People are probably tired of Polley family history posts now that I’ve done several of them. Bear with me because I promised to put some meat on the bones of a previous Silent Sunday post. Having discovered much of this history only a few months ago, I find the story incredibly fascinating from a personal standpoint and because of the light it sheds on what life was like for many African-Americans before the American Civil War.

In July 2022 following the family reunion in Middletown, Ohio, I was able to see some of this history in person for the first time.


By way of introduction or reintroduction, my ancestry extends back to 1789 and the birth of my third great grandfather, Peyton Polley. Peyton’s mother was a slave. Her name was not recorded. Her history seems to be untraceable at this point. Peyton’s father was David Polly, a white landowner in Pike County, Kentucky. By law, Peyton was a slave because his mother was.

Pursuant to the provisions of David Polly’s will, Peyton and his siblings became free when he died in 1847. Peyton’s wife and children remained slaves until 1849 when his brother was able to purchase them from David Polly’s son-in-law and daughter with funds they had earned, cancellation of debt owed, and issuing a promissory note. It was legal for free Blacks to own slaves. Owning your relatives was a good way to protect them. The legal system was designed to protect property. Despite the U.S. constitution, free Blacks had few rights as humans.

In 1849, Peyton moved his family across the Ohio River to the State of Ohio where slavery was prohibited and their status as free people was registered with the local authorities. That didn’t stop people who thought the Polley children should belong to them. In 1850, slavers entered Ohio, kidnapped the children at gunpoint, took them back to Kentucky and sold them into slavery to various owners.

Peyton and Violet, his wife, convinced authorities in Ohio to begin lawsuits to recover their children. One of the cases lay dormant for more than 150 years. It was not resolved until a court in Wayne County, West Virginia entered a decree in 2012 declaring that four of the children should have been declared free as of 1859. Known as the Polley Freedom Case, it took longer to resolve than any slave case in U.S. history. See this post for more information about this remarkable case.

This historical marker is located on U.S. Highway 52 in front of Tolsia High School in Wayne County, West Virginia.

The Tour

After attending the reunion in July 2022, my son and I met up with Jim Hale, a Polley relative and author of The Long Road To Freedom The Story Of The Enslaved Polley Children.  Jim lives in Huntington, West Virginia.  He took us around the area to see several sights related to our history.  The first stop was the marker on U.S. Highway 52 just south of Huntington.


Jim then led us to the area where Peyton Polley settled in 1849. I snapped the photo below as we drove across the U.S. 52 bridges between West Virginia and Ohio. It shows the Ohio River and Huntington, WV. Dams have made the Ohio a more formidable obstacle than it was in Peyton’s time. Crossing the Ohio River in 1849 must have seemed like crossing the Jordan River to the promised land.

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Peyton and family settled in the community of Burlington in Lawrence County, Ohio. It is within a few miles of the river and Huntington. This is the church the Polleys attended. It is located on top of a steep ridge and was built in 1849 which happened to be shortly after the family arrived.


These photos of the interior are from an article in a local newspaper, the Scioto Post.


Jim Hale and Alex.

We moved a short distance down the road to see the historical marker for the cemetery.



When I learned of the kidnappings, I wondered why Peyton settled his family so close to slave territory. The historical marker explained what should have been not so hard to figure out. Burlington had a strong community of free Blacks. The area was an abolitionist stronghold and a stop on the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a network of routes and places where runaway slaves could obtain assistance on their flight to freedom.

Peyton must have known of this community from his days as a slave and planned for it to be the place to settle his family once they were free. Here they found employment and social and religious support in community of free Blacks and White abolitionists.

The oldest part of the cemetery is located just off the road about 1/2 mile from the marker.  

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Justice and Minor where some of the other families in the community.

Although we didn’t see all of the graves, Jim directed us to the grave of my great grandmother. Grandmother Christmas died in 1963. She was the wife of Ira Polley, Peyton’s grandson, and the mother of my grandfather, Sherman James Polley, Sr.


After paying our respects we headed back to Huntington to drop of Jim and see where my father and grandfather lived until they moved to Indianapolis, IN in the 1920s. The house is no longer there, but it was good to see the site anyway. I have a fuzzy memory of visiting Huntington and this location as a child.

The eclectic shop is where the house was located.

Final Thoughts

I’m very grateful to have learned a bit about my family.  This story represents a small part of the ongoing struggle for freedom, dignity, and respect that Black people have been forced to contend with in America for 400 years.  Whether as slaves or second class free citizens, the family’s accomplishments and belief in itself is inspiring.

Thanks for viewing the post.  I hope your weekend is a great one.