As the northernmost point of a slave holding state, Boone County was the last stop for many escaped slaves on their journey to freedom. Slaves from points south as well as those from Boone County left here in great number, many with the help of the Underground Railroad. A man named Elijah Anderson, known as the “General Superintendent” of the Underground Railroad, made a huge impact on Boone County in the 1840s-1850s.
Anderson, born a free African American in Fluvanna, VA in 1808, decided to leave after Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, when the state began imposing strict rules on free blacks. He arrived in Cincinnati in the early 1830s, married, then settled in Madison County, IN around 1835. There he bought a home, started a blacksmith business and joined an active Underground Railroad community. Anderson is credited with establishing many escape routes, some running north through Kentucky soil. In 1847, Anderson moved to Lawrenceburg, IN when his activities in Madison had become too dangerous.
Elijah, his wife Mary, and daughter are described as “light-skinned” and may have been passing for white in Lawrenceburg, which was not a welcoming town to free blacks at the time. He was even known to pose as a slave owner at times, escorting fugitives to freedom.
Anderson’s risky method was to take large groups of slaves at one time, rather than many smaller groups. Boone County slave owners began losing slaves by the dozens around the time of Elijah’s arrival in the area. According to the Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky, the Powell, Norris and Stephens families all lost multiple slaves in 1847 and 1848. Boone County slave owners lost nearly 70 slaves from the fall of 1852 to the early spring of 1853. Anderson himself claimed to have helped nearly 1000 slaves escape, 800 of those after 1850.
Using his blacksmith’s tools, Anderson would hammer out code, sending the message of escape across the river to agents and fugitives on Boone County’s crossing points. The heavily wooded areas and hills provided natural cover for those fleeing toward the river. There were doubtless many local families helping to move fugitives through Boone County to freedom, but helping slaves was risky. Most abolitionists in slave states wisely kept their identities secret; even today names are not easily found in history.
Elijah Anderson was arrested for “kidnapping” a Henry County slave in 1857, and sent to the state penitentiary in Frankfort for a ten-year term. He was due for early release in 1861, (for good behavior) but was found in his cell the day of his scheduled release, dead of unknown causes. The good work of Underground Railroad continued through Boone County, though the loss of Elijah Anderson was surely felt.