The Underground Railroad was a network of people who hid fugitives from slavery in their homes during the day and moved them north by night to free states, Canada or England. New England was a natural destination for refugees because it had banished slavery, had a strong abolitionist movement and was easily accessible by rail and coastal vessels that went back and forth between North and South.
People who helped African-Americans escape used railroad terminology to describe their activities as a code in case their conversations were overheard. Those who moved the refugees were called conductors, the buildings that sheltered them were stations and the people who fed and clothed them until they were ready to move on were stationmasters.
Here are six New England stops on the Underground Railroad, one for each of the New England states.
Austin F. Williams House
The Austin F. Williams House and Carriage House in Farmington, Conn., played a central role in a major drama of the abolitionist movement: The Amistad Affair.
Williams was an active abolitionist and conductor for the Railroad. In the Amistad case, a group of slaves on board the sailing vessel Amistad managed to free themselves and killed the ship’s captain in 1839.
They were subsequently brought to America and arrested. Their case — which resulted in acquittal on ground that they were acting in self-defense — was an important victory for abolitionists.
Following their trial, Williams built a house on his Farmington property where the freed Africans stayed before returning to Sierra Leone in 1842. The Williams property is not open to the public.
Abyssinian Meeting House
The Abyssinian Meeting House in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood of Portland is the only Underground Railroad site in Maine recognized by the National Park Service. Portland became a northern hub of the Underground Railroad because of its easy access by rail and sea.
The meeting house, built in 1828, became a religious, educational and cultural center for Portland’s African-American community. The church’s members and leaders organized escape routes to England and Canada. They were active in hiding, provisioning and transporting refugees from slavery.
The Rev. Amos Noe Freeman was the minister at the Abyssinian in 1850 when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. He hid a fugitive from slavery in the meeting house, according to the memoirs of a descendant.
The Abyssinian Meeting House is located at 75 Newbury Street. It is currently under restoration.
Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties
Quakers Nathan and Mary Johnson harbored Frederick Douglass in 1838 at their home in New Bedford, Mass. The couple were free blacks who married in 1819 and became part of New Bedford’s robust African-American community.
New Bedford, a port city, was attractive to African-Americans because its industries — whaling and the maritime trades – were open to them.
By 1853, New Bedford had the highest population of African-Americans in the Northeast, and 30 percent said they came from the South.
It was estimated that at any one time before the Civil War, 300 to 700 fugitive slaves lived in New Bedford.
Nathan and Mary Johnson owned a confectionery store, several businesses and their home, a stop on the Underground Railroad. They were prominent abolitionists; Nathan, a pharmacist, was elected the president of the 1847 National Convention of Colored People in Troy, New York.
One of the Johnson properties was a residence, the other a Quaker meetinghouse.
The Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties are at 17-19 and 21 Seventh St., in New Bedford. The two buildings are owned by the New Bedford Historical Society, and tours are available by appointment. Appointments must be made 48 hours in advance. To make an appointment, call 508-979-8828.
James Wood Farm
On the Croydon Turnpike in Lebanon. N.H., another house that served as a stop on the Underground Railroad is the Wood Farm.
The 800-acre farm was owned by James Wood, a prosperous and industrious Quaker. Wood was a beekeeper, surveyor and hay dealer.
Wood’s involvement in the Underground Railroad was lightly documented. He was identified as the station keeper for New Hampshire’s Hillsborough County.
His journal from 1862, uncovered by Steve Ristelli in a New Hampshire antique shop, uncovered additional details.
On June 1, 1862, Wood noted: “A fugitive slave? come here abt 10 o”clock this eve to stay all night. I fixed him a bed in wool room,” according to Slavery & the Underground Railroad in New Hampshire, by Michelle Arnosky Sherburne.
Though there is little additional information about the fugitives helped by Wood, historians suggest the slight mention suggests that Wood did not consider the event to be particularly unusual and he probably helped others passing through. The Wood farm is not open to the public.
Valley Falls, R.I.
Elizabeth Buffum Chace was a Quaker who belonged to old and distinguished Rhode Island families, but she was distrusted and shunned because of her ardent opposition to slavery.
The clash over slavery was especially intense in Rhode Island. Newport had been the largest slave market in New England, but the colony was home to many Quakers who opposed slavery.
Elizabeth Buffum Chace at 23 married Samuel Chace, the son of Oliver Chace, who founded several textile mills that became the foundation for Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.
She gave birth to 10 children, though the first five died. Her family would shutter the windows at their home in Valley Falls during the day when they were sheltering fugitives. She recalled in her memoirs how the Underground Railroad worked:
Slaves in Virginia would secure passage, either secretly or with consent of the captains, in small trading vessels at Norfolk or Portsmouth, and thus be brought into some port in New England, where their fate depended on the circumstances into which they happened to fall. A few, landing at some towns on Cape Cod, would reach New Bedford, and thence be sent by an abolitionist there to Fall River, to be sheltered by Nathaniel B. Borden and his wife, who was my sister Sarah, and sent by them to my home at Valley Falls, in the darkness of night, and in a closed carriage.
It’s unclear whether her home in Valley Falls, a village in Cumberland, is still standing. The National Park Service, though, offers a walking tour of the area that features a historic park, train station, post office and mill buildings. Click here for more information.
Rokeby in Ferrisburgh, Vt., was the home of Rowland T. Robinson, who openly sheltered escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Robinson’s extensive correspondence about how the railroad worked provides an important historic archive.
Rokeby was built in 1793 by Thomas and Jemma Robinson, Rowland’s parents. He made abolition the cause of his life. Not only did he shelter fugitives, he negotiated freedom papers with slavemasters and found jobs for freedmen.
Today Rokeby is a historic farm property and museum that includes a 1780s farmstead, eight agricultural outbuildings with permanent exhibits, and hiking trails that cover more than 50 acres
Rokeby is located at 4334 U.S. Route 7 in Ferrisburgh.
Photos: Austin F. Williams House and Carriage House By Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4674472; Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties By English Wikipedia user Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4384044; Rokeby By Mfwills – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11310696.
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