HARRIET BEECHER STOWE AT CINCINNATI.
HARRIET BEECHER STOWE spent over a quarter of a century of her life in Cincinnati, coming there with her family when her father, Lyman Beecher, assumed charge of Lane Theological Seminary, and remaining until, as the wife of Professor Calvin E. Stowe, she accompanied him to Maine, when he became a professor in Bowdoin College. The Beechers lived all that time on Walnut Hills; and that girlhood home of Harriet Beecher is now owned and occupied by Rev. Dr. Monfort, editor and proprietor of the Herald and Presbyter. When the Beechers occupied it, it was situated in an open field,
having few trees around it, but a magnificent forest of beech trees close in the rear. It was approached by a common country road, which since then has become a fine city street in the construction of which a grade of several feet was made, leaving the house upon a high knoll protected from caving out by an immense stone wall. Here the girlhood and young womanhood of Harriet Beecher were spent in happiness and usefulness, the product of the rich intellectual and busy Christian life which surrounded her on every hand. Her most intimate and beloved friend was Eliza Tyler, the first wife of Professor Stowe, whose early death brought a mutual sorrow and sympathy which kindled the love which made Professor Stowe and Harriet Beecher man and wife.
While as Harriet Beecher she spent in Cincinnati some of the happiest years of her life, so it was there as a wife and mother that she passed through the fiery furnace of affliction, suffering, sickness, poverty and grief, which enriched the luxuriance of her
life's prime. Her associations were those of intellectual refinement, and in her daily life she walked in the midst of influences which quickened heart and mind. Among her intimate acquaintances were Archbishop Purcell, Dr. Drake, Hon. A. H. McGuffy, Mrs. Peters, afterward founder of the Philadelphia School of Design, Mrs. Caroline Lee Hentz and Salmon P. Chase, with whom she was associated in a literary society known as the Semicolon Club, an aggregation of the brightest minds in the early history of Cincinnati. Her first literary work was done as a contributor to the entertainments of this club; and the necessity of putting forth her best efforts in rivalry with the brilliant minds in the company did much in training her in that excellent and attractive style which gave such a charm to all she wrote.
It was only by the most indomitable energy and patience that she carried on her literary labors after her marriage. She felt the claims of her family to be paramount to all else; and amid the incessant and distracting cares of a large household, an insufficient income, frequent maternity, and heavy bereavements in the loss of a child and a beloved brother, she managed to save little time for writing. During one year she felt obliged to eke out her slender means by receiving boarders into the household. At another time the house was turned into a temporary hospital by reason of an outbreak of fever among the Seminary students. Another year was seemingly lost in a literary sense because of an affection of the eyes which
forbade any use of the pen. With all, the genius which must have its way, be it clothed with the form of the feeblest, most harassed and care-ridden housewife of them all, became so evident that her husband wrote her in 1840: "You must be a literary woman. It is written in the book of fate."
All this time the subject of slavery was crowding itself more and more upon her mind. The materials for certain chapters of the future book lay already in her mind, and were constantly receiving additions, as the cloud around her, which
finally burst into war, grew darker and still darker. Before her marriage, in company with a fellow teacher, she visited a Kentucky estate answering closely to the description of Colonel Shelby's in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The (to her) novel sight of negro slaves and their manner of life seemed to attract but little of her attention; and while others of the party laughed and enjoyed the pranks of the well-fed and well-cared-for negroes, she seemed absorbed in other thoughts. Years afterward, however, her companion recognized in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" the reproduction of scene after scene of that almost forgotten visit.
In a letter to a friend, we have a description of Walnut Hills which, viewed in the light of its present aspect, seems like an imaginary sketch. Should the authoress, her struggles past, her anxieties gone, her hopes crowned with success beyond measure, return to Walnut Hills, she would see the lovely glen which she describes converted into a roaring thoroughfare, where nothing remains but the outlines of her picturesque hillsides, which stand scarred by cuts and grades, nearly covered with the prosaic buildings which form the outskirts of a city noisy with steam, electric and cable railways. Arriving at the site of her former modest house and dooryard, she would stand surrounded by stately mansions, where few traces remain of the village where she lived and labored; and upon one part of what used to be her romping-grounds she would see one of the largest and liveliest of Cincinnati's beer-gardens.
After her marriage to Professor Stowe, they built a home near the Beecher homestead; and in this
house all her children were born. It was while living in this house that she gathered the materials and laid the foundation for " Uncle Tom's Cabin." For this work she could not have been more favorably situated. Cincinnati was on the border between the two civilizations, and Mrs. Stowe's opportunity for studying both, each in relation to the other, was unsurpassed. The abolitionists and the advocates of slavery were in constant strife, and the clash of the conflicts echoed through her daily life. The main thoroughfare of the "Underground" system in the West was through Cincinnati; and the most active and influential men on both sides had
their home here—Chase, Birney, Coffin, of the first, Nevill, Longworth, Graham, of the second—one party engaged in assisting the slaves to escape, the other in combating this effort and in capturing the fugitives and returning them to their masters. From the many exciting incidents in this struggle she drew much material for her famous book, to which were added many personal experiences in visits to Kentucky, a slave state, where she saw the slaves at their best in the West, and points gathered from reports of people who had travelled in the extreme South, where slavery was at its worst, as well as from the narrative of escaped slaves. The house in which she then lived still stands, though occupied by strangers to the life that once brightened it. As shown in the picture, it is as it was at that time, except that when it was the home of Mrs. Stowe there was an addition in the rear, in which she at one time conducted a school for freed negroes and their children.
Not only the incidents of the story, but also several of the characters, are taken from her Cincinnati experiences. The Simeon and Rachel Halliday of the story were Levi and Catherine Coffin, earnest and
active Quaker Abolitionists, the former for thirty years president of the "Underground railroad" in the West, who, according to the inscription on his monument in Cincinnati, assisted ten thousand fugitive slaves to liberty. He presided at the last meeting of the society held in the city soon after the ratification of the fifteenth amendment, when it was resolved that the objects for which the organization had been effected had been accomplished. Mr. Coffin was a native of North Carolina.
The character of John Van Tromp is drawn from the life of John Van Zandt, a Quaker born in Kentucky, who moved to Ohio long
before the war and settled on a farm north of Cincinnati, near the present village of Glendale. He identified himself with
the "Underground railroad" work, and was more than once arrested for the part he took in assisting runaway slaves to get to
Canada. In more than one of these trials
he was defended by Salmon P. Chase, afterward Chief Justice of the United States. The house in which he lived and in which
the Eliza Harris of the story was hidden for several days, as were many other slaves before and afterward, stands on the crest
of a hill; and from its
weather-beaten and somewhat dilapidated porch one can look away southward over one of the most charming valleys in southern Ohio. John Van Zandt has been dead for many years, and the place, consecrated by the great risks and self-denying services which he rendered in the cause of human rights, has passed into other hands.
Of course most of the characters represent the adventures of more than one person, whose identities have for the most part been lost. The adventures of Eliza Harris, for instance, are those of a number of slave girls recorded as those of one person, a thing that was necessary to avoid cumbering the story with a confusion of characters. The young girl who
furnished the name of Eliza Harris to the character was a slave girl from Kentucky, the property of a man who lived a few miles back from the Ohio River, opposite Ripley, Ohio. Her master and mistress were kind to her, and she had a comfortable home until financial embarrassment forced the master to sell his slaves. When Eliza learned that she and her only living child were to be separated she resolved to make her escape. Driven closely by her pursuers, she actually took to the river, which at that tine was full of floating ice, and made the passage as described in the story. She was almost benumbed with cold and exhausted when she reached the Ohio shore, and would have drowned on the border of liberty, had not a man who watched her daring feat assisted her up the bank. The name of this man is lost; but the woman was taken to the house of Rev. John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister, whose family still lives in Ripley, and cared for there. Thence she was forwarded through Cincinnati to the house of Levi Coffin, then living at Newport, Indiana, just over the Ohio line; and from there she was sent to Canada.
The young girl who was rescued through the humanity of John Van Tromp was Eliza Buck, one of Mrs. Stowe's servants. She was
a slave from Kentucky, who had come into the state of Ohio by consent of her master, to visit friends, her brother being held
as hostage for her return; for a slave once indulged in this way was under the laws of Ohio entitled to freedom. She became
a seamstress in Mrs. Stowe's family, and resolved not to return to Kentucky,—a resolution in which she found much encouragement.
But after some time word was sent to Professor Stowe from various quarters that the girl's master was in Cincinnati looking
for her. Though secure under the law, there were nevertheless unscrupulous justices who were always ready to serve whoever
would employ them; and the slaveholders knew
them. Professor Stowe determined to carry the girl to some place of safety till the inquiry for her was over. At night he secured a horse and wagon and, in company with Henry Ward Beecher, performed for Eliza the kind and perilous service attributed to the character of Senator Bird. It was a drive of ten miles to the house of John Van Zandt, where Eliza was secreted. The night was dark and stormy, and swollen streams had to be forded, but the trip was made in safety. Eliza was never captured, and afterward lived in Cincinnati the remainder of her days.
It has been stated by some writers of reminiscences that the Topsy of the story was a girl whom Mrs. Stowe had brought from the South; but this is not probable. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that Topsy is an aggregation of pickaninnies, whose comicalities and happy-go-lucky ways were compressed into one character.
Another character in the story is Richard Dillingham, a young Quaker from Morrow County, Ohio, who came to Cincinnati to teach the negroes, and whose enthusiasm led him to Nashville in behalf of a slave,—where he was arrested and imprisoned and died before his release.
So far as known, there is not one of the originals of the characters of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" living, except George Harris,—and there is a question as to his being the original. But as he claims this himself, it is well to state his name. He is known as George Clark, or Lewis G. Clark, and is now living at Oberlin, Ohio.