An Upstream Battle

An Upstream Battle: John Parker’s Personal War on Slavery tells four stories from the life of John Parker that illustrate the real danger faced by anyone who assisted runaway slaves. The material below is related to the people and events portrayed in An Upstream Battle and includes links to additional resources for students, teachers and anyone interested in John Parker and the Underground Railroad in Ohio.

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John Parker

John Parker was born into slavery in 1827 in Virginia, sold at the age of eight and then forced to march to Alabama. At the age of 18 he purchased his own freedom, then moved north, married Miranda Boulden, and together they settled in Ripley, Ohio. John and Miranda Parker raised their family in this house facing the Ohio River in Ripley. The house still stands and houses the John Parker Historical Society.

John Parker built a successful foundry business in Ripley (seen below) that used to be located adjacent to this house.

With the indomitable pluck and energy characteristic of his nature, he erected an old boiler on the bank of the river and began the struggle for the success he has attained. His abilities and knowledge of foundry business were recognised and orders promptly followed his efforts. He was tireless in his purpose, frugal, and sought to make every opportunity useful.” (For a more complete description of John Parker’s contribution to his community see The History of Brown County, Ohio (1883), page 80).

John Parker’s Foundry

Interior photos of John Parker’s foundry in Ripley, Ohio. Photos courtesy of the Ohio History Connection (SC915).

The Sroufe House

The story of John Parker entering the Sroufe house in the middle of the night to rescue a slave’s baby was central to the development of An Upstream Battle. Not only is this story suspenseful, it clearly illustrates many of Parker’s character traits. In addition, the emotions he experienced that night were fully described in his autobiography (His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker). In 2016, the Sroufe house was listed in the National Register of Historic Places Program for its direct association with the Underground Railroad. The documentation for including this house as a national historic site was prepared by a Girl Scout and highlights the role of John Parker as he rescued three enslaved people owned by the Sroufe family. 

The floor plan of the Sroufe house (left). View to the north from the Sroufe house (right). The house on top of the hill is John Rankin’s house on the Ohio side of the river. For more information on teaching with historic places visit this National Park Service website.

Family Life

John and Miranda Parker had eight children, six of whom lived to adulthood. The Parkers encouraged all of their children to study music and become teachers. All of their adult children were college graduates in a time when many people didn’t even receive a high school education.

Hale Giddings Parker

Hale Giddings Parker (b. 1851) graduated from Oberlin University in 1873, worked as a school principal, became a lawyer, and served as an alternate on the organizing committee of the 1893 World’s Fair.

Cassius Clay Parker (b. 1854) studied at Oberlin College, became a teacher in Indiana.

Horatio W. Parker (b. 1856) became a principal of a school in Illinois and later taught in St. Louis.

Hortense Parker Gilliam (Photo courtesy of Mt Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections)

Hortense Parker Gilliam (b. 1859) was the first known African-American graduate of Mount Holyoke College in 1883. Mount Holyoke celebrates her achievements during the Hortense Parker Annual Celebration.

Portia Parker (b. 1865) became a music teacher.

Bianca Parker (b. 1871) became a music teacher.

The Civil War

Because he was too old to fight in the Civil War, John Parker helped the war effort by freeing many enslaved men from Kentucky and recruiting them to serve in 127th Regiment of the Union Army, an African-American regiment. This unit saw action during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia and at New Market Heights, Virginia, and accompanied General Alfred Howe Terry’s expedition against Fort Fisher and Wilmington, North Carolina.

Photograph showing soldiers of the 127th Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry (1863). Photo courtesy of the Ohio History Connection (SC1018).

Obituary for John Parker (February 1, 1900)

An obituary for John Parker appeared on February 1, 1900 in The Georgetown News Democrat. Download the full obituary.

Reverend John Rankin

Reverend John Rankin was a major force in the fight against slavery through his writing, religious ministry and direct assistance to runaways. The Rankins built their home on the top of the hill above Ripley, Ohio and kept a lamp in the window each night to serve as a beacon for runaways. Rev. Rankin also built a staircase to assist them in reaching his house. Once there, the Rankins provided runaways with food, shelter, medical care, protection, and anything else they needed.

Reverend John Rankin and his wife (left), and the stairs he built so runaway slaves could more easily reach his house at the top of the hill (right). Photos courtesy of the Ohio History Connection (left-SC3799; right-SC1591).

Arnold Gragston

Arnold Gragston is identified in An Upstream Battle as the young man who helped guide John Parker to a large group of runaways in Kentucky. The young man who actually lead Parker that night may or may not have been Arnold Gragston, but the character in An Upstream Battle is based on him. Arnold Gragston moved from Kentucky to Detroit, Michigan, soon after his escape from slavery. He was interviewed at age 97 in the 1930s in Florida while visiting his relative, the president of Hungerford College in Eatonville (an African American town founded in 1886). The character presented in An Upstream Battle is based on that interview.

Maps of Interest

Toggle between these maps of Kentucky to locate towns mentioned in stories in An Upstream Battle. (This image is Lloyd’s official map of the state of Kentucky (1862), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

Topography of northern Kentucky

The terrain through which John Parker lead a large group of runaways in Kentucky is a complex area of steep ravines. This modern topographic map shows this terrain near the near the end of their journey, when they were within just a few miles of the Ohio River. The town of Minerva is located near the bottom of this map, near the headwaters of Lee Creek. The road north out of Minerva rests on level ground, but the path taken by the runaways to the northeast of Minerva (and into the Lee Creek valley) is very steep. The vertical distance between the brown contour lines is 20 feet. The closer together the contour lines, the more steep the vertical drop.

Historical map of Ripley, Ohio

Map of Ripley, Ohio (1876), provided courtesy of Historic Map Works

Steamboat Travel

Steamboats.org is a great place to find information about steamboat terminology, photos and other topics related to 19th century transportation.

Steamboat on a Mississippi River landing near Memphis, Tennessee, 1906 (left). Interior cabin of the James Howard steamboat, 1870 (right). Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress (left-det.4a13374; right-cph 3a13411).

Travel by steamboat was perilous for any number of reasons. Running aground, hitting a submerged object, fires, and explosions were not uncommon events. Check out Lloyd’s steamboat directory, and disasters on the western waters for accounts that demonstrate the danger involved in 19th century steamboat travel.

The Virginia steamboat stranded in a cornfield during a flood near Pomeroy Bend on the Ohio River. The boat remained stranded in the field for an entire summer, until the captain dug a small canal to float it out. The boat was repaired and remained in service until a fire destroyed it. Photo courtesy of the UMSL digital Library.

Additional Resources:

His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker by John Parker

Newspaper article in “The Columbus Dispatch” relates several stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to actual events, including the story of Eliza crossing the Ohio River in Ripley.

Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection at Ohio History Connection contains a large collection of 19th century newspaper articles and photos about the many citizens who were involved in helping runaway slaves.

The story of the abolitionist movement in Ripley, Ohio is described in detail in Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad by Ann Hagedorn

Additional information about Reverend John Rankin at Donna B. Jacobson’s website: Borderlander of Light: Rev. John Rankin and Ripley, Ohio 1820-1850.

An extensive reading list of related books can be found on this page of the Guide to African American Resources at the Cincinnati History Library and Archives.