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Four years ago, my editor at Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art, for whom I had been a regular contributor for five years asked me to write a feature story about how I got involved in researching the Underground Railroad.  It's not really my style to so blatantly self-promote myself, but because he requested it, I agreed to do it.  What follows is the two-part story that appeared in Northeast in the March and April issues of 2007.

One Man's Journey

         I’ve become an Underground Railroad conductor.

            You might ask how that can be.  The Underground Railroad ended more than 140 years ago. No longer are there runaway slaves to lead to freedom, nor slavecatchers to outwit, nor laws that allow others to enslave people.  But after getting immersed in old books, microfilm, neglected archives, and the crumbling pages of rare newspapers to learn the secret routes and forgotten stories of that legendary operation, I feel as if I have been there, on many of those journeys that brought fleeing slaves to safety and freedom.

            Dwelling with your thoughts in another time changes your perspective and makes you appreciate those who have come before. You sometimes feel as if you’re living in that period, and you begin to have private conversations with those of that age, and they become like friends and relatives that have passed away but whom you will always revere.

            There also is the allure of discovering something that no one alive had known, stories that had been discarded and forgotten in the annals of history. Stories that we should preserve and keep as examples to use as models for the way we should live our lives. The way I found these stories was purely accidental. I only had the vaguest notion of what the Underground Railroad was 16 years ago when I was doing a phone interview with a local Friends Meeting in Glens Falls, NY. I was writing a history of their church for the Post-Star, the local daily there. One member of the congregation claimed his house had been a proverbial stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Journey Begins

          I don’t recall if I even mentioned that in the article, but it spun off into another story about local Underground Railroad legends, which I was surprised to find were abundant. The story led to an invitation to speak as part of a series of lectures at the local history museum, the Chapman, with another writer who also had written a local Underground Railroad article, and which the newspaper combined with mine into one piece. The event drew an enthusiastic, standing room only crowd. At the time, I knew little more about the Underground Railroad than the local stories. But it was obvious that this was a topic that people yearned to know more about.

            Some years passed, and I continued to learn more about the Underground Railroad. While it was not something to which I devoted a lot of time, I wrote more articles about it, including several about Ithaca while living there that increased my interest. Then in 1995, a committee of noted historians chaired by Charles Blockson and commissioned by the National Parks Service recommended that a national effort be devoted to stress the significance of the Underground Railroad, and to recover and preserve its history before it was lost.

            Gradually, local groups began to emerge around the country, and in 1997, New York Sate formed its Freedom Trail Commission in response to the federal initiative.  It was that year when a library in Easton, N.Y., Washington County, asked me to speak.  I had written an article on the Quakers and antislavery for Cobblestone, the history magazine for kids, which mentioned their community. I balked. The only thing I knew about their community was the two paragraphs in the article that referred to it.  I suggested instead that I lead a community research effort. It turned out to be a good idea. The locals were enthusiastic and the library even wrote a small grant that paid for my efforts. We worked together on the research and I wrote the paper, which I presented at its completion. This was the impetus that got me started.

            It was now six years after I wrote that church history article, and this experience with the library would lead me into a personal quest to find evidence that the legends in northeastern New York, especially the Adirondack region were true. It also didn’t hurt that I was subsidized by two grants from Furthermore in Hudson, N.Y. with the obligation to produce a book based on my research.

            At first, I found resistance from local historians who already had tried to uncover this lost history but failed.  However, I had tools at my disposal that hadn’t been available to them. Foremost among them was the Index to Antislavery Newspapers and Periodicals, coordinated by John T. Blassingame, a five volume reference work published during the 1980’s, that enabled me to see if individuals associated with local Underground Railroad legends turned up in any antislavery newspapers of the day. I had been referred to it by Chris Densmore, a Quaker historian with a national reputation, with whom the Easton Library had made connections.

            The resistance I encountered made me more determined, but what made my research even more compelling was that I actually began turning up some of those names and finding information that had been forgotten or unrecorded. It was the beginning of a process similar to putting together a jigsaw puzzle.

            As the process went forward, I scoured the region’s public and privates libraries, as well as the special collections and archives of colleges, historical societies, and village historians. Twice I made trips to the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) in Worcester, which claims to have the world’s best collection of printed materials about the U.S. up through 1876.

A Major Breakthrough

          I began making what some might call discoveries of materials that had been neglected for more than a century. These included a two-year run of copies of a rare but very important abolitionist newspaper that was crucial to my research, the Albany Patriot, which had been misplaced and then found in the warehouse of the New York State Library (NYSL). This newspaper led me to an even more important rediscovery, the existence of an abolitionist named Rev. Abel Brown, whose intended biography was reported in the Patriot in 1845 by his widow. I had no idea who Brown was but he sounded interesting.  I wondered if the book was ever completed.

            Sure enough, I found it at the NYSL and the SUNY Library (two of the only 20 text copies of the original book available at libraries).  It’s anybody’s guess how long this book had been neglected because when I called Milton Sernett, Syracuse history professor, who I knew as the vice-chairman of the state’s Freedom Trail Commission and one of state’s foremost abolitionist historians, he had never even heard of Brown.  The book published in 1849 contained a gold mine of information about the Underground Railroad in northeastern New York and was a major breakthrough for my research.

            An equally important finding at the AAS was a broadside that documented the workings of a highly active Underground Railroad vigilance committee in Albany, listing the names of its members and the location of its headquarters in 1856. Included on the broadside was the report that this committee had aided 287 runaway slaves in the previous nine months. A surprisingly large number.

            As I was undertaking this research, I connected with the newly-formed Warren County Historical Society in Glens Falls. Its president, Marilyn Van Dyke, a retired school principal and a leader among the state’s public historians, was enthusiastic about the Underground Railroad and agreed to collaborate on a project in which I would produce a PowerPoint presentation about the Underground Railroad in Warren County. This presentation would be burned on a CD and distributed to schools and educational groups in the county. She generated a lot of community support and we were able to get two grants to sponsor the project; I also began writing occasional Underground Railroad columns for the Glens Falls weekly, The Chronicle, reporting the findings of my latest research.  That same year I was invited to present my story about the discovery of Abel Brown at the Conference of New York State History.

The ‘Movement’ Re-emerges

          During this time, local Underground Railroad groups were forming. The most prominent was the UGR Workshop in Albany founded by Paul and Mary Stewart. They began giving Underground Railroad tours in Albany and touted the exploits of Brown;. Other Underground Railroad study groups emerged and included the short-lived New York State Society for the Preservation of the Underground Railroad, which started out with a lot of fanfare but suddenly disappeared. More stable organizations followed, including Debi Craig’s North Star Underground Railroad Project in Washington County and Renee Moore’s Solomon Northup Day Celebration, which commemorated the story of Solomon Northup, a free black kidnapped from Saratoga into slavery for twelve years, who returned and wrote a popular book about it.  Craig has held four summer conferences among other events and raised the consciousness of county residents, especially in her native Greenwich, which was the strongest center of abolitionism in the Adirondack region; Moore’s celebration has become an annual event in Saratoga during the first week of July.

            I assisted all these groups, providing them with whatever information they requested or that I thought would be useful.  For Craig’s group, I created an exhibit that has since become part of a statewide traveling Underground Railroad exhibit being presented by the Friends of Harriet Tubman. I also was the keynote speaker for her first conference and led the Underground Railroad bus tour that was the climax of her conference for the first three years.

The Book Deal

            Unfortunately, my original intention to write a book about Washington County fell through after I completed the book when the county historical society’s board changed the nature of the agreement I had arranged with their former president.  As a result, I sought another publisher.  McFarland and Company, a scholarly press from North Carolina, said they were interested only if my book covered the entire Adirondack Region. Agreeing to that stipulation, I signed their contract and set out to gather more details.

            After finishing the project with the Warren County Historical Society, I went to Clinton County, where I met with its long time county historian, Addie Shields.  It turned out that one of her pet topics was the Underground Railroad and she had a done a study of it in Clinton County 20 years earlier based on the research efforts of an earlier Clinton County historian, Emily McMasters.  She was extremely helpful and took me to the various alleged sites in the county.  This gave me a jump start on my research of the northern section of the Adirondack and eventually led to my paper on the Underground Railroad in Clinton County that won the county society’s history prize in the year 2000.

            This also led to my association with another group, the Red Hummingbird Foundation, founded by Don and Vivian Papson of Plattsburgh.  The couple had formed the group in order to preserve black history in the North Country, and more recently Don has been the leader in the formation of the larger North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association, which is doing a great job.

Continuing the Research

            Among my most exciting excursions were my treks into the Adirondack foothills to find ruins of alleged Underground Railroad sites whose legends had been maintained through oral tradition. I did additional research and found documented facts from published accounts of the day that matched closely with the subjects of these legends. The location of one was given to me by an octogenarian based on a childhood memory and just a short distance off an old logging trail that was now used by snowmobilers. The other was so off the beaten that I had to be led there by a guide. I got pictures of both and detailed my findings in an article in Adirondack Life magazine.   

            The intended publication of my book for McFarland was 2002.  However, I was delayed and got an extension from the publisher. The publication was put back a year, but then it too was delayed when the copyedited version of the manuscript was lost and it had to go through the entire process again.  That pushed back the publication another nine months.  In the meantime, I wrote and self-published a small volume, with McFarland’s permission, that identified possible Underground Railroad sites along the eastern corridor of New York State. Included with this book were pictures of sites and road maps that directed the reader to their location. I also included a chapter on how to research the Underground Railroad and how to determine if a structure was an actual safe house. With the New York State Education Department mandating the Underground Railroad as part of the school curriculum, I thought this book would be useful for schools, especially for class field tips and projects.

            The book, The Underground Railroad Conductor, was published in August, 2003. It has been mildly successful and is still enjoying some sales.  Then in the spring of 2004, The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region was published by McFarland. It was very gratifying to finally see the book in print.  I had tried to write a book that would be useful for both professional historians and lay persons so that it might attract a wider readership. It didn’t have much effect as the book was only pitched to the library market. So, while I was pleased with the book, I was disappointed by its sales.

            Next month, I’ll describe my further adventures along the Underground Railroad, my desire to put together the first true picture of the Underground Railroad from a national perspective, and how this has led to my website: http://underground-railroadconductor.com.  I also will discuss the potential in the antiques market for Underground Railroad artifacts.

The Journey Continues

            One might ask why I got involved in researching the Underground Railroad. Certainly, its mysteries compel examination, but it’s more than solving a puzzle.

            I’ve always felt empathy towards African Americans for the injustices they experienced.  As I became more involved in Underground Railroad research and interacted with others involved, I found an opportunity to do something about it.  Telling this story I believe is a means to heal the racial divide.

            As I received exposure through my articles and columns, I began to get an increasing number of speaking invitations. I also began to attend various events organized by the newly-formed groups I mentioned in Part One.  Probably the most influential were the annual conferences organized by Paul and Mary Stewart and their Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region (originally called the UGR Workshop).

            What started out as a one day event in a downtown Albany church has expanded into a three-day event at St. Rose College with national participation.  The Stewarts also are developing a museum at the former vigilance committee site identified in the broadside I found at the American Antiquarian Society mentioned in Part One. A great deal of research was involved in authenticating the site, and they discovered that the street numbers on the street (whose name also had been changed) had changed after the antebellum period.  The house originally thought to be the site was not the actual site but instead it was the house next door.

            At one of the conferences I met a man who has had a great influence on me. I was struggling with the organization of my materials for my Adirondack region opus when this unassuming and soft spoken gentleman announced to everyone that he was writing a book about the national Underground Railroad. I thought that will take him years.  However, I had no idea of Fergus Bordewich’s enormous talent and intelligence. I don’t recall our first lengthy conversation, but I found him to be the most knowledgeable person about the Underground Railroad I had met.  He had read everything, it seemed, that I had, and all the books I wanted to read as well. We began to share information over the phone.  He became one of my biggest supporters and his stories about the Underground Railroad inspired me to look beyond New York State as I finished my Adirondack region book.

The passion becomes a calling

            This vision made me see myself as a modern day Underground Railroad conductor, and apply the term to all modern researchers tracking down the routes and the people who participated. Following in Bordewich’s footsteps, I began a series of road trips to explore actual locations of alleged Underground Railroad sites identified in various books, as well as take tours offered in various localities.  I began to envision mapping out the Underground Railroad nationally—obviously, an almost impossible task for one person, as there were hundreds of possible routes.

            Though some historians would consider such an attempt fruitless because they believe there was no such network, an in-depth analysis of the many regional networks can help us evaluate the national reach of such a system and learn how much organization actually existed.

            My trips (at least a dozen that lasted between one day and one week) took me through much of New England; Philadelphia and Wilmington, Delaware; through southeastern and central Pennsylvania, as well as its northwest corner; through parts of Ohio and northern Kentucky; across western Ontario; to St. Catherine and Niagara Falls, Ontario; through most of New York State’s major thoroughfares that included the western, central, and southern tier; and more recently through southeastern Indiana.

            Some of my most interesting visits were stops well off the beaten track, which had strong documentation.  Among them were the Henry Bowditch house in Brookline, MA on a dead end street; the Rev. Kiah Bailey house along a secluded road in Vermont’s Green Mountains; and the Captain Horatio Throop house in Pultneyville, NY situated along the shore of Lake Ontario.  All were private residences, but the last was unoccupied and for sale.  The day I drove past I was lucky to find the realtor there.  She took me inside and showed me some of Throop’s memorabilia, including a portrait of him when a young man. Pictures of these sites are on my website.

            In a few cases, I found I had to take dirt roads, including one in Vermont and another to get to Versailles, N.Y. in the western part of the state, abutting a Native American reservation. This remote hamlet was the home of conductor Eber Pettit, who wrote one of the early Underground Railroad books, Sketches in the History of the Underground Railroad, published in 1879 and based on newspaper articles from 1868. It sits in an untamed section of countryside along the Cattaraugus Creek, which is more like a river and extends to Lake Erie ten miles to the west. Pettit’s home was gone but locals pointed out a couple houses that they said had Underground Railroad legends.

            I also took personalized tours. They included one of Florence, MA, the home for a time of Sojourner Truth and Lydia Maria Child and a cadre of radical abolitionists, given by a very personable Underground Railroad researcher, Steve Strimer, who had led a fundraising campaign to create a wonderful gold sculpture of Truth now prominently displayed; a tour of Farmington, CT, which has been called the state’s “Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad and where the Amistad refugees lived until arrangements were made to return them to Africa; and a tour of the Kennett Square, Pennsylvania area, given by Mary Dugan, a retired teacher and director of an Underground Railroad museum there.

            A strongly Quaker community during the antebellum period near the Delaware border, Kennett Square is near the birthplace of the famed conductor Thomas Garrett, who as an adult moved to Wilmington, Delaware, about five miles from the state border. From that location, he coordinated a network that included the many stops in the Kennett Square, Chester County area, which was detailed in the classic and exhaustive study The Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania by R. C. Smedley published in 1873.

The travels continue

            In western Ontario, I was warmly welcomed by Shannon Prince, director of the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. The museum is the site of the black agricultural settlement established in 1850 by Rev. William King, a former slave owner.  Prince and her husband, Brian, an author of black history including the book, I Came as a Stranger, are both descendents of runaway slaves. I called ahead and she arranged accommodations at a local bed and breakfast. I was there two nights and was provided with a tour of Buxton; the museum at Dresden, the site of the home of Josiah Henson, the model of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom; and the First Baptist Church in Chatham, where John Brown had his historic meeting during which he proposed his constitution for an independent republic of runaway slaves to be located within the United States.  It was a truly memorable experience, as was staying at the Jordan House, a Victorian mansion with 19th century furnishings and an excellent breakfast.

            Another memorable tour was given by Jerry Gore, a retired college administrator, of the Maysville-Ripley connection, one of the Underground Railroad’s most famous terminals. A descendent of Addison White, a notable Kentucky runaway and the subject of a famous manhunt in Ohio during the 1850’s, Gore had a personal and deeply emotional connection to the Underground Railroad. He had founded a small Underground Railroad museum in Maysville, Kentucky and rented an apartment in a building there that was an alleged Underground Railroad stop. I had found Gore on the Internet and he agreed to take me on this tour that started in Maysville at his home and museum, moved to Washington, KY where there was a slave auction site once visited by Harriet Beecher Stowe and an Underground Railroad station, and climaxed at Ripley, Ohio about six miles west across the Ohio River, where museums had been established at the homes of famed conductors, John Rankin and John Parker.

            In the basement, he had a room that displayed his personal Underground Railroad artifacts that included slave shackles, a first edition of a Frederick Douglass autobiography, and daguerreotypes of Addison White.  Such artifacts are usually only seen in museums, but with the increasing interest in the Underground Railroad, I would expect that there will be an increasing market for such artifacts that would also include items like emancipation papers, slave passes, slave clothing, original graffiti, and Underground Railroad related diaries and letters. A set of slave shackles was offered on e-bay recently with a starting bid of $12.95, and a lot that included shackles and other related papers was set at $400.

            Editions of rare abolitionist books also can be extremely valuable. An original, pristine copy of the Abel Brown biography, for example, was and is still being offered for more than $1,200 online. However, the reissue of the book last year by McFarland, which I edited, indexed, and added more than 140 annotations and 30 additional images, seems to have affected its market.  Before my version of the book came out, the highly priced copy was the only one being offered.  Now it has been joined by six other copies, ranging in price from $75-to-$93, none of them, judging by their description, in nearly as good condition however.

Always surprise and debate

            Sometimes what you expect is not always what you get, and the field of Underground Railroad is no different. In the beginning, I subscribed to the traditional view of the Underground Railroad espoused by the field’s first great historian, Wilbur Siebert, in his 1898 classic The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom, that it was a loosely organized network of conductors who had several options for forwarding runaways.  I soon found a revisionist view championed by Larry Gara in his 1961 book, Liberty Line, which holds that the Underground Railroad had little organization and was less widespread had become the prevailing theory among mainstream historians.

            Gara also claimed that Siebert overemphasized white conductors and didn’t give enough credit to black conductors.  The latter point was strongly reinforced by the field’s most acknowledged black historian, Charles Blockson, and has led to the development of a view among some historians that the role of white conductors was much smaller than that of blacks.

            This re-emphasis seems to have engendered the development of a subtle and sensitive racial issue in Underground Railroad research circles that no one seems to want to address. As I ventured farther afield, I found resentment from some. Such feelings are understandable. Runaway slaves were risking their lives and enduring the greater hardships. But on the other side of the coin, whites who participated faced heavy fines, imprisonment, even the possibility of being lynched.  Some who were caught and prosecuted died in prison. While runaway slaves had little to lose and everything to gain, white conductors had nothing to gain and everything to lose.

            The Underground Railroad couldn’t have existed without the contributions of free blacks who had a closer connection with runaway slaves, but at the same time it couldn’t have existed without the help of whites, who generally were better connected financially and politically—the Underground Railroad needed substantial funding to pay for food, clothing, transportation, and other necessities for runaways 

            If one is objective, I believe, they will see that the overall picture of the Underground Railroad shows a truly integrated and interracial effort, and a fairly substantial level of organization that included networking at the national level.

            However, this racial divide is not easy to resolve.  I can only continue to emphasize that this history can teach us how to live with and help each other.  I have traveled many miles in search of this history, and with the abundance of information and images I have collected, hope to be able to bring the story to many more people.

Possible Projects

            Among projects I have considered is the creation of an illustrated history of the Underground Railroad.  One Canadian publisher was very interested and one of their editors had tendered me a substantial advance that awaited final approval from his boss. However, the deal fell through.

            Another publisher, Greenwood Press approached me about the possibility of doing an encyclopedia of the Underground Railroad. The advance was not nearly as substantial and the writing of the book entails far more work, but I have agreed and am in the process of putting together the book now. The biggest problem is not finding enough information, but choosing what to put in and what to leave out. The topic is so vast and the stories seem endless.

            Meanwhile as I collect and organize information for the encyclopedia, I offer presentations about the Underground Railroad.  I can tailor my presentations to my audience and its locality. I have collected enough information that I could visit many communities and schools and help them research and learn about whatever local Underground Railroad activities might have occurred.

            I also do prearranged presentations that are described on my website. Among them is the story of Henry “Box” Brown. The latter includes a replica of the actual box, measuring 3 feet one inch long, 2 feet wide, and 2 feet six inches high, in which Brown had himself mailed to freedom. It was constructed by a carpenter friend of mine with my assistance and the consultation of Jeffrey Ruggles, author of the definitive Brown biography, The Unboxing of Henry Brown, published in 2003 by the University of Virginia.

            Twenty years ago, the Underground Railroad was a neglected piece of American history.  Today it is a topic of growing interest.  It deserves to be, for it is a shining example of what is best in our nation, a movement in which blacks and whites worked together so that the oppressed could be free. That’s why the journey along the Underground Railroad when others made great sacrifices to obtain freedom for others definitely is worth the trip.

 

Published in Northeast Journal of Antiques & Art, March-April,  2007

 

 

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