Kelton House Museum and Garden, 586 East Town Street, Columbus, Ohio 43215, 614-464-2022; A Service of the Junior League of Columbus, Inc. Kelton House Museum and Garden: Fernando Cortez Kelton, an oil portrait Kelton House Museum and Garden: Sophia Stone Kelton, wife of Fernando Cortez Kelton, an oil portrait Kelton House Museum and Garden: Close-up of a photograph of Martha Hartway Lawrence who escaped from slavery in Virginia via the Underground Railroad and lived with the Kelton family for 10 years. Kelton House Museum: Close-up of a photograph of Thomas Lawrence, a free black carpenter who married Martha Hartway

The Kelton Family and the Underground Railroad

Kelton House Museum: Close-up of Historic Underground Railroad Site marker in front yard of Kelton House
Initial capital letter M in Duc De Berry typeface.
he Kelton family was sympathetic to the abolitionist cause and assisted fugitive slaves on their road to freedom. The Underground Railroad was a route for runaway slaves from the southern plantations north to freedom in Canada, using the North Star for direction. There was no actual train and it was not underground. Underground Railroad meant people who helped slaves escape to freedom by hiding them in safe houses called “stations.” Runaways were guided by a “conductor,” a friend who knew the area and would help the slaves reach the next station.

Initial capital letter T in Duc De Berry typeface.

n Central Ohio, the Underground Railroad route went north from the Ohio River through Chillicothe to Circleville, Columbus, Worthington, and Westerville, and then north to Lake Erie and on to Canada. The Kelton House was one of several safehouses or stations along East Town Street in Columbus.

Columbus had steadfast supporters both for and against slavery. Fernando Kelton and his wife Sophia believed slavery was wrong and did all they could to aid runaways. This was dangerous work because it was against Ohio and U.S. law: Anyone caught hiding slaves, giving them food or clothing, or helping them flee north risked six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Yet the Keltons persisted.

Fernando Kelton was a station master/conductor on this road to freedom. The Kelton House has been authenticated as a stop on the Underground Railroad through the oral history of the Kelton and Lawrence families. Although no written records exist of where the slaves hid during an impending raid by slavecatchers, the servants’ quarters or the 300 gallon cistern in the Keltons’ yard, when empty, would have made good hiding places.

In 1864, Sophia Kelton found Martha and Pearl Hartway, who had escaped slavery in Virginia, hiding in the shrubbery at the Kelton home. Sophia took the girls in and gave them temporary refuge. Because of Ohio’s Black Laws and the threat of slavecatchers, both girls wanted to continue north to freedom in Canada, but Martha was too ill to travel and so she stayed in the Kelton home. Martha was raised and educated as one of the family for the next 10 years until her marriage to Thomas Lawrence, a free black carpenter from Cadiz, Ohio, who worked for Fernando Kelton.

Kelton family members continued a supportive relationship with the Lawrence family. The Keltons employed Thomas for 37 years. Martha and Thomas Lawrence bought property for their first home at 69 N. 17th Street, from Col. James Watson, husband of Ella Kelton. They had two children, Arthur Kelton Lawrence and Sadie Lawrence. Giving their older child the Kelton family name illustrated the close friendship that existed between these two families. Arthur Kelton Lawrence learned to read from books passed down from Frank Kelton. Arthur Kelton Lawrence went on to become both a pharmacist and physician; he practiced medicine in Columbus for 33 years. Arthur’s son and daughter-in-law, James and Ruth Lawrence, visited with Grace Kelton in 1975, one year before her death, and attended Grace’s funeral.

Two Lawrence descendants serve on the Kelton House Underground Railroad Learning Station Advisory Committee: James Lawrence, grandson of Martha and Thomas, and Rosanna Penn Fields, great-granddaughter of Martha and Thomas.

On Sunday, November 7, 1999, The Ohio Underground Railroad Association, an organization that documents Underground Railroad stops in Ohio, dedicated a marker designating the Kelton House as a stop on the Underground Railroad and commemorating the fact that Fernando and Sophia Stone Kelton were strong abolitionists and dedicated to the anti-slavery movement in central Ohio. The following is the text on that marker in the front yard of Kelton House:

“When Fernando Cortez and Sophia Stone Kelton built this house in 1852, it was the last residence on East Town Street and was surrounded by pastureland. Ardent abolitionists, the Keltons were members of the local antislavery society. Family tradition states that runaways were hidden in the barn at the back of the house, in the 300-barrel cistern just east of the house, or sometimes in the servants' quarters. No one knows for certain how many fugitive slaves passed through this house on his or her way to freedom. One documented story is that of a 10-year-old runaway named Martha Hartway. Born a slave in September 1854 on a plantation near Richmond in Powhattan County, Virginia, Martha, along with her sister Pearl, fled the plantation. They left at their mother's urging when she was told the girls would be sent to work at the Big House. Kelton family tradition states that Sophia found the girls under a shrub next to the house. Too ill to move, Martha was taken in by the Keltons and remained for ten years. Pearl continued north to Wisconsin because she felt Ohio wasn't safe. In 1874, Martha married Thomas Lawrence in the front parlor of this house. The son of free-black parents, Thomas was employed by the Keltons as a cabinet-maker. The Lawrence family named their children after Martha's Kelton family playmates. The Kelton House was restored and is maintained by the Junior League of Columbus, Inc.”

Pictured at the top of this page, from left to right, are Fernando Cortez Kelton and his wife Sophia Stone Kelton, with Martha Hartway Lawrence and her husband Thomas Lawrence.


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