Land of Opportunity: Great-Grandfather Helps Underground Railroad

Enterprising nature finds man with a silk-making operation and land that becomes a stop for the Underground Railroad.

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My story comes from data I obtained about my mother's grandparents. And the family’s story in the land of opportunity goes back to her great-grandfather’s enterprising nature and his work with the Underground Railroad.

Her grandfather was George Menown Watt. He was born in 1807 in Belfast, Ireland, and came to America’s land of opportunity in 1821 at the age of 14. The family consisted of George, his wife, nine children and Aunt Rose. It took them six weeks to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a sailing vessel. They experienced severe hardships, and soon after arriving, the three older girls died from the effects of exposure.

George Menown Watt was a nephew of James Watt, who invented steam power in Glasgow, Scotland.

George Watt married Jane Findly McClelland in 1838. Her father was Captain McClelland, a veteran of the War of 1812. He had been commissioned a commander under General Harrison during the Black Hawk War. He had many different assignments. After he completed his service to his country he returned to his family. He was twice married and fathered 20 children.

With his enterprising nature, Captain McClelland became interested in silk manufacturing in Green County, Ohio. Near his home he erected a small building to house the silkworms. It had shelves placed one above the other, far enough apart to place mulberry branches upon which the silkworms fed. These branches were cut from mulberry trees, of which he had planted about five acres. The branches were gathered and placed by his son Sam and grandson Simon Jolly. The branches had to be replaced as fast as the leaves were eaten off.

When the worms matured and made their cocoons, these cocoons were gathered, scalded and placed in glass tumblers, with a certain number in each glass container and a number of glasses in each group. A fine thread from each cocoon was joined together with that from another cocoon, until silk thread of the desired size was made.

His wife and older daughters did the spinning and spooling on wheels made just for that purpose. There was a ready market for silk because it was so scarce at this time. On one occasion, enough silk thread was sent to be woven for a dress for his wife, Martha. When it came back it was a beautiful dark green color. It was probably the first "homegrown" silk dress in Green County.

Captain McClelland, being of strict faith, was religiously opposed to slavery. He was often suspected of aiding slaves' escapes by means of the Underground Railroad, the secret route from one sympathizer to another, usually traveled at night. McClelland's sons were choppers and cleared land for their father. As they trimmed brush from the trees they piled it into huge piles, higher than a house; some of these piles had pits under them where the slaves were hidden. The small boys carried food and messages to the hidden slaves for their father and played in the woods all the time just to keep a lookout for spies.

On one occasion Captain McClelland learned government spies were coming to search his premises. He prepared by sending extra provisions and a warning to the slaves to be ready to move on at a moment's notice. The spies came and searched the buildings with McClelland following, a gun in his belt. When they finished their search, there was one place they had failed to look, the large fireplace, where a fire was burning. They refused to look there, so he drew his gun on them and told them to look. While the flames were dying down and keeping the spies occupied in the house, the slaves were spirited away to their next stop by his sons, Jack, Robert and Isiah. No further attempt was ever made to search the McClellands’ property.

Captain McClelland was a member of the Second United Presbyterian Church at Xenia, Ohio, at the time of his death April 13, 1846. All his life he strived for a happy life by doing good deeds for others. He was a great addition to the large Watt family.

Grace B. Homer
Junction City, Kansas

Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.