Archives and Rare Books, University of Cincinnati

Documenting the Path to Freedom: Abolition and Anti-Slavery in Ohio

Ohio Archives Month, October 2009

Archives Month 2009

In October of every year, the Society of Ohio Archivists celebrates the importance of primary source documents in preserving and understanding our national history and cultural heritage.  SOA is joined this year by the Ohio Historical Society and the Ohio Historical Records Advisory Board in recognizing the vitality and use of historical materials.

And, every year SOA promotes a specific theme to call attention to historical sources held by repositories in the state, from local libraries and governmental bodies to historical societies and colleges and universities.  The theme for 2009 is “Documenting the Path to Freedom: Abolition and Anti-Slavery in Ohio.”  As in the past couple of years, the Archives & Rare Books Library is participating in Archives Month by selecting relevant rare materials from its holdings to share with the citizens of Ohio.

This year, we chose to highlight two letters: one from Thomas Jefferson to Reverend David Barrow of Kentucky and a petition sent by Barrow in his role as president of the Kentucky Abolition Society to the United States Congress, advocating the setting aside of public lands for emancipated slaves.  David Barrow (1753-1819) was a Baptist minister who, along with Carter Tarrant, formed the society in 1808 and it became the voice of abolition in the state, despite never having more than a couple hundred members at any time.  The society’s stated purposes were to end the slave trade, provide for better treatment of slaves, fight for the abolition of slavery, and provide for the education of freed slaves.  In the same year The Kentucky Abolition Society was founded, Barrow published a pamphlet, Involuntary, Unmerited, Perpetual, Absolute, Hereditary Slavery Examined on the Principle of Nature, Reason, Justice, Policy and Scripture, which set forth his own views.

Barrow had apparently written Thomas Jefferson about the abolition of slavery because the Jefferson letter featured here is a reply and thank-you to Barrow.  The discovery of the Jefferson and Barrow letters in our holdings is one of those wonderful moments when history comes alive.  In 1979, archivist Rick Haas was examining a cache of historical documents that had come to the archives in several old tin bread boxes when he unfolded one packet of papers after another, most of which concerned various aspects of Cincinnati and Hamilton County history.  Then, unfolding another one and expecting another list of early settlers or a series of steamboat lading bills, he discovered these documents.

On May 1, 1815, Jefferson wrote to Barrow setting out his own views on the possibility of abolishing slavery, stating that it would require “time, patience and perseverance in the curative process.”  The other document exhibited here is dated October of 1815 and is a petition sent by the Kentucky Abolition Society to Congress, noting that there are “…vast Tracts of unappropriated Lands within the Boundaries of these United States…” which Congress should see fit to use for emancipated slaves as an asylum.  In reading this petition, one can see that the society’s proposal in its particulars is not unlike reservations for American Indians.

Our student assistant, Kathleen Forste, scanned and transcribed the documents presented here.


Thomas Jefferson's Letter to Reverend David Barrow of Kentucky

May 1, 1815


Reverend David Barrow's Petition of the "Kentucky Abolition Society"

October 18th & 19th, 1815


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