Abolitionist… In Mason County in 1860, this was a dirty word. We were, after all, a slaveholding county with an enslaved population of 307. That number comes out to 3.3% of our total population of 9,173 in 1860. (As a side note, a map produced by the Census Bureau puts our percentage slightly higher, at 4.2%. That would equal 385 enslaved people.)
Now, that certainly isn’t a large number compared to Virginia’s Tidewater counties, where the enslaved population often outnumbered the free. In Amelia County for instance, the enslaved population made up 74% of the total. Ours was, however, the 3rd highest west of the Allegheny Mountains after Putnam (9.2%) and Kanawha (13.7%).
To put this in a different perspective, our enslaved population in 1860 was only slightly less than the number of students enrolled in Wahama Jr./Sr. High School when I graduated in 2015.
Now, despite abolitionist being considered a nasty insult, there were thankfully some brave souls that agreed with radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison when he said, “there must be no compromise with slavery.” Our local radical, at least for his time, was Reverend William Wylie Harper.
Reverend Harper was born in Butler County, Pennsylvania in 1819, where from an early age he was familiar with George Rapp’s Harmony Society. The Harmonists were a German Protestant group that, like the Quakers, Northern Methodists, and Northern Baptists, was fiercely anti-slavery. It was from them that Harper grew to support full and immediate abolition of slavery.
In 1853, Harper moved to Hartford. It’s possible that, being an ordained Methodist minister, he was sent here by our conference’s bishop. He was also listed in various records as a clerk for the Hartford Salt Company, keeper of the Virginia House Hotel, and owner of the Hartford Brickyard. Later, in the 1870s and ‘80s, he and his wife Amanda were also schoolteachers at the Hartford, Valley City, and Clifton Schools.
He was certainly a jack-of-all-trades, and apparently a master of them all as well based on his outstanding reputation in the community, but that isn’t why we’re interested in Reverend Harper for this article. Somehow, in his little free time, he also wrote op-eds for the Pomeroy Telegraph and Weekly Register. It’s through these articles that we get a real insight into the man himself, and he is without a doubt one of my most interesting research projects!
For this week’s article, the op-ed that stands out is from May of 1862. He writes, “It would seem that this one single word is a greater terror to them than it would be to face the armies of Jeff Davis or Beauregard on the battlefield. And why is this? Simply because of the odium which those contemptible traitors and slave-holding secessionists have clothed the term with…
“If you think slavery is wrong, and are opposed to it, and would like to see it abolished, say so at once. Don’t say you are an anti-slavery man, or an emancipationist, then fear to do your duty for fear someone will call you an abolitionist. I want you to be an abolitionist…”
In this case, the “you” that he is speaking to in his articles is the majority of Mason County. Our county was overwhelmingly Union, but this was due to support for the Constitution and hatred of eastern Virginia, not opposition to slavery. This was true for most of West Virginia.
Many of the leading citizens of Mason County, Lieutenant Governor Polsley among them, felt this way. He himself was a slave owner, but supported the Union. He and others were supporters of confinement, the idea that slavery can continue in the South but by preventing it from expanding to the territories, it will eventually die on its own. This, in 1860, wasn’t working.
Others in Mason County, like constitutional convention president John Hall, supported gradual emancipation. In this plan, enslaved children were freed at age 21. Slaves older than 21 were not freed, and as the aged and died, slavery would as well until eventually ending 40 or so years later. This was the plan that made it into our first state constitution.
Many more, from Editor Tippett to the immigrants in the coal mines, supported Reverend Harper and immediate abolition of slavery. (Otherwise, Tippett wouldn’t have allowed this article into the Register.) Over two years after this article, in December of 1864, West Virginia abolished slavery in its entirety. Two months later, it ratified the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery nationwide.
Thus, West Virginia began its long march towards its motto of Montani Semper Liberi. Mountaineers are always free.
Information from the Weekly Register and U.S. Census.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be Saturday, March 14 at 5 p.m. Location to be announced soon.
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.