Tales from the Underground Railroad
Before 1783, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court cited the state’s constitution to effectively abolish slavery, many were held in bondage here, although they were politely referred to as “servants.” When their services were no longer required, they were sold to the highest bidder:
“… cheap for cash or Good Security, a Healthy, Strong Negro Boy, 20 years old last month, very ingenious in the farming business and can work in iron-work both at blowing and refining and as I am done with the Iron works I have more help than I need on my farm.” James Frye, Essex Gazette, April 9, 1770
Ads to recapture runaway slaves appeared regularly, such as one that read: “Ran away 24th day of September a Man Servant about 19 years, named Isaac Mott. Had on when he went away blue serge coat and a flowered flannel jacket and leather breeches. Whosoever will take up this runaway and bring him back to me shall be rewarded.”
Some “body servants” accompanied owners into battle or soldiered in place of their masters. Caesar Cogswell “rendered credible service” in the Revolutionary War and won his liberty.
Lydia Abbot bought a baby at Salem’s slave market and carried him home in her saddlebag. Salem Poor purchased his own freedom and became a hero at Bunker Hill. Awarded with a citation by the Provincial Congress, he was honored with a U.S. bicentennial stamp two centuries later.
Samuel Phillips, the first minister of Andover’s South Parish, owned several Africans. They formed a familiar procession: the minister and his family were joined by a slave couple, Salem and Rama, who went on to serve Phillips’ successor.
Still, there was anger and resentment, and this occasionally led to violence. Hanged Aug. 6, 1795, for murdering his master, Capt. Charles Furbush, “in his bed with an axe,” Pomp detailed the tragic tale in a gallows confession.
Although Merrimack Valley’s economic prosperity relied heavily upon cotton, many textile manufacturers opposed slavery. Daniel Saunders, a founder of Lawrence, “kept a way station near Falls Bridge over the Merrimac … .” Amos A. Lawrence financed emigrant aid for the settlement of Kansas as a free state.
Newburyport’s William Lloyd Garrison edited “The Liberator,” a newspaper dedicated to immediate emancipation. Co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Garrison was jailed and his life threatened, yet he remained determined to end slavery.
Nearly every town had an anti-slavery society that featured former slaves as speakers at fundraising events. Haverhill organized a branch of Garrison’s anti-slavery society in 1834. Lowell’s factory workers founded the Female Anti-Slavery Society the same year. Methuen’s Baptist and Congregational churches stood against slavery, while Universalists hosted abolitionist conventions. Andover’s Free Christian Church was founded in 1846 by families who left other churches over slavery.
Milford, New Hampshire, hosted the 1843 anti-slavery convention led by Frederick Douglass. Thomas Parnell Beach of Milford went to prison in Newburyport “for opening his mouth on behalf of his enslaved fellow men.”
John Greenleaf Whittier, the Quaker poet, declared, “Anti-slavery is going on well in spite of mobs, Andover Seminary, and rum!” The seminary refused to take a stand against slavery, although most faculty members opposed it on moral grounds. They thought politics distracted students and jeopardized future job opportunities. Some students hailed from Southern states or had fathers in the textile industry.
Many supported the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color. Founded in 1816, its aim was to emancipate slaves, Christianize them and send them to Africa. Some purchased slaves to have them baptized before shipping them off.
On Aug. 4, 1835, one anti-slavery gathering erupted into a riot, resulting in the expulsion of 50 students. George Thompson, a radical British abolitionist, was lecturing when pro-slavery workers stormed the podium, intent upon tarring and feathering Thompson and running him out of town. Students ushered the speaker to safety.
Author Harriet Beecher Stowe was already famous when she moved to Andover. Her husband, a professor at the Andover Theological Seminary, refused to cut his beard until the slaves were free. Sojourner Truth, Douglass, Josiah Henson and Garrison were among her visitors.
SOME UNDERGROUND RAILROAD STATIONS:
To be on track with the Underground Railroad meant breaking federal law. Ships sailed out of Southern ports carrying stowaways, with sympathizers receiving such advance notices as “expect prime articles to arrive on next riverboat.” Slave owners considered the Underground Railroad theft of personal property and referred to its agents as slave snatchers. Abolitionists and Quakers provided sanctuary, but it was free Blacks who took the greatest risks and had the most to lose in this interracial effort.
Buildings sheltering fugitives were called stations, and those who assisted them were referred to as stationmasters, while conductors guided escapees to the next safe house. The story of quilts hung outdoors with patterns directing slaves on the run is a myth — routes continually changed, escape was too perilous, and pursuers too savvy not to decode the clues.
The Fugitive Slave Act passed by Congress in 1850 decreed that anyone who assisted a fugitive was liable to a $1,000 fine and six months in prison. Former slaves living free were now in danger of being captured and sold south. This “Bloodhound Bill” sent former slaves scrambling to Canada.
“A fugitive slave who escaped with his sister from the Old Dominion, passed through town last week. He received substantial aid from sympathizing friends and was sent on his way to the ‘land of free blacks.’” Andover Advocate, July 7, 1860
Fleeing slaves could expect assistance from John Smith, a founder of Smith & Dove Manufacturing in Andover’s Frye Village. William Poor and his sons built wagons there, some with false bottoms for smuggling fugitives.
Other safe houses in Andover included the Holt-Cogswell House, 373 S. Main St., and the Mark Newman House, 210 Main St., on the Phillips Academy and Andover Seminary campus, where Professor Ralph Waldo Emerson harbored fugitives.
Mary and William Jenkins’ farm at 8 Douglass St. had a hidey-hole in the attic. William’s gravestone honors his commitment: “He lived to see the fulfillment of his great desire, the abolition of slavery in America.” George Latimer, who escaped from Virginia, found refuge there. Arrested while living and working free in Boston, Latimer once placed Jenkins’ daughter atop a table to demonstrate how slave children were sold.
“We had a fugitive slave to spend the night,” Mary Stevens wrote her brother Isaac Ingalls from North Andover, in 1842.
The Georgetown home of Capt. Samuel Brocklebank,
108 E. Main St., featured a hiding place.
William Jackman and Richard Plumer of 62 Federal St. were Newburyport abolitionists. Plumer owned the Joshua Coffin House in Newbury, and if he thought he was being watched, he would deposit runaways there until it was safe to take them to Jackman. Plumer hid fugitives under grain sacks in his wagon, driving through town to Jackman’s, and Jackman would then deliver them to Lee, New Hampshire. Or Plumer might cross the Merrimack, taking fugitives to John Greenleaf Whittier in Amesbury. Whittier sometimes transported them to Haverhill, where David Harmon, “forwarder of fugitives,” would move them to Plaistow, N. H.
Once, while Plumer was leading a group to Robert Brown’s farm in West Newbury, bounty hunters followed so closely that Plumer pulled his wagon alongside a cornfield and told his passengers to run for their lives.
In Manchester, N.H., Daniel Friend hid escaped slaves in the garret of his home at 8 Friend St., and would say of them: “They would come, seldom more than one at a time, cold, tired, half scared to death, and hungry, arriving just before daylight, or before anyone was stirring. I would feed them, hide them up in the loft where they would rest in daytime, and after dark take them to the next friend who would pass them on.”
Runaways also found refuge in Manchester with the Binghams at 7 Central St. or at 78 School St., a house built in 1720 with a wall opening to a narrow passageway and steps to the third floor.
Nathaniel White, a manager of railroads and stagecoaches, harbored fugitives and was a major force in New Hampshire’s anti-slavery movement. His home on Clinton Street and his
400-acre farm served as stations.
The Rev. Charles Beecher, Harriet Stowe’s brother, provided sanctuary in Georgetown, Mass. His 1851 sermon “The Duty of Disobedience to Wicked Laws” declared: “ If a fugitive claims your help on his journey, break the law … [and] feed him, clothe him, harbor him, by day and night, and conceal him from his pursuers and from officers of the law.”
The Underground Railroad was a clandestine movement of political protest and civil disobedience against the national institution and economic power of slavery, with Blacks and whites working together on behalf of human rights.