About the Forest

Underground Railroad and Freedom Trails on the National Forests

Historical African-American Communities

freedom trails logo

The Freedom Trails Initiative is currently on three national forests; the Wayne National Forest in Ohio, the Hoosier in Indiana, and the Shawnee in Illinois. Archaeologists on all three forests are working together to expand information on the underground railroad andAfrican American history. Their efforts recently were recognized by a USDA Honor Award.

To African Americans enslaved in the South during the early 19th Century, the flight to freedom was long and dangerous. Runaway slaves could expect harsh treatment if they were caught, and a bounty was paid for their return.

Those who escaped relied upon sympathetic strangers to give them food and shelter along their perilous trek. They followed a route that had no maps, directed from one safe haven to another along the Underground Railroad. Runaway slaves escaped in all directions, some to Mexico, some to Cuba, but most came north towards Canada. After the Civil War Wilbur, Siebert interviewed slaves who had made the trek to freedom, documented the path runaway slaves had taken, and in 1898 published the routes as well as over 3,000 known conductors who helped them.

siebert map of underground railroad routes

running man logo Who were the conductors?

Today the Underground Railroad represents ideas that all Americans celebrate: courage,determination and freedom. The "conductors" risked their own lives and liberty to provide safe houses and safe passage to African Americans fleeing slave owners and bounty hunters. Anyone willing to take the risk might have been a conductor: abolitionists, clergy, farmers, teachers, whites, free blacks, mulattoes, Native Americans, rich or poor. Some, like Harriet Tubman are famous for their sacrifices. But others worked in secret, and never told even their families of their involvement. They shared in common only the belief that all people were created equal. The Underground Railroad was America's first Civil Rights movement.

Backcountry Routes

By necessity, the routes of the Underground Railroad generally avoided cities, where more people meant a greater risk of being caught. They were often across areas of marginal farmland and wooded areas where houses were few. With the end of the Civil War, the need for the Underground Railroad ended, and as other farmers began to move into the area, or the farmland gave out, the African-American families in communities such as Paynes Crossing and Pokepatch, Ohio; Lick Creek, Indiana; and Miller Grove, Illinois moved on.cabin

Now these areas are largely managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The settlements are primarily archaeological, consisting of cemeteries, house and barn foundations, wells and cisterns, and old roads once used by free black farmers to transport their produce to market and their children to school.

The paths to freedom ran through many areas now part of the U.S. Forest Service system, and include rural freed slave communities, Underground Railroad transportation routes, stations and safe houses. Research on these sites has been ongoing for the past several years in response to public interest in heritage preservation.

In recognizing the importance of this early segment of African American history, we’ve begun to identify, research, and preserve these resources. This work has the potential to tell an important part of the story of the quest for freedom.black_farmer



Paynes Crossing, Ohio

Pokepatch and Paynes Crossing (OH), Lick Creek (IN), and Miller Grove (IL) were rural free African American settlements. Paynes Crossing was a community near New Straitsville, Ohio, north of Athens. Although the community was settled in conjunction with farming or industrial pursuits such as coal extraction or iron manufacturing, they also appear to have served, between the 1820's and 1870's, as major "stations" on the Underground Railroad.

payne crossing stone

Memorial stone at Paynes Cemetery

Pokepatch, Ohio

In the case of Pokepatch, however, its sole purpose may have been to harbor escaping slaves on their flight north betweem 1820 and 1870. These communities were not "towns" per se, but rather a loosely-knit system of farmsteads spread over the rural landscape within a 5 mile radius. As such, farmstead occupants were able to secretly aid fugitive slaves on their dangerous journey northward to freedom.

Pokepatch residents included freed African Americans, whites, mulattoes, and Native Americans who settled in the area for the sole purpose of harboring fugitive slaves on their journey northward to freedom. After the Civil War, most residents in the Pokepatch area moved on. Some of their descendants still live in the adjacent community of Blackfork.

union babtist church

 Union Babtist Church, 1879

While some of the men stayed behind in Pokepatch to help slaves to freedom, others enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) to fight for freedom. Henry Hutchinson (right) was one of these men. An escaped slave from a plantation in West Virginia, Henry fled north and settled in Pokepatch. Here, according to legend, he was recaptured and returned to slavery only to escape again and join the fight for freedom with the USCT. Henry is buried near Pokepatch.

The Union Baptist Church was organized in 1819 and served the Pokepatch community. The first two structures were log (1819 and 1879), with the present church built in 1919. The 1879 church pictured here, burned down. The church belongs to the Providence Missionary Baptist Association, formerly called the Providence Anti-Slavery Missionary Baptist Association (formed in 1821).

"Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters 'US', let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pockets and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States." (Frederick Douglass)

Blackfork and the Iron Furnaces

Blackfork was an African American company town founded by the Washington Iron Furnace Co. near Pokepatch. Although both were heavily involved in the Underground Railroad as major "Stations" along its corridor, Blackfork has offered some interesting leads to a larger network of UR stations.

Southern Ohio has a long history in iron production, and much of the wealth of the area was once held by Iron Masters, who ruled over feudal like communities with company towns and large landholdings. Most of the ironmasters were Abolitionists and used their company towns, ironworks and transportation routes to move runaway slaves secretly through the area.

An historic marker commemorating the role of the iron furnaces has been erected at the Vesuvius Furnace.


Stock Certificate from the Vesuvius Iron Company

vesuvius furnace ruins

Vesuvius furnace in the snow.

Historic Black Colleges and University Program

Tennessee State University (TSU) students were part of a Forest Service Grant with Historic Black Colleges several years ago which employed African American students during their summer break. The idea was to encourage these students to take an active interest in their heritage and in African American history. We think we accomplished that as we’ve sparked an interest in many of them to pursue more information or return for another summer of work.  And in return, we were able to get some great research work done on the Forest.

students 2001

2001 Students

Harold Garner and Jason Taylor worked on the Wayne researching Pokepatch and Paynes Crossing. Harold returned to work further on research and built a data base of Underground Railroad sites.

In 2001, three national forests: the Wayne, Hoosier and Shawnee National Forests, received an award (photo shown below) for the success of this innovative program. 

Vision for the Program

Forest Service heritage resource specialists have a unique opportunity to conduct historical research and archaeological investigations in areas which contain significant historical sites representing early African American heritage.
The U. S. Forest Service can and does provide leadership and coordination with, governmental agencies, local volunteer organizations and interested parties committed to the study of early African American history. Most of the sites themselves are now archaeological, and literary and oral history information needs to be collected before it is lost forever. The immediate task is to research and develop a plan to manage and interpret the early African American resources on each Forest.

Among the things that have been accomplished already….
The Underground Railroad has also been designated as one of sixteen National Millennium Trails. Of the 16 millennium trails it is the only cultural trail, and the only one that is still under development, selecting sites to include within a nine state area. Ann Cramer serves on the board of the group which is currently developing the trail.

The Underground Railroad Millennium Trail was kicked off in 2000 at the Lights of Freedom Celebration. This celebration, held in Gallipolis, Ohio, recognizing the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation has been an annual event since Sept 22, 1863. The town has celebrated freedom from slavery every year since 1863!.

The UR has caught the imagination of people who have reenacted the journey of those seeking freedom. Leading groups through the night looking for cabins with candles in the window or a sign telling them which routes were safe.

The UR has also prompted countless records searches and archaeological excavations, public education events, and interpretive signage and brochures. We are only beginning to understand the breadth of sites located on NFS lands. lights of freedom logo

People want to know, discover and understand this very painful, yet inspirational piece of American History. It's time it was told. And we, the Forest Service, have a part in that story. The ball is in our court, people expect us to run with it. We believe this is important, it's part of our mission, and it’s the right thing to do.

If you have questions on this program, or wish to volunteer, please contact one of our offices.


USCT gravestone

The area known as Pokepatch is now largely owned by the Forest Service and little remains except the church and cemetery on private land.


henry burke

The stone shown here is another USCT soldier, Jesse Moss, who is among several known Civil War veterans in the Pokepatch cemetery.


Wayne NF recieves an award for HBCUP