Jepthah Fitz Randolph, Doddridge County Abolitionist
We have all heard the story of Luke Jaco and the Underground Railroad, but how many of you know that there is a “safe house” still standing in Doddridge County with the trap doors and crawl spaces looking just as they did over 150 years ago when the owner harbored runaway slaves? Jepthah Fitz Randolph’s original brick home still sits at the junction of Meat House Fork and Tom’s Fork, on Route 18 South, virtually unchanged by the passing of time. As is the case with most Underground Railroad activity, we have only oral history and circumstantial evidence as proof, but I am convinced that Jepthah’s home was specially designed for the purpose of hiding runaway slaves.
Jepthah Fitz Randolph was born November 18, 1814 in Salem, Harrison County, the son of Jonathan Fitz Randolph and Mary Davis. Jepthah was the grandson of Samuel Fitz Randolph, who settled the town of New Salem, Virginia (now Salem, West Virginia) in 1794.
On February 7, 1836, Jepthah married Deborah Sutton on Greenbrier Run in Doddridge County. Jepthah and Deborah were both members of the Seventh Day Baptist faith, which had denounced slavery and joined the abolitionist movement many years before the Civil War.
By November 1844, while living on Greenbrier Run, Jepthah and Deborah had already had four children: eight-year-old Franklin, six-year-old Rachel, four-year-old Minerva, and an infant son George. It was at this time that Jepthah felt the urge to move west, so he packed up his family and headed by wagon to the town of Milton, in southern Wisconsin.
Jepthah chose Milton because it had a large congregation of Seventh Day Baptists already living there by 1844. Also that year Joseph Goodrich, founder of Milton, built the Milton House Inn. Goodrich was a Seventh Day Baptist and a staunch abolitionist. The inn had a tunnel beneath it that provided a hiding place for runaway slaves.
Jepthah and his family stayed at the Milton House Inn before purchasing land, and it was there that they heard the preachings of the abolitionists. This is undoubtedly where Jepthah was inspired to become a part of the anti-slavery crusade.
The following excerpts are from an article written by Jepthah’s son, Franklin, which appeared in the May 13, 1915 issue of the West Union Record:
“In the autumn of 1844 father sold his farm, 300 acres, on the Greenbrier road, two miles from Salem. …. On the 5th day of the next May he with his family in a two-horse covered wagon started from Salem and arrived in Milton, Rock County, Wisconsin Territory, June 8th. Wisconsin was not a state then, one hundred miles from Chicago. We travelled by way of Marietta, Zanesville and Newark, Ohio, Peru and Logansport, Indiana and Chicago, Illinois, about 650 miles.
“Father, becoming dissatisfied, sold his farm for wheat in September and hauled it about 60 miles to market, to Racine on Lake Michigan, and returned by water to Virginia by way of Galena, Illinois, St. Louis, Cairo, Cincinnati, and Parkersburg to Salem, about Oct. 10, 1845.
“In 1847 my father, Jepthah Fitz Randolph, moved to the mouth of Tom’s Fork, now New Milton district, at that time; having previously bought 159 acres of land from John D. and Josiah Bee for $800.00. I being past ten years of age. I have a very distinct recollection about father’s home operations during the previous two years or more.”
So, after the 650-mile journey by wagon to Wisconsin with his wife and four young children, Jepthah returned to Doddridge County after only a few months of living in Milton. His exact reasons for returning are unknown, but he brought back with him the passion of the abolitionist movement.
Settles in Doddridge County
After Jepthah purchased the property on Meat House Fork in 1847, he lobbied for the construction of the Salem-Harrisville Turnpike through his property. Work orders of the turnpike company show that once it was constructed the turnpike did indeed intersect Jepthah’s land. The importance of this fact is that most researchers believe that the Salem-Harrisville Turnpike was a major artery of the Underground Railroad.
Jepthah and Deborah had two more children after they moved back to Doddridge County, Luther and Alvan. Jepthah became a postmaster shortly after his return. Roy Fitz Randolph, Jeptha’s grandson, wrote in his History of New Milton Community:
“Some time after the coming of Mr. Randolph to the mouth of Tom's Fork, he made application to the post office department at Washington for an office to be established here. This was done and Mr. Randolph was named as the first postmaster. The new office was named ‘New Milton’ in honor of Milton, Wisconsin…”
Jepthah’s house was completed sometime prior to 1855. The following description is provided by Norma Bowyer, the home’s current owner:
“Jepthah constructed his Federal Style house from brick fired in the bottom across from his house site. The solid five-brick thick walls (both interior and exterior) sit on cut stone foundations provided natural crawl spaces of considerable size and height. Hidden away in closets and under stairwells are doors which open to large spaces where someone could easily be concealed for short times. There are no floors, only packed dirt and no direct openings to the outside. In the winter, one could snuggle close to the big chimney base and get some warmth.”
Jepthah’s farm was sometimes called Midway Farm because it was midway between West Union and St. Clara. Joseph H. Diss Debar, creator of the West Virginia State Seal, would spend the night at Jepthah’s house when he had business to attend to in West Union.
According to the 2009 Underground Railroad Free Press survey, Jepthah’s home was considered a safe house on the Underground Railroad. The survey states:
“Midway Farm, New Milton, Doddridge County, West Virginia: Oral history says Jepthah Fitz Randolph used secret chambers in the basement of his brick house as hiding places for fugitive slaves. A member of the Seventh Day Baptist Church, Jepthah was clerk at an 1854 convention of the Seventh Day Baptist churches of West Virginia (then western Virginia, now a separate state). The 1854 conference of churches, meeting inside the slave state of Virginia, adopted the following resolution: ‘That we regard American Slavery as a sin of great magnitude in the sight of God, and a flagrant violation of the rights of our fellow men, and that it is our duty to use all of our influence against it.’”
Jepthah Fitz Randolph also played a major role in local politics and education. He was one of the founders of the West Union Academy and served in the 1860s and 70s as superintendent of New Milton school district. He died of jaundice on July 19, 1879, age 64. There is much more to his story than I can fit into one article, so Norma Bowyer and I will be working on a more comprehensive presentation to be given at a later date. Maybe I can talk her into having it at Jepthah’s house.
I am fortunate to have spent a good deal of time in this beautiful home. Norma is a good friend and a founding member of the Doddridge County Heritage Guild. We meet there regularly to research and plan events. It is one of those places that you feel the history as soon as you walk through the front door. I’ve been known to sit alone in the living room there and hope for the spirit of Jepthah or Diss Debar to inspire me. But truthfully, you can’t help but feel inspired simply by being there. It’s just that kind of place.
(NOTE: This article, written by Heritage Guild member Jennifer Wilt, originally appeared in The Doddridge Independent as part of her weekly column “Our Heritage: The REAL History of Doddridge County.”)