Transcript of The Rhodes Family Incident
Written by Lindsey Beckley
Produced by Jill Weiss Simins
Beckley: Picture a house with one entrance – no windows to let in the light, no back door for easy access to the back yard– just the one front door. In 1844, the Rhodes family lived in just such a house. John Rhodes had built his family home in such an unusual manner with one thing on his mind – protection. Protection from the threat that loomed large over everyday life on his small Westfield farm. Protection from the day that John and his wife, Louann hoped would never come. Protection from slave catchers paid to hunt down and re-enslave freedom seekers. John and Louann Rhodes, along with their infant daughter, escaped from the home of their enslaver 7 years before, in 1837. On this episode, we’ll discuss the Underground Railroad in Indiana and what came to be known as the Rhodes Family Incident.
I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.
Beckley: Slave escape narratives and stories of the Underground Railroad abound in the American collective memory. These stories tend to follow a similar plot. The enslaved person is concerned about being separated from their family. They include daring and ingenious escapes. And they end just after the central figures reach the “freedom” of the North. These plot points can be seen clearly in two of America’s most well-known escape stories.
Guest speaker: After watching his wife and children sold away, Henry Brown resolved to escape slavery by any means necessary. That means, as it turned out, was to be a wooden crate marked “dry goods.” On March 23, 1849, Brown, with the help of others, concealed himself in a wooden box and shipped himself from Virginia to Philadelphia. He traveled – first by wagon, then by steamboat, and finally by railroad – for 27 hours to the home of abolitionist James Miller McKim. His daring escape was successful and he became known as “Box” Brown.
Guest Speaker: William and Ellen Craft married in 1846, despite being owned by two different families. The two dreaded a possible separation and decided to flee north. Ellen, who had a lighter complexion than her husband, posed as a white male slave owner travelling with a male slave, who would, of course, be William. The two fled their enslavement in Georgia in December 1848 and after several days – and several close calls – they reached their destination – Philadelphia.
Beckley: But that’s not where their stories ended – Henry Brown and William and Ellen Craft all eventually moved to England to escape the possibility of recapture. People who had escaped enslavement were often forced to continue escaping for the rest of their lives.
Recapture was a constant threat to those who had escaped slavery. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 declared that any person accused of being a runaway slave could be claimed by providing proof – in the form of verbal assurance or an affidavit – that that person was their property. Not so shockingly, this honor system was often abused by people seeking to enslave other people. The act also imposed penalties on those who assisted a fugitive slave in escape or concealment after escape.
The threat of these penalties meant that any work being done to assist enslaved people in their search for freedom had to be done in secret and that led to the development of the Underground Railroad. This secrecy, as crucial as it was to the continuation of the Underground Railroad, has presented some problems for historians in the years since the abolition of slavery. The lack of documentation means that it’s difficult to verify local lore that the church – or home – or local dry goods store – was a stop. And what few documents we do have are almost exclusively from white allies of the Underground Railroad, despite the fact that free black communities were crucial in the escape stories of many people. This has created a distorted view of the UGRR as being a system of white people saving enslaved African Americans from the bonds of slavery while largely ignoring not only the work done by free black communities but also the agency of the escaping people themselves.
Luckily, every so often, there’s a story that comes through the ages that can be verified and that tells a story of formerly enslaved people fighting to remain free. This is one of those stories.
$1,100. $1,100 could buy three humans in 1836. In this case, those humans were John and Louann Rhodes and their child, Lydia. They were sold as slaves to Singleton Vaughn, of Missouri, who took them to his land to work. Little is known of the conditions of the Rhodes family while they lived on the Vaughn property. Regardless of their treatment, one fact is certain – they weren’t free. About a year later, the family learned that Vaughn planned to sell Louann and Lydia further south, splitting up the Rhodes.
They had two choices – stay and hope that such an eventuality never came to pass, or attempt an escape. Both were risky. It was common practice for slave holders to sell members of the same family to other enslavers. On the other hand, the prospect of an escape must have been daunting and the repercussions of a failed attempt could be harsh or even deadly. Surely, the two weighed their options and debated the probability of being separated. In the end, they decided that escape was the only plausible option – the risk of separation was too high.
In the middle of the night in April, 1836, John, Louann, and Lydia stole away from the Vaughn farm. They traveled lightly – they carried an axe and some clothes but little else.
[Sound of water]
Beckley: The family made their way across the Mississippi River and into Illinois. Vaughn, upon discovering their absence, sent notices to various authorities alerting them to be on the lookout. Apparently, those notices worked and the fleeing family was captured and placed in jail somewhere in Illinois.
The details of the story are vague, but somehow nearby agents of the Underground Railroad were alerted to the freedom seekers’ plight. They broke into the jail and freed the family, who continued their journey, presumably heading towards Canada. Travelling north east, the family moved through the fields of Illinois, and later, Indiana.
BeckleyEventually, they made their way to Hamilton County, Indiana – just North of Indianapolis. While we don’t know for certain why they made this decision, the family decided to settle in Hamilton County, near Bakers Corner. The area was home to many free people of color who were farming and thriving – this likely fostered a sense of belonging.
[Sound of felling a tree]
Beckley: In the years after settling in the area, the family bought and cleared a 10 acre plot of land, built their house… you know, the one with just one door, and presumably lived a fairly typical life for farmers in rural Indiana. To get a glimpse of that life, we can turn to the nearby Roberts Settlement, a community of free people of color not even 10 miles north of the Rhodes family home. In the book Southern Seed Northern Soil, the preeminent work on the topic, historian Stephen Vincent writes,
Voice actor reading from Southern Seed Northern Soil: “Throughout the 1830s and 1840s…pioneers engaged in a constant struggle to gain an upper hand on this forbidding wilderness. Much of their time and energy was devoted to clearing their forested claims, tackling the work associated with farm-making, and producing most of the food and other goods needed for survival.”
Beckley: The Rhodes family would have faced similar struggles in taming the land, along with the ever present threat of their former enslaver catching up to them. In the spring of 1844, their worst fears became reality when Singleton Vaughn appeared on their doorstep.
Exactly how Vaughn learned of the Rhodes’ presence in Hamilton County is unknown. But when he heard, he, along with two agents who could confirm that he had bought the family, travelled to Indiana. Once they arrived, Vaughn applied for and received a warrant to arrest the Rhodes and return with them to Missouri. Then, in the middle of the night, the men, who were intent on re-enslaving the family within, arrived at that small home with just one front door.
They knocked on the door, but when the family realized who was calling, they refused to open. Vaughn and his men pried the door from its hinges and broke through the stick and mud chimney. Realizing that physical resistance was not only futile, but dangerous, John Rhodes turned to his intellect…he had a plan.
He and Louann surrendered themselves to the slave catchers and agreed to return to Missouri. First, though, John claimed that a neighbor owed the family $50, knowing that Vaughn would want to collect on the debt since the money would actually go to him, as their enslaver. Vaughn allowed the neighbor to be fetched, just as John had hoped. The neighbor arrived, and he was followed shortly by more neighbors – many of whom were friends of the Rhodes and protested their kidnapping.
Vaughn knew the law was on his side. In his mind, he had little to lose by going through the judicial system – he had enslaved the Rhodes lawfully, put them to forced labor lawfully, and now, he wanted to re-claim them lawfully. To that end, he agreed to have the matter put to trial in Noblesville. The group – made up of the Rhodes, who were being carried in a wagon, surrounded by Vaughn, his agents, and an ever increasing crowd of neighbors on foot – made their way toward town for some time before stopping at a farm for a few hours to break their fast. While they were stopped, their company grew even more.
Finally, they started down the road once more, moving ever so slowly towards Noblesville. They reached a fork in the road – one path led to Noblesville, the other to Westfield. The throng of neighbors – now 150 people strong, were well aware that the Rhodes had a better chance at freedom if their trial was in Westfield, which had more abolitionist leaning officials than Noblesville. That’s why, upon arriving at the fork in the road, the members of the crowd urged the driver of the wagon to proceed to Westfield. After much arguing, it had been almost decided to take their chances in Noblesville when, with a shout, the wagon driver urged his horses down the Westfield road. Vaughn and his companions attempted to follow but the fleeing wagon was too fast. The wagon escaped and with it, the Rhodes family, not to be seen by Vaughn or his associates again.
Vaughn had lost his property, but he had one more course of action at his disposal. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 states that:
Voice actor: “Any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, his agent or attorney, in so seizing or arresting such fugitive from labor…shall forfeit and pay the sum of 500 dollars, for the benefit of such claimant.”
Beckley: Citing this rarely enforced section of the act, Vaughn singled out Mr. Owen Williams as being in the crowd on the day of the escape and filed suit against him in an attempt to recuperate at least a portion of his investment.
The case was brought to the Indiana Circuit Court in May, 1845, a year after the Rhodes narrowly escaped Vaughn’s grasp. The presiding Judge, John McLean gave the jury several instructions prior to trial, such as: the jury were not to make a judgement on slavery itself, but rather on the case in question, based on legal precedent, rather than their personal feelings about the practice. He also reminded the jurors that the U.S. constitution was in full effect in the state of Indiana, including those sections upholding slavery and the rights of property that went with that. It was the very last instruction that was most crucial to the case at hand, though.
Voice actor: “An owner of slaves, who takes them to the state of Illinois, and keeps them at labor six months, and then removes them to Missouri, forfeits his right to them as slaves.”
Beckley: Before Singleton Vaughn purchased John, Louann, and Lydia, they were living with their enslaver, name of Tipton, in Illinois. Tipton had moved them to Illinois, a free state, from October, 1835 to April, 1836 – that’s almost exactly 6 months. Just long enough for them to become legally free.
During the course of the trial, Vaughn provided evidence that he had purchased the family of 3 for $1,100 – $500 down with ongoing payments arranged – basically, he purchased them on an installment plan…a phrase which is typical, if you’re buying a car, but which becomes nearly unfathomable when talking about human beings. He also provided evidence that the Rhodes lived and worked on his land for 1 year. And that he had acquired the appropriate paperwork to recapture them in Indiana. He even provided evidence that he was not a cruel enslaver – not that that was necessary, as, under the law, he could treat his property however he saw fit.
On the other side, the defense presented evidence that Tipton, the Rhodes’ former enslaver, had not only lived in Illinois, but that he had made improvements to his land. And he had participated in elections. And told his neighbors he intended to stay in the state, and eventually become a citizen of the state. All of this evidence added up to prove that Tipton knowingly moved John, Louann, and Lydia to a free state for over 6 months. Thus, Singleton Vaughn could not have bought them, because they were not enslaved. Thus, the Rhodes family was free.
After both sides rested their case, the jury took only a few minutes to come to a verdict: Owen Williams did not owe Singleton Vaughn the $500 fee for aiding and abetting a fugitive, due to the fact that the Rhodes were not fugitives.
Vaughn v. Williams was not a landmark case. There was plenty of legal precedent upon which to base the decision. But it was a landmark moment in the lives of this Hoosier family. John and Louann Rhodes lived freely in Hamilton County for the rest of their lives.
If the case of Vaughn v. Williams had been decided after 1857, the outcome would have been much different. The legal landscape had changed in two drastic ways in the intervening years. First, the 1793 Fugitive Slave act had been replaced by the much stricter and federally enforced Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Second, in 1857, Scott v. Standford, more commonly known as the Dred Scott case, toppled legal precedent and ruled that a slave, in this case Dred Scott, who had resided in a free state, in this case, Illinois and Wisconsin Territory, was not thereby free. Furthermore, it was ruled that African Americans, whether they were free or enslaved, could not be citizens of the United States. Justice John McLean, who had presided over the Vaughn v. Williams case, wrote a scathing dissenting option on the Dred Scot case. In it, he underlined the legal precedent, as he had done with his jurors instructions 12 years before.
Although John, Louann, and their children were legally free in perpetuity, the anxiety of being re-enslaved was ever present, through the Civil War. As discussed at the top of the episode, all an enslaver needed to do in order to claim a person of color as their property was to convince a judge that he owned them, oftentimes with extremely tenuous, even false evidence.
For example, in the case of Vallandingham v. West, which was discussed in season 1, epsidoe 3 of the podcast, Vallandingham, who claimed that West had escaped enslavement on his property, cited the fact that he had cut off one of West’s fingers during his enslavement. Despite the fact that West did not have any such injury, it was ruled that West was to be sent to Kentucky to be put to forced labor on Vallandingham’s property. In this case, as in many other cases, there was no justice.
When people live in a place where they don’t feel protected by the governmental authorities or judicial system, they often find other ways to cope – John Rhodes built his home with only one exit in order to avoid slave catchers. Young African American boys were taught not to look at a white woman during the early 20th century in order to avoid the wrath of vigilante justice. And today, the national discussion still centers around the discrepancies in the treatment of minorities in the American judicial system.
[Talking Hoosier History theme music]
Beckley: Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History, a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau which is a division of the Indiana State Library. Special thanks to our guest speaker, Angela Downs, who is an administrative assistant at the Indiana State Library. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Production and sound engineering by Jill Weiss Simins. Excerpts read by Justin Clark. Visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” to see all of the sources for this episode. Find us on twitter and facebook at @talkhoosierhist and like, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. And as always, thanks for listening.
Vaughan v. Williams, Indiana Circuit Court, May Term: 1845, Case No. 16,903, Accessed in IHB Rhodes Family Incident Historical Marker File.
“Pioneer Times Recalled,” Hamilton County Ledger, April 6, 1909, 1.
C.W.A. David. “The fugitive Slave Law of 1793 and its Antecedents,” The Journal of Negro History, 9, no. 1 (January 1924): 18-25.
Heighway, David. “The Law in Black and White: The Story of a Hamilton County Family,” https://www.westfield.in.gov/egov/documents/1376663863_54293.pdf
Conklin, Julia. “The Underground Railroad in Indiana,” The Indiana Magazine of History, 6, no. 2 (June 1910): 63-74.
Shirts, Augustus. A History of the Formation, Settlement and Development of Hamilton County, Indiana, From the Year 1818 to the Close of the Civil War.
Cox, Anna-Lisa. The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers & The Struggle for Equality, New York: Public Affairs, 2018.
Vincent, Stephen. Southern Seed Northern Soil: African-American Farm Communities in the Midwest, 1765-1900, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.