I went down to southeast Ohio over the weekend for the Nelsonville Music Festival on the swollen banks of the Hocking River and had some tooling around time. That part of Ohio is an ancestral homeland of mine and place of innumerable childhood memories. Its byways and backroads are a perfect canvas for day-tripping. It was in full spring; the foothills of the Appalachians have every plant and every tree flowering and bursting forth and a sweet smell hangs over the valleys. The after-rain mist clinging to the green hills. A sublime place until one sees the ramshackle trailers and mining’s detritus, poverty and ecocide, that are ubiquitous in the hills and hollers of the region. Its history, from the end of the last Ice Age through the Adena and the Hopewell until now, a constant pull on my attention.
The poorest part of Ohio, this is also an area rich in the history of resistance. From the tenacious wars of the Shawnee to slaves fleeing the shore of bondage that was the south bank of the Ohio; from the organizers of utopian communities responding to the degradations of industry’s arrival underway in the nineteenth century to the repeated strikes and risings of coal miners in the early twentieth. Every community is both the official story and the story that negates the official story. Sleepy Ohio has also been a place of proud, occasionally fierce, rebellion.
A few miles north of Pomeroy, which sits on the Ohio, is a place hidden, purposely, deep in the hills of Morgan Township, Gallia County. The Lambert Land Settlement was established by slaves from Virginia (which then included what is now West Virginia and abutted Ohio) freed on the death of the of their ‘owner’ in 1839. His will stipulated that the slaves in his charge be given the means to set up in freedom, the land purchased to be held in common by the families in perpetuity. Thirty settlers arrived in 1843. The place they chose became a center of abolitionist activity and a refuge on the way to freedom for those escaping slavery. Well worth the trip there, and clearly rarely visited, the cemetery and church that mark the remains of the hamlet is a special place. Tucked away in time and place.
Being just miles from the Ohio River the settlement quickly became a stopping place by those fleeing north from slavery. Its location so close to the slave states Kentucky and Virginia also meant the threat from slave-catchers was very real as well. In 1850 Elijah Anderson, a Baptist preacher, ‘underground railroad’ activist and member of the settlement, was lured to Kentucky under the guise of assisting runaways. There he was captured and jailed in Frankfort. Members of the settlement were told that they needed $200 to bail their comrade from the jail. Duly raised, they were then told that Elijah Anderson had died in prison. On return to Morgan the casket was opened before burial where it was revealed that Elijah had been shot and his skull crushed.
From the Ohio River to this settlement, runaways would then be assisted to other communities and safe houses stretching north to the abolitionist stronghold that was the old Western Reserve in northeast Ohio. While many escaping slaves, at the height estimated (perhaps highly) by one participant of the time to be two hundred a year, only briefly stayed around in a place so perilously close to the River, some did stay on. Some white neighbors, like the abolitionists Benjamin and Susan Ward who lived down the road from the settlement, were allies, many others were not. There are many myths associated with the ‘underground railroad’, but it is inescapably true that many hundreds of slaves were helped to freedom by a series of networks, mostly ad hoc, organized primarily by free blacks and other slaves, escaped or still in bondage. Free black communities close to slavery were naturally at the center of such a movement, the Lambert Lands settlement epitomizes much in that dynamic.
The area had gained newly freed slaves in 1862, fleeing with the Union retreat from western Virginia in 1862. When the opportunity to return south in a war of liberation finally arrived in 1863 a large number of the men in the settlement joined the colored regiments that were forming. In Ohio this largely meant the 5th and the 27th United States Colored Troops regiments. Several members of the settlement dying from disease or killed in battle, including at the battle of The Crater in Petersburg, 1864 where they would have been commanded by a distant relative of this writer, or at the battle of New Market Heights where the 5th received hundreds of casualties and the largest group of Medals of Honor given to black troops in the Civil War. One of those who answered the call was William P. Ellison, whose grave is pictured above. Joining the famed Mississippi Squadron of the US Navy, one of the few integrated institutions in the country, Ellison served on the US General Lyon.
That Ellison joined the fight is no surprise; he had joined that struggle many years before. Named by the chronicler of the area’s anti-slavery movement, the white abolitionist Nelson Banks Sisson, as a leading ‘conductor’ on the U.G.R.R., Sisson relates the time when, at the home of James and Martha Howell (main ‘underground railroad’ activists in the settlement), Ellison successfully fought off slave-catchers with a chair. Born into slavery in Virginia, Ellison’s family were among the first members of the settlement.
Up to thirty other Colored Troops veterans are buried here, some of them clearly arriving after the Civil War, many of them lie in unmarked graves. Along with the 27th and 5th USCT, which were raised in Ohio, those buried here were also members of the 15th and 16th USCTs as well as the 44th and 88th Heavy. One man, William Norman, seems to have ‘passed’ as white and joined the 36th Indiana which fought in the Western Theater throughout the war eventually destroying Hoods army in Tennessee under General George Thomas.
The women were no less involved in the struggle, though with much less of a paper trail to follow. A look through the Census records shows a majority of the households led by women, unsurprising given the strains and obstacles the slave system and virulent racism placed on the black family. Women are often written into the shadows of history, but they were at the center of the settlements activity. Sisson describes another incident on the nearby Raccoon Creek where a female fugitive was hiding from pursuit. The woman was defended by four other women, described as being brave and ‘used to guns’, who sat at the door and announced to the men approaching as they leveled their weapons, ‘The first man that comes through that gate is a dead man’. Apparently the slave catchers took them at their word and retreated from the home.
Morgan’s Raid in July, 1863 passed right by the Lambert Lands settlement, with Morgan’s troops taking over nearby Vinton. The area’s activity in assisting slaves to freedom was hardly news to Morgan and his raid was something of an extension of the border war that had been going on long before the outbreak of the Civil War. Morgan’s men captured blacks, sending them into slavery south during their trek north of the Ohio, striking terror into black communities of the region before the raid was broken up to the southeast of Morgan Township at Buffington Island on the Ohio.
There is much more to know on the community’s history. For example, I’d love to know the story of the above. Who was”Miles”? Other than tracing the benefactor of the monument, the aforementioned NB Sisson, I have been unable to get a hint. It certainly is an interesting monument and is one of the many stories to only partially reveal themselves. How many more are completely hidden? The Lambert Lands settlement was a communal one, made up almost entirely of farmers, and was held by the descendents of the original freed slaves for well over a century until, unable to pay the property taxes, the state took over the land and sold it off in the the early 1970s.
A working community the settlement had a school and a church, but it would be wrong to see it as a town. A farming settlement comprising fifteen or so families on two hundred and fifty acres with links to the other communities around it, both white and black, but with a strong identity of its own, many of the families that began the settlement would stay on and marry among each other for generations. Self sustaining rural black communities existed in Ohio well into the twentieth century and while the history of black folks in the north is largely seen as an urban one, born of southern migrations in the twentieth century, there remain significant traditions of black life, much of it rural and pre-dating the Civil War, outside of that experience. That tradition is kept alive to this day by some of the descendents of the Lambert Lands.
In 2002 the central monument was dedicated as well as markers produced for some of the graves, mainly those of Colored Troops veterans, by a group including descendents of the original families in nearby Gallipolis, an Ohio river town with a strong black and free slave tradition (including the longest running celebration of Emancipation in the entire country).
Hardly unique, the Morgan Township settlement was one of many that nestled in the Appalachian foothills of southeast Ohio, indeed southern Ohio is on the front line of freedom’s fight. Along with the “Gist settlements” that were established in Brown, Adams and Highland counties there was Payne’s Crossing in Hocking County, the Pee Pee colony in Pike County, the Stillguest settlement in Ross, Berlin Crossroads in Jackson county (home to the Woodson family, prominent black anti-slavery activists said to be descendents of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, who lost two men, beaten to death by slave-catchers, in the 1850s), Huston Hollow in Scioto County, the Macedonia, Pokepatch and Black Fork settlements in Lawrence County are the names of some of them. While most were made up of farms some found work in the newly opened iron and coal mines of the region. All of them lived on the border of bondage and the promise of liberty, all of them played a role in the struggle for freedom.
After setting up in Gallia County the newly freed slaves shed the name ‘Lambert’ of their master; among the families of the community were the Minnis, the Andersons, the Jones, the Millers, the Ellisons, the Howells, The Randalls, the Evens, the Burkes, the Hammonds, the Stevens, the Johnsons and the James. Their names are deserving of remembrance. Below are some photos of their graves, these freedom fighters and farmers of Ohio’s foothills.