John Van Zandt

From Ohio History Central

John Van Zandt was a conductor on the Underground Railroad in Hamilton County, Ohio.

Little is known of Van Zandt's life before the 1840s. Before moving to Ohio, Van Zandt purportedly lived in Kentucky, where he owned slaves. Van Zandt eventually freed his slaves and relocated to Evendale, Ohio. Here, Van Zandt became active on the Underground Railroad. He commonly hid fugitive slaves in the basement of his home before leading them to the next stop on the Underground Railroad. Van Zandt also helped found the Sharonville United Methodist Church in Sharonville, Ohio.

On April 23, 1842, nine slaves belonging to Wharton Jones ran away from their owner. They left their master's farm in Boone County, Kentucky, hoping to attain freedom in Ohio. John Van Zandt eventually came across the fugitives. He concealed them in his wagon and proceeded to try and help them escape. Slave catchers eventually located Van Zandt and the fugitives, recapturing seven of the nine slaves and taking Van Zandt into custody. The slaves were placed in jail in Covington, Kentucky, as was Van Zandt. Authorities eventually returned the slaves to their owner. Authorities also released Van Zandt, allowing him to return to Ohio. Of the two missing slaves who escaped from the slave catchers, one eventually returned to his owner on his own accord, and the other gained his freedom.

The slaves' owner, Wharton Jones, proceeded to sue Van Zandt for monetary damages. Jones claimed that he paid the slave catchers a reward of 450 dollars for recapturing his slaves. An Ohio court also ruled that Van Zandt had to pay Jones for the loss of the one slave, a man named Andrew, valued at five hundred dollars. Van Zandt ignored the court's decision, refusing to compensate Jones. Jones was ably defended by future Ohio governor Salmon P. Chase. Chase contended that, since slavery was illegal in the Northwest Territory and Ohio, that Van Zandt could not be found guilty of aiding a fugitive slave. Known as Jones v. Van Zandt, the case eventually reached the United States Supreme Court. On March 5, 1847, the Supreme Court ruled against Van Zandt, determining that the federal government had the power to enforce slavery.

The five years of legal cases left Van Zandt destitute. The Sharonville United Methodist Church also excommunicated Van Zandt, contending that aiding fugitive slaves was ungodly. The church reversed its decision 163 years later, in 2006.

John Van Zandt represents the growing tensions over slavery between Northerners and Southerners during the early nineteenth century. While many Northern states had provisions outlawing slavery, runaway slaves did not necessarily gain their freedom upon arriving in a free state. Federal law permitted slaveowners to reclaim their runaway slaves. Some slaves managed to escape their owners on their own, while others sometimes received assistance from sympathetic Northerners, such as Van Zandt.

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