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The Barkshire and Hawkins families of Boone County and Rising Sun: An Underground Railroad Borderlands Story
By Hillary Delaney
The institution of slavery divided a nation, bringing our young country to the breaking point. Though the label “Border State” was not regularly used until the onset of the Civil War, the moniker fit the politics of Kentucky much earlier. At the top of the state, Boone County, with forty miles of river creating our northern boundary, was forced to maintain relationships with neighboring communities whose laws prohibited human enslavement. In spite of these legal differences, relationships built across this divide were not unlike those between any neighboring localities. The towns of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky and Rising Sun, Indiana were a mere stone's throw away from one another, only the width of the river divided them; this physical closeness meant continual interaction. Business was conducted between the communities, young people courted sweethearts across the water, and parishioners often attended worship on the opposite shore. A short ferry ride took folks across the river, helping maintain commerce and personal connections that reached back for generations.
The pioneers of each river community did not have to contend with the legal struggles of subsequent generations; there was little difference in the way lives were led in the initial settlements. In fact, in its early days, slavery was as regular a practice in the territory that would become Indiana as it was in Kentucky. During this period, the Ohio River, a waterway whose crossing would later become synonymous with freedom, was just a river, with slavery practiced on both shores. In 1816, Indiana was granted statehood, and slavery in the state was abolished. It took many years and several Federal opinions to fully eradicate the practice, but by the mid-1800s, Indiana's laws were solidly anti-slavery. In neighboring Kentucky, slavery was legal, regularly practiced, and fiercely held. Despite the strain caused by the difference in law and ideology, trans-river relationships were necessary for the success of both communities.
As the national debate over slavery continued to grow, relationships in Boone County's borderlands also began to intensify. Citizens with differing opinions on slavery occupied both sides of the Ohio, the only constant being the law and its consequence. In some cases, pockets of like-minded people began to form, but relationships were maintained and built, even between those with divergent views on the subject. In 1826, there was an editorial containing an accusation of false imprisonment of a free man of color found in Indiana Palladium, which was printed in Lawrenceburg. The man accused of the deed, a Boone County man by the name of George W. Brasher, who would later become known as a slave hunter, answered the accusation with his own letter, which was both published and disputed. Both Brasher's actions and the cause of slavery were on trial on the page, and the views of opposing sides were clear. These philosophical differences didn't change much, however. Brasher's family still had a store in Lawrenceburg, and the Indiana Palladium continued to include Boone County in its distribution area.
Despite this successful coexistence, public discourse was about to get stronger, as the Underground Railroad (UGRR) entered its greatest period of growth. The “Underground Railroad,” a term coined in the nineteenth century and still in broad use today, was a complex network of secret escape routes and hiding places, used by enslaved people and those who helped them, to gain their freedom. The network was becoming very active in the borderlands of Northern Kentucky in the early 1840s, and would begin to test the bonds between residents on opposite sides of the river, and within their own communities.
The Barkshire family was more than familiar with how difficult it was to navigate the differences and similarities between the two communities. Samuel and Frances Barkshire and their six children had once been enslaved in Boone County. In 1833, Samuel was legally freed, or manumitted, and promptly purchased a piece of land in Boone County, remaining near his still-enslaved family. His land bordered that of the man who had manumitted him, Joseph Hawkins. Samuel Barkshire's surname came from another Boone County resident, Richard “Dickey” Barkshire, a neighbor of Joseph Hawkins. Samuel had been enslaved by Dickey Barkshire prior to the slave holder's death in 1829. Soon after, ownership of Samuel passed to his son, Felix. Felix Barkshire, in turn, sold Samuel to Joseph Hawkins in about 1830.
Hawkins was born in Spotsylvania, Virginia, and had settled in Kentucky, sometime prior to 1800, along with his parents and two of his siblings; several cousins also lived in the area. The Boone County Hawkins families, including Joseph's, owned slaves. Joseph was an active member of the Middle Creek Baptist Church, which was constituted in 1803, and named for the Boone County creek on which the meeting house stood. Joseph Hawkins was remembered by a great niece as a man with “a great deal of brains, money and piety.” Churches all over the slave-holding South were experiencing rifts over the practice of enslavement, and parishioners of Middle Creek Baptist may have been suffering the same struggle. Even the most creative interpretation of scripture could not solve the moral dilemma suffered by many people of faith who bore witness to slavery's cruelty. Having the moral fortitude to act upon such anti-slavery leanings was difficult; financial and social pressures often won out over conscience, and manumission for reasons of faith and morality was not accepted practice.
Either through his religious studies or personal experiences, Joseph Hawkins may have experienced some form of enlightenment in regards to slavery, prompting him to manumit Samuel so quickly, or perhaps he acquired ownership of Samuel expressly for the purpose of freeing him. It doesn’t appear Joseph received any financial return for the manumission. If there had been an arrangement for Samuel to purchase his freedom, it would have taken him many years to earn the $400, which was the average appraised value of a healthy, adult, male bondsmen in Boone County in the 1830s. In his deed of manumission, it is recorded that Hawkins received one dollar in exchange for Samuel gaining his freedom, a common practice in transfers of all kinds between friends and family. Perhaps Hawkins, as a man of faith, had begun to realize the ills of enslavement, and the moral connotations which went along with the practice.
Carter Tarrant, an early traveling Baptist preacher of some acclaim in Kentucky history, was a vocal abolitionist. Mention of other Kentucky settlers and clergy who held similar beliefs can be found throughout his writing; among those named was a “Joseph Hawkins.” Based the timing and movements of Tarrant and Hawkins in Northern Kentucky, there is a strong possibility that the Joseph Hawkins who settled in Boone County may have been the same man who crossed paths with Tarrant in his earliest days in Kentucky. Though he could have become enlightened at some point, “abolitionist” may be too strong a description. Hawkins would better be described as an emancipationist. Perhaps his awakening was progressing, and Samuel's manumission was the beginning of a move toward an abolitionist mindset, yet he still held ownership of several enslaved people leading up to his 1836 death. The decision regarding the fates of the other bondsmen he had held was left to his widow, Nancy.
Nancy and Samuel had known each other for many years. Prior to becoming Hawkins' wife, she may have been married to Dickey Barkshire possibly as a common law wife, which was not unusual in the first quarter of the 19th century. A clue may be found in the language used in Nancy Hawkins' 1854 will, which was carefully worded to reinforce the free status of the Barkshire family in order to prevent their re-enslavement. She clearly states that family are not held as slaves either by her or by the will of her “first husband.” Samuel Barkshire was legally manumitted a full three years before the death of Joseph Hawkins, and no slaves are mentioned in his 1836 will. The use of “first husband” also indicates that there was more than one husband in Nancy's past. Though Dickey Barkshire's will was never filed with the courts, he is named as the owner of Samuel in the deed of manumission, and the enslaved people in the tax records over the years is consistent with the enslaved Barkshires. It is possible Nancy was married to Dickey during the period between the death of his first wife, Ann, ca. 1808 and his marriage to a woman named Nelly Collier in 1814. With this timing in mind, Samuel, born about 1800, would have known Nancy since he was a young boy.
Regardless of timing, Nancy's role had been slave holder, the Barkshires' her bondsmen, throughout some, or all of their enslaved years in Kentucky. Soon after the death of her husband, Joseph, Nancy moved to Rising Sun, as did Samuel and his family. Once settled in the free state of Indiana, she officially manumitted Samuel's wife and later, his children in the courts in Rising Sun along with several other enslaved people. The Barkshires and Violet Hawkins, a woman who was among those Nancy manumitted, appear to be the only close family Nancy had as they were named her heirs upon her death in 1854. Together, the six children of Samuel and Frances (whom Nancy refers to as “Harriet”) and Violet, with whom Nancy appears to share a close relationship, received all of her worldly goods. Nancy was a widow of a wealthy man, and it remains unclear how this was perceived by friends and neighbors in Rising Sun, as free people of color were often seen as a threat to a free-state community positioned on slavery's border, particularly after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Still, by the time of her death the relationship between the former slave holder and the Barkshires would not have been new information in the small community. Over the nearly twenty years of Nancy's residence in Rising Sun, the people she formerly held as slaves either lived with her or very nearby, and their close relationships would have been observed. Nancy and Violet had been baptized on the same day, and continued to cross the river for meetings together at Middle Creek Baptist Church for years for years before transferring membership to a church in Rising Sun in the 1840s.
Before relocating to Indiana, Samuel was already making his mark as a free man in Boone County. The 100-acre property he had purchased, bordering that of his former slaveholder was acquired only three months after his deed of manumission. This would have raised a few eyebrows in the slave state of Kentucky, leaving locals wondering where Samuel would have gotten the money for the expensive purchase. To this day, the source of Samuel's funding is unknown. There are few examples of land ownership by people of color prior to Emancipation, which didn't officially occur until 1865 in Boone County. In this aspect, Sam Barkshire was defining himself as unusual for his time. In general, most enslaved people who were manumitted were elderly and had outlived their viability as laborers, but were not considered a threat by local slave holders. With few exceptions, younger, stronger people in Boone County left the area immediately after gaining their freedom, settling either in free states or in Canada. Those who stayed nearby were constantly under scrutiny by neighbors, patrollers and slave hunters. Should an escape occur, the slave holding community would predictably arrive at the doorstep of free people of color, with accusations of complicity. In the case of Samuel Barkshire, their suspicions were well-founded; he would soon become an important figure in Rising Sun’s UGRR network. In fact, he may have been providing help to freedom seekers while still living in Boone County.
In the spring of 1836, Samuel Barkshire was setting up shop as a cooper in Rising Sun. Coopers were busy men in the area, with several large distilleries in business on both sides of the Ohio River. He ran several ads in the paper, offering to pay market prices for supplies for his cooperage, such as “staves and hooppoles” for whiskey barrels. The paper trail he began to leave was unusual for most people of color who lived during Samuel’s time, especially those who were defying the laws of slavery. Along with these early advertisements, he is listed in city directories, and featured (posthumously) in a history of Ohio County, remembered as “prominent.” It appears he was both a visible and well-respected member of the communities of Rising Sun and Boone County.
His status in his new community, which was perched just beyond slavery's border, was quite an achievement for a man of color in the mid-nineteenth century, however, it was precarious. Freedmen living close to the borders of slave states suffered a vulnerability not felt in white society; the risk of kidnapping or other harm was constant. Nonetheless, Barkshire was willing to risk his freedom and that of his family in order to help others. While running his cooperage in Rising Sun, he was also running an Underground Railroad station, and coordinating with abolitionists from near and far. Conductor and social activist Laura Smith Haviland wrote of Samuel Barkshire in her memoirs, referring to his role in an attempt to free a family from enslavement in Rabbit Hash. The recommendation to contact the families of Samuel Barkshire and Joseph Eddington, (another free man of color in Rising Sun,) was given to Haviland during her visit to abolitionist leader Levi Coffin’s home in Cincinnati. The fact that Barkshire was well known in Cincinnati’s anti-slavery community is an indication of the regularity of his involvement and his position in the UGRR network.
Anyone involved in assisting freedom seekers put themselves and those around them in jeopardy, but the threat was multiplied ten-fold for African Americans involved in the dangerous work of the Underground Railroad. Abolitionists regularly suffered consequences, both legal and physical, but the risk was higher for people of color than that of their white counterparts. In addition to facing the possibility of prosecution, physical abuse, or even death, they could be kidnapped and illegaly sold as slaves. Barkshire and his family would have known the high cost of helping enslaved people to freedom, should they be caught, and yet they took these risks, regardless of consequence. The close relationships shared between the residents of Rabbit Hash and Rising Sun only served to complicate the covert activities of the Barkshires. Even those who agreed with the cause that Barkshire was championing could suffer consequences by association, in turn affecting their families and business dealings on both sides of the river.
In the 1850s, the Barkshire home was often stormed by angry slave holders or their representatives searching for “runaways,” and intimidation tactics were used on more than one occasion. As a result of one of these incidents, the family was directly “threatened with lynching” though the threat was not realized. The local residents in Indiana sharing pro-slavery views with some of their Kentucky neighbors sometimes joined the fray. Fortunately for the Barkshire family, they also had allies in both borderland river towns. When a plan was hatched to kidnap the family and sell them back into enslavement in the Deep South, the Barkshires received early warning to keep up their guard. Though it's unclear from which side of the river the warning came, friends were sounding the alarm on their behalf. The Barkshire's proximity to Kentucky’s shores, and their status as formerly enslaved people may have been what caused them to be singled out in multiple searches, but for the very same reasons, their network on both sides of the river helped to keep them safe.
In 1852, there was an escape from a slaveholder named James Stephens, whose daughter and son-in-law lived in Rising Sun. When five enslaved adults escaped from the Stephens farm, he offered a large reward. Rising Sun and surrounding areas were thoroughly searched, including the Barkshire home, but the slave hunters came up empty. Later, Nancy Hawkins revealed that she had hidden the group in her home for days, and no one suspected her. Keeping the presence of the freedom seekers a secret from friends and neighbors would have been difficult, but essential, for everyone’s protection. As a matter of curious coincidence, one of the witnesses to Nancy Hawkins' Last Will and Testament was Metellus Calvert. Calvert was the son-in-law and nephew of the aforementioned James Stephens, whom Nancy had tricked some years earlier. His role as witness doesn't ensure that he colluded with Hawkins, but he would have been aware of her bequest to her former slaves, and as a local resident their reputation as “slave stealers” would not have escaped his notice. Calvert lived nearby, and worked for Shadrach Hathaway, a merchant with abolitionist leanings, one of the founding members of the Universalist Church in Rising Sun. Though some in his extended family were Confederates, Metellus Calvert later enlisted in the 83rd Indiana infantry of the Union Army, entering service with the rank of captain. He died at the battle of Vicksburg, 1863.
As dangerous as Samuel's UGRR activity was, it would have required cooperation from everyone in the household. Though no evidence has yet been found to indicate active involvement by the Barkshire girls in the family, they certainly would have been aware of the presence of runaways in the home, possibly directing them to hiding places and providing food and clothing. Samuel and Frances' sons took more active measures in the workings of the Underground Railroad. The youngest of the boys, Woodford, acted as a conductor, ushering freedom seekers along the overland UGRR routes, in some cases all the way to Canada. Woodford became involved in this dangerous work when he was only a teenager. Older brother Garrett's work as a steward on riverboats took him to the Deep South, offering an opportunity to help freedom seekers reach the North via the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. He traveled to New Orleans several times, and often his name was advertised in a list of letters waiting at the New Orleans post office in 1851-1852. Garrett's motivation to aid freedom seekers grew more personal during one of his trips south.
Sometime in the early 1850s, Garrett met a woman named Sarah Ellis, whom he helped to escape the horrors of slavery in Louisiana. Sadly, Sarah was recaptured near Louisville, and sent back to her life of enslavement. Their bond must have been strong, as Garrett sent someone on his behalf to Sarah's slave holder, who successfully negotiated her purchase. Upon her safe arrival, Garrett and Sarah were promptly married in Cincinnati, in 1857. They had a daughter soon after, but their marriage was brief. In 1870, Garrett and his daughter, Cynthia, were living with Garrett's widowed sister and her children in Terra Haute, Indiana. As the 1870 census record has no indication of marital status for Garrett, and no death record has yet been found for Sarah, her fate is as yet unknown. Garrett was later remarried to a woman named Frances Lytle, in 1872.
The eldest child of Samuel and Frances, Arthur Barkshire, was certainly helping with the family's UGRR activity in Rising Sun, but less evidence of his direct involvement has been found. Arthur followed in his father's footsteps, also earning his living as a cooper. He had been twelve years old when he moved to free soil, and may have had a memory of enslavement in Kentucky, but this didn't prevent him from living life as any free person would. As such, when he met and fell in love with Elizabeth Keith, a free woman of color living in Cincinnati, he brought her home and made her his wife. Their marriage was registered in Rising Sun on June 17, 1854. Unfortunately for the newlyweds, the laws of Indiana were not on their side.
In 1851, in response to the rise in the number of free people of color settling in the state, Article XIII was added to the Indiana Constitution. The article essentially criminalized the act of any free people of color moving into the state of Indiana and settling there as permanent residents. Those who were living in the state prior to the legislation, like the Barkshire family, were granted permission to remain. Arthur was arrested and convicted in 1856, of “harboring a colored person,” for the act of bringing Elizabeth and her three children to live with him. What prompted officials in Ohio County to act against Arthur after the couple had been living in Rising Sun for two years is unclear. Nonetheless, the court decided against Arthur; he was fined the sum of ten dollars. Undeterred, Arthur appealed the decision to the Indiana Supreme Court with the representation of attorney Jonathan W. Gordon who argued the statute was not designed to apply in cases of marriage. The decision of the lower court was upheld, and Arthur and Elizabeth's marriage was annulled.
The case garnered some local attention, and may have added pressure upon the family and other free people of color in Rising Sun, but the couple remained. When Arthur was accused (though never convicted) of criminal behavior in the fall of 1859, the family was forced to move out of the state, settling in Portsmouth, Ohio. Arthur answered the call of the Civil War, enlisting for service in the U.S. Colored Troops, 27th Infantry Regiment on January 5, 1864. Seven months later, Barkshire died of disease while serving in Virginia.
Prior to his departure from Rising Sun, Arthur and his brothers received their inheritance from Nancy Hawkins, who had died in 1854. They were to share the remainder of her estate after the money and household items set aside for their sisters and Violet were distributed, and the house was sold at auction for a fair market price. Instead of dividing the profit, the Barkshire sons chose to buy back the Nancy's home. Based on the stories of UGRR activity involving the family, and Nancy's history of hiding freedom seekers in the house, their motivation may have been to continue to operate a station. The home, which is still standing, is located only two blocks from the river, and Rabbit Hash can easily be observed by stepping out the front door.
At the start of the Civil War, Samuel and Frances were still in Rising Sun, as was their youngest son, Woodford and his family, but the rest of the Barkshire children had moved away. Samuel had several free people of color living in his home, an adult woman and young child, as well as two children who may have been connected to UGRR agents Joseph and Mary Eddington. The Eddingtons had lived in Rising Sun in 1850, but disappeared from records by 1860. Samuel continued to assist freedom seekers to escape from and through Kentucky, until the end of the war. Somehow, he maintained relationships, a business, and the freedom of himself and his family, through many years of living on the borderlands of slavery. Conflicting views on slavery could be found both between the border communities of Rising Sun and Rabbit Hash and within each individual town. Families with members living and doing business on both sides of the Ohio River became both unifiers and dividers, yet many remained bonded. The Barkshire/Hawkins family of Boone County and Rising Sun were the embodiment of these conflicting roles, and persevered as active and valued members of both communities.
- Digital Library on American Slavery, University of North Carolina, Greensboro