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And then they became abolitionists: Liverpool and Mundowney Vigilante Families from Fredericksburg

On July 14, 1820, Dorcas Liverpool and her siblings had their statuses registered with the Clerk of the Superior Court of Law: “born free”. The 14-year-old’s parents, James and Frances (nee Bell) Liverpool, relocated to Fredericksburg several years after emancipation by way of the Last Will and Testament of Moore Fauntleroy in 1802. In 1810, James, Frances, and their six children were living in what was once called the Corporation of Fredericksburg in Spotsylvania. For some context, their home was located at 0 Charles Street, the corner of Lafayette Boulevard and Princess Anne Street.

Dorcas’ future husband, Jeremiah Mundowney, lived nearby at 310 Charles Street. His family and extended relations had lived in the area since at least 1810, perhaps longer. Jeremiah filed a lawsuit against William Cooper and the owners of the schooner Susan Riddick for $19 in September 1822. Aside from winning his case, the records were silent on both of these families until 1830, when a majority of the Liverpools and some of the Mundowneys moved, en masse, to Cincinnati, Ohio’s 4th Ward.

Jeremiah, along with his neighbors James and John Liverpool, packed up their personal property along with twenty-three members of their families and went westward. The Liverpool brothers purchased adjacent properties described as 46-48 Race Street. A few years later, Dorcas and Jeremiah’s friendly relations in Fredericksburg were codified by Ohio law on January 2, 1834.

The 4th Ward was a predominantly African American district bound by Third Street to the north and the Ohio River four blocks to the south. Dorcas and her mother, Frances, owned a dressing shop—they were seamstresses. Jeremiah had many vocations, such as drayman, carpenter, and whitewasher. There were no surprises in the entrepreneurial spirit of making an honest living in this tight-knit, self-reliant community. But that does not imply there were no surprises because there were.

Dorcas had two younger sisters, Mary and Elizabeth. Mary’s obituary reflected on her life as having personally assisted those “escaping bondsmen.” Her sister Elizabeth was memorialized as “one of the first [African American] people to come to this city about 80 years ago…during the antebellum times, she assisted many slaves to freedom with the others on the underground railway.” The Fredericksburg families did a lot more than move to Cincinnati: they moved right into the heart of an active Liberty Line (aka Underground Railroad).

Somewhere along the way, Jeremiah had two concurring love interests. The first was Dorcas, his legal wife; they had no children together. And then there was Martha. Martha A. Fossett self-identified as Martha A. Mundowney because she and Jeremiah lived together in 1850. In the 1861 Cincinnati City Directory, Jeremiah and Martha resided at 198 Webb Alley, the former home he shared with Dorcas. In the same directory, he is listed as living at 165 Pearl at the corner of King and Webb with Dorcas. By 1877, Jeremiah had moved back to Webb Street with Daniel, the son he had with Martha, and Martha rented the rear unit at 46 Race Street, the family home of Dorcas, while Dorcas was there. This is an instructive moment: Dorcas had every reason to refuse Martha, but the purpose of their vigilante community was far more important than the pride of either woman. Besides, Martha’s relationship with Jeremiah was not the only one that bound the two families together. Her older sister Mary was married to Francis Liverpool, so while the family gatherings might have been awkward, neither woman could completely divorce herself from the other. Their fight was with the moral bankruptcy that sustained the idea of owning other human beings, not with each other—but wait, there’s more.

Martha’s parents were Joseph and Edith (Edy) Fossett of Monticello. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Joseph’s mother, Mary, was the sister of Sally Hemings. Edy was the French chef Jefferson gushed about in the latter years of his life. In all his effusive praises of Edy’s fine cuisine, he did nothing to protect her or her children from being sold after his death to pay off his debts. The bubble burst around this once cohesive family insulated from the violent separation that they had only heard about happening to others. They felt the gusts of wind swirl around them like a hurricane expected to land at any moment, yet they had no emergency shelter or evacuation route. The war declared on the Fossett family took twenty-three years to end, but it did end. For years, Joseph held on to the belief that he would one day be able to pay the ransom for his son Peter. Unlike the rest of his family, he had a particularly difficult time getting Peter released. His opportunity came when Peter was scheduled to be sold because he attempted to escape twice. Once the sale was announced, Joseph coordinated the purchase of Peter’s liberty through a friend of Jefferson’s. In 1850, Peter emerged in the Cincinnati census records living with his sister Lucy and her husband, William.

In 1860, Peter, his wife Sarah, and their children were living at 46 Race Street with…Mary and Elizabeth Liverpool. The Rev. Peter Fossett did not forget his lurid experiences as someone else’s property, so he joined the fight as a station manager on the Liberty Lines. His role was to forward passengers who made it across the Ohio River to Levi Coffin’s storefront at 6th & Elm. Peter’s commitment to liberty and justice for all was not just the eloquent oratory he was known for; no, he went so far as to volunteer his life to save the Union as a captain in Cincinnati’s Black Brigade (1862). He knew then that with all of its warts, America’s democracy was worth saving.

When the Clerk of the Superior Court of Law recorded the Liverpools and Mundowneys as “free” people, he likely did not know, could not have known, that the people he viewed on the other side of his stoic lenses would leave “America’s Most Historic City” to make a bit of history themselves—as abolitionists.


About the Author: Paula D. Royster, PhD

Dr. Royster is the CEO and Founder of The Center for African American Genealogical Research, Inc. (CAAGRI). She is a published author, and a two-time Fulbright Scholar grantee. She earned her interdisciplinary doctorate degree in Humanities and Culture with a secondary major in Public Policy and Social Justice. Her publication, African Abolitionist T. J. Alexander on the Ohio and Indiana Underground Railroads, examines the life of her ancestors who assisted thousands of self-emancipating Africans in their quest for liberty.