Colleen Rufenacht likes to think of herself as an “accidental historian,” and that has more than one meaning in her life.
She never intended to spend countless hours tracking down the routes of the “underground railroad” through Williams County into Fulton County, and on into Hillsdale, Lenawee and beyond.
She’s become an accomplished amateur historian, but it was never something she planned to do.
But that’s where the other side of “accidental” comes into play. One discovery unexpectedly offers a clue to another, and that leads to something else and then more. With a curious mind, there’s no end to the search.
For Heath Patten, an art history lecturer at the University of Akron, it’s a similar situation. Patten is also a professional archeologist and he’s spent many hours tracking down old home sites in Williams County, his home area—sites that are little but flat ground now.
Patten and Rufenacht shared the microphone Saturday night at the West Franklin Church of Christ to present their findings about the Underground Railroad at a program titled “At Candlelight.” That, Rufenacht said, is when abolitionist newspapers of the 1850s often announced their meeting time.
“At Candlelight” was the first of several programs scheduled by Northwest Ohio history groups to commemorate the Civil War Sesquicentennial.
Patten spoke first, describing the area as sacred ground, containing artifacts from three important components of history: Native Americans, the abolitionists and the Civil War.
There’s some evidence and many more stories about homes in the area that served as stops on the Underground Railroad, but Patten told his audience that runaway slaves were generally hidden along creeks and in swampy areas. Patten asked the crowd of 95 people to imagine what it would be like to spend night after night in strange territory along creek bottoms, wondering if every noise in the dark was the approach of a slave hunter.
The concept of slavery baffles Patten.
“One thing I can’t imagine, no matter how hard I try, is what it would be like to be a slave, to never know freedom,” he said.
It’s a concept that bothered many northerners of that era, too, and several were willing to ignore the Fugitive Slave Law that made it illegal to assist slaves. Violators faced large financial penalties and jail time, and in some cases, death.
“They were the men who were willing to risk it all to end this crime against humanity,” Patten said.
Those who dared to publicly declare themselves abolitionists in the 1850s had to prepare for the ramifications that followed because it was far from the popular belief of the day.
A map of Underground Railroad routes shows one main branch that led north along the Mississippi River before spreading northeast across Indiana and into Northwest Ohio. Stations on the route were generally spaced 20 to 30 miles apart.
By 1850, there were an estimated 3,000 people participating in the Underground Railroad. It’s believed that somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 slaves found their way to freedom.
“At Candlelight” began less than a mile away at the Society of Friends Meeting House, a Quaker church built in 1850. Quakers are often associated with the abolitionist movement, Patten said—and the Meeting House on Williams County Road 21N was no exception—but there were many Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and others also involved. Free black men and Native Americans also played a role in the cross-cultural network.
The Underground Railroad wasn’t a set route through any particular area, Patten explained.
“It was very flexible,” he said. “It had to be.”
If trouble was seen in one area, run-aways could be directed over to another branch. Eventually, abolitionists filled a variety of posts in the area, from judges and justices of the peace to sheriffs and township clerks.
“Who is going to enforce the law?” Patten asked.
He could find no evidence anyone was ever prosecuted for breaking the Fugitive Slave Law in Williams County.
Patten closed his talk by urging the audience to think about everything lying under the ground in this area from the many generations who lived here in the past 5,000 years.
Rufenacht told of her research on area abolitionists that’s taken her north into Hillsdale County and northeast into Lenawee County. Her great-great-grandmother lived in Lickley’s Corners northwest of Waldron, and her research into the Medina Union Seminary has led her into Lenawee.
John Manning Barrows and his wife, Catherine Payne Moore Barrows—both very active in the movement—founded the Medina Union Seminary on White Pine Highway at Lime Creek Road. Rufenacht wishes Patten would organize an archeological dig at that site where no trace now exists.
Tracking down the lives of the Barrows has led her to many other locations and to several new connections to the Underground Railroad.
Many times the paths are far from clear.
“A lot of Underground Railroad work is speculative until you find something in print,” Rufenacht said, “but we keep digging.”
She spoke Saturday about a trip to visit Mary Louise Foley who was once president of the NAACP branch in Ypsilanti, Mich. The visit resulted from another of Rufenacht’s accidental discoveries.
While perusing some Underground Railroad photographs for sale on eBay—they accompanied articles in the Detroit News—she saw a house that looked familiar. A great-uncle of hers once owned the old home, but Foley was in the photograph.
She bought that photograph and soon bought the others offered, too. One of them showed a woman in a house near Onsted and Rufenacht was off again, discovering new links in the wide web of railroad conductors and stationmasters.
“It never ends, does it?” Rufenacht said after her talk.
Mary Louise Foley offered Rufenacht an interesting perspective on history, from the Underground Railroad through the next century and a half.
“We are our ancestors’ dreams,” she told the accidental historian.