TIME MACHINE: THE OBERLIN-WELLINGTON RESCUE
For once I decided to write about a historical event that is not celebrating any particular anniversary. Actually, it would have celebrated its 150th anniversary back in September 2009. But I did not think of it until recently. The event I speak of is the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue.
Anyone familiar with Antebellum or Civil War history would know about it. The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue was a key event in the history of the American abolitionist movement before the Civil War. It centered around the arrest of an escaped slave named John Price in Oberlin, Ohio by Kentucky slave catchers and a U.S. marshal, two-and-a-half years before the outbreak of the Civil War. This story began over two years before the incident. Back in January 1856, Price and two other slaves escaped from a farm near Maysville, Kentucky. The three slaves made their way across the Ohio River, and with the help of Underground Railroad agents, they made it as far north as Oberlin, Ohio. The latter proved to be a racially integrated, liberal-minded community that served as the location of Oberlin College, a liberal arts college known for accepting both non-white and female students. Despite the presence of some conservative citizens, Oberlin was known for its strong support of the abolitionist movement. While his two companions continued north to Canada, Price decided to remain in the Ohio town, due to his poor health.
The fugitive slave spent the next two-and-a-half years struggling to make a living in Oberlin. But due to his limited skills as a farmhand, he found it difficult to make ends meet. On September 13, 1858, Price was hired by affluent farmer Lewis Boynton to work on the latter’s farm, just north of Oberlin. Boynton’s adolescent son, Shakespeare, picked up Price drove him out of town, with the intent to deliver the latter to his father’s farm by noon. Unbeknownst to Price, young Shakespeare had made a deal to deliver the fugitive to a pair of Kentucky slave catchers and a deputy U.S. marshal – Samuel Davis, Richard Mitchell and Jacob Lowe. The buggy conveying the three white men and the black fugitive swung south and headed for nearby Wellington, Ohio; where they would be able to catch a train further south to Columbus. Unfortunately for the two Kentuckians and Deputy Marshal Lowe, two Oberlin College students named Ansel Lyman and Seth Bartholomew passed them on the road. Once the two students reached Oberlin, they alerted the town’s citizens to Price’s kidnapping. Meanwhile, the slave catchers, Lowe and Price checked into a room at the Wadsworth Hotel to await for the southbound train.
Many Oberlin citizens formed a group and rushed toward Wellington to rescue Price. Among those part of the rescuers were Charles Henry Langston, Simeon E. Bushnell, and Oberlin student William E. Lincoln. Once they reached the other town around two o’clock in the afternoon, they were joined by some of Wellington’s citizens, who also harbored anti-slavery sentiments. The group formed into a mob and tried to coerce the slave catchers and the deputy marshal to release Price through intimidation and threats of violence. Davis, Mitchell and Lowe took Price to the hotel’s attic for safety. Langston and three others tried to free Price, via legal actions – the arrest of the slave catchers for kidnapping and a habeus corpus. Those efforts failed as well. Eventually, Lincoln, along with John Copeland, Jr. and Jerry Fox rushed the attic using force and firearms, grabbed Price and spirited him back to Oberlin, where they hid him inside the home ofJames Harris Fairchild, a future president of Oberlin College. Soon, Price’s rescuers escorted him to Canada.
A Federal grand jury indicted 37 members of the rescue party, including Langston, Lincoln, Bushnell and Copeland for breaking the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Bushnell and Langston were the only ones tried in court. Both were found guilty and convicted by a jury that consisted solely of pro-slavery Democrats. Bushnell was sentenced to sixty (60) days in prison and Langston, twenty (20) days. Their fellow prisoners continued to languish in the Cuyahoga County Jail. The two Kentucky slave catchers – Richard Mitchell and Samuel Davis – were arrested for Price’s kidnapping. In return for the charges against them being dropped, the Federal government chose to drop the charges against the rest of the rescuers. The entire event had attracted more notice than the James Buchanan Administration wanted. Even worse, the Federal attorneys realized that a trial for all of the Rescuers would cost the government at least $5 million dollars. After serving eighty-five (85) days in jail, the Rescuers (with the exception of Bushnell, who continued to serve out his 60-day sentence) were released on July 7, 1859. Bushnell was finally released on July 11, 1859.
The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue is considered by historians as an important contribution to the outbreak of the Civil War . . . along with John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry and the Presidential Election of 1860. Two participants in the Oberlin–Wellington Rescue, Lewis Sheridan Leary and John A. Copeland participated in the Harper Ferry’s Raid. Leary was killed and Copeland was captured and later, executed. The Rescue attracted a great deal of attention in the National press. And after a decade that featured the passing of the Fugitive Slaw Law of 1850, the passing of Senator Stephen A. Douglas‘sKansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the Supreme Court’s decision on the Dred Scott vs. Sandford case; the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue proved to be the first breath of fresh air for the abolitionist cause.
For more information on the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, read the following book:
*“The Town That Started the Civil War” (1990) by Nat Brandt