The Dr. Thomas Trundle Story

Thomas J. Trundle, born ca. 1805, was raised in a slave-holding family in Bourbon County, Kentucky. Slavery was the norm in his place and time, and many turned a blind eye to a system that was clearly wrong. In many cases, a change in one's circumstances, religion or education could be an eye-opener to the ills of this accepted practice. In the case of Trundle, there may have been a moral awakening; evidence exists that he may have gone from slaveholder to agent for the Underground Railroad….. or did he?

Trundle arrived in Boone County in the 1820s, after attending the medical school at Transylvania College. He began to practice medicine, and started acquiring land in the Big Bone Lick area. The doctor was treating Boone County's residents, which included the enslaved people living in the area. As was common practice, he often bartered for his services or took promissory notes to collect at a later time. Additionally, he regularly offered personal loans to associates and neighbors, unrelated to his practice of medicine. He was a wealthy man, one who was owed a great deal of money.

In 1853, long-time resident Dr. Trundle was accused by his neighbors of being an abolitionist, who assisted slaves in escape. There was testimony given by two men who represented one of the slaveholders who had apparently lost a slave as a result of Trundle's efforts. Per the witnesses, Trundle supplied horses and an escape route, and would stay behind to delay the freedom seekers' pursuers. He was arraigned and a heavy bail of $17,000 was set, which would translate to approximately ½ million dollars or more today. 

Unable to immediately come up with the money, and fearing for his life, Trundle requested and obtained a change of venue to Independence, Kentucky in nearby Kenton County. He was transferred to the jail there to await trial. After an initial report in the papers, labeling him a "known abolitionist" the story in the press abruptly changed. Inflammatory stories began to run in area papers, which were picked up by newspapers across the nation. The second version of the arrest was that he had tricked the freedom-seekers into thinking he was helping them, but was actually selling slaves to the Deep South for personal gain. Papers read far and wide, both with abolitionist leanings and those catering to slave-holding states carried this version widely. It's unclear which version is the truth, as both are based on hearsay, but the second version unified the anti-slavery and the pro-slavery readers; all who read them now saw the doctor as a villain.

When he was arrested, the country was more bitterly divided over slavery than ever before, and the Ohio courts had become the proving grounds for the strength of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Freedom Seekers were fleeing the South in greater numbers than ever, and the network of the Underground Railroad was at its busiest level of activity. With Boone County's proximity to Free States, the tensions between slaveholders and anyone showing sympathy for the enslaved people they held, was suspect. This makes it all the more difficult to determine Trundle's true motives.

Trundle often found himself in civil court, sometimes a defendant, but more often the plaintiff, the cases involved the many financial entanglements and notes he held, which were sometimes answered by counter-suit. Even with the expense of going to court, his wealth remained intact and his valuable real estate was never mortgaged. He consistently owned upwards of 1100 acres of property, horses, cattle and enslaved people. 

As a slaveholder, his practices seemed unusual, considering his large farm holdings. In the years leading up to his arrest, he held 13 enslaved people, though only four were over the age of 16. In the event an enslaved mother died, but an infant or young child of little monetary value survived, with no one to care for him, he would not be of use to a slaveholder. Perhaps the doctor took motherless infants or disabled enslaved people in trade. It appeared he didn't have enslaved people as he was known to "hire" slaves from neighbors.

The risk of "absconding with" or assisting enslaved people to freedom was clear in the heavy bail set by the courts for Trundle. In 1852, Trundle owned 1100 acres of valuable property in the Big Bone Lick neighborhood. The worth of his property was comparable to the bail he was held to in his case. At the time Trundle was arrested, the high end of the scale for healthy young adult male enslaved people in Boone County was about $700 locally. In the Deep South this number may have been somewhat higher. To equal the risk of losing his wealth, he would have had to sell more than twenty men south.