Slave Rescue at the Sroufe House
DOVER — Situated along Kentucky 8, as you travel from Maysville to Dover is a home with one of the area’s richest stories related to slavery and the Underground Railroad.
The Sroufe House, also known at one time as the Shroud-McCormick House, has one of the few recorded incidents of an Underground Railroad story, as recorded by the man who helped a slave family escape from the property.
Dena and Rob Green purchased the property 23 years ago when they moved to Mason County. Dena said she didn’t know the property’s history until she came across a 1975 newspaper article on the property that included an interview with a Sroufe descendant.
Over the years, she conducted research into the property, with the hope of one day having it listed as a historic property. Her interest was further peaked when she learned more details of the slave rescue when she read John P. Parker’s autobiography, His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker, Former Slave and Conductor on the Underground Railroad.
With limited time to put together all the facts and research, Dena’s plans to make an application to the National Parks Service’s National Register of Historic Places were put on hold until last year.
As an active member of the Daughter’s of the American Revolution, Dena met Catherine Bache, now 16, at several Children of the American Revolution meetings.
As part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project, Catherine wanted to document an Underground Railroad incident, and when Dena became aware of her goal, the two collaborated to have Catherine document the history of the Sroufe house. The goal is to have the property, which has a view of the Rankin House from the backyard, placed on the National Register of Historic Places as documented by Catherine.
“I don’t want this story to be about me, I want it to be about the house and what took place here,” Dena said during a recent interview.
Catherine has put in 100 hours documenting the history of the house through primary and secondary sources and has traveled to Mason County to conduct research. Her travels have put her in contact with local historian and author, Caroline Miller; she used reference materials at the Kentucky Gateway Museum Center and County Clerk’s office studying deed books; she’s read the Parker autobiography; and visited the property.
“It’s been a really good experience,” she said of her year-long process. Catherine said she became interested in Underground Railroad history while in the sixth grade, when she participated in a project in which she was portraying a fugitive slave.
“I found there are so many myths and misinformation, I want to educate the public about the truth of the Underground Railroad,” she said.
In December, Catherine made her presentation to the Kentucky Heritage Council’s Kentucky Historic Preservation Review Board, which has gained approval. She and Dena hope to hear from the national review board in March as to whether the property has been accepted for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
Catherine noted if the property receives designation to the National Register, it will become Kentucky’s first property listed due to its association with the Underground Railroad.
The story of John P. Parker, a freed slave who eventually moved to Ripley, established his own foundry and assisted fugitive slaves cross the Ohio River, includes a daring rescue at the Sroufe house in 1864, as set forth in Catherine’s application.
The following excerpts are taken directly from the application.
“The Sroufe House was occupied by Sebastian and Mary Ann Sroufe and their family. The Sroufes owned several of their workers, including Celia Brooks, her husband, and her baby, Louis.
Sebastian Sroufe’s son, James, a young white man, worked for John P. Parker, a black man. James had questioned Parker about whether he worked on the Underground Railroad. James dared Parker to help some of his father’s enslaved workers escape. Parker took this as a challenge and became determined, regardless of the obstacles that he would face (Parker 106).
Parker rowed across the river to the Sroufe property in a skiff, to scout out an enslaved worker to rescue. After two failed night-time attempts, Parker finally met with Celia’s husband to speak about an escape and provide the man with instructions. The man expressed his trust in Parker, as he was well aware of his reputation. The man explained to Parker that he would not escape without his wife and baby and that he needed a week to prepare (Parker 108).
Parker reminisced, “Strange as it may seem, on the morning of the day I was to meet the man and his family, the Kentuckian chided me about not being able to run away with any of his people. I told him I was too busy with the foundry to give attention to outside affairs. He chuckled to himself over the matter as if it was a good joke on me” (Parker 109). That night, Parker arrived to the designated meeting location on the Kentucky side of the river, but the man did not appear. Parker continued on to the Sroufe property and used the half-grown corn fields to sneak up to the log cabins. The man came from his cabin and hid in the corn field where he explained his troubles to Parker. Sebastian and Mary Ann Sroufe had suspected that this couple would attempt an escape. Knowing that they would not leave without Louis, Sebastian took the baby to sleep in his own bedroom. The master also kept a lit candle and pistols in the bedroom as a precaution (Parker 110).
Parker and the man went into the cabins and found Celia. Parker first tried to convince the couple to escape without the baby, but they refused. Parker then suggested that the husband could rescue the baby, but the husband was too afraid to do so himself. Third, Parker asked Celia to rescue her baby. She almost agreed, but the husband insisted that Parker be the one to venture inside the house. Celia described the layout of the house and Parker delivered instructions to the couple (Parker 111 – 112).
Leaving their quarters, Parker entered the house from the back porch. He walked through the kitchen and then into the sleeping room (Parker 112). Parker said, “At the door I hesitated, for I felt I was taking my life in my hand in opening it” (Parker 113). Parker grabbed Louis from the further side of the bed, waking Sebastian. Parker saw the candle go out and he heard pistols fall to the floor. He quickly ran out of the room, through the kitchen, and out of the house (Parker 114).
Sebastian fired a bullet that flew over Parker’s head. Hearing the shot, Celia and her husband panicked and started running the opposite direction, toward the corn field and the cabins. Parker remembered, “I yelled as I went by them that I had the baby, and if they wanted it, they would have to follow me” (Parker 115). The couple caught up with Parker and, together, they went to the skiff. Parker heard James calling out warnings. He said, “I heard the voice of my employee shouting the name of the man in the bottom of the boat, warning him to come back” (Parker 115).
The enslaved man was hiding in the bottom of the skiff as Parker rowed the family across the river and brought them to his fellow Underground Railroad worker on the other side (Parker 115). He quickly returned home and arrived shortly before Sebastian, James, and another man came looking for the freedom seekers. They had come to his house suspecting that Parker was the mastermind of the escape. The men searched Parker’s house. Parker explained, “I knew the longer I kept them busy with me the less likely they were to find their people” (Parker 116).
The white men had not seen the face of the man who had rescued Celia, her husband, and Louis. Their only clue was a pair of shoes that were accidentally left behind outside. The next morning at the foundry, James questioned Parker about the shoes but had no proof that they belonged to him. Sebastian and James set out to ask the shoe clerks in town to whom they had sold those shoes. Parker quickly ran to his clerk, asking him to remain silent if questioned. The clerk complied, and Parker was never connected with the escape, nor did James Sroufe ever go back to work at Parker’s foundry (Parker 116 – 117).
“The baby involved in the escape was named Louis (also spelled Lewis) Porter Sroufe. On his Social Security Application, Louis Sroufe’s mother was listed as Celia Brooks and his father was listed as James K. Sroufe, the son of Sebastian. Celia’s husband was not Louis’ biological father and his name has yet to be discovered. February 3, 1864 was Louis Sroufe’s birthday as listed on his Social Security Application. Therefore, he would have been around four to six months old at the time of the Underground Railroad event. Along with other censuses, the application verifies that Louis was born in Dover, Mason County, Kentucky (U.S. Social Security).
Celia Brooks’ name was recorded on the 1870 Federal Census as living in Portsmouth, Ohio. She was named a 27 year old mulatto female that was born in Kentucky around 1843. Her son, Lewis, was listed as a 6 year old mulatto (1870 Census Scioto County).”
The Sroufe house is located on Kentucky 8, east of Dover.
from Maysville-Online, February 2, 2016