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From Spoils of War to Freedom
This article appeared in the Springfield, OH News-Sun 23 Feb 2004. For some reason the News-Sun DOES NOT make Community News stories availabe on their Website. I obtained permission from the Writer to post
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By TOM STAFFORD
Capture by a British and Indian raiding party in the Kentucky wilderness of 1780 was not usually a sign of good things to come. But for the forebears of Springfielder Art Thomas, it proved to be the first step on a path from slavery to freedom, then to a role helping others to freedom on the Underground Railroad in Champaign County. Thomas, 69, said details of the story of the relatives of Rachel Reno (pronounced RAY-no) have begun to firm up over the past two years of his 12 years of genealogical research he has done since retiring from a supervisory position in systems analysis at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Thomas' is a tale from long ago: "Grandma Reno is my great, great, great, great grandmother," he said. But the story will seem close at hand to those familiar with events leading up to Battle of Peckuwe near the site of present-day George Rogers Clark Park. 1776 plus one
The story begins in 1777, when 13 of Thomas' forebears traveled to Martin's Station near the present day Paris, Ky., as slaves of the family of Rene LaForce, Jr., and his wife, Agnes. As is almost always the case, Thomas has been able to track down more information about the owners of his relatives than the relatives themselves. The Rene LaForce who set out for Kentucky in 1777 was a son of Dr. Rene LaForce, thought to be a Huguenot who fled religious persecution in France about 1700. Researchers report Dr. LaForce as either a doctor of medicine or doctor of veterinary medicine from a wine growing region of France. Whichever he was, Thomas said, the LaForces "had some money; they didn't come here poor." An indication of that is the person from whom the LaForces arranged to buy their land in coastal Virginia: Gov. William Byrd. Dr. LaForce had bought the land site unseen - "the proverbial pig in a poke," Thomas said - and turned out to be so unhappy with it that he "refused to stay and sup" with Byrd when he paid his mortgage, according to research by genealogist Louise Robeson. LaForce bought additional land in Goochland County, Va., and settled there with neighbors including the influential Randolph family of Virginia. Just when the LaForces bought slaves - and thus when Thomas' relatives lives became intertwined with the LaForces - is not clear. But by the time the younger Rene LaForce and his wife, Agnes, left for Kentucky, they brought with them three generations of the same slave family. "There was a mother, her seven children and five grandchildren," said Thomas, who says that may suggest the family had been with the LaForces at least for those three generations. He's more certain that the timing of the migration - the year after the colonies declared their independence - is not happenstance: the LaForces apparently had pro-British leanings that made them unpopular with their Virginia neighbors. Heading west was not to bring the LaForces any measure of peace. First, with Agnes expecting a fourth child, Rene was killed en route to Kentucky in an apparent hunting accident. Second - and in an irony that must have infuriated them - the LaForces' were taken captive and had their slaves confiscated by the very British forces with whom they had sympathized. The political landscape
The June 1780 Raids on the Kentucky settlements of Ruddle's Fort and Martin's Station that took both slaves and owners captive can be understood in the larger context of the war of independence being fought on the Eastern seaboard. Out on the western frontier, Virginia Col. George Rogers Clark and British Capt. Henry Bird had the same competing goal: to establish for his side a plausible claim on the western lands so that when the larger war in the east concluded, his side would have a better chance of gaining legal control over the territory under the terms of peace. Leading a contingent of British forces from Detroit and collecting Indian allies along the way, Bird made his way through Ohio hoping for a decisive battle against Clark near Louisville. Unable to persuade his Indian allies it was a good idea, the expedition instead harassed the isolated Kentucky settlements along the Licking River. Although he successfully overran Ruddle's Fort and Martin's Station, Bird's raids did not go precisely as planned. He was upset with violence done to settlers who had surrendered at Martin's Station in the understanding their capture would be peaceable. He was further upset because some of the Indians slaughtered settlers' livestock he was planning to take with him as a food source on the long trip back to Detroit. Things went from bad to worse when Col. Clark responded to the raids by raising a militia and marching a force of about 1,000 north to defeat the British and Indian force in August at the Battle of Peckuwe, the largest battle west of the Alleghenies during the Revolutionary War. The spoils of war
If the largest battle was over, the lives of those caught up in the frontier violence was not. The British and Indian raiding force continued north to Detroit, where, according to the records of an attorney who later would represent Agnes LaForce, "the slaves were distributed among the captors." Thomas' forebears were thus given to Indian tribes and the guides and officers of the British raiding party. The LaForces and others were taken on to Montreal, where the LaForce women worked for a time as seamstresses. After being released in 1782 or 1783, Mrs. LaForce began her attempts to reclaim her slaves. The stakes for her were high. "All of the males were prime of life guys so they were good labor," said Thomas. And having lost her husband, Mrs. LaForce needed all the labor she could get her hands on when she eventually returned to her Kentucky land. First, British officials at Detroit told her they were unable to recover the slaves. Thomas said there is evidence that Mrs. LaForce appealed to George Washington to act in her behalf and in 1812 petitioned to have her slaves returned. Most reports say her efforts were unsuccessful, and the former slaves went on to live their own free lives. In an irony every bit as rich as the one visited on the LaForces, it was the slaves' status as mere property - the spoils of war - that contributed to their freedom. The Underground Railroad
One of the girls, Kandis, ended up with British agent Alexander McKee in Canada for a time. She gave birth to a daughter Rachel, who eventually married a Frank Reno - Thomas' great, great, great, great grandfather. "I'm figuring that the Renos or Rachel comes back into Ohio, and we're talking 1810, 1815 time frame," Thomas said. "There was still a nice size population of Shawnee still in this area in 1810," he explained, something that may have led Rachel to seek her brothers and sisters here. Records and the family history as passed down orally help make the sequence of what happened afterwards more reliable. Rachel Reno's daughter, Susannah, married Lewis Adams, a free black man, Jan. 1, 1816, in Urbana, where the Renos and Adamses would become influential citizens in the African-American community. The families were among the founders of St. Paul A.M.E. Church in Urbana in 1824, In 1842, they helped to found a select school for "colored" children, who were not then allowed to attend white schools. Thomas said Renos and Adamases also are documented as having been part of the Underground Railroad in Champaign County. Thus did a family that arrived as slaves in the war for independence contribute to the freedom of others in the years before the war that led to the emancipation of all slaves. It's a story Thomas plans to continue to track down.