There is an American proverb that says “Behind every great man there is a great woman.” I’d like to introduce you to one such woman, Elizabeth, wife of Benjamin Piatt. In 1828, the Piatt family came to West Liberty to live on a large farm and at that time the area was sparsely populated. Nonetheless, Elizabeth worked hard to make it home.
There are three things that I admire the most about Elizabeth. Her love of children, her ability to get things done, and her compassion for others.
Benjamin and Elizabeth were blessed with 10 children. Daughters Hannah, Martha, Arabella with her infant daughter and sons, Donn and Abram, traveled to West Liberty to make it their home. Wykoff, the oldest, was an established lawyer in Cincinnati. Four other children died in infancy or early childhood.
They also had three girls they took in while in Cincinnati. All were married from the Piatt home. The fourth, Patsey, was a poor girl. She was abused by her master so Elizabeth trained her to be a good servant.
At Mac-O-Cheek, their home in West Liberty, they added 14 more children to their family. Five granddaughters and two grandsons went to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for awhile after the death of their mothers. Six more girls and one boy not related, also made their home with Benjamin and Elizabeth.
The Piatts were of Catholic Faith. The nearest Catholic Church in Columbus, was three hours away by horse and buggy. Elizabeth wished for Benjamin to build her a church near their home. Benjamin was more inclined to build things like the sawmill that would bring in money first. One day Benjamin was called off to Cincinnati on urgent business. As soon as he left, Elizabeth told the workers to stop what they were doing and supervised the building of a log hewed chapel. She had them use the wood set aside for building a workshop. It was completed before Benjamin arrived home and was affectionately named St Elizabeth Catholic Chapel.
Elizabeth was very compassionate toward the slaves and the ordeal they were going through to get to freedom. That is why she ran a stop on the Underground Railroad from her home. Benjamin was a Federal Court Circuit Judge, so it was his sworn duty to arrest anyone who helped the slaves escape. However, he and Elizabeth came up with a plan for her to run the stop while he was traveling for work. At the end of their gate stood a black lawn jockey. When Benjamin was gone a white flag was placed in the jockey’s outstretched hand. When he was home the flag was removed signaling to the slaves that they should continue on to the next stop. Benjamin sent someone home a day early to give Elizabeth plenty of notice to make sure the slaves were gone by the time he arrived home. Since no records were kept on the Underground Railroad there are some who believe this to be true and some who don’t.
Elizabeth was a pioneering woman who took care her own and others, took charge when things needed done and changed the lives of the slaves who passed her way. She may not have been a well known figure from the history books but think of all the people whose lives she touched and changed forever.
A Memorial Biography of Benjamin M. Piatt and Elizabeth, His Wife
The Adopted Children of Elizabeth and Benjamin Piatt by David Boysel
Tami Wenger is a regular contributor to this newspaper.