The Underground Railroad, a network of people, routes and safe houses that enslaved people used to escape to freedom, is a difficult history to document. This network did not look for recognition and rarely recorded their experiences of aiding freedom seekers as they escaped north to Canada. Secrecy of the routes and those involved was essential to success. The Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 required escaped enslaved peoples to be returned to their owners even if they were found in a free state. Those supporting the Underground Railroad felt these laws, particularly the requirement that they assist in freedom seekers’ capture, were unjust. These laws also made it difficult for free Blacks to find security and safety because they too lived under the threat of being captured and sold South. Without documentation and a strong network of people who could attest to their status as free, they could have their freedom taken from them. Even with papers and a network, free Blacks could still be kidnapped and sold into slavery.
States like Indiana and Ohio were instrumental in the development of an Underground Railroad system. Pockets of sympathetic free Black and white settlements throughout these states supported freedom seekers as they came north. Proximity to Kentucky, a state where slavery was legal, meant Indiana and Ohio were attractive to enslaved Black people escaping over the Ohio River. The Indiana and Ohio corridor is the shortest overland distance from the Ohio River to Canada in the north.
Eliza Harris, along with her child, were two of thousands enslaved in Kentucky who escaped hoping to find freedom somewhere north of the Ohio River. Eliza and her child fled in the winter of 1838 to Canada where she found a life of freedom. Her journey sheds light on the experience of escaping slavery by relying on the Underground Railroad to provide aid and sustenance on the dangerous and arduous journey north. Her story also reflects the lack of documentation about these experiences. It shows how the lack of definitive evidence has enabled many locations in both Ohio and Indiana to claim a connection to Eliza. While she cannot have physically journeyed to all of the places that claim Eliza as a traveler, these many claims by places in Indiana and Ohio speak clearly to the importance of her story. Her story also helps us understand the many more men, women, and children, whose names we do not know, but who, like Eliza, fought their way north to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
This tour will take you to several places in Ohio and Indiana that claim a connection to Eliza’s journey. The tour begins, however, with one of the most important novels of the nineteenth century, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which helped white Americans better understand the horrors of enslavement and the risks enslaved peoples took when fleeing the law and their owners. A fictionalized version of Eliza Harris’ experiences is a part of Stowe’s novel. It provides the basis for much of what is known about her.