Cool Things - Uncle Tom's Cabin Sofa
Harriet Beecher Stowe allegedly was inspired by a story she heard while seated on this sofa.
"So this is the little woman who made this great war." Abraham Lincoln is said to have uttered these words upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862. Eleven years earlier Stowe had written Uncle Tom's Cabin, a book that polarized opinions on slavery and is credited with helping start the Civil War. The sofa pictured here has a marginal association with Stowe, yet it was revered by its former owners as symbolic of a pivotal episode in American history. This couch may be ordinary by 19th century standards, but its story is not.
Harriet Beecher Stowe moved from Connecticut to Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1832 with her abolitionist family—a sister and father who had taken a teaching position at Lane Seminary. Stowe viewed slavery firsthand while traveling in nearby Kentucky, and meeting Ohio abolitionists who had helped slaves escape captivity. The latter included the McCague family of Ripley, Ohio.
Thrilling Story of Escape
According to McCague family lore, Harriet Beecher Stowe sat on this sofa in the McCague home in 1851 while Mrs. McCague related how a slave named Eliza Harris crossed the Ohio River on an ice floe to gain her freedom. It was sundown when Eliza reached the bank of the Ohio River on the Kentucky side. She heard hounds baying behind her, and ran along the river until she found a place where there was a sand bar and an ice gorge. She walked out onto the ice, which broke loose. Luckily, the floe floated downriver and stopped on the Ohio side. Eliza then made her way into the town of Ripley, where she asked a 13-year old boy for directions to a safe house that happened to be owned by abolitionist friends of the McCagues.
Stowe incorporated this story and others into her masterpiece published the following year. Uncle Tom's Cabin tells the story of southern families and their treatment of slaves, sometimes benevolent but more often cruel. Beatings are common, families are broken up, and slaves often are perceived as sub-human. Stowe leaves no doubt in readers' minds as to her opinion on the evils and immorality of slavery. In the North, the book was hailed for its exposure of the institution, and it became the best-selling novel of the 19th century. The South's reaction was completely different. The book was reviled as filled with falsehoods and propaganda, and novels favorable to slavery were published in response.
The McCague family kept the sofa on which Stowe sat and, eventually, Mrs. McCague's son Thomas moved to Kansas after the Civil War. He settled in Glenlock, in Anderson County. When Thomas presented the sofa to the Kansas Historical Society in 1924, he questioned the accuracy of the family story associated with it. Among other things, he stated that Eliza's owners were not known to abuse their slaves. Not surprisingly, there are other versions in this country of how Harriet Beecher Stowe heard the story of Eliza Harris' escape. The fact that the sofa was treasured by its original owners, though, would seem to indicate it is associated with a significant event in their lives. Perhaps it is enough that Harriet Beecher Stowe sat on it.
The sofa is now in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Cool Things - Uncle Tom's Cabin Sofa
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2009
Date Modified: March 2013
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.