Upstate New York
“ . . . The Mystery House, haunted by the escaping black man; with dark secret places and stealthy whispers, hasty coverings into friendly wagons for the further flight to the North, the station of the perilous `Underground Railway,' with no known conductors, no lights, no bells, and terrified fugitives seeking freedom, and finding help and advice and the friendly word.”
Those words penned by a newspaper man in Greenwich, New York, in 1938, were the type of hyperbole that stirred my spirit and inspired me to begin my quest to find the Underground Railroad, around 1996. They were referring to the house below still prominent today, which was owned during the antebellum period by the lawyer Leonard Gibbs.
Gibbs House, Greenwich, NY
Gibbs was the second most important person in the Underground Railroad in Union Village, which Greenwich was called then. Stories about him and the house had been passed down orally by his daughters who lived well into the 20th century. But little of it was written down, so what remained was mostly legend, until I dug deeper.
A native of the area, Gibbs had moved to Union Village in 1845, after two years as a state representative and five years as a lawyer in Manhattan. He immediately joined the Free Congregational Church, which had formed as a comeouter antislavery church in 1837 under the leadership of Dr. Hiram Corliss, the Adirondack region's leading abolitionist. That same year the first report of a fugitive slave seeking aid was reported in Emancipator and considering the strong abolitionist sentiment that had developed during the early 1830s, it's likely it was not the first.
Dr. Hiram Corliss
Free Church, Union Village, NY
Both Corliss and Gibbs were friends of Gerrit Smith, perhaps the most politically powerful abolitionist in the nation and certainly the richest. Documented evidence shows that Smith visited the village on multiple occasions, and Corliss was known to have visited Smith in Peterboro.
Many reports indicate fugitive slave traffic through the village and an important memoir passed down, written by Orrin B. Wilbur, describing his grandparents role in the neighboring Quaker village of Easton not only recalled several incidents when fugitive slaves were aided but also indicated that the Quakers there were closely connected to the abolitionists in Union Village. In 1851 they formed the Old Saratoga Anti-Slavery Society that unified the communities with Corliss being named president, and whose featured speaker at its 1852 annual meeting was William Lloyd Garrison.
The Champlain Canal passed through Easton, and documented evidence of its use by fugitive slaves was first reported in several antislavery newspapers in 1837. Farther north about three miles west of the canal, two curious artifacts remain, which have puzzled and fascinated area residents. Legends had come down that they were guides for fugitive slaves leading them North to freedom.
The first one below is in a rural section about 20 miles from Greenwich. Few if any black families live or have ever lived in this area. According to local records, this sign was painted around 1930 by a man whose family owned the house, at least as early as 1853. It replaced an earlier sign of a black hand pointing in the same direction, north, as the caricature.
The Guideboard Sign
About a quarter mile south of the sign is an even more curious artifact. According to its markings, it dates from 1841. No one knows how it got there or who carved the markings, but local historians believe it was a symbolic map for fugitive slaves. Age and the elements have worn away the original markings, but still very clear is the emboldened date—1841. Originally, it had legs and its markings indicated May 23, 1841, and local historians have interpreted the hieroglyphics to represent a fort, a mountain, a smokestack, and a sailboat. Their juxtaposition portray actual locations of that period, in the form of a map. The fort represents the village of Fort Ann; the mountain, a small range in that vicinity; the smokestack, a blast furnace that was operating then; and the sailboat, the boats awaiting in South Bay, the inlet to Lake Champlain which led directly to Canada.
The Stone Chair
The markings as they appeared around 1930
North of Union Village, abolitionist fever was even hotter. The Eastern New York Antislavery Society, which was organized by Rev. Abel Brown, an Albany abolitionist, and whose president was Corliss, also included as a vice-president, Noadiah Moore of Champlain, NY in Clinton County. Research indicated that Moore and the Keese family in Peru, NY, collaborated in the Underground Railroad. Below is the house of Keese family member Stephen Keese Smith.
Stephen Keese Smith home
Jabez Parkhurst, who lived in Franklin County next to Clinton, in the small village of Fort Covington, only a half-mile from the Canadian border, was known to have aided fugitive slaves. His involvement is reported in Frederick Seaver’s Historical Sketches of Franklin County published in 1918, which cited several sources. One of them, Marshall Conant, was an ancestor of a Dr. Conant, an officer in the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society. He reported that, “Mr. Parkhurst was an ardent abolitionist, and many a runaway was harbored and fed at his home.” An 1847 report of a Liberty Party meeting in Union Village noted that Parkhurst and Noadiah Moore were among those attending.
The Jabez Parkhurst house, less than a mile from the Canadian border in Fort Covington, NY, north of the Adirondack Mountains.
Further study has been done about the Underground Railroad in the Adirondacks by Don Papson and his North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association. Go to their website to learn more: Northcountryundergroundrailroad.com
The Adirondacks, however, were an alternate route. Though convenient to Canada, almost all of the fugitive slave communities there were located in western Ontario. This made central and western New York situated along Lake Ontario more likely destinations. As a result fugitive slaves which were sent from New York City to Albany were more often moved to Syracuse and other locations in Central New York
Perhaps my most important discovery, if you would call it that, was finding the forgotten posthumous biography of the abolitionist Rev. Abel Brown in 1998. After I located it, I checked with Milton Sernett, at that time widely acknowledged as the state's foremost abolitionist historian, who confessed that he had never heard of him. I knew then I had stumbled upon something important.
See One Man's Journey.
The book was a veritable goldmine of information about the Underground Railroad in eastern and northern New York. Brown made several lectures tours into the Adirondacks, riding the packet boats on the Champlain Canal and sending fugitive slaves to the vicinity of Lake Champlain. On one occasion while on the Lake Champlain steamer, Burlington, he wrote: "Many a slave has enjoyed the indescribable pleasure of leaping from the liberty-loving 'Burlington,' to feel the pleasure of being free under the protection of a Queen whose pleasure it is to make the lowest of her subjects happy."
He also collaborated with the radical abolitionist, Charles Torrey, in operating the Albany antislavery newspaper, Tocsin of Liberty (later renamed Albany Patriot), openly publishing accounts of its aid to fugitive slaves. The ad below is one example.
Both Brown and Torrey had died by 1845, and the operation of Albany's Underground Railroad had shifted its leadership to black conductor, Stephen Myers, who was aiding hundreds of fugitive slaves annually during the mid-1850s. The Albany Vigilance Committee Office, where Myers lived and worked for a time was discovered to be still extant and is now a museum operated by the UGR Workshop -- see below:
Albany Vigilance Committee Office
In Troy, just north of Albany on the other side of the Hudson River, where the Champlain Canal began, a dedicated group of abolitionists, both black and white operated the Underground Railroad. They also were connected with a small group of radical abolitionists in Sand Lake, NY, where Rev. Abel Brown was pastor of its Baptist Church for one year. From about 1838-to-1848, Henry Highland Garnet was pastor of Troy's Liberty Street Church and was regularly aiding fugitive slaves.
Liberty Street Church After Becoming a Laundry Before Razing
By 1850, the leader of the Troy Underground Railroad was a black barber, William Rich. One of his associates was John H. Hooper, a cousin of Harriet Tubman. On April 27, 1860, Tubman was visiting Hooper when a uproar had been created by the arrest of Troy man, Charles Nalle, on the charge of being a fugitive slave. Nalle had originally fled to Sand Lake but moved to Troy after obtaining a job as a coachman for the wealthy businessman, Uri Gilbert. Of course, Tubman was not about to stay out of the fracas, and when Nalle was being taken out of the city jail in the custody of federal marshals, she led an hysterical mob in overpowering the marshals and freeing Charles.
Site of Nalle Rescue Today
The Nalle Rescue is an incredible and powerful story, and you can read all the dramatic details, as well as story of the life of Nalle leading up to, and after, his escape and rescue, in Scott Christianson's wonderful book: Freeing Charles. For a review of the book, go to: Nalle Review.
After the Civil War, Tubman settled in Auburn, NY, not far from Ithaca, where she often stopped along her rescue missions bringing fugitive slaves to Canada. Her destination there was the AME Zion Church, which has documented this association.
AME Zion Church, Ithaca
Below is a map of the Central New York Underground Railroad sites, which Tubman and others could have accessed, created in 1903 by Elbert Wixom, a Cornell student. Wixom's family, who were Quakers, participated in the Underground Railroad. This map was based not only on family information but other persons still alive who participated or knew those who did, and whom Wixom interviewed.
In addition to Syracuse, which was probably the most active Underground Railroad location in upstate NY, Oswego, and Rochester became major Underground Railroad terminals, and the Niagara River, and ports like Pultneyville, where Captain Horatio Throop lived, important crossover points.
Perhaps the most renowned crossover point in New York State was the Suspension Bridge, just south of Niagara Falls, which Harriet Tubman is known to have used. See Canada for destinations after crossing over.
Double decker Suspension Bridge built in 1855 with Niagara Falls seen in the distance
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