Thursday, January 3, 2013

Samuel Grunden: Racism in Mercer Co., Ohio

In 1835 Augustus Wattles, a native of Connecticut, purchased 190 acres of land in southern Mercer Co., Ohio and, just a few years later, founded a school, the Emlen Institute, for the support and education of colored boys of African and Indian descent. By 1838 Wattles had purchased a total of 30,000 acres in Mercer county and proceeded to found a settlement to be colonized by freed blacks from Cincinnati and Philadelphia.

Emlen Institute

This large influx of coloreds was objected to by the white residents of the area and a number of disturbances broke out, reaching a climax in June of 1846 when word reached the neighborhood of the coming of 400 more blacks, the freed slaves of John Randolph of Roanoke, Virginia.

The freed slaves arrived in Cincinnati and were transported by canal boats as far as New Bremen. Whites from Auglaize and Mercer counties assembled together and every able male citizen of the township of New Bremen joined in forming picket lines, refusing to let the boats land. The would-be settlers had no choice but to turn back. This organized group of whites was led by Silas Young and Samuel Grunden.

When I first read this story I was startled by those two names.  My ancestor was Samuel Grunden and he lived in Mercer Co., Ohio during that same time period! I also knew that two sons of Philip Young had married into the Grunden family, also in Mercer Co., Ohio, and that the two families were close.

With further research, I realized that my ancestor was too old to have been the Samuel Grunden who was vice-captain of this resistance group. Samuel was nearly 70 years old in 1846. The vice-captain was likely his son Samuel Jr., brother of my ancestor Joseph. *(Please see update at the end of this post) I am not yet sure how the captain, Silas Young, is related to the Young family connected to mine, but I have little doubt that he is connected in some fashion.

Severe racial friction finally took it's toll and the Emlen Institute closed it's doors in 1857.  In 1866 many of the freed slaves left for Liberia, South Africa, while another portion of them was successful in making a settlement in Montezuma in Franklin Township.

Cleveland Plain Dealer
3 Dec 1916
It's an interesting story and it doesn't end there. In 1907, descendants of the slaves of John Randolph tried to regain the land that was purchased for their ancestors. It was a 10 year battle which they eventually lost.

This is just a very brief summary of the story of the Wattles Negroes and it's briefness is not meant to marginalize these lives or the efforts of Augustus Wattles and others, but rather to bring attention to what I think is probably a lesser known story of racial conflict that took place before the civil war. 

While I'm not proud that members of my family were involved in this racial stand-off, it is history, and it is what it is.


Winter, Nevin O. "Mercer County." A History of Northwest Ohio: a Narrative Account of Its Historical Progress and Development from the First European Exploration of the Maumee and Sandusky Valleys and the Adjacent Shores of Lake Erie, down to the Present Time,. Vol. 3. Chicago: Lewis Pub., 1917. 513. Print.

"Kansas Bogus Legislature - Augustus Wattles." History of Western Ohio and Auglaize County, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Pioneers and Prominent Public Men,. Columbus, OH: Press of W.M. Linn & Sons, 1905. Kansas Bogus Legislature - IntroductionWeb. 04 Feb. 2011.

Mathias, Frank F. "John Randolph's Freedmen: The Thwarting of a Will" The Journal of Southern History Vol. 39, No. 2 (May, 1973), pp. 263-272 Published by: Southern Historical Association Stable URL:

Woodson, Carter Godwin. "Vocational Training." The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861: a History of the Education of the Colored People of the United Sates from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. Belle Fourche, SD: Kessinger, 2004. 294-95. Print.

*Update: I have to admit to a bit of sloppiness on my part at this point. I assumed Samuel Sr. was too elderly at nearly 70 years of age, to be vice-captain of such a group. Had I checked my own notes I would have seen that Samuel Jr. was in Clinton Co., Indiana before and after this incident took place, so it is extremely unlikely that he was at all involved. Unless there was another Samuel Grunden in the area, it would have indeed been Samuel Sr. who led this group along with Silas Young. (Kudos go to cousin Phil Grunden, descendant of Samuel Jr., for bringing this to my attention!)



  1. Lisa,
    I know Mercer County. Many of the same Germans who settled Cincinnati also settled Mercer County. I know what you mean about history "is what it is." I remember being shocked when I read a deed that listed the price of a house as "760 and a Negro boy named Harry." On this 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, thanks for taking on this topic.

    1. Thank you Kathy! My husband and I just watched the newest movie "Lincoln" two nights ago and I knew then that it was time to write this one. I had put it off entirely too long.

  2. Fascinating piece of history. I agree, it is what it is, however, sharing it, is wonderful. Great piece Lisa.

  3. Lisa - a great investigative piece! If you want more information or conversation with those of us that have similar histories visit

  4. This kind of history is hard to discuss, but it's so important to remember so that we remain bothered and a little ruffled over it. You handled the subject well. Thanks for sharing!

  5. The history of Emlen Institute will shed more light on this story. It was originally for orphaned Negroes and Indian boys. It was part of the Back to Africa movement and those coming back from Liberia sought recompense for land they had given up. Another owner of Emlin Institute changed it's mission to resettling blacks from Quaker Virginia plantations after the Quaker Church said it was a sin to own slaves. HOWEVER, the Quakers did not give the slaves freedmen papers, hire them for wages, sell or give them land in Virginia. They chose to relocate the slaves to Ohio. By most accounts the Grundens and the former Virginia family they married into were Peace Democrats or Copperheads. The Ohio residents resented the land purchases and relocation.In those days, everything went to the eldest son upon the parents death. The other siblings had to fend for themselves and the availability of land was an important factor in the agricultural society of the day. Southern plantation owners weren't well liked by many of the neighbors. W.Va. split from Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War and the Confederates had to keep a whole regiment back to defend against the anti-slavery element in the South. So, to assign racism to their motives in Mercer Co. of the 1800's or to today's events without regard for all other factors insures that the racism argument will continue the misdirection of resources. In one of the most fertile counties in America, Emlin Institute consistently failed and I believe it is now owned by the Catholic Church as a retirement complex. As a Grunden, the history doesn't bother me a bit. We also had a relatives that served in the Luftwaffe and Wehrmacht. Imagine that for a family that has a city in Germany with the same name.