A Revisionist View of Vermont’s UGRR

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Rokey Museum, Ferrisburgh, Vermont

One of Vermont’s leading exponents of the Underground Railroad ironically claims that the Underground Railroad didn’t exist in Vermont.

Jane Williamson, the director of the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, which harbored fugitive slaves, insists that Vermont was out of the reach of slavecatchers. In several published articles, she has dismissed oral traditions that claim significant traffic of fugitive slaves through the state. One of them appeared in Vermont History in 2001.

Critical of Siebert

Like Larry Gara and David Blight, Williamson was extremely critical of Wilbur Siebert, focusing on his book, Vermont’s Underground Railroad and Anti-Slavery Record, published in 1937, the only major book written about Vermont’s Underground Railroad. She not only disputed the credibility of the letters Siebert used but questioned his credibility as an historian. Not surprisingly, the letters to Siebert upon which Williamson focused were those written by members of the family of R. T. Robinson, who aided fugitive slaves at Rokeby.

The first of these letters written to Siebert was in 1896 by Rowland E. Robinson, the son of R.T. She quotes him in the Vermont History article stating that as many as four fugitive slaves at a time were assisted and that some remained for a time and worked there. Later in the article she wrote:

“Were fugitive slaves pursued by slave catchers across the borders of Vermont during the antebellum period? That we are still asking this question in 2001 is testimony to the incredible tenacity and power of the mythological railroad, for I have been unable to find any evidence of slave catchers in the state.”

Omits Reference to “Slavehunters”

However, she conveniently omitted important information in the Robinson letter that contradicts the notion that slavecatchers were not a concern. While identifying his father’s collaborators, Robinson added that Samuel Barker of Vergennes was a “lookout for slavehunters.” In addition, he twice used the phrase, “when there was an alarm of pursuit,” in reference to forwarding fugitive slaves, and another time uses the adjective “hard pressed” to describe fugitive slaves that needed to be transported. Such language implies the threat of slavecatchers.

While the antebellum letters preserved at Rokeby to some degree support Williamson’s claim that fugitive slaves were safe in Vermont, it would be more reasonable to describe the situation as “relatively safe” because it was illegal. In addition, the conditions she referenced describe a specific period at Rokeby from which she extrapolates to include the rest of the state during the entire antebellum period.

Williamson’s focus is letters written to Robinson from 1837 to 1844 by Quaker associates who forwarded him fugitive slaves. She also addresses the matter of a letter that Robinson wrote to the master of a fugitive slave from North Carolina staying at Rokeby, attempting to negotiate the purchase of his freedom. She uses this to show that fugitive slaves out of reach from being reclaimed, quoting the master’s letter conceding this.

However, merely because it was safer in Rokeby than two downstate New York villages, one in notoriously proslavery Westchester County, from where one of the fugitive slaves who came to Rokeby had been forwarded, does not necessarily mean there was no threat of slavecatchers. If no such threat existed, then why would Vermont pass a Personal Liberty Law in 1840 that guaranteed fugitive slaves the right of trial by jury, or a law in 1843 that prohibited the use of state law enforcement officials and jails in the rendition of fugitive slaves?

Williamson cited the book, Runaway Slaves, by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger to support her belief that pursuing fugitive slaves into Vermont would not be worth the expense. She fails to acknowledge that not all slavecatchers came from the South. One celebrated abduction occurred only 25 miles from the Vermont border in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1841. Free black man, Solomon Northup, was allegedly hired by two upstate New York con men to work in Washington, D.C., then drugged and sold into slavery. Saratoga Springs, in fact, was a popular summer resort for southerners during the antebellum period, and one account from 1853 by an abolitionist visiting there stated that many slavecatchers were there.

Ignored Developments After 1850

Nevertheless, the mountainous terrain of Vermont and the relative remoteness of Ferrisburgh added a modicum of safety. While it might be plausible to say that there was little threat of slavecatchers coming to Rokeby, this had changed after the passage of the second Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. In fact, most accounts of slavecatchers in Vermont are from after 1850. But the only reference to the period after 1850 by Williamson is to Rowland E. Robinson’s statement in his letter to Siebert that he doesn’t recall a fugitive slave coming to Rokeby after 1850. While Williamson gave a number of reasons personal to Robinson to account for this, she never referenced the historical developments that occurred after 1850 that increased fugitive slave traffic through Vermont. This came in the form of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, the attempted rendition of Shadrach in Boston, and the successful renditions of Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns in Boston.

A suggestion that Williamson was more interested in proving her theory rather than examining the evidence comes through at the outset of her article when she said that Liberty Line “in permanently altering underground railroad historiography, also seems to have brought it to a premature end.”

References:

  1. Tom Calarco, The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2004).
  2. Wilbur H. Siebert Collection, Ohio History Center, Columbus, Ohio
  3. Jane Williamson, “Rowland T. Robinson, Rokeby, and the Underground Railroad in Vermont” (Vermont History 69 Winter 2001: 19-31).