The Matthew Bates Story

In the mid-1850s the North Bend area of Boone County, Kentucky had a lot of large farms and thriving communities. The Ohio River was the commercial highway at the time. It also served as the final barrier between slaveholding Kentucky and the free states of Indiana and Ohio. There was heavy Underground Railroad traffic in Boone County. Boone County freedom seekers fled from the area as well as enslaved peoples from the South came through the county looking to reach a free state.

Matt Bates and his family were once enslaved by William and Peggy Bates who lived in the North Bend area. William was fond of Matt. In fact, William stated in his will that Matt was to be freed upon his death and that when his wife Peggy died, the rest of his family should be freed also. By the 1850 census, William and Peggy had died and Matt and his family were free blacks living in Boone County. Matt was listed as a laborer working on the Ohio River. However, just because they were a free family, doesn't mean life was easy.

In a letter written by local resident Jonas Crisler on Nov. 11, 1852, he states, "there has been at least 30 ran off this fall, 14 at least at and about Burlington and the rest about Petersburg: Abraham Piatt's, Thomas Graves', and William Whittaker, all the most valuable. I have no doubt if things continue slaves will be scarce near the Ohio River, particularly if old Matt Bates and his clan continue their privilege they have had. I believe they have been their pilots." 

The letter referenced Matt Bates who they believed was helping people escape slavery. The proximity of the family's home and Matt's work to the river put them in a position to be aware of the comings and goings of abolitionists and slave hunters. It's probable that Jonas Crisler's suspicions were correct. 

By 1852, the Bates family were probably run out of Boone County because we find them over in Indiana. Two years later, Matt's son Jerry is found back in Boone County, involved in a court case where he was accused of stealing a horse. Jerry initially denied being in Boone County but later he admitted to coming over from Lawrenceburg and attending a party at the Kirtleys the same night the horse was stolen. The next morning a man named Stockwell testified to seeing Bates riding a horse towards Covington. Stockwell asked Bates if he was trying to help people escape slavery, to which he replied "no."