MY JOURNEY WITH ELIZA HARRIS
by J. D. Edwards
Please welcome J.D. to the Writers Journey Blog this week with his special journey through the past and researching his new work "Indomitable."
“In the winter of 1838, a slave woman and her baby began their journey to freedom. To avoid capture in Kentucky, she crossed the ice floes in the Ohio River to the safety of the Ripley shore. The story of Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based on this incident.”
These are the words printed on a wooden sign along the Ohio River at the site where Eliza crossed. Aside from this sign, there was no proof that Eliza Harris ever existed or that her story was true… until now. While the following story is considered Historical Fiction, it is based on historical facts. To understand this story, the reader must understand the laws and political climate of the early-mid 1800s.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 authorized any judge or magistrate to rule on the status of an alleged fugitive slave without a jury trial. It also required states to return escapees to their owners and fine those who assisted the runaways in their flight. This resulted in many free Blacks being kidnapped and sold into slavery. By 1815, abolitionists organized the "Freedom Trail" to help funnel runaway slaves north into Amherstburg, Ontario, and other Free Black communities, such as the Dawn Settlement at Chatham-Kent, Ontario.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 built upon the previous act by forcing citizens to return any runaway slaves they discovered and increased the fine to $1,000 and 6-months in jail. To enforce the new law, all cases were overseen by federal commissioners, who were paid more to return an alleged runaway than to acquit them and grant them freedom.
In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe depicted the escape of a fictional character, Eliza Harris, in her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While there was a real Eliza Harris, Stowe modified the story of Eliza’s escape and masked the identities of those who assisted her. Now, 170 years later, I am not obligated to obscure the true story of Eliza Harris or conceal the identities of the abolitionists who helped her.
In seeking facts to write the truth of Eliza Harris’s escape, I consulted census records, family Bible records, probate records, deeds, baptism records, marriage records, death records, wills, obituaries, biographical sketches, county histories, court proceedings, and autobiographies of Levi Coffin, John Rankin, John Parker, and Adam Rankin.
In 2012, I discovered a manuscript containing the autobiographies of John Rankin and John Parker buried in the archives of Duke University. The real treasure was Frank M. Gregg’s interview with John Rankin Jr. about Eliza Harris, the fictional heroine from Uncle Tom's Cabin. He related Eliza’s escape as she described it the night she crossed the semi-frozen Ohio River. It was such a fantastic story! I found myself digging deeper for the truth because her journey involved my ancestors on two sides of my paternal line.
From this article, I learned that her story was true and that the Edwards, Lockhart, and Rankin side of my family helped set her free. My paternal grandfather’s line descends from the Edwards and Downing families. My paternal grandmother’s line descends from the Lockhart and Rankin families. Thus, while I am not descended from Eliza Harris, I am descended from those who assisted her escape. Therefore, the true story of her journey is equally personal to me.
Where the facts of this story drift into fiction is where there is no written account. The act of freeing slaves was a federal crime, and slavery was as polarizing an issue as anything in today’s politics. Abolitionism pitted neighbor against neighbor and tore families apart.
My 5x great-grandfather, George Edwards, married Susanna Downing in 1794. While George and Susanna were abolitionists, the rest of the Downing family owned one of the most extensive slave plantations in Mason County, Kentucky. This caused great tension between the Edwards and Downing families. In researching this book, I reached out to several Downing family members, including former schoolmates. However, none of them would discuss the matter with me. Some wounds never heal, I’m afraid.
Eliza’s master is never named, but we know she escaped from Mason County, Kentucky, across the river from Ripley, Ohio. The 1840 censuses show the Reason Downing family owning a slave plantation filled with 22 slaves. This is part of what makes Indomitable a Historical Fiction novel. I have used verifiable, historical facts and woven them into a narrative using Eliza Harris’s own words, as provided to her conductors.
Many would rather hide negative information they learn about their ancestors, but the way I see it, we're not responsible for our ancestor's successes or failures. History is history and it shouldn't be buried in an archive for over 100 years. I’ve spent the last decade researching Eliza's story, correlating all the facts about her journey and the Underground Railroad in Ohio. It opened my eyes to just how much slavery and abolitionism split our country well before the Civil War.
I took great pains to make everything in this story as historically accurate as possible. Everything from period technology, holiday customs, and women’s fashion is historically consistent. I also included documented stations, conductors, and coded lingo used by abolitionists. Eliza Harris was an indomitable survivor, and it’s time for her true story to be revealed to the world.
Now that Editingle IndieHouse has published "Indomitable", my decade-long efforts to tell Eliza’s story are finally coming true.
For those interested in learning more about Indomitable and Eliza Harris, this is the book description:
When Black voices are stifled, the reality is transformed into fiction, history is twisted into folklore, and heroes are turned into myths. Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin, holding a brief account of Eliza Harris, in 1853. Now, 170 years later, learn the actual tale of Eliza's harrowing escape from slavery and her unwavering bravery to live a life of freedom. Eliza risked everything to cross the semi-frozen Ohio River in the dead of night and save her baby from a slave's life.
Indomitable is a work of historical fiction based on real events and Eliza's firsthand narrative. While one branch of the author's family-owned Eliza, the other branch risked their lives to rescue her.
We cannot undo the past, but we can recount the tales of those who fought for liberty and assure that their sacrifice was not in vain.
Bio: J. D. Edwards is the award-winning author of The Faerie Chronicles, Killing Time, The Soul Reaper, and Dry Bones. His writing awards include The Charl Ormond Williams Fund, The Ohio Genealogical Society, Notebook Publishing’s #IndieApril, and Lulu’s Share Your Scare Writing Contest. Since 2012, J. D. Edwards has published over 50 genealogical articles in the United States and Great Britain, winning over a dozen historical writing competitions internationally. Future projects include historical fiction books set in the 18th to 19th centuries and further fantasy series regarding Faerie and Celtic Mythology.