The Legend of Luke Jaco and the Underground Railroad in Doddridge County
Did the Underground Railroad really exist in Doddridge County? By nature of its clandestine existence, this is a very hard question to answer. It was illegal to harbor runaway slaves prior to the Civil War, so underground railroad stations were forced to operate under secrecy and subterfuge. One resident of Doddridge County, Luke Jaco, has long been considered a conductor of this network of abolitionists that helped fugitive slaves escape to the northern free states. Jaco Cave, near West Union, was said to be the place where he hid these slaves.
Although Luke Jaco left Doddridge County over 150 years ago, the hill that bears his name is still a well known landmark in Doddridge County. Below is the commonly told story of Luke Jaco and his eccentric and secretive activities as it appeared in the History of Doddridge County, published in 1979 by the Doddridge County Historical Society.
“The hill was named for Luke Jaco who came into Doddridge County about 1845. The tract of land he bought included the hill. He built a large log house at the foot of the hill on the west side. Here he opened a tavern and established a stopping station for stagecoaches and travelers.
"Various stories are told about Jaco's Inn. One was that it was a notorious rendezvous for men whose comings and goings mystified the neighborhood. Cattlemen and other wealthy guests, stopping at the Inn, are said to have been murdered and buried in the cave not far away. There is a story that human bones were uncovered. Some have suggested that, if this story is true, the bones might have been of Indian origin.
"Undoubtedly, the Inn and cave were a part of the Underground Railroad where slaves could hide temporarily while fleeing to freedom. The Northwestern Turnpike led from Winchester, Va. to Parkersburg and had been completed in 1838. It was the main highway, along with the Staunton-Parkersburg Turnpike (1847), for the runaways to use. The slaves had to have trustworthy people to help them. And from what happened to Jaco, it would seem logical for him to make his Inn and cave a haven for them.
"One day Jaco was shot from ambush and left dying by an unknown enemy. A passerby found him. His life was saved by Dr. L.R. Charter, Sr. The doctor had to amputate his arm. The experience caused Luke Jaco to become a changed man. Soon after an evangelist, Rev. Clawson, stopped at the Jaco Hotel, Luke offered his tavern as a church meeting house and was himself converted.
"After his conversion, Jaco began helping the runaway slaves escape and it was to the cave upon the hill that he took them. Here they were hidden in safety until they could continue their journey to the Ohio River and on to eventual freedom in Canada.
"It is told that Jaco gave shelter to many. Oftentimes the slaves would be hidden under straw in the backs of wagons. The driver of the wagon would pull his team into Jaco's stable yard and start a conversation. The word “peaceful" was a password of recognition for Jaco and the drivers. A typical conversation might have gone as follows:
"My brother, did you have a 'peaceful' trip?" Jaco asked.
'Yes, all was 'peaceful' sir," the driver replied.
"After these identification greetings, the slaves would come out from hiding, Jaco would take them to the cave and the driver would remain at the tavern.
"A story in the W.Va. Review of May, 1933, suggested that Ephraim Bee, a prominent citizen of the county, may have helped Jaco in getting the slaves to freedom.
"Others have suggested that John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame may have worked with Jaco at some point. Brown did live in this county for a period, helping to survey lands for Oberlin College. For a time he planned to make his home here. Also in the summer of 1859, Brown was in Clarksburg to help a free negro woman who was accused of aiding slaves to escape.
"On the other hand there are legends picturing Jaco as a wicked, cruel man as long as he had the tavern. Another story in the W.Va. Review for Feb. 1939 tells about a cattleman returning from Clarksburg after the sale of his cattle. He had to stop at Jaco's Hotel for the night. Here's what happened.
"Toward morning Billy (the cattleman) was awakened by a light shining in his face. Dimly he saw old Jaco peering at him and perceived the handle of a long hunting knife. Billy felt the clamming drops of sweat trickling down his body. For a moment he seemed hypnotized by the leering face. Wildly he struck at Jaco and knocked the candle from his hand. Leaping from his bed, he stumbled down the trembling ladder and made his way into the yard. Guided by the light of a dying moon he found his horse and got away from the house - galloping barebacked through the woods.”
"After the Civil War, Luke Jaco sold his property to Chapman J. Stuart and moved to Missouri. Luke Jaco crossed Jaco Hill 134 years ago. As we cross it yet today, we may be wondering if the ghosts of many may not be returning to revisit the old hill too.”
Myth or Fact
Is the story of Jaco Cave just a myth, or is it possible that Doddridge County played a part in the Underground Railroad? The most likely place to find answers to my questions was at the Doddridge County Court House. When I research someone, I always look at the more obscure records. Vital records and deeds are easy to find, but they do not tell you anything about someone’s character or personality. For this kind of information you want to look at chancery records, criminal court records, Minute Books and unacknowledged writings, all of which can be found in the County Clerk’s and Circuit Clerk’s offices. Sometimes you may read for hours and find nothing, but sometimes you find more than you ever imagined you would find. Such was the case with Luke Jaco.
Early Doddridge Resident
Luke Jaco was born about 1808 in Harrison County, the son of William Jaco and Sarah Spence Mott. In 1830 he married Elizabeth Prunty. They moved to Doddridge County sometime prior to 1840 and settled on Arnolds Creek, near the base of the hill on the west end of Doe Run where he operated a tavern and hotel on the Northwestern Turnpike. Having done their genealogy before starting my research, I knew that Luke and Elizabeth Jaco lived in Doddridge County until after the Civil War, when they moved to Missouri with their son, Benjamin F. Jaco. However, things were not exactly as they appeared.
Involved in Scandal
In the county Minute Books I found two very interesting entries. Both cases were captioned 'Overseer of the Poor of Doddridge County versus Luke Jaco upon a warrant of bastardy.' The first entry, made in August of 1846, stated: "It is ordered that Luke Jaco show cause at the next term of this court why an order made by this court at the last term thereof binding or ordering to be bound Benjamin Tucker, illegitimate child, to him the said Luke Jaco.”
The second entry at the following court term stated: “The condition of the above recognizance is such that whereas Susannah Tucker hath by her examination on oath in writing sweareth that on the 12th day of June last she was delivered of a female bastard child at the house of John Fleming in the county which is likely to become chargeable to the county of Doddridge and hath charged Luke Jaco having gotten her with child of the said bastard child.”
After much more reading, I was able to determine who Susannah, Benjamin and the female child were. Susannah Tucker was an unmarried woman who lived on Arnolds Creek, not far from where Luke and Elizabeth Jaco lived. After the birth of their two illegitimate children, Susannah petitioned the court for financial assistance to take care of these children. As was the custom at that time, the Overseer of the Poor in turn sued Luke Jaco for that financial support. After first denying any responsibility, Luke Jaco did eventually support their daughter, Emeretta Tucker. However, their son, Benjamin Tucker, moved in with his father and changed his name to Benjamin Franklin Jaco.
I have no idea if Luke and Susannah continued their relationship. Luke’s wife, Elizabeth, went on to raise Benjamin as her own son. Susannah never married and raised Emeretta by herself, eventually moving to Grafton before 1870. Luke and Elizabeth never had any children of their own.
Violence and Litigation
There are numerous other court cases that give credence to the fact that Luke Jaco was a cantankerous and eccentric man. He was charged several times with assault and battery on several of his neighbors. He made outrageous accusations against people that led to years of contentious litigation. However, as stated in oral history, I found no proof of any intimidation or murder of Luke Jaco’s patrons.
Further research of Luke Jaco led to the discovery of a newspaper item in the Philadelphia Inquirer dated September 28, 1849. It said, “Luke Jaco, of Doddridge County, was on Friday a week attacked by a man, who first discharged his rifle at him, the ball taking effect in his right arm, and afterward threw him upon the ground, and beat him upon the head with a rock until apparently lifeless. The parties had been at variance for a number of years. Mr. Jaco’s arm had been amputated and he was in critical condition.”
When I tried to find any connection between Luke Jaco and the underground railroad, I came up with nothing. To the contrary, I found him listed in the 1850 slave schedule as the owner of a 2-year old male mulatto slave. In the 1860 slave schedule he was the owner of a 33-year old black female slave, a 13-year old male mulatto slave, a 10-year old male black slave and a 7-year old black female slave. This seemed to contradict his alleged anti-slavery sentiment. However, I have to concede that the best way to avoid suspicion of abolitionist activity would be to give the appearance of being a slaveowner. Perhaps they were not slaves at all. Maybe they were actually runaway slaves used as decoys to prevent drawing attention to his illegal activity.
As for Luke Jaco and John Brown knowing each other, that certainly seems plausible. They both were in Doddridge County at the same time and it seems that John Brown made it his mission to find out as much about this area and its people as he could. From his field notes, we know that John Brown did extensive research on the roadways and natural formations and resources in Doddridge County. The cave on what would later become known as Jaco Hill would have been a natural hiding place for slaves. Everything about Jaco Cave lent itself to the underground railroad movement. Its location was directly above the Northwestern Turnpike and very near the Harrisville-Salem Turnpike. It was far enough away from Jaco’s home that neighbors would not notice any unusual comings and goings.
So was I able to prove that Luke Jaco was part of the Underground Railroad, or even an abolitionist? The answer to that is no. At present, I have found no concrete evidence that supports this oral tradition. But, if you connect oral tradition with circumstantial evidence, I think it’s entirely possible that Luke Jaco could have pulled off such a clandestine act. He was a man of financial means and any suspicious behavior could be attributed to his occupation and eccentric personality. If any reader has any information that would shed light on Luke Jaco’s possible connection to abolitionism and/or the Underground Railroad, please contact me through the contact form on this website.
Luke Jaco died in March of 1868 in Pettis County, Missouri. His body was returned to West Virginia by train and buried in the Terry Cemetery in Ritchie County, beside the grave of his mother.
(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.”)