Beyond the Quest for the “Real Eliza Harris”: Fugitive Slave Women in the Ohio Valley
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 3, Number 2, Summer 2003
- pp. 3-16
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Beyond the Quest for the Real Eliza Harris": Fugitive Slave Women ill tbe Obio Valley KEITH GRIFFLER Inthenineteenthcentury,thebest-knownstoryofafugitivefromslavery was not that of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, or Josiah Henson. It was that of Eliza Harris,a fictional character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's, Uncle Tom' s Cabin. In that runaway bestseller,the most widely read work of the abolitionist movement, a young enslaved woman named Eliza flees her Kentucky home on the southern shore of the Ohio River and makes a daring escape across the frozen surface, already broken up into floating cakes of ice,to Ohio, where abolitionists conduet her to Canada. Millions of Americans and Europeans gained their introduction to the antebellum network for aiding fugitive slaves, the Underground Railroad,through Stowe's work. Eliza Harris became something of a symbol for what was,in Victorian terms, labeled the " panting fugitive."' The success of Uncle Tom's Cabin, though no doubt gratifying to the " conductors"on the Underground Railroad, might also have been just a little frustrating. The real heroes of the drama that played out north of slavery's border were all but unknown to a public that took so much interest in mere figments of Stowe' s imagination. Left out of the memory of a clandestine operation that was on the way to achieving legendary proportions , they would be faced with the somewhat peculiar task of reclaiming a central role in an enterprise they had created and nourished.2 Nothing better demonstrates this dominance of what the historian Larry Gara has called the " legend of the Underground Railroad" over the actual entity than the quest for the identity of the " real" Eliza Harris. Harriet Beecher Stowe herself inadvertently set off this strangest of historical preoccupations a couple UNCLE TON'S CABIN; LIFE AMONG TILE LO\\' I. Y. 'S„ f, T. K4bb-#'AR f .: 4 VOL. IT. tr es*HUNDRED AND TnEX., 1.Tlf CUSAN . BOSTON: py JOHN P. JEWETT &COMPANY * Clor CI, '-Ef,AN ]) I t)1!It): 0 of years after the publication of her classic with the followup Key to Uncle Title page of Uncle Tom' s Cabin by Harriet Beecber Tom' s Cabin. Under attack by proslavery forces for inventing a caricature of stowe. Tbe Filson slave life,she provided a detailed volume purporting to be " the original facts Historical Society and documents under which the story is founded." Within the work, she included a reference to the Eliza Harris escape story as mirroring an actual SUMMER2003 BY IIARRIET BEECIIER STOKE. BEYOND THE QUEST FOR THE " REAL ELIZA HARRIS" occurrence,and the search for the " real"Eliza was on. Given license by the author,such Underground Railroad notables as William Mitchell, Levi Coffin ,John Parker,and a son of Rev.John Rankin would include her story in their memoirs, finding themselves compelled to claim insider knowledge of the " real" Eliza to prove their Underground Railroad mettle. ; KEY TO UNCLE TOM' S CABIN. dent which brought the original to her notice may be simply narrated. While the writer was travelling in Kentucky , many years ago: she attended church iii a small country town. While there, her attention was called to a beautiful quadroon girl, who sat iii one of the slips of the church, and appeared to have charge of some young children. The description of Eliza may suffice for a description of her. When the author returned from church, she inquired about the girl, and was told that she was as good and amiable as she was beautiful; that she was a pious girl, and a member of the church; and, finally, that she was owned by Mr. Soand so . The idea that this girl was a slave struck a chill to her heart, and she said, earnestly, " 0, I hope they treat her kindly." c' 0, certainly," was the reply ; " they think as much of her as of their own children ." In her Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe admitted tbat sbe based tbe physical description of Eliza Harris on a " quadroom girl" sbe saw in Kentucky.Tbe Filson Historical Society punch as he did so, " yc venient at all p'ints aloi little jobs in our line qu...