Eliza Harris, the Black woman who sought freedom with her child in 1838, journeyed north from the Rankin house. The further she traveled, the closer safety may have seemed. But the reality was that the Underground Railroad was threatened continually by slave catchers, police, and pro-slavery Northerners. By the 1830s, many freedom seekers were encouraged by active conductors, who shepherded them along the network of stops, to aim for Canada. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 allowed slave owners and their agents to search for freedom seekers in free states. Under that law, if an escaped slave was found, they were to be brought before a local judge and provide evidence proving that person was enslaved. If the evidence was sufficient, the judge signed an affidavit allowing the freedom seekers to be returned. States including Indiana passed their own fugitive slave laws clarifying steps that must be taken by slave catchers and anyone representing the law.
In Ohio, the 1793 federal Fugitive Slave Act was challenged in the 1847 Supreme Court case of Jones vs. Van Zandt. John Van Zandt was an Ohio abolitionist sued by the slaveholder Wharton Jones for monetary damages. Jones argued that Van Zandt was financially liable for the loss of his enslaved person because Van Zandt did not abide by the law that required him to return the individual considered Jones’ property. Van Zandt’s lawyer, Salmon P. Chase, argued that slavery was not legal in Ohio and thus Van Zandt should not be responsible for reimbursing Jones for the loss of his property. Van Zandt lost the case, with the Supreme Court ruling that slavery was protected by the Constitution. John Van Zandt’s home stood here at the corner of Oak Road and Chester Road north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Stowe notes that Van Zandt was the inspiration of the character known as John Van Trompe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The home, now known as “Eliza’s House” on the historical marker that now stands at the site, was an active Underground Railroad station in this part of Ohio.