The story was reported in the Cecil Democrat, July 25, 1857.
One story that was not included with the railroad series was an especially risky attempt to use the railroad steam ferry at Havre de Grace to cross the Susquehanna in 1857. The young woman attempting the escape was enslaved by Captain Galloway of Havre de Grace. Galloway was the captain of the steam ferry she intended to use for her escape. A New Jersey man and his wife had persuaded her to run away from the captain and instructed her to steal money from the captain’s home when she made the escape. This instruction clouds the motive of the couple. Were they abolitionists, or con artists, or both? Was the money simply get-away money to finance the woman’s escape? The man bought the train ticket for the three of them. The freedom seeker used two veils to disguise herself, well aware that that the plan would fail if the captain spotted her on the ferry. But the plan failed before they boarded the boat when a black man either recognized the young woman despite the disguise or was simply suspicious and called out to a white passer-by who arrested her. The couple was released on bail. The story stops there, but the chances are the couple headed back to New Jersey before their trial date.
The story was reported in the Cecil Democrat, July 25, 1857.
As mentioned in the previous post, many freedom seekers escaped from the South on their own initiative before reaching the North. In his autobiography, James L. Smith wrote of his escape from Reedville, Virginia by sailboat with two companions, and his desperate hike across the neck of the Delmarva Peninsula that included a surreal encounter with what he perceived to be a monster. All without the aid of a network of abolitionists (but apparently with the tacit approval of some whites willing to look the other way). On a Sunday afternoon in May, 1838, Smith joined with his friends Zip, a sailor, and Lorenzo to carry out a plan to escape from slavery. They “captured” an unattended sailboat and had an uneventful voyage up the Chesapeake Bay to the area of Frenchtown, arriving around nine o’clock Tuesday evening. Because of his sailing experience, Zip knew the area and advised landing to the south of Frenchtown and then working their way around to the new Castle and Frenchtown Turnpike. Smith walked with a limp and was unable to keep up with his friends. Smith’s pace increased the chances of capture, and his two companions explained that they would need to go on ahead of him. Disheartened, Smith contemplated turning back and surrendering in Frenchtown, but he decided he came too far to give up and decided to press on in the hope of reaching freedom. Knowing nothing of the latest innovation in transportation, Smith encountered what he took to be a monster.
It was then two or three o'clock Wednesday morning, the 8th of May. I came to the portion of the road that had been cut through a very high hill, called the "deep cut," which was in a curve, or which formed a curve; when I had got about mid-way of this curve I heard a rumbling sound that seemed to me like thunder; it was very dark, and I was afraid that we were to have a storm; but this rumbling kept on and did not cease as thunder does, until at last my hair on my head began to rise; I thought the world was coming to the end. I flew around and asked myself, "what is it?" At last it came so near to me it seemed as if I could feel the earth shake from under me, till at last the engine came around the curve. I got sight of the fire and the smoke; said I, "it's the devil, it's the devil!" It was the first engine I had ever seen or heard of; I did not know there was anything of the kind in the world, and being in the night, made it seem a great deal worse than it was; I thought my last days had come; I shook from head to foot as the monster came rushing on towards me. The bank was very steep near where I was standing; a voice says to me, "fly up the bank;" I made a desperate effort, and by the aid of the bushes and trees which I grasped, I reached the top of the bank, where there was a fence; I rolled over the fence and fell to the ground, and the last words I remember saying were, that "the devil is about to burn me up, farewell! farewell!" After uttering these words I fainted, or as I expressed it, I lost myself.
I do not know how long I lay there, but when I had recovered, (or came to myself), the devil had gone. Oh! how my heart did throb; I thought the patrollers were after me on horseback. After I had gathered strength enough I got up and sat there thinking what to do; I first thought I would go off to the woods somewhere and hide myself till the next night, and then pursue my journey onward; but then I thought that would not do, for my enemies, who were pursuing me, would overtake and capture me. So I made up my mind that I would not loose any more time than was necessary; hence I crawled down the bank and started on with trembling steps, expecting every moment that that monster would be coming back to look for me.
Thus between hope, and fear, and doubt, I continued on foot till at last the day dawned and the sun had just began to rise. When the sun had risen as high as the tops of the trees, the monster all at once was coming back to meet me; I said to myself, "it is no use to run, I had just as well stand and make the best of it," thinking I would make the best bargain that I could with his majesty. Onward he came, with smoke and fire flying, and as he drew near to me, I exclaimed to myself, "why! what a monster's head he has on to him." Oh! said I, "look at his tushes (The cow-catcher in front of the engine).
I am a goner;" I looked again, saying to myself, "look at the wagons he has tied to him." Thinks I, "they are the wagons that he carries the souls to hell with." I looked through the windows to see if I could see any black people that he was carrying, but I did not see one, nothing but white people. Then I thought it was not black people that he was after, but only the whites, and I did not care how many of them he took. He went by me, like a flash; I expected every moment that he would stop and bid me come aboard, (for I had been a great hand to abuse the old gentleman; when at home I use to preach against him), but he did not, so I thought that he was going so fast he could not stop. He was soon out of sight, and I for the first time took a long breath.
After this fear subsided, starvation became the next challenge, the need for food so great he decided to risk knocking on a door and asking for something to eat. He feared the white occupants would turn him in, but he felt the alternative was literally starving to death. The woman smiled, invited him, and cooked him a sizable breakfast. The husband politely spoke with him, asking no probing questions. Smith had a quarter in his pocket to pay for the meal. He continued on to New Castle, where he rejoined his two friends. They bought tickets on a steamboat to Philadelphia, and no one asked them the customary questions blacks were asked when boarding a steamboat traveling from a slave state to a free state.
Once in Philadelphia, his two friends boarded ships leaving the United States, and Smith, who was broke, began seeking a job. Having worked for a shoemaker in Virginia, he asked shoemakers if they needed an assistant. A black shoemaker named Simpson discovered Smith was a fugitive and connected him with a network of Quakers who sent Smith on to David Ruggles in New York. Ruggles arranged for Smith to travel farther north to a Mr. Foster in Hartford, Connecticut and then a Dr. Osgood in Springfield, Massachusetts. Smith settled in Springfield for a few years and then moved Norwich, Connecticut.
Autobiography of James L. Smith, Including, Also, Reminiscences of Slave Life, Recollections of the War, Education of Freedmen, Causes of the Exodus, etc.:
(Documenting the American South – University of North Carolina)
As Eric Foner pointed out in his book Gateway to Freedom, one view of the Underground Railroad dominated for decades, until a contrasting view displaced it in 1961. Recent scholarship is uncovering a more accurate view that falls between the other two. In the decades following the Civil War, an image of a highly organized Underground Railroad began to emerge. Abolitionists and surviving family members shared the stories of participation in UGRR activity with local historians. Most of these written histories on the UGRR in that period focused on the role of white abolitionists. The most notable of these local histories was Robert C. Smedley’s History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania, published in 1883. Smedley’s accounts came predominately from Quaker families, and consequently his history focuses on their activities.
The century was nearing its end before a scholar attempted a more comprehensive look at the Underground Railroad. Wilbur H. Siebert, associate professor at Ohio State University, began his research in 1892. He collected accounts from surviving abolitionists, knowing the opportunity to collect these stories would soon end, and he searched through newspapers from the period for additional stories. His book, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, was published in 1898. Although noting that the UGRR was not a structured centralized organization, Siebert concluded that it was a highly organized network with many agents in the north guiding fugitive slaves to freedom. Siebert influenced the public perception of the Underground Railroad, a mix of fact and fiction.
But in 1961, Larry Gara published The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad, in which he criticized Siebert’s methodology and his conclusion. Smedley and other UGRR writers were also faulted for sloppy research. As Foner noted, “Gara acknowledged his own debt to the materials his predecessors had gathered, but he chided Siebert for accepting at face value the romanticized reminiscences of ‘old time abolitionists,’ lumping together individuals who occasionally aided a fugitive with those who devoted a great deal of time and effort to such assistance, and exaggerated the degree of organization of their efforts.” Gara criticized Siebert, and other writers like Smedley, for emphasizing the role of white abolitionists, while downplaying or neglecting the role of black abolitionists and black communities that assisted fugitives. Also overlooked in these earlier histories were the many freedom seekers who escaped into the North on their own initiative.
But if Siebert overreached in one direction, Gara, overreached in the opposite direction, minimizing the scope of the Underground Railroad and the role of abolitionists. For a time, historians accepted Gara conclusion and saw no need for further study of the topic. Recently, a resurge of public interest in the topic has led to historians taking a closer look and engaging in thorough studies. Even Gara adjusted his conclusions in the preface of the 1996 edition of his book:
“Of Course, white abolitionists played a significant role, and I had no intention of overlooking them. Were I to write the book again, I would give more recognition to the abolitionists, many of whom risked a great deal to help escaping slaves. Yet it remains undeniable that the slaves themselves actually planned and carried out their runs for freedom. Any aid they received came after they left the slave states and were in territory where they faced return under the terms of the Fugitive Slave law.”
Recent research is developing a more accurate picture of the Underground Railroad, and as Foner notes in Gateway to Freedom, it “is not of the highly organized system with tunnels, codes, and clearly defined routes and stations of popular lore, but of an interlocking series of local networks, each of whose fortunes rose and fell over time, but which together helped a substantial number of fugitives in the free states and Canada.”
Historians and community organizations are continuing the research, seeking and investigating local stories related to the resistance to slavery. Stories of people escaping enslavement, stories of individuals and groups assisting them, stories of slave catchers hunting them and kidnappers looking to profit from the system are all pieces contributing to our understanding of what we broadly define as the history of the Underground Railroad. Verifying and putting together all these pieces to form the larger story, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is the goal of the National Park Service’s Network to Freedom project.
This map from the National Geographic website showing major Underground Railroad routes visually reinforces the gist of the last series of posts. The Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia corridor was an active route for those escaping enslavement and those offering assistance to them, and two of those modes of travel in the corridor were the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
This map also introduces a related topic for today’s post. A number of freedom seekers crossing into Pennsylvania and New Jersey took the risk of settling in those states. But others who reached Philadelphia felt safer going farther north, and journeyed on to New York and Boston. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and direct federal involvement in reinforcement of that law increased the risk of re-enslavement and many fugitives fled into Canada. Those who arrived in William Still’s office in Philadelphia were sent on to his contacts in New York, most notably Sydney Gay in New York City. I just completed reading two recently published books on the Underground Railroad with emphasis on New York, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives by Tom Calarco and Don Papson and Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad by Eric Foner. As indicated by the subtitle, Secret Lives focuses on Sydney Gay and the record he kept of fugitives he assisted when they arrived in New York City, connecting them with agents in upstate New York, who then arranged their escape into Canada, and the work of Louis Napoleon, an African American who facilitated many of these clandestine movements. Napoleon traveled as far as Maryland to help bring people into freedom. Whenever applicable, the book compares the information on individuals and their escapes in Still’s and Gay’s journals. Gateway to Freedom, written by a prominent historian, discusses some of the same individuals, organizations, and activities in New York but within the context of a broader overview of Underground Railroad activity in general.
I will occasionally draw from these references in future posts on Underground Railroad activity, and slave catching and kidnapping incidents, in the Baltimore-Wilmington-Philadelphia corridor. As Foner points out, “nearly half the slaves who appear in Gay’s record originated in Maryland and Delaware, the eastern slave states closest to free soil.” Out of 214 fugitives documented in Gay’s journal in 1855-1856, ninety-four came from Maryland and eleven from Delaware (and ten of those were from New Castle County at the northern end of the state). One of Foner’s chapter titles refers to the Metropolitan Corridor. This blog focuses on Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware region of that corridor, with periodic glimpses into southern New Jersey.
Freedom Seekers and Freedom Stealers along the Mason - Dixon Line
Milt Diggins, M. ed., an independent scholar, author, public historian, and public speaker.