John Van Zandt

Underground Railroad Conductor

John Van Zandt (1791-1847) was a Kentucky slaveholder who freed his enslaved people, moved to Cincinnati, and became a prominent conductor on the Underground Railroad.

When Harriet Beecher Stowe discovered that her hired kitchen worker was in reality a fugitive, she directed her husband and brother to transport the young woman to Van Zandt’s home - a 12 mile journey from Walnut Hills to Evendale. He was immortalized as the character Von Trompe in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Van Zandt was later apprehended in 1842 when two bounty hunters caught him transporting fugitives in his wagon. The slaveholder, a Kentuckian named Wharton Jones, sued Van Zandt; a case which ultimately reached the Supreme Court in Jones v. Van Zandt. Defended by fellow abolitionist Salmon P. Chase, Van Zandt lost the case due to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which guaranteed slaveholders the right to recover their human property.

Van Zandt would not live to see the end of the case. Due to the hefty fines that were imposed on him by previous courts, he died while still in prison in 1847. He was originally buried in Glendale, and his remains were later moved to Wesleyan Cemetery in Northside, the first racially integrated cemetery in Hamilton County. (His tombstone reads "Van Sandt.")

In a joint venture by the communities of Glendale, Evendale and Woodlawn, a historical marker honoring Van Zandt is located at the intersection of Oak and Chester in Glendale. The marker reads:

"Three hundred yards east of this location on Oak Road, overlooking the Miami & Erie Canal, was the house of abolitionist John Van Zandt (1791-1847). For years this house was known as one of the most active "stations" on the Underground Railroad. In 1842, two bounty hunters from Sharonville caught Van Zandt helping eight runaway slaves who had escaped from owner Wharton Jones of Kentucky. Defended in court by Salmon P. Chase, who became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1864-1873, Van Zandt was convicted and fined. Chase appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he tested the constitutionality of the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law. When writing her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe used Van Zandt as the abolitionist character John Van Trompe. Van Zandt's house became associated with the book and was known as "The Eliza House," named for one of the novel's main characters."

Images

portrait of John Van Zandt Source: courtesy of the Harriet Beecher Stowe House
tombstone of John Van Zandt ("John Van Sandt") Source: Hamilton Avenue Road to Freedom Creator: Kathy Dahl Date: 2014

Location

4003 Colerain Ave. (Wesleyan Cemetery entrance)

Metadata

Harriet Beecher Stowe House, “John Van Zandt,” Cincinnati Sites and Stories, accessed October 5, 2022, http://stories.cincinnatipreservation.org/items/show/161.