Businessman/abolitionist died 122 years ago this week

On a hillside in the historic Harmar Cemetery is the final resting place of David Putnam Jr., a prominent local businessman and avowed abolitionist who died 122 years ago this week.

According to the records of late local historian Henry Burke, David Putnam Jr. “was born at just the right moment, in just the right place, with the necessary amount of family prestige, to lead the Underground Railroad in Marietta.

“The Underground Railroad and David Putnam Jr. literally grew up together,” Burke wrote. “As a young man, David had become personally acquainted with slavery in Wood County, Virginia, (now West Virginia) and had seen slaves ‘sold down the river’ to plantations in the Deep South. As a teenager he decided to take an active role in the fight to abolish slavery in the United States.”

Born May 17, 1808 in the Harmar district, he was one of six sons born to David Sr. and Elizabeth (Perkins) Putnam. The senior David, a Yale grad, was the first instructor at the Muskingum Academy, the first higher-learning institution in the Northwest Territory.

“David Jr. was a brother to Douglas Putnam, my great-great-great grandfather who built the Anchorage in the Harmar district,” noted Marietta native Nancy Putnam Hollister.

She said David Jr.’s sentiment would not have been unexpected as his father was also against slavery.

“All of the family members were really abolitionists,” Hollister said.

As a Putnam descendant, Hollister was well-acquainted with the term “abolitionist.”

“I heard all about abolitionists and the Underground Railroad in our family since I was a child,” she said. “I thought everybody knew what that was. Especially since Virginia, a slave-holding state, was located just across the Ohio River.”

During her childhood years Hollister and her sister often played in the huge Larchmont home on Second Street where their grandfather lived. The home was built by one of David Jr.’s sons, and both girls had heard family tales of the Underground Railroad.

“We imagined there was a tunnel running from the basement and under the Muskingum River that was used to help slaves escape,” she said. “We even found what we thought was a tunnel in that area, but our grandfather sternly cautioned us never to go in there, which only heightened our imaginations.”

Local historian Scott Britton said the Putnam family’s roots were in the New England area of the country where there was a lot of antislavery sentiment.

“They brought that attitude with them when settling in the Marietta area,” he said. “And David Putnam Jr. was a perfect example of dedication to the abolition movement. In fact, when slaves from across the river were missing, his house was the first place they looked.”

Britton noted it was highly unlikely David Jr., who made no bones about his antislavery attitude, would have been harboring slaves at his home, especially since hiding runaway slaves was an illegal activity at the time.

But he said there have been accounts that slaves had been discovered on occasion at David Jr.’s home.

An article in the Feb. 11, 1847 Marietta Intelligencer described one of those incidents:

“Two slaves, one of them belonging to J. Tumbleson Esq., and one to G. Henderson, Esq., Wood County, Va., escaped into Ohio on Saturday night last. It is alleged that they were concealed in the house of David Putnam Jr. in Harmar over Sunday.

“At any rate, his house was watched and late in the evening of that day quite a number of men assembled around it, avowedly for the purpose of preventing (the slaves’) escape. A great deal of disturbance was made and it is also alleged that threats of violence were uttered.

“The alarm was given through Harmar that a mob had assembled at Putnam’s house and had threatened to destroy it; that a large number of men were there from Wood County and more were coming; that they had sent to Parkersburg for help from there.

“As might have been expected, a multitude soon collected and dispersed watchers in double quick time. Whether all who aided in keeping peace would have done so if they credited the report that the Negroes were really in Putnam’s charge is questionable.

“We hear that some of them felt not a little vexed upon learning subsequently that during the hubbub the Negroes were dressed up in cloaks, marched through the crowd, furnished with horses, and started post haste for Queen Victoria’s dominions.”

David Putnam Jr.’s alignment with the abolitionist cause also landed him in court in 1849, sued by George Washington Henderson who owned slaves and the plantation where Henderson Hall (now a museum) still stands in Boaz, W.Va.

According to Burke’s research, Henderson filed the suit in U.S. District Court in Columbus “for the loss of nine slaves, which Henderson claimed Putnam had influenced to run away.”

After three years the suit was finally dismissed because of changes in the fugitive slave law.

Britton said the litigation apparently didn’t deter David Putnam Jr. from continuing his opposition to slavery.

“After the trial he was back in the fight,” he said.

David Putnam Jr. died in 1892, nearly 30 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “all persons held as slaves” in the southern states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”