Chris Saunders received the email of a lifetime in 2011.
An executive producer for the popular PBS series Finding Your Roots With Louis Henry Gates Jr. had seen some historical research postings online and was seeking Saunders help for an upcoming episode featuring John Legend, the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter. Of particular interest was the research Saunders had done on the Polly slave story, ancestors connected to Legend. (click here to watch video)
Saunders has always been interested in history, but his enthusiasm for the Civil War era was elevated after reading Folklore and Legends by Sharon Kouns.
“My dad bought the book for me and I’ve probably read it 150 times,” said Saunders, who eventually met the author. The two have since become close friends.
A section of the book that grabbed his attention was about an old newspaper column called Narrow Escapes in which Civil War veterans talked about the narrow escapes they had while in combat.
Saunders began researching the Civil War in his community of Burlington, OH, and the tri-state area of Ashland, KY, Ironton, OH, and Huntington, WV. This area is what some would consider the front lines from slavery to freedom. Kentucky was a slave state, Ohio a free state. Being at the southernmost tip of Ohio, you’re at the southernmost tip of freedom and the northern most point of slavery. In fact, the Buckeye State borders more slave states than any other state.
“Civil War cemeteries are easy to find,” he said. “There’s a cemetery in Ironton, OH, called Woodlawn that has a whole Civil War section.”
“As you’re walking through cemeteries, you start to recognize names,” he continued. “So a lot of times the stories come first and sometimes the tombstone comes first. Then you’re making a connection of who this was and they become real as opposed to just a story.”
His interest in Civil War soldiers grew to include slaves because they were both in the same time period. Currently, he’s researching the Underground Railroad.
Saunders even traveled to Madison County, VA, to visit a cemetery with only six people in it. “The cemetery there contained the remains of a slave owner who freed all of his slaves and all of the slaves came and settled in my neighborhood. I found this out through old books,” he said. “But then I went there and didn’t have any idea where the cemetery was. I crossed paths with a gentleman named Bill Graham who was a local historian. He was able to lead me to the graves in the back of a mansion.”
Old newspaper death notices are a gold mine. They tell a person’s history. You can find out who their wife was, their kids, what they did throughout their lives. This is a first-hand record of what they did. Plus it’s easy to take a death notice and double-check your facts and expand on that. I access most old newspapers from the county library.
“I’m interested in that era. At first I was just interested in the Civil War itself and then I wanted to know what the soldiers experienced and what the slaves experienced. The really compelling thing was what happened here… What happened where I live in Burlington, OH? Things happened at Gettysburg. Things happened at Antietam and Manassas. But what happened here?”
“Growing up I always thought I came from nowhere; nothing happened here. But the more I’ve gotten into this, I’ve learned there was a tremendous amount that happened here, like the Underground Railroad, which was very prevalent in this area. There were no Civil War battles per se but the Underground Railroad was very common.”
In fact, Saunders’ community was a central hub of the Underground Railroad.
“What I’m trying to accomplish with my research is I want people around here to know where they come from. I want them to know we have a whole lot of stuff to be proud of. I want people to know that while people want to look at the Civil War and say it was a black and white thing and that white people kept blacks oppressed, I want them to also know that during the Civil War white soldiers put their lives on the line to free these black people,” he said. “I also want them to know that blacks and whites worked together on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was the first civil-rights movement in the United States. I want to promote healing. Sure, horrible things went on — I’m not denying that they happened — but I also want people to see the other side of the coin. There were people willing to risk their lives and make themselves poor and get absolutely nothing out of it. Thankfully, I can use historical accuracy to bring people together.”
When Saunders isn’t researching or working his day job, he’s giving presentations around the community to schools, churches, historical societies — and has even done one at a family reunion. “We don’t have a historical society in my hometown of Burlington. My friends laugh and say I’m the historical society.”
Believe it or not, Saunders has done very little genealogy research on his own family. “My parents are very much into genealogy,” he said. “My dad can trace family back to VA prior to 1776; my mom same time period. Surprisingly, I know very little about my own family.”
Saunders has multiple ideas in his head for writing books. The first about the Underground Railroad will be titled, Honor among Thieves. Why? “Because Underground Railroad conductors were thieves!” he said.
As far as the Finding Your Roots episode featuring John Legend, Saunders name does appear in the credits. “I’ve sent stuff to John but he never responded,” Saunders said. “But, if I have helped in some way connect the 21st century back to the Civil War era and people earn from my research, that’s recognition enough.”
Do you research American history? What are your tips for finding truth about the ghosts of yesteryear?
Until next time…