The Oberlin-Wellington Rescue
Students today see Oberlin as a place of innovative ideas and thought, always unafraid to step out on a limb in support of values and principles. Historically speaking, things were no different: The events that occurred on Sept. 13, 1858 resulted in Oberlin’s reputation as “the town that started the Civil War.”
Known as the Oberlin-Wellington Rescue, a group of Oberlinians, made up of students and professors, assisted in the rescue of the fugitive slave John Price. Now, almost 150 years after this event, many historians of the Civil War still highly regard Oberlin.
In Jan. 1856, 17-year-old John Price had arrived in Oberlin, rumored to have fled from Kentucky’s Mason County. Two Oberlin residents, James Armstrong and George Logan, helped Price find some light work in exchange for shelter and food. However, Kentucky slave catchers easily located Price during the course of an investigation.
On Sept. 12, the slave hunters arrived in Oberlin and sought the help of prominent Oberlin Democrats in the preparation of their plan to kidnap Price.
During this time, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, commonly referred to as the “Kidnap Law,” was actively enforced in Ohio. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, federal authorities had an obligation to return slaves who had escaped from one state to another.
Under this mandate, US Deputy Marshal Anson P. Dayton had no choice but to help the Kentucky slave catchers. They bribed a local farmer’s son into tricking Price to ride on his wagon ,by leading him to believe that he would be taken to a farm for some work.
While on Oberlin Road, a carriage caught up with the wagon and three armed men stopped the buggy and dragged Price into custody. After the successful kidnapping, the slave catchers made their way into the nearby town of Wellington, avoiding Oberlin in fear that citizens would see them. The plan was to bring Price to Columbus, where they could have the hearing without the opposition of a very progressive local population.
However, two young men, one an Oberlin student, noticed the carriage carrying Price on their way back into town. Once back in Oberlin, the student, Ansel Wright Lyman, quickly spread the news. Soon after, a rescue party was assembled, including a number of black residents at the time, some of them also fugitives, and some College students. The rescue group headed towards Wellington as soon as possible, covering the eight-mile distance quickly.
As the rescuers reached Wellington they found out that the kidnappers were keeping Price on the upper floor of Wadsworth’s Hotel and Tavern, waiting for the 5:13 p.m. train for Columbus. Over two hundred people had gathered outside the Tavern, demanding that authorities release Price and arrest his kidnappers.
Despite the high tensions, however, there was no outburst of violence — local authorities never charged the rescuers with any counts. In the end, the rescuers successfully brought Price back into Oberlin. Later, Price was moved to the house of Oberlin Professor James Harris Fairchild.
Several days later it was rumored that Price had left Oberlin on his way to Canada and he was never heard of again.
Price’s departure did not end the sequence of events.
In Nov. 1858, the Northern Judicial District Court in Cleveland identified 37 of the rescuers and started a trial against them, not as a group, however, but as individuals. Included in those arrested were five College students and a graduate, Charles H. Langston, who had been working in Cleveland as a schoolteacher. Langston acted as a leader in Price’s rescue, honorably never resorting to violence.
“Infused with the Oberlin ethos, the rescuers and their supporters appear to have acted out of duty when they committed themselves to the antislavery cause,” writes Ronald M. Baumann in The 1858 Oberlin-Wellington Rescue: A Reappraisal. “They believed that individuals could not evade a moral decision and personal obligation.”
Twelve of those arrested served the entire 28-day prison sentence; most of this time was spent waiting for the case to go to trial.
Only two of them were actually tried, convicted and sentenced — Simeon Bushnell, the driver of the buggy that brought Price back to Oberlin, was sentenced to 60 days in prison; Langston was sentenced to serve 83 days in prison, later reduced to 20.
“[The] abolitionists (and their collaborators in surrounding towns in Lorain County) were not at all sentimental in their impulses,” Baumann writes.
Yet it is hard to keep away from sentimentalism even now, so many years later, when hearing about the events of that afternoon.