John Rankin House
First Stop to Freedom
We know that it was at the home of Presbyterian minister John Rankin that Eliza Harris had her first moment of safety after escaping from slavery. It had not been an easy journey for Eliza leaving in winter February 1838 from Dover, Kentucky with her young child. Dover sits just five miles from Ripley, Ohio, a town where the Rankins had been active in Underground Railroad activities for many years. The town was a known area for slave catchers to monitor the banks for escaped slaves coming across the river. We do not know whether Eliza knew of the Rankins and their willingness to help. But stories tell of how Eliza, with her babe in her arms, crossed a half-frozen Ohio River with only a rail to assist her in case she broke through. Slave catchers, hearing the cracking ice while monitoring the banks of the river pursued, but seemed unwilling to take the same chance Eliza made by going out onto the ice. Eliza made it to the other side. Just after the moment of landing on shore, she and her child were grabbed by a man.
Slave catcher Chancey Shaw likely was the person who grabbed Eliza. Not known for being sympathetic to escaped slaves, Eliza’s effort to reach the other side somehow led Shaw to provide aid instead of turning her in. Shaw reportedly said, “Any woman who crossed that river carrying her baby has won her freedom.” He gave her instructions to get to the top of the hill where John Rankin and his family lived. Eliza climbed 100 steps to the home where she was given food and clothing. John Parker, another Underground Railroad facilitator, along with John Rankin’s three sons, would later confirm Chancey’s role in Eliza’s escape.
John Rankin came to Ripley, Ohio in 1822, eventually building his home in 1825. Sitting on top of a large bluff overlooking the Ohio River, the Rankin family could see escaped slaves in the night coming from Kentucky. The sentiments of the minister and his family were well known in this town. Although the Rankin home and the river were patrolled almost daily by slave catchers, no one who was able to make it to the Rankin home was ever caught. For Eliza, her stop at the Rankin home was short. With the constant presence of slave catchers, she was not safe until the Rankins could get her further north. The Underground Railroad existed for that purpose.