Stop 4: Petersburg

Abstract: During the 19th century, much of Boone County’s UGRR activity centered in or around Petersburg, Kentucky.



Petersburg was a hub of activity in the 19th century.  At one point it was Boone County’s largest town.  As a river town, Petersburg was the point of most of Boone County’s commerce with other localities. Goods from all over Boone County were shipped from this point.  Slaves were a valuable commodity, and would be “sold down the river” on a regular basis, either for financial reasons or perceived “crimes” against their owners.  Fear of being separated from loved ones, in addition to the harsh conditions of large plantations in the Deep South, prompted many slaves to attempt to escape from bondage. In Petersburg, we have several interesting stories and key people involved with enslavement and the Underground Railroad in Boone County.  We start with George Washington Brasher.

George Brasher

George Brasher was a very active slave trader and slave catcher.  He arrived in Boone County sometime in the early 1820s; we know this from our marriage records and tax records.  He was a wealthy landowner and successful businessman and held office in the Kentucky Legislature. His family lived in Landing, an area south of here, but he owned several town lots in Petersburg.  Brasher had a very intentional approach to land acquisition.  He would buy properties placed in locations that would help him to keep an eye on the river, protecting his interests, giving him convenient access to steamboats, and placing himself or his associates between potential abolitionists and enslaved people in the county. He and his brother-in-law, Marshall McManama owned some of these properties together and were actively doing business with merchants in New York and the Deep South.  The two men were partners, and the big moneymaking venture was slave-trading and slave catching. Brasher may have equipped several of his Petersburg properties with holding pens for slaves who were to be shipped downriver or arriving from other places, as well as containing runaways he caught.

Brasher’s slave-hunting activities went on locally, but often he traveled as far as Northern Michigan and possibly Canada. He was involved in a well-known “raid” into a Quaker community in Cass County, MI in 1848.  He and many others staged a bold attempt to forcibly retrieve fugitives from Boone and Kenton Counties.  They were ultimately foiled by a protective community there.  Brasher also threatened the life of a female abolitionist named Laura Haviland, while in Michigan, shocking behavior for the time.  He was the owner of John “Felix” White, whose story you heard in Rabbit Hash.

Brasher died in 1849, taking a gang of slaves downriver for sale during the cholera epidemic.

Elijah Anderson

One of the most active conductors along the Underground Railroad in the region was Elijah Anderson. Born free in Lynchburg, VA at about 1811, he made his way to Cincinnati.  He met and married his wife there, and settled in Madison, IN in the mid-1830s. He was an associate of Levi Coffin, one of the most well-known abolitionists and UGRR activists in Cincinnati, who may have assisted in  placing Anderson in Madison to help with escapes in that area.

In 1847, when his activities in Madison became too dangerous, he relocated to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, directly across the river.  Anderson was a blacksmith by trade, and legend has it, he would sometimes hammer out code with his  tools.  The sound of the hammer would carry across the Ohio River, alerting freedom seekers, conductors and agents of plans and timing for escapes.  Anderson’s tactics were fairly risky.  He preferred to take as many people along as possible, believing that  a single  escape of twenty (for example) had the better odds of being successful than several escapes of smaller groups.

Around the time he arrived in Lawrenceburg, Boone County began to lose slaves in greater number.  Anderson himself is quoted as telling a friend that he had helped “over 1,000” slaves escape, with 800 of those occurring after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Anderson would go into Kentucky as far south as Frankfort at times.  Because of his fair complexion, he would at times pose as a slave owner and take slaves with him on the train.

Elijah Anderson was finally caught in 1856, by infamous slavecatcher Wright Rea,  and was sent to the KY State Penitentiary.  Though he was a model prisoner who was set for early release, his fate was a sad one. Anderson was found dead in his cell in 1861, the day he was scheduled to be released.  The cause of his death was unknown, but the suspicious timing was an indication of foul play. His importance in the Underground Railroad was immense, and he remains one of the most successful conductors in the Underground Railroad.  There is some indication that he also assisted in the next story you are about to hear:

Cincinnati 28

We like to end this portion of the tour on a hopeful note, so let me tell you about an amazing group of freedom seekers who started their journey right here in Boone County, and made it all the way to Canada.

In April of 1853, 28 enslaved people, mainly from the Parker and Terrill families, right here in Petersburg, began their journey to freedom under the leadership of Washington Parker, who was also one of the enslaved.  Wash Parker could read, which was usually discouraged by slaveholders. However,  he was taught to read by his slaveholder so he could preach the gospel at the services for enslaved people.  Slaveholders sometimes liked to spread the gospel to the enslaved in this manner, but also used faith and the teachings of the church to keep enslaved people from attempting to seek freedom through propaganda.  However, they were naïve in their confidence.  The enslaved people had a separate service, which gave them freedom to plan together.  Wash Parker reportedly had read a copy of the recently published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe, inspiring a plan for escape, which he shared with his flock.

At some earlier point, John Fairfield, a Virginian by birth, but avid abolitionist, had became involved in the escape.  He was a white Southerner, so above suspicion when he visited the Boone County farms posing as a “poultry dealer,” possibly with his own “slave.”  Fairfield arranged for three small skiffs to be waiting for the group when they got to the river crossing.  The large group boarded these very small boats, and began to cross the river, just above Petersburg.  While they were crossing the river, one of the boats began to sink.  The occupants of the boat (including Fairfield himself) were wet, muddy and conspicuous when they reached the free soil of Ohio. Fairfield relized they wouldn’t get far in this shape, so he hid them in a ravine and sent for help. Elijah Anderson may have assisted with the crossing and helped to contact Deacon John Hatfield on the river in Cincinnati, who would help them along.

John Hatfield was a free African American agent in the city. He was a barber on the river boats, and a deacon at the Zion Baptist Church downtown, also a stop on the UGRR. He and Levi Coffin came up with a plan to stage a mock funeral procession toward integrated Wesleyan Cemetery, with the freedom seekers disguised as mourners.  The brilliant plan was a well-coordinated effort between many of the UGRR’s most well-known players.

Levi Coffin, known as the “Superintendent of the Underground Railroad” in Cincinnati, then helped provide dry clothing, food and wagons for the group.  He was wealthy, and had a broad network of anti-slavery associates willing to assist.  Coffin was a Quaker, and believed in a peaceful approach to freedom for the enslaved.  He often disagreed with John Fairfield’s methods, which sometimes included arming the freedom seekers, and did not discourage violence as a tool for escape and self-preservation.  However, theirs was a common goal, and they would work together when they crossed paths in our area.

The group was able to make it to College Hill, one of Cincinnati’s abolitionist areas, where they were well-hidden and given more assistance.  Though pursued by slave hunters during points in their journey, the Cincinnati 28 made their way safely to Canada and freedom.

Story Outcomes:

George W. Brasher: Brasher’s life ended not long after John White resettled in the north.  He died in late 1849, aboard a steamboat bound for Baton Rouge.  He was transporting a group of enslaved people from Kentucky to Louisiana to be sold.  His death was listed in the papers, but his burial location is unknown.

Elijah Anderson: During an attempted extraction of and enslaved Kentucky man, conductor Elijah Anderson was captured by infamous slave hunter Wright Rea, in December, 1856.  He was charged with a felony and sent to the Kentucky Penitentiary in Frankfort for a sentence of eight years.  While in prison, he was well-liked by the warden, and was to be released early, but was found dead in his cell of suspicious causes in 1861.

John Fairfield: Fairfield continued his Underground Railroad work for a number of years after the escape of the Cincinnati 28.  He disappeared from records around the start of the Civil War.  Theories surrounding his disappearance range from:  death during a West Virginia slave insurrection to his relocation to Kansas.

Cincinnati 28: Following the escape of the twenty-eight freedom seekers from Boone County, many newspapers throughout the country reported that they had made it to Canadian soil and settled in Windsor, Ontario.  Sources agree that the infant that was with the group died shortly after the river crossing, and is buried in College Hill.

Joseph Jenkins:  Though Joseph Jenkins suffered the loss of his valuable livestock in the suspicious barn fire on his property, he went on to have continued success in his life.  He died in 1889, and his obituary mentions his acts of kindness, help for the oppressed and “ministering to the wants of the destitute.”