The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858


Editor’s Notebook column

By Rick Palsgrove

Messenger photos by Rick Palsgrove
Mark Welch (left), portraying attorney Albert Gallatin Riddle, who defended the Oberlin rescuers; and Keith Shannon (right), portraying William Shakespeare Boynton, who was a pro-slavery witness at the rescuers’ trial, debate the Fugitive Slave Act during the Kelton House Museum and Garden: Underground Railroad Advisory Committee’s performance of “Not on Our Watch: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858” at Groveport Town Hall on March 28.

There was an incident in Ohio in 1858 that so inflamed the passions of both the anti-slavery and pro-slavery factions in America that some believe it nearly triggered the start of the Civil War three years before the fall of Fort Sumter.

Yet, today few people know about “The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858.” It’s fascinating how often an event that was of national prominence in its own time becomes lost in the folds of history.

“I grew up in Ohio and never heard of  ‘The Rescue.’ It came as a shock to me,” said Mark Welch, an actor with Columbus’ Kelton House Museum and Garden: Underground Railroad Advisory Committee.

The Groveport Heritage Society presented, “Not On Our Watch: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858” on March 28 at  Groveport Town Hall, which was performed by the members of the Kelton House Underground Railroad Community Advisory Committee. The program used narratives drawn from the book, “The Town that Started the Civil War,” by Nat Brandt.

Actor Rory Rennick, portraying Charles Henry Langston, gives an impassioned anti-slavery speech during the Kelton House Museum and Garden: Underground Railroad Advisory Committee’s performance of “Not on Our Watch: The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858” at Groveport Town Hall on March 28. Langston was a 19th century Underground Railroad and civil rights activist, orator, teacher, and editor.

The Kelton House actors portrayed events that occurred in Wellington and Oberlin, Ohio, in 1858, when the capture of an escaped slave by slave catchers, and the actions of anti-slavery townspeople who freed the runaway from his jail, stirred emotions nationally. The subsequent trial brought the country to the brink of war.

According to the historical record, slave catchers from Kentucky came to Oberlin in 1858 and captured escaped slave John Price with the intention of taking him back to his master in Kentucky. The slave catchers were legally allowed to do this under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which stated escaped slaves must be returned to their masters even if the fugitives were in a free state. The law also compelled officials and residents, even in free states, to cooperate in the capture of escaped slaves.

Oberlin in 1858 was considered one of the most racially integrated cities in America and was a hotbed of abolitionism.

When the slave  catchers nabbed John Price, a large group of residents from Oberlin and Wellington rose up to rescue him. The rescuers stormed the hotel where the slave catchers were holding Price. There were so many rescuers that, in order to get Price out of the crowded hotel, they had to lift him over their heads and pass him hand-by-hand out of the hotel. Once freed, the rescuers spirited Price to Canada and freedom.

Because they liberated Price, 37 of the rescuers – both black and white – were charged with violating the Fugitive Slave Act.

The trial of these rescuers in 1859 put the country on edge. According to the Kelton House actors, at one point federal troops were poised to enter Ohio to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act and to discourage the defiant abolitionist sentiment that was gaining steam.

Eventually a legal deal was cut and the rescuers were freed after spending 83 days in jail.

Keith Shannon, an actor with Columbus’ Kelton House Museum and Garden: Underground Railroad Advisory Committee, said of the 1858 incident, “It is very relevant today. It deals with human rights, decency, and public civilized discourse. It’s important to be informed and the people of Oberlin in 1858 were very informed.”

Added Maryan Abdinur Mohamed, another Kelton House actor, “It must be thought about in the entire context of race. It’s an impactful examination of individual rights in a community setting. In Oberlin the community bonds were strong. The well being of their town brethren mattered enough to them to risk going to jail. It also makes us think about the role of being a citizen and the question, ‘Is a law just or not?’”

The impact of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue of 1858 was felt in the following years. Ohio Governor Salmon Chase, who had been a leading contender as a potential Republican presidential candidate in 1860, lost favor politically because he was deemed too radical after he supported the Oberlin rescuers. This paved the way for Abraham Lincoln to secure the party’s nomination.

The passionate abolitionist John Brown took note of the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue and was impressed by it. Brown would soon take up his own effort in 1859 to violently end slavery with his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry, Va., a meteor which would help light the tinder box that would become the Civil War.

Rick Palsgrove is editor of the Southeast Messenger.


  1. What a lovely way to commemorate such an historical event. Too often people allow the pain of the past slip aside because remembering hurts. But this way people can respect the pain, by acknowledging the struggles and the strengths of humanity in spite of the insanity of humanity.

    Good job. And congratulations Mark, you make a great defender of the downtrodden.



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