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Riding the Underground Railroad

Delia Webster still remembered
for her efforts to end slavery

A new gravestone, biography now pay her tribute

MILTON, Ky. (February 2021) – Carmen Smith owns an important piece of Kentucky history, tucked away on a Trimble County, Ky., farm. The farm and its ties to noted abolitionist Delia Ann Webster tell a story as relevant today as it was in pre-Civil War times.

Delia webster

February 2021 Cover


Smith’s farm on Detmer Lane in Milton was once part of a larger farm owned by Webster. Webster became famous for her daring attempts and successes in whisking slaves away to freedom. She earned a name for herself when she lived in Trimble County and also just across the river in Madison, Ind.
“My family has owned the farm for a long time,” said Smith. The first owners in her family were her great grandparents, Andy and Emma Detmer. It then passed to her grandparents, Charlie and Ella Detmer, and finally to her parents Allen and Caroline Detmer, before passing to her after her father’s death in 2012.
While the house Smith lives in is very old, it is not the original house that Webster lived in when in November 1852 she purchased for $9,000 a 600-acre farm from Willis and Elizabeth Hodges of Louisville. The actual deed was recorded on June 6, 1853, in the Trimble County Courthouse. Webster had the financial backing of northern abolitionists Norris Day, Parmenas M. Collins and John Preston to purchase what many believed was an Underground Railroad station.

Carmen Smith

Photo by Don Ward

Carmen Smith's family owns the Milton, Ky., farm once owned by Delia Webster.


Smith said she grew up “not knowing anything at all about Delia.” It wasn’t until years later when she received a call from Nancy Theiss, executive director of the Oldham County History Center in La Grange, that she began to learn how important her farm and Webster’s connection to it was to local and regional history.
Webster’s original home burned and was replaced with the home in which Smith now lives. “We remodeled it in 1998 and are remodeling it again now,” she said.
There were 17 outbuildings, and it “was a working farm then and now.” The existing buildings have also been remodeled.
Although it has great historical significance, the farm is not open to the public, and there is nothing for history buffs to actually see. It’s a private residence and “it’s home to us. We appreciate its value and history,” said Smith.
Webster was quoted in a New York Independent article dated Nov. 29, 1855, as saying, “In 1852, I purchased a valuable farm consisting of 600 acres of superior upland on the fertile banks of the beautiful Ohio (south side), directly opposite and overlooking the city of Madison.”

Delia Webster

Photo courtesy of Joyce & John Loftus

John and Joyce Loftus recently had a gravestone placed at the grave of Delia Webster in
Des Moines, Iowa.


Webster’s actions while living there had a far reaching impact on many slaves, since she helped possibly hundreds cross the Ohio River to freedom. It also incited slaver owners and slave catchers, who were always watching for her to make a mistake.
The farm lay in close proximity to the town of Milton. “A crossing at Milton served as a major route from 1818 to 1860 for slaves. An estimated 500 slaves might have crossed in steamboats or river rafts, while others crossed near the Saluda ravine near Hanover, Ind.,” according to Josh Hunt, who wrote a Madison, Ind., newspaper article titled, “Path to Freedom: Trimble County served as high-traffic escape route for slaves.” The article was published on April 6, 2013.
As a young girl, Webster was well educated. She attended the Vergennes Classical School in her hometown of Vergennes, Vt., and in 1829 at the young age of 12 she began teaching classes to some of the younger children in the school.

Delia Webster marker

Photo by Don Ward

This historical marker at the Trimble County Courthouse lawn tells of Delia Webster's short stay in the Old Stone Jail.


In 1842, Webster took classes at Oberlin College in Ohio. Oberlin was the first college in the United States to accept women and African Americans as students. The town was frequently referred to as a “hotbed of abolitionism,” and it was on the central Vermont Railroad route of the Underground Railroad In July 1843, Webster moved to Lexington, Ky., with friends and fellow teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Spencer. In time, Webster became the co-founder of the Lexington Female Academy. When the Spencers became suddenly ill and returned north, Webster took full charge of the Lexington Academy.
It wasn’t long after coming to Lexington that Webster learned of the Rev. Calvin Fairbank and his plan to aid Freedom Seeker Lewis Hayden and his wife, Harriet, and son, Joseph. Fairbank visited Webster for the first time in September 1844 at the boarding house where she was staying. The two would ultimately hatch a plot to free the Hayden family.
Hayden’s first wife and son had been sold down the river to a southern cotton plantation by their owner, Sen. Henry Clay, never to be seen again. Hayden, Webster and Fairbank all knew the consequences their actions could bring upon them if caught.
On Sept. 28, 1844, the Haydens did successfully escape via ferry across the Ohio River to the free state of Indiana. His two accomplices thought they would escape detection as well, but weren’t so lucky. Both were arrested and jailed upon their return to Lexington.

Erika Wardlow

Photo courtesy Oldham History Center

Re-enactor Erika Wardlow of
La Grange, Ky., portrays Delia Webster for a youth program.


The ensuing trial had all the sensational fervor associated with it that any modern-day trial would invoke. While they were gone, Webster’s landlady, Mrs. David Glass, had searched her room and found incriminating letters linking her to abolitionists and Under-ground Railroad activities. Mrs. Glass presented the incriminating letter to the jailor, a Mr. Megowan.
As a result, Webster was arrested for assisting runaway slaves and locked in a private room, the “Debtor’s Room,” which was located upstairs at the Megowan Hotel (a combination jail and slave pen). The hotel stood on the northwest corner of Limestone and Short streets. Fairbank was arrested and put into irons for his part in the plot.

Lewis Hayden

Hayden


Because most of the evidence pointed toward Fairbank as the real culprit, Webster’s attorneys managed to win her a separate trial. There was much public sympathy for Webster at the time. She pled not guilty. She was convicted of “slave stealing” and sentenced to two years of hard labor in the Kentucky state penitentiary in Frankfort, Ky. Her case attracted national attention, and the jury wasted no time in signing a petition to the governor asking for her pardon “on account of her sex.”
Webster entered the penitentiary at 5 p.m. on Jan. 10, 1845, and was housed in a wooden cottage in the center of the prison yard, being the only female inmate. Due to the general public’s sympathy for her and not liking the idea of a woman being in prison, she served barely five weeks of her sentence. Webster was pardoned by Ken-tucky Gov. John J. Crittenden, while Fairbank, on the other hand, was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years. His sentence consisted of five years imprisonment for each slave he had stolen.
This is one of many stories that made Webster famous. She chronicled her experience in “Kentucky Jurisprudence. A History of the Trial of Miss Delia A. Webster. At Lexington, Ky., Dec. 17-21, 1844, Before the Hon. Richard Buckner.”
Webster was determined to not let anything stop her from carrying out her passionate stance to help slaves escape to freedom. The purchase of her Trimble County farm, which she named Mt. Orison, equipped her with the means to achieve this goal.

Benajah Webster

Benajah Webster, Delia's father


She stated her purpose in buying the property was to establish a “free farm,” where individuals were paid to work the farm and produce crops. Webster wanted to prove that hiring workers was more successful and efficient than enslaving them.
Her plan succeeded for a time until too many local slaves kept disappearing. During 1853-1856, there were constant efforts by local slave owners to drive Webster off the farm and out of Kentucky.
Even when the Civil War ended and slavery was finally abolished by the 13th Amendment, Webster still found herself unwanted in Trimble County. The Madison Courier reported on Aug. 8, 1866, that she had been ordered to leave the state again.
Her enemies held a grudge too deep to bury, wanting her as far away from them as possible. On Oct. 22, a raid was made on her farm while she was away. Her household goods were piled up and set on fire, bedclothes carried off, cupboards emptied, her chicken’s necks wrung, the cow turned in, and two ganders were hung from the ceiling, reported the Madison Courier. But still she refused to leave.

Esther Webster

Esther Ann Webster, Delia's mother


On Nov. 2, 1866, arsonists began setting fires on the property. Over time, 17 buildings were burned, four barns, Webster’s home and several piles of seasoned lumber. Not able to procure sufficient financial resources, Webster finally lost possession of her Trimble County property in October 1869.

Delia Webster’s Legacy

There are many who, 117 years after her death on Jan. 18, 1904, in Des Moines, Iowa, remember Delia Webster for her abolitionist work. In 2020, Joyce Loftus and her husband, John, of Seattle embarked upon a COVID-19 pandemic project that had personal meaning to them and will have a lasting effect on history.
To tell others about Webster, John wrote on his Facebook page, “Our first Pandemic Project was something I’d been wanting to get around to for several years. It turned out to be timely in the intense and transformative Black Lives Matter era we’re now going through. The project: Get a stone placed on the unmarked grave of my wife’s first cousin, four generations removed – 1800s abolitionist Delia Ann Webster.”
Webster was a first cousin to Joyce’s great-great grandmother, Charlotte Webster. Both were born in 1817, Webster on Dec. 17. The two girls grew up as neighbors in Vergennes, Addison County, Vermont, during a time when the abolition of slavery was fast becoming the dominant issue in a young American nation.
“My great-great Grandma Charlotte Webster was a daughter of John Champlain Webster, a younger brother of Delia’s father, Benajah,” said Joyce. “Both brothers were blacksmiths – a respected and essential occupation in those days. Benajah was also a noted gunsmith.” Delia’s mother was Ester Ann Bostwick.
Joyce’s great-great-grandmother Charlotte “grew up very near to Rokeby Farm, well known as a major station on the Underground Railroad. The whole area they grew up in was a hotbed of abolitionism.”

Joyce & John Loftus

Photo provided

Joyce and John Loftus of Seattle.


Webster and Charlotte’s lives would take lead them down different paths, Webster to live as a national figure in the abolitionist movement and Charlotte to a quiet life in Minnesota. In 1842, Charlotte married Edward Sumner and had a daughter, Armenia, who eventually migrated to Crown Point, N.Y. “In 1857, they followed two of Charlotte’s married sisters to Winnebago City, Minnesota Territory,” said Joyce.
Charlotte’s two sisters married brothers with the last name Bigelow who became successful in gold mining at Sierra City, Calif. Her parents and daughter moved to Winnebago City, and “I grew up on a small farm in Minnesota,” said Joyce.
When Edward Viall (Joyce’s grandfather in the Webster line) lost his wife to complications following childbirth in 1922, he couldn’t take care of his large family of seven children, four under age 10. Joyce’s mother, Bernice, was one of them.
The older children moved in with local families, while the four youngest, including Bernice (born 1912), were raised in the Odd Fellows Home in Northfield, Minn. Her infant brother was adopted.
“My mother didn’t talk about family history until she was quite advanced in age, and then she proved to be a very colorful storyteller about everything she had personally experienced,” said Joyce. This piqued her interest and discovery of the connection to Delia Webster.
“I am quite interested in genealogy. My mother was passionate about preserving family history and lived to be 94. Whenever we visited her, we would try to have her identify old family pictures and tell us what she knew about ancestors.”
Joyce said she was encouraged by her mother to look into the Webster line when her mother commented, “There was so much that I didn’t know about.” She was not able to do so until after her mother’s passing.
“When researching my Webster line, we discovered Delia and the biographies that have fairly recently been written. It was fascinating to read about her and made me so proud; but we were surprised and dismayed that she did not have a marked grave,” she said.
So that began the quest of what Joyce called a “great experience.” She said it was something “we’d been wanting to get around to for several years.”
Due to COVID-19, the Loftuses were unable to travel to the Woodland Cemetery in Des Moines, Iowa, where Webster is buried. Joyce said, “We did everything through email and snail mail correspondence” with the cemetery. “John designed the stone, which was purchased from Ohio-based Legacy Headstones and shipped to Des Moines. A cemetery worker set the stone and took a picture of it for us.” They hope to be able to visit the site soon.
She said, “History needs to be preserved, and historical figures are essential to that recording of history; they deserve to be memorialized. The experience of placing a stone for my husband’s grandmother (a few years previously) was such a fulfilling moment for celebrating a life that was somewhat lost after her death. I have visited the graves of my ancestors going back to the mid-1600s in Boston, and I find it very moving to place flowers and thank them for our history.”
As a tribute to Delia Webster’s memory and participation as a conductor on the Underground Railroad, two historical highway markers have been placed in Trimble County. Marker No. 1099 was erected to honor her at the junction of County Roads 1256 and 925, near her farm. In 1988, historical marker No. 1822 was placed by the Kentucky Historical Society in the Trimble County Courthouse lawn in front of the Old Stone Jail in Bedford, Ky. That’s where Webster was briefly imprisoned in 1854. In 1996, Webster was recognized in “Kentucky Women Remembered,” with an exhibit in the Kentucky State Capitol that honored the contributions of women from the Commonwealth.
Author and retired professor, Randolph Paul Runyon, found Webster so interesting that he preserved her life’s work in his 1996 biography, “Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad.”
 “I had for some time wanted to write a book on Kentucky history, and when I happened across Chapter Eight of J. Winston Coleman’s book “Slavery Times in Kentucky,” which tells Delia Webster’s story, I thought that if I could find any fresh information on her that might be a good book project,” he said.
Beginning with the Coleman account, “I tracked down every 19th century newspaper article I could find on Webster, Calvin Fairbank, Lewis Hayden, Newton Craig and related topics. This was more difficult in 1993 or so than it is now, since we didn’t have the Internet or newspapers online where one can do a word search from the comfort of home.”

Paul Runyon

Runyon


He went to “libraries that had microfilms or originals of the papers I wanted. I found that Fairbank and Laura Haviland had written autobiographies, and I consulted them. I traveled to Boston; Vergennes, Vermont; Oberlin, Ohio; Des Moines, Iowa; and of course Madison, Ind. I made some exciting discoveries at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis,” Runyon said.
Runyon is a retired French language and French literature professor from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “I grew up in Maysville, Ky., where Calvin Fairbank took Lewis Hayden across the Ohio River. I now live in Paris, Ky., where Delia passed through on the night of the Hayden rescue.”
Webster was “a courageous fighter for freedom but also a fascinating and at time puzzling personality,” he said. She was “a fearless, independent woman.”
He said he believes Webster is relevant to today’s world because “we still haven’t come to terms with the problem of the historical burden of slavery and racial inequality. It’s equally important to consider the life of Lewis Hayden, one of the slaves who found freedom and wound up being more famous than Delia or Calvin.”
Joyce agreed with Runyon in that Webster “was remarkably brave and courageous; one might even say fearless – a lone woman poised at perhaps the most dangerous point of the Underground Railroad. While others courageously hid freedom seekers and assisted farther along in their journey to eventual safety through the free states of the north, Delia did her work at the very beginning of their journey – the initial escape, when their absence would be quickly noticed and the pursuit most fervent, the anger most personal.”
One thing she’d like Webster to be remembered for is that “Delia originally came to Kentucky as a teacher and, although none of her work survives in any public collections, she was a talented artist and very cultured person who could charm the most sophisticated upper-class gentry, while at the same time, being a friend, confidante and eventual traveling companion to their enslaved Blacks.”
The article, “A True Heroine,” was published in the Richmond Palladium in Richmond, Ind., on Nov. 15, 1866. The writer stated that “she is a brave woman, whose autobiography should be written and who, when dead, will deserve and probably receive a monument.”
Those ideals have now been accomplished through Runyon’s work and the Loftuses’ efforts to preserve Delia Webster’s memory for future generations.

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