Slave Escape

Historical Marker #1863 in Kenton County notes the escape of enslaved woman Margaret Garner, who murdered her daughter to prevent the child’s return to slavery.

In the winter of 1856, Boone County slave owner Archibald Gaines learned how desperate slaves could become to secure the freedom of their families. That January, a pregnant Margaret Garner, eight members of her family, and nine other slaves from neighboring farms fled from the Gaines farm to Covington. They eventually made their way to the frozen Ohio River and crossed to Cincinnati.

In Cincinnati, the large group divided. The Garners hid in the home of a free kinsman but were found by Gaines and U.S. marshals. Before they were apprehended, Margaret determined that she would rather see her children dead than returned to slavery. Therefore, she cut the throat of her young daughter. She was stopped before she could kill any of the other children, but two of her boys sustained cuts and an infant was hit in the face with a coal shovel.

The family was taken into custody and a legal battle ensued to determine if the slaves should be returned to Kentucky under the fugitive slave law or be tried in Ohio for the murder of the child. The ensuing trial was one of many episodes that escalated sectional conflict over state versus federal sovereignty as it related to slavery.

Eventually, the Garners were returned to their Kentucky master on the promise that Gaines would make them available in Ohio for the murder trial. Instead, Gaines worked quickly to move Margaret and her family to the Deep South, possibly intending to send them to relatives in Arkansas, Mississippi or Louisiana. However, on the trip down the Ohio River their boat wrecked and Margaret and one of her children were thrown overboard. Garner was rescued, but the child drowned. Margaret and her family were eventually returned to Covington, but before Ohio could claim them they were again sent south and sold. Margaret apparently died of typhoid or yellow fever in 1858 at Willow Grove Plantation in Mississippi.