John Fairfield Forgotten Hero of the UGRR

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The Underground Railroad, painting by Charles T. Webber

John Fairfield was both the Robin Hood and James Bond of the Underground Railroad.

Growing up in northwest Virginia, he grew to hate slavery. On his first trip away from home, he went to Ohio and arranged the escape of one of his uncle’s slaves, Bill, and eventually took him all the way to Canada. When Fairfield returned to Virginia, he learned that his uncle was planning to have him arrested. Fairfield, who had received a large inheritance and no financial worries, decided to leave home for good. He took a number of other family slaves with him, and escorted them to Canada.

Slave Rescuer for Hire

A young adventurer, he was enlisted by former slaves in Canada seeking to free their relatives in the South. Fairfield was eager to help them and became a slave rescuer for hire. However, he helped many without pay because he hated slavery so much. Fairfield was always armed, and his only moral principle was to annihilate slavery. He had no hesitation about using his weapons. His standard procedure was to use an alias and disguise himself as a staunch advocate of slavery. In fact, it is not known for certain if John Fairfield was his real name.

He used various strategies. Sometimes, he remained in an area as long as a year, sizing up the situation and secretly meeting with slaves before leading them away. On one occasion he led slaves from Kentucky south into Tennessee to throw off slavecatchers. He often crossed the Ohio River into Cincinnati, or crossed by way of Maysville, Kentucky. At other times, he would have one or more free blacks with him, who posed as his slaves to learn of the whereabouts of slaves whom he planned to rescue.

He was ready to undergo any hardship to achieve his goal. Despite being betrayed and arrested several times, he usually managed to get released, allegedly because of his membership in the Free Masons. Once he was placed in the Bracken County jail and was forced to escape. Suffering from an illness, he crossed the Ohio at Ripley and was nursed back to health at the home of one of its abolitionists. Shortly after this, his most famous rescue ruse was concocted with the help of Levi Coffin in 1853.

Levi Coffin Associate

He led a company of 28 slaves across the Ohio River at the intersection of the Ohio and Miami rivers, using three skiffs that they stole. They were from northern Kentucky and Fairfield had been in the neighborhood working as a poultry dealer, feigning pro-slavery views. On crossing, one of their boats sank because of a leak. Some of them became muddied, making it obvious they were fleeing. They hid in a wooded area while Fairfield visited John Hatfield, a black agent in Cincinnati. Hatfield summoned Levi Coffin, and a plan was hatched to obtain two coaches and form a funeral procession along the road leading to Cumminsville and the Methodist Episcopal burying ground, which had a section set aside for blacks. Nearby were homes where they could obtain shelter. Before starting out, they were supplied with food, coffee, and blankets. The fugitive slaves arrived safely at their destination on College Hill, but an infant died along the way. From Cincinnati, they took a route up through Ohio to Detroit where they welcomed by a committee of abolitionists and crossed with great fanfare into Canada.

Later, Fairfield returned to section of Virginia where he was not known, posing as a Kentucky businessman. He alleged to have been robbed by the same slaves he was helping to escape and led a posse in pursuit of them, but taking care to give the slaves enough time to make their getaway. When the posse reached the Ohio River, they found the empty boats that the slaves had left behind and gave it up. Fairfield then met them in Ohio and took them to Canada.

One slave whom Fairfield helped said of him, “I never saw such a man as Fairfield. He told us he would take us out of slavery or die in the attempt, if we would do our part . . . . We all agreed to fight till we died rather than be captured. Fairfield said he wanted no cowards in the company; if we were attacked and one of us showed cowardice or started to run, he would shoot them down.”

Once, after showing Levi Coffin bullet wounds he had received in a shootout, he said: “Slaveholders are all devils, and it is no harm to kill the devil. I do not intend to hurt people if they keep out of the way, but if they step in between me and liberty, they must take the consequences. When I undertake to conduct slaves out of bondage I feel that it is my duty to defend them to the last drop of my blood.”

Laura Haviland Testifies

Laura Haviland claimed that Fairfield rescued “thousands” of slaves and called him a remarkable man who probably lost his life in one of his attempts to rescue slaves.

John Fairfield Disappears

After requests from Haviland and Coffin to moderate his activities, Fairfield opened a grocery in Randolph, Indiana. However, he closed it after a couple of years and disappeared. Coffin believed that he may have been killed during a slave revolt in Kentucky and Tennessee. Reports of slave insurrections took place at iron foundries in that vicinity in 1856. In one at Dover, Tennessee near the Cumberland River, eleven slaves were hung and a white man was taken to the woods to receive 900 lashes. This would have resulted in almost certain death.

References:

  1. Marven B. Butler, My Story of the Civil War and the Underground Railroad (Huntington, IN: United Brethren Publishing, 1914).
  2. Levi Coffin, Reminiscences (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co, 1880)
  3. Laura Haviland to Wilbur Siebert, 20 April 1893