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Rhodes Family Incident
Asa Bales Park, Hoover and SR 31, Westfield (Hamilton County, IN)
Installed 2008 Indiana Historical Bureau, Division of Historic Preservation and Archeology, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, and the Town of Westfield
Learn more about the Rhodes Family Incident with Talking Hoosier History.
In 1837, an enslaved family of three escaped from Missouri; settled six miles north of here 1839 with name Rhodes. In 1844, Singleton Vaughn arrived at their home to claim them; family resisted until neighbors arrived. Vaughn agreed to take family to Noblesville for trial. In route, a crowd stopped Vaughn, demanding the family be taken to Westfield. (351 Characters and Spaces)
Urged on by the crowd, driver of wagon carrying family sped to Westfield; family escaped before wagon reached town. Vaughn sued some in crowd, for interfering with his right to reclaim slaves. In Vaughn v. Williams, 1845, jury found defendants not guilty, finding Rhodes family had been freed when a previous owner moved them to Illinois, a free state. (352 Characters and Spaces)
In 1837, an enslaved family of three escaped from Missouri;(1) settled six miles north of here 1839 with name Rhodes.(2) In 1844, Singleton Vaughn arrived at their home to claim them;(3) family resisted until neighbors arrived.(4) Vaughn agreed to take family to Noblesville for trial.(5)I n route, a crowd stopped Vaughn, demanding the family be taken to Westfield.(6) (351 characters/spaces)
Urged on by the crowd, driver of wagon carrying family sped to Westfield;(7) family escaped before wagon reached town.(8) Vaughn sued some in crowd, for interfering with his right to reclaim slaves.(9) In Vaughn v. Williams, 1845, jury found defendants not guilty, finding Rhodes family had been freed when a previous owner moved them to Illinois, a free state.(10) (352 characters/spaces)
(1) Sam, Maria, and Amy escaped from their owner, Singleton Vaughn in April 1837. Vaughn v. Williams, United States Circuit Court, Indiana District, May Term 1845, reported in Vol. 28 Federal Cases, 1116 (B060453); Indiana State Journal (B060523); and three separate articles Free Labor and Anti-Slavery Chronicle, May 17, 1844 (B060456), July 5, 1844 (B060457), and no date, (B060469).
(2) Sam, Maria, and Amy took the family name "Rhodes" after their escape. Sam became John, Maria became Louann, and Amy became Lydia. This name change is evident in court records for Vaughn v. Williams. The defense in the court case indicated that Sam, Maria, and Amy were the same as the Rhodes family. Vaughn v. Williams, 1115-1118 (B060453).
The family settled near the Roberts Settlement, an area founded by free black families from North Carolina. Emma Lou Thornbrough, The Negro in Indiana: A Study of a Minority (Indianapolis, 1957), 50 (B060421).
Rhodes purchased Section 1, Township 19, Range 3 in the Southeast corner of the Northwest quarter of the lot. Index of Deeds for Hamilton County (B060522).
(3) Vaughn v. Williams, 1117 (B060453).
The following information comes from an undocumented secondary source. The court case and the newspaper coverage do not explain how Vaughn learned the location of his former slaves. The only explanation of how Vaughn found out about his escaped slaves is located in a secondary source without any documentation. The lack of primary sources makes it difficult to fully trust the claims made by the account. Augustus Shirts claimed in his history of Hamilton County that Abel Gibson, a man who resided in Adams Township, learned of the Rhodes' history and on a visit to Morgan County, Indiana related the story to a man named Merritt. Merritt later moved to Missouri and by chance, located near the Vaughn plantation and became a neighbor of Mr. Vaughn. Vaughn related his story of the loss of his former slaves to Mr. Merritt, and Merritt revealed the whereabouts of that unfortunate family. Augustus Finch Shirts, A History of the Formation, Settlement, and Development of Hamilton County, Indiana, From the Year 1818 to the Close of the Civil War (1901), 256 (B060418).
(4) Free Labor Advocate and Anti-Slavery Chronicle, May 17, 1844 (B060456) and Indiana State Journal, May 28, 1845 (B060523).
(5) Indiana State Journal, May 28, 1845 (B060523).
(6) Ibid. (B060523).
(7) Vaughn v. Williams, 1117 (B060453).
The following information comes from undocumented secondary sources.
A reminiscence by Mary J. Frost in 1909 claimed it was her husband, William Frost, and his brother-in-law Daniel Jones who drove the wagon to Westfield. Hamilton County Enterprise, April 6, 1909 (B060415).
Shirts claimed in his history of Hamilton County that it was only Daniel Jones who drove the wagon to Westfield. Shirts, History of Hamilton County (1901) (B060418).
The two main primary sources for these events, Vaughn v. Williams and the Indiana State Journal's coverage of the case, do not provide the name of the person(s) who drove the wagon to Westfield.
(8)Vaughn v. Williams, 1117 (B060453).
The following information comes from an undocumented secondary source. Shirts claims that the Rhodes family escaped during the ride to Westfield into the Dismal Swamp, then to Aaron Lindley's property, and then in a haystack on the Tomlinson farm. Shirts did not provide any primary evidence for these claims. Shirts, History of Hamilton County (1901) (B060418).
(9) Indiana State Journal, May 28, 1845 (B060523).
Vaughn v. Williams and the newspaper account do not give a confirmed date for the filing of suit by Vaughn. Suit was probably filed between April 29 and May 6 because Asa Bales did not mention the suit in his April 29 letter to the Free Labor Advocate and then on May 6, 1844 an association was established to contribute funds to defend those sued by Vaughn. Free Labor Advocate and Anti Slavery Chronicle, n.d. (B060469).
(10) Vaughn v. Williams, 1118 (B060453). The source for the entire paragraph is this court case.
Justice McLean's decision in Scott v. Sandford (The Dred Scott Case) gives a more detailed explanation for his ruling in the Vaughn v. Williams case in 1845. McLean's reasoning for his instructions to the jury in Vaughn v. Williams conformed to precedent established by Winny v. Whitesides, a case heard by the Missouri Supreme Court in 1824 and cited in Scott v. Sandford. The Missouri court ruled that when a slave is taken to Illinois and the owner takes up residence there, the slave is entitled to freedom because the Illinois Constitution prohibited slavery and involuntary servitude. The penalty for the violation of the Illinois Constitution was the emancipation of the slave. Scott v. Sandford, Supreme Court of the United States, 60 U.S. 393; 15 L. Ed. 691; 1856 U.S. (B060545).
Other Missouri Supreme Court cases that followed the precedent established by Winny v. Whitesides were: La Grange v. Chouteau 1828, Ralph v. Duncan 1833, Hay v. Dunky 1834, Wilson v. Melvin 1837. Dennis K. Boman, "The Dred Scott Case Reconsidered: The Legal and Political Context in Missouri," The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 44, No. 4 (October, 2000): 408-410 (B060546).
The basic concept behind these decisions by the Missouri Supreme Court was that the U.S. Constitution recognized slavery as founded on the municipal law, meaning that African-Americans were made slaves by the laws of the individual states/territories. As a result, if a person with slaves moved into a state or territory that prohibited the practice, there was no longer any legal approval, thus those held in bondage were free. This precedent was overturned by Scott v. Sandford when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that African-Americans were not citizens who could not sue in state and federal courts and since the slave in question, Dred Scott, returned to a slave state, the laws of that state superceded all others. Scott v. Sandford.