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Native Son

Legends of the Clear Fork 3: Sam McCluer and his cornfield

Sam McCluer's corn field

There is not a lot written about Sam McCluer.

But then, anyone engaged in secret illegal activities doesn’t really want to attract a lot of attention in the community… even if the law-breaking will one day be considered an act of heroism, and even if the criminal will eventually be regarded as a selfless humanitarian.

Heroic reputation in the 21st century does not mitigate the penalties of law in the 19th century. In the 1850s, it was absolutely illegal in America, and in Troy Township, to assist fugitive slaves making their way north to freedom in Canada. The crime carried prison sentences and huge fines.

Many of the neighbors around the Clear Fork River were loudly opposed to ending slavery in the US, or in any way trampling the rights of Southern slave-holders. They were likely to call the Sherriff on anyone seen in the presence of unrecognizable black people.

So, Sam McCluer, whose house on Gass Road was a station of the Underground Railroad, was not eager to see himself in print. He conducted his operations as quietly and discreetly as possible.

He was hoping to stay out of the history books.

Troy Cemetery

Through the woods behind the Troy Cemetery is the Clear Fork Reservoir.

Troy Meeting House

Sam’s home stood on the edge of a tiny crossroads community called Troy Settlement, where there was a log church known as Troy Meeting House. His nearest neighbor was a little Troy graveyard at the side of this Presbyterian church.

To understand why Sam needed to fly under the radar, it is necessary only to look at the Presbyterian congregation at Troy Meeting House. In the decades from 1830 to 1860, the “Old School Presbyterians” (that is actually how they referred to themselves) held a hard line about the issue of Slavery, and officially professed that the church had no business meddling in overthrowing the American South’s long-established practice.

When Presbyterian ministers preached sermons regarding Slavery—either for or against—there were shouting matches in the congregations, and fist fights on church grounds.

In 1844, half of the congregation quit the organization, solely over the Slavery issue, and started their own church. In 1851, someone set fire to the Troy Meeting House and burned it to the ground.

There is no question but Slavery was an incendiary topic in the Clear Fork River valley. Sam McCluer lived right in the middle of that storm, and he was receiving runaway slaves; harboring the fugitives on his property until the cover of night; and then driving them hidden in a wagon to Norwalk.

Troy Meeting House

A page from an 1828 ledger of the Richland County Commissioners documents legislation enacted to clear a road to the Troy Meeting House, at the petition of Samuel McCluer.

Conspirators

Sam McCluer was not a sole perpetrator in his crimes—there were other felons nearby who worked together as a close-knit team in order to accomplish the crime of moving refugees north. Only a few thousand yards across the river was the Gass family, whose brothers James and Benjamin each had a farm where runaways could take sanctuary.

And only about three miles upstream there was yet another Conductor of the Underground Railroad who regularly risked his family’s security by assisting the helpless Africans.

These men and their families worked together to ensure the safety and invisibility of their charges. If one farm was under scrutiny, another would step in. If slaves were delivered to one Conductor whose actions were closely monitored, another could covertly slip the refugees away.

Underground Railroad Stations in Troy Township

Two maps of Troy Township, from 1856 and 1873, are joined here with the site of the Clear Fork Lake superimposed, in order to locate three stations of the Underground Railroad in the decades preceding the Civil War.  The white line delineates Lexington-Springmill Road, which passes the farms of James and Benjamin Gass on the east side of the Clear Fork River; and immediately south of the Clear Fork dam is the home of Samuel McCluer, not far from the river's west bank.

Secrets

Most of the runaways arrived in the night: delivered to the Clear Fork River valley from somewhere south of Richland County like Mt. Gilead or the Quaker settlement near Fredericktown.

Sam McCluer—or one of the other abolitionists—would deliver them farther north to Norwalk or Savannah as soon as night fell again.

The whole idea of Underground Railroad ‘secret tunnels’ is a romantic notion of the 20th century. Generally speaking, the fugitives simply waited in the living room or the barn until night fell. The only time a truly secret compartment was necessary was in the case of emergency, if slave catchers or Sheriff’s men showed up on the property.

Only in that case, would the runaways need to hide. James and Benjamin Gass had a springhouse that stood between their farms, where fugitives could slip under the floor to be undetectable.

On Sam McCluer’s property, the hiding place was right in plain sight.

Sam McCluer in 1844 tax records

Samuel McCluer's name is highlighted on this page from the 1844 Richland County tax ledger, designating his section in Troy Township (15); the acreage of his farm (99); and its value ($332.)  His State and County Road taxes came to a total of $4.73 that year.

The McCluer name is variously spelled and misspelled throughout County Histories in Irish or American renderings.

Documentation

Naturally, Sam didn’t want to reveal his hiding place, but rumors arose years later and legends took root after his death, about how he disguised his ‘cargo’ on the Underground Railroad. There is some hard evidence as well, oddly enough, in the Richland County Tax dockets.

The County Tax ledger for 1844 documents Samuel McCluer’s landholdings (Sec. 15); his cropland (99 acres); his Chattels (2 horses, 4 cows.)

It also lists his other prime asset for which he was charged half a dollar tax: fifty acres of corn. That doesn’t seem odd today because there is corn growing all over the county in our time; but in 1844 most farmers put their fields into some kind of grass, because the chief agricultural market in early 19th century America was hay to feed a million horses across the US.

Most farmers grew Timothy or wheat or clover, or some horse-feeding hay crop. Not so many grew corn.

There was an advantage to corn though—it was tall. You could hide a whole crowd of refugees in a field of corn and no one would even suspect in July, August, September and October: the primary season for moving runaways. In November, December and on, the standing sheaves of gathered corn remain effective hiding places in times of crisis.

Corn Field maze

This photo taken inside a corn field maze demonstrates what an effective hiding place a farm field can be.

Clarification

Sam McCluer is often confused with the other Samuel McCluer in Richland County history. The earlier one of them was a pioneer, a War of 1812 veteran, an 1813 County Commissioner and brother of the McCluer clan who started Bellville. He died in 1833. The Underground Railroad Sam McCluer was a son or nephew; born 1802, died 1879.

His home and safe house for fleeing refugees has survived to our time, and can easily be seen on Gass Road below the Clear Fork Reservoir dam, on land owned by the City of Mansfield at their maintenance facility.

Samuel McCluer's home

Sam McCluer's home can be seen from Gass Road below the Clear Fork dam at the City of Mansfield's maintenance facility.

Depth of history

It is Sam McCluer’s corn field that would be the most historic site in coming centuries.

It is not difficult to say that a piece of ground—a specific place on the planet—becomes sanctified in human memory when it is the site of heroic efforts that define the human spirit in terms of our highest ideals: self-sacrifice for humanity’s welfare.

Difficult undertakings of great personal risk, that elevate and inspire our imagination, become encoded into the land as a memorial, so as to remind us of who we can be in the possibilities of challenge and change.

McCluer’s historic cornfield is being preserved for future generations in quiet sanctuary beneath the waters of the Clear Fork Lake.

Autumn corn shocks

This photo of a harvested corn field shows how easy it might be to turn corn shocks into hiding places.

Timothy Brian McKee is a featured columnist on our site every Saturday with a column titled Native SonEvery Tuesday, he taps into his knowledge and collection of historical photos and bring us Then & Now, a brief glance at the way things were.

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