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Chasing the Mystery of U.S.'s Secret Trail

SATURDAY JOURNAL

Activists race to preserve scarce remains of slavery's Underground Railroad.

February 05, 2000|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GREENFIELD, Ohio — Gus West bought some land, built a mansion and paid an artist to sketch the place for posterity. When his first wife died, he marked her grave with a marble monument that towered over the other tombstones. On the surface, he seemed like a prosperous man.

Dig deeper and more elusive archives show that West grew up in Virginia, where he had to register regularly as a free black man living in a slave state. Census rolls show that he turned up in 1837 here in southern Ohio, a region known for its anti-slavery sentiment. Evidently, he did well. Eventually, he vanished.

What the records don't say is that West was a con man. That he and a white sidekick, Alex Beatty, made a bundle by slipping into the South to pose as slave and slave peddler, sometimes scamming up to $1,700 in a single sale and then high-tailing it back to Ohio. That they used the money to finance freedom for real slaves. And that West built a settlement for some on his farm just outside this little town.

No official document declares that Augustus West was among the many African Americans who helped run the Underground Railroad, the vast, shadowy and often misunderstood network of trails and safe houses set up to spirit slaves from the South as the United States staggered toward civil war.

This kind of history--the history of a secret--requires much more. It takes somebody willing to gather tiny bits of evidence to build a convincing body of proof, to match old memories with threadbare facts. And maybe make a little leap of faith.

In the case of Gus West, it takes a high school history teacher to sic his seniors on a local legend. It demands digging for clues on a bitterly cold day in the countryside, where the land is finally reclaiming the home of a larger-than-life man who made hard-to-find history.

"One more bad winter and it'll be gone," says Paul LaRue, looking up at the skeletal remains of a vanishing house. The pear and cedar trees that West himself planted now wrap around and reach through the framework of rooms with only remnants of walls.

Off in a harvested cornfield a few hundred yards away, LaRue's bundled-up students are sinking shovels and trowels into the hard dirt, hunting for an old button, square-headed nail or piece of porcelain that may help prove that West sheltered a village of runaway slaves on his secluded farm.

Without proof, after all, a good story is just a good story. "So much of this Underground Railroad stuff is written on the wind," LaRue says.

Or buried in the ground. LaRue spots a young woman running furiously from the modest excavation site, along a dirt road, up the hill where the ruins of the West house are falling down. She's excited. She's shouting.

Proof?

"I found something! I found something!"

Maybe.

Linking Stories of the Railroad

From Canada to Cape Verde to California, from the green fields around Greenfield to the New England whaling ports from which sailors smuggled slaves as far as Alaska, stories like the one about Augustus West are being dug up, dusted off and linked together like manacle loops. They are part of a belated dash to catch the Railroad before it disappears, to preserve places designed to be undiscovered and memorialize people determined to avoid detection.

"It's a challenging project," says Dwight Pitcaithley the National Park Service's chief historian. "Everything else the Park Service is responsible for is based on a site. This is based on an idea. And the whole idea was not to get caught."

Though much has been written about the Railroad, plenty is unclear. Its size, effectiveness, level of organization, means of communication and the precise location of its many routes remain clouded with conjecture. In the seismic decades that led to the Civil War, perhaps a thousand slaves a year managed to elude the bloodhounds and bounty hunters who sometimes chased runaways into Canada. Many took their tales to the grave.

In 1998, Congress gave the Park Service $500,000 a year to form a network of regional experts who would link the often overlooked sources of local lore. With no clear timetable and not much cash, a handful of Park Service historians has been figuring which people, places and things should be considered part of the network. Ultimately, they will devise a logo and a sign and etch a rough sketch of the Railroad on this nation's historical landscape.

A very rough sketch. "The history of the Underground Railroad will never be known with great clarity," says Pitcaithley. "But I think there is a lot more evidence out there."

Out there, buried beneath the decades, are lost tales of courage and adventure. Contemporary historians say the Underground Railroad has long been portrayed as the work of white abolitionists, often at the expense of the deadlier deeds carried out by free blacks and former slaves, and common folk in general.

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