Samuel Barkshire, a freed slave from Boone County, accomplished a great deal in his lifetime. His family’s story is quite remarkable, and the information available about the Barkshires is unusually rich.
Samuel, who was born ca. 1798, was owned first by Richard “Dickey” Berkshire (the family later used the “Berkshire” spelling) and then sold to neighbor Joseph Hawkins, after Berkshire’s death. Hawkins was married to a woman, Nancy, who may have once been the consort of Dickie Berkshire; he was also the man who emancipated Samuel, in 1833 for the sum of one dollar.
Samuel purchased land adjacent to Hawkins, then bought his family’s freedom, a nearly insurmountable goal. The Barkshires relocated to Rising Sun before 1840. Nancy Hawkins also moved to Rising Sun after Joseph’s 1836 death. The move of the Barkshires would certainly be the end game for most African Americans of Samuel’s day, but this family was cut from a sturdy cloth.
Samuel, his wife Frances and sons Arthur, Garrett and Woodford were actively participating in very dangerous work in Rising Sun. The historical directory indicates Barkshire made his living as a cooper, but in secret, he was running a “station” on the Underground Railroad. Arthur, Woodford and Garrett were working as conductors,both on the river and over land. Samuel’s involvement (and that of his wife) was documented by abolitionist Laura Smith Haviland in her memoirs. Arthur also defied the laws of Indiana by bringing his bride home to Indiana. The state had adopted a new constitution in 1851 which criminalized the settlement of any African Americans in the state who were not already citizens of Indiana. He fought his way up to the Indiana Supreme Court, but ultimately lost the case and moved to Ohio, he later served in the U. S. Colored troops.
A letter to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1884 gave even more details of Samuel and his family’s activities, as well as that of Nancy Hawkins, their former mistress. Samuel and Francis helped to shelter runaways and pass along information, and Arthur and Garrett did the same while working on riverboats up and down the Ohio. Woodford would lead freedom seekers all the way to Canada at times, while still in his teens. Nancy Hawkins hid runaways in her home in secret, daring slave hunters to cross her threshold, well into her seventies. Hawkins and the Barkshires had a close relationship. She left her entire estate to the family.
It’s possible that Samuel Barkshire may have been an early conductor through Boone County while still living here; he owned property along a suspected escape route. The risk to African Americans doing this kind of work cannot be overstated. The Barkshires were repeatedly threatened with lynching and foiled at least one attempt at kidnapping and re-enslavement. They persevered, and only history knows how many people owed their freedom to this brave Boone County man and his family.