also spelled Van Sandt, was born in Fleming County, Kentucky, on September 23, 1791.  Documented as having been a slave owner, himself, who absolutely deplored the institution of slavery, Van Zandt took his slaves into Ohio, where he decided to stay, and set them free.  He purchased a small farm north of Cincinnati, where he and his family resided, in the present day Village of Glendale, Hamilton County, Ohio, until his death in 1847.

In 1842 John Van Zandt was apprehended transporting 9 escaped slaves from Cincinnati, (Lane Seminary in Walnut Hills, Ohio) to Lebanon, Ohio..  Prosecuted under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, 1847 U. S. Supreme Court “Jones v. Van Zandt,” it was the second only fugitive case to be heard before the Supreme Court for violation of the Act.  Although this was not his first of numerous efforts to help fugitives escape – Harriet Beecher Stowe attributes fugitive Eliza Harris’ successful escape to Canada, in part, to Van Zandt assistance in 1837, and neighbors suspected and opposed his involvement with runaway slaves for several years – April, 1842, was the first time he was caught.  Defended by Salmon P. Chase, Van Zandt died a pauper before the Supreme Court finalized their decision to uphold the lower court’s previous decision finding Van Zandt guilty, sentencing him to imprisonment and imposing fines for Wharton Jones costs. By the time the Supreme Court Justice rendered his decision in 1857, the Van Zandt family was shattered, his children were scattered amongst relatives’ homes across the country and the farm had been sold to pay the debts resulting from the lower court’s decision.

In the latter part of 1887, he and his first wife’s remains were moved to Wesleyan Cemetery in Cumminsville from their original burying site, the Old Salem Church Cemetery, after it fell into gross disrepair, and re-interred on January 30, 1888.  In 1891, the hundredth year anniversary of his birth, a large stone honoring his contribution to all of mankind was erected at Wesleyan.

1853 Escape of the 28 Fugitives – Incorporated by the Episcopal Methodists in 1843, Wesleyan Cemetery, located 3½ miles north of the city of Cincinnati in the rural community of Cumminsville along the West Fork Creek of the Mill Creek, was the only cemetery in the area known to permit both black and white burials the year (1853) the 28 fugitive slaves, led by John Fairfield (a white man), arrived at daybreak on the outskirts of the city.  Hunkered down along the steep slopes near the mouth of the Mill Creek following their treacherous crossing of the Ohio River from Petersburg, Boone County, Kentucky, and the 20 mile trek along its river banks from Lawrenceburg, Indiana, to Cincinnati, Ohio, their condition rendered them easily identifiable as escaped slaves.  Although Ohio was a Free State, the U. S. Congress’ 1850 re-ratification of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made it illegal to harbor and/or assist escaped fugitives anywhere in the country; an offense punishable by imprisonment, fines and court costs.  Bounty hunters, hired by slave owners, were free to search for and apprehend escaped fugitives anywhere, and return them to their “owners.”   Those assisting them would be prosecuted or worse, beaten, depending on which state they were apprehended assisting escapees.  Free blacks, apprehended by bounty hunters for assisting or harboring fugitives, were sometimes taken south and sold into to slavery.

Noted as one of the largest number of fugitive escapes documented in the region, it was necessary to move the 28 fugitives out of the city undetected and quickly.   With assistance from John Hatfield, a free black deacon of the Zion Baptist Church, (then located on Third Street, between Race and Elm) his wife and daughter, and individuals from Cincinnati’s free black community, and direction from Levi Coffin, the group of fugitives accompanied by Hatfield and Fairfield posed as a mock black funeral procession going to Wesleyan Cemetery and successfully escaped from the city and the bounty hunters in pursuit.


Kirby, Glenview and Belmont Avenues (Northside, College Hill)  

Following their arrival at Wesleyan Cemetery, Coffin had advised the 28 fugitives to take the first right-handed road, Kirby Avenue, to College Hill.  In College Hill they were instructed to go to the home of Rev. Jonathan Cable, a free Presbyterian minister, and abolitionist who lived near Farmers’ College.  His home, noted as a safe house, was the first of many stations the fugitives would stay at as they traveled through Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, with Fairfield before arriving in Windsor, Canada, April 19, 1853; an arduous journey of approximately 400-450 miles over rough terrain, equal to an average of 25 miles per night.

Though some of the names of the roads have changed; Kirby Avenue was originally the old Badgley Road, and, in the 1840’s was also known as “Kirby Way,” Glenview Avenue was named Highland and Belmont was named Colerain Avenue, these established roads enabled the fugitives to safely travel the back roads, the most direct route to Cable’s home at that time, and avoid the “Southern Sympathizer” documented as manning the Hamilton Pike toll gate which, at the time, was located near what is now Hammond North.

Three NTF sites within the city of Cincinnati that were completely researched and written by Barry Jurgensen’s high school history honors class at Arlington High School in Omaha, Nebraska, designated as NTF sites are:

Salmon P Chase Law Office (Third Street Downtown, Cincinnati) 

Spring Grove Cemetery (Spring Grove Village) 

Zion Baptist Church (Glenwood Ave. Avondale) 

The sixth NTF site; research and the application was complied and completed by Karen Arnett, a Mt Healthy resident:

Abolitionist Charles Cheney (Mt. Healthy)


To raise funds to purchase historical markers for Wesleyan and the Escape of the 28 Corridor sites in Northside we are offering Escape of the 28 booklets for sale at $4.00 each.  They may be purchased at the Northside Community Council November general membership meeting or ordered by phone by calling Stefanie at 542-4709.

To learn more about famous city founders, shakers and movers buried at Wesleyan read the Cincinnati Magazine article, Corner Stones, published in their November, 2014, issue.


By Stefanie Sunderland

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