Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Battle of Houlton’s Mill

My research continues to uncover further material on the Pike County anti-abolitionist mob that disrupted Rev. Edward Weed’s lecturing in Sinking Spring, Ohio, in early August 1836. I recently came across a letter written to the editor of the Hillsborough Gazette, which was first published on September, 4th,1836, about three weeks after violent confrontations had taken place, yet before anti-abolitionist James Houlton had succumbed to his knife wound. The Hillsborough Gazette letter caught the attention of the editor of The New-Yorker, which reprinted it on the 24th of September, under the title, “Lynch Law in Ohio” – the day before James Houlton died.

The anonymous letter writer fills in more detail on the “crisis” that Edward Weed had predicted following the near riot in Waverly the previous July. With help of the author’s references to dates we can now better establish the chronology of events the led to the fatal stabbing of James Holton. After arriving in Sinking Spring via Piketon in the last week of July, Weed and his supporters spread word that a series of public lectures on the issue of slavery and abolition would begin the evening of Monday, August 1st. Members of the Paint Valley Abolition Society, which had members in Highland, Ross, and Fayette counties, including a number of inhabitants of the Sinking Spring region of Highland, organized the meetings, helping Rev. Weed, the traveling agent of the American Anti-slavery Society, publicize his lectures. At some point before the start of the first lecture, a group of eight or ten men from the Sunfish Creek community in Pike County’s Mifflin Township “came into town and told some of Mr. Weed’s friends that” the abolitionist speaker would not be heard “in peace.” According to the Hillsborough Gazette letter, “Mr. Weed’s friends replied that he should lecture, let the result be what it might.”

When the evening came, the Sunfish Creek anti-abolitionists attended the lecture and just as the Reverend began his talk, they rose from their seats and began pelting Weed with rotten eggs. Immediately, the local constable, who was also in attendance, placed the men under arrest. He told them that he would release them if they immediately left the premises and the larger village of Sinking Springs. They agreed and were allowed to return to Pike County.

The Sunfish men had surrendered to rally the like-minded and fight another day.

Weed would resume his lecture and upon its completion, but when he finished, “some of the citizens requested him to leave the village. He said he would do so if his friends wished it; but his friends said they wished him to lecture, and would defend him.”

The next evening Rev. Weed gave his second lecture with no disturbance. However, on the third evening a large Pike County mob showed up just before the start of the lecture. Although the Hillsborough Gazette letter does not relate the detail, it may have been at this point that a mob of “seventy or eighty men from Sunfish” led to the call up of local militia members. In Weed’s account of the incident, he estimated the mob’s size to have been around forty and stated that “as soon,” as troops “appeared in the village with guns our mobocratic gentlemen began to talk about home, and … soon ‘put out.’” Weed’s account, however, failed to mention that the showdown between the militia and rioters led to the cancellation of his evening lecture. He would resume the schedule of lectures the following day, concluding the series after three or four more lectures in as many days.

The concluding evening finished with the enrollment of forty new members in the Paint Valley Abolition Society, an affiliate of Weed’s national organization, the American Anti-slavery Society. I also recently came across a short report published in an April edition of James G. Birney’s Philanthropist, which announced the formation of a separate Sinking Spring Anti-Slavery Society. Founded on the 5th of January 1837, five month’s after Weed began his lecture series, the society enrolled thirty-seven members, the core supporters who first publicly embraced abolitionism in the midst of the turbulent summer of 1836. They elected John Weyer, president, and John Forbuish, secretary. The members pledged $50 to the Ohio State Anti-slavery Society and an additional $20 to purchase abolition literature for “general circulation.” In response to Weed’s lecturing and the violent opposition of Lower Scioto Valley anti-abolitionists, Sinking Spring abolitionists resolved to assist the newly organized state-wide abolition campaign.

Our Hillsborough Gazette letter writer provides further information about the deadly events that followed Weed’s lecture series. “Some eight or ten days afterwards the Abolitionists of the village concluded that it would not do for Sunfish to dictate to them, and determined to punish them for the course they had taken.” On the first of August 1836, the abolitionists secured arrest warrants for a number of Pike countians from the Sunfish Creek community.

The local constable refused to sign the warrants unless the abolitionists would accompany him as a posse comitatus. Relying on a provision of common law, the constable could legally conscript residents over the age of fifteen to assist him in maintaining peace or pursuing and arresting suspected law breakers. With warrants secured, the “constable, with ten or fifteen Abolitionists, took up their line of march to Houlton’s Mill, on Sunfish,” starting out at 3 AM in the morning, in order to arrive at their destination just after dawn. Houlton’s Mill on Sunfish was a community center, where the rural inhabitants of Pike County ground their grain and rallied for public events. News of the posse and the warrants reached Sunfish in time for the anti-abolitionists to call their own rally in expectation of the arrival of the posse. “Some seventy or eighty of the citizens of Sunfish had collected for the purpose of making battle.”

The Sunfish anti-abolitionists sent two men on horse back to intercept the posse and deliver a message of defiance. They advised the constable “not to go any further as they would not be taken” without a fight. What happen next became a source of controversy. The abolitionists would claim “that the constable told them to go on.” The constable, however, would counter that he had not authorized them to proceed all the way to Houlton’s Mill. Whatever the case may have been, the abolitionists pushed on and the constable and his guard followed. Soon thereafter the “battle commenced.” Although our letter writer states that “one of the Sunfish party was stabbed with a knife, and was the only person seriously injured during the engagement,” the abolitionists, facing a crowd seven or eight times their size, retreated after their attempt to serve the warrants was met by force – Our Hillsborough Gazettee letter writer tells us that “the constable and his party were forced to run to save their lives.”

The Sinking Spring abolitionists had been repulsed and with James Houlton lying in bed with a mortal knife wound, it appears that the Sunfish anti-abolitionists sent word that they wished “to have the matter settled on peaceable terms.” They were “perfectly willing to drop it as it is,” noting that they still would “never be taken by force.” Houlton’s death on the 25th of September, changed things. The young father, who himself had once been orphaned, left nine young children in the care of his now-widowed young wife. Houlton was also well connected with one of the most influential families in the state. When James Holton’s own father had died, former governor Allen Trimble served as the teenager’s legal guardian. Holton’s death at the hands of an abolitionist posse was not going to be tolerated by the Sunfish community. They sought and secured the indictment of William H. Mitchell on charges of murder. Cooler minds were now prevailing; the anti-abolitionists would use the state court system to go after the man they believed was Houlton’s murderer.

As mentioned in a previous post, the case of Ohio v. Mitchell came before Pike County presiding Judge John H. Keith, who had only recently taken up the courtroom gavel, after having handed over the speakership’s gavel of the Ohio House of Representatives. Records of this trial have not yet been uncovered, but it appears that Judge Keith provided legal rulings that helped lead to the acquittal of William Mitchell in October 1836.

In light of the jury’s judgment in favor of Mitchell, it appears that the Sunfish anti-abolitionists backed off their campaign to disrupt the activities of the Sinking Springs abolitionists. The abolitionists appear to have rallied around Mitchell’s case and further organized their support for the larger cause of abolition, by spinning off a new chapter of the Ohio State Anti-Slavery Society from the original Paint Valley Abolition Society. And their pledge in January 1837 to raise $20 for the express purpose of circulating abolitionist literature within the state of Ohio amounted to open resistance to the demands of the Piketon Anti-abolition Resolutions of the preceding July.

By 1837, when Sinking Spring abolitionists organized, certain homes in the community were already serving as stations on the Underground Railroad. With area abolitionists’ previous connections with members of the Paint Valley Abolition Society, lines of the railroad ran through Sinking Spring, northward from Adams and Scioto Counties to stations in the northern townships of Highland County and on into Fayette and Ross Counties.

Reverend Edward Weed’s visit in the summer of 1836, at a time when anti-abolitionists were stirring up race riots in Cincinnati, when the office of James Birney’s antislavery newspaper, The Philanthropist, had been ransacked and the press destroyed, at a time when a violent clash between a local constable’s posse comitatus and anti-abolitionists in Pike County ended in the death of one of the rioters, Weed’s tumultuous tour of the Lower Scioto Valley had won over new converts and hardened the prior commitment of existing antislavery activists to the larger cause of abolitionism.

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