Hamilton East Public Library logo

My Account

Hours & Location

Get A Library Card

September 14, 2017

Self-Emancipation – John Burtwell

Self-Emancipation – John Burtwell

By: David Heighway, Hamilton County Historian

In keeping with the topic of emancipation from last week, it’s worth looking at the story of someone who emancipated themselves via the Underground Railroad.  Escaped slave, barber, and politician John Burtwell has faded from the pages of history, but was a noted person in his day.

Since he began his life in slavery in the deep south, information is very difficult to find prior to his arrival in Hamilton County.  The information that exists comes from census records, his death record, and various newspaper articles, (many of which have errors.)  He was born in Alabama to a woman named Keziah.  She was owned by the Bedford family while John and his father Andrew were owned by the Burtwell family of Florence, Alabama.  The slave owner, John Trumball Burtwell, was a steamboat captain whose wife was a member of the Bedford family.

According to later newspaper accounts, John became a cook aboard Burtwell’s boat.  Sometime in the 1850’s, it docked at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, and John was sent ashore on an errand.  He took the opportunity to escape.  He found members of the Underground Railroad who pointed him towards Westfield.  He was there by 1860, when he was listed in the census record as living with and working for Levi and Hannah Bowman.  The accounts state that the slave owner later came to Westfield to look for John, but was discouraged by the locals.

As was common for slaves, John’s birthdate is unknown, even the year.  The 1860 census says that he was 35 years old, while the 1880 census says that he was 49.  The 1900 and 1910 censuses follow this pattern and his 1911 death record said that he was 102.   The newspaper accounts put his age even higher and claim that he was 110 in 1906 or 112 in 1911.  They also say his mother lived to the age of 125.  While these ages are very unlikely, the alleged longevity did mean that his story was of interest and got recorded.

A significant part of his story (that was forgotten later) happened in 1864.  John ran in the election for township trustee of Washington Township, making him the first African American to run for office in Hamilton County.  What is more significant is that in the Westfield precinct, he placed second out of a field of three.  The totals were: George Catterson – 100; John Burtwell – 48; and Jesse Sparks – 46.

We know about this because of an irate editorial that appeared in the Indianapolis Star (which was unconnected to today’s Indianapolis Star) on April 18 of that year.  Titled “Miscegenation”, it dismissed Burtwell as “contraband from the south”.  It went on to say, “The fellows who voted for Burtwell may think the white man as good as the negro if he behaves himself, but their votes show that they place the African above their own race.”

John doesn’t appear in the 1870 census, possibly because he was away from the state.  Many former slaves spent time after the Civil War searching through the south for lost family members.  He was apparently successful because there was an African American woman in Hamilton County named Sarah Burtwell who married Charles S. Morgan in 1876.  Sarah S. Morgan was the person who signed Burtwell’s death certificate.

In the 1880 census, the Burtwell household consists of Keziah Bedford (age 74), her son John Burtwell (age 49), and her grandson Luther B. Burtwell (age 8).   John is listed as an agricultural laborer, but the Helms 1880 history says that he is a barber.  According to the 1900 census, he was living by himself,  employed as a day laborer, and was unable to read or write.  Despite being illiterate, he owned property in Westfield, including his own house, which in 1910 was on Penn Street.

There is no record of Luther Burtwell after 1880.  Sarah S. Morgan lived in Lafayette, Indiana.  The newspaper accounts say that John’s mother lived with him until she died, but there is no record of when that happened.  In April of 1911, John’s house burned and he had to move to the County Home in Noblesville.  Evidently, the stress of events proved too difficult for him and he died on June 6.  The death record says that he was buried in Summit Lawn Cemetery in Westfield, but there is apparently no headstone.