Abel Brown Forgotten Hero of the UGRR

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Map of various Underground Railroad escape routes in the Northern United States and Canada

Underground Railroad conductor, Abel Brown, was almost forgotten, though he aided more than a thousand fugitive slaves.

A small man of nervous temperament and idealistic fervor, he stopped at nothing to do what was morally right and this was why he could not wait for the right time to end slavery, as many critics of early abolitionism urged. It caused him to sustain beatings, gunshots, and continuous threats to his life.

Baptist Minister and Abolitionist Views

As a young man in upstate New York, he was influenced by the evangelical ferment of the age. It led to his vocation as a Baptist minister, and his preoccupation with temperance, and finally slavery. In 1836 he wrote in his journal that, “I am an Abolitionist in the full sense of the word, yet I have found little time to say or do much in the cause . . .” The next year, he gave his first lecture for the American Anti-Slavery Society, and six months later received an agency for the Anti-Slavery Society of Western Pennsylvania.

Aid to Fugitive Slaves

While in Pennsylvania, Brown lived near the Ohio River, a thoroughfare for fugitive slaves, and became active aiding them. He also traveled to Kentucky and Virginia and rescued slaves from bondage. After a brief move to Massachusetts where he met the radical abolitionist, Charles Torrey, he returned to upstate New York in the spring of 1841, taking a pastorate at the Sand Lake Baptist Church, near Albany and Troy. Here began his most productive efforts for the Underground Railroad.

Both cities were active in the Underground Railroad and Brown became one of its most prolific operatives. He founded the Eastern New York Antislavery Society, whose members included abolitionists from New York City to the Adirondack region, and became the agent and publisher of a newly-established antislavery weekly, the Tocsin of Liberty. Its fearless reporting included accounts of fugitive slaves aided by him and his colleague, Charles Torrey, and their associates, like the one below:

“Please also inform Robert Gilmore of Baltimore, that he need not give himself further trouble about his very intelligent and noble slaves, Marianna, Polly, Elisabeth Castle, and her fine little girl, for they have got safe over the great Ontario . . . Tell him also, that his slave John Weston left here more than a week since, at full speed, in a fine carriage drawn by fleet horses, and . . . there were not less than six well loaded pistols in the hands of John and his associates.”

Reward for His Capture

His abolitionist activities brought constant harassment that included a reward offered by slaveholders for his apprehension. This tumult was aggravated by the death of his first wife, Mary Ann, only five weeks after the birth of their second child. Brown placed his children in his in-laws’ care in Fredonia, and continued to lecture on the anti-slavery circuit, now accompanied by fugitive slaves, who described their sorrows and hardships. One of them, Lewis Washington was appointed as an agent of the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society and became Brown’s regular traveling companion

In November, 1842, Brown visited Dawn Mills, Canada, near the border of Detroit, Michigan, where he met fugitives slaves he had assisted. Also, during this time, Baltimore slaveholders offered a reward to an Albany constable for Brown and Torrey, in light of the published report in December, 1842 of the Albany Vigilance Committee, which stated that in the previous year “no less than 350 fugitives had been aided . . .”

Married by Charles Ray

On May 15, 1843, Brown and his second wife, Catherine Swan were married in New York City by the noted Underground Railroad stationmaster, Charles Ray, with whom Brown collaborated on a number of occasions. After their marriage, they settled in Albany and Catherine became an agent for the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society. Brown continued his collaboration with Torrey and they taunted slaveholders by continuing to publish accounts of slaves they were aiding and sending them to the slaves’ former masters.

Brown and his wife began touring together, and she complemented his lectures by singing liberty songs, her signature being The Slave Mother’s Lament. The summer of 1843, they undertook a lengthy excursion through the Midwest that included visits to Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit. Among the important abolitionists they met were Owen Lovejoy, Zebina Eastman, James H. Collins, and Guy Beckley.

Last Year Fighting to End Slavery

In 1844, the Browns moved to Troy, New York, and became legal guardians for a black girl. After a lecture tour in the Adirondacks, while speaking at a Liberty Party in Troy, Brown was stoned and beaten, barely managing to escape with his life. However, he was undeterred, and the following week he spoke at in a church at another Liberty Party organization meeting in Troy. Though another mob broke in, he remained fearless, saying,

“I know not, but I am as well prepared to die now, as I should be forty years hence.”

Fortunately, police arrived and escorted him to safety.

Despite deteriorating health brought on by seven years of ceaseless travel and lecture, often before hostile audiences, Brown refused to rest. After participating in two Liberty party conventions in Saratoga County and an antislavery meeting in Dutchess County, where he again was mobbed, he undertook a lecture tour to western New York. Following a train ride to Rochester, he was caught in a snowstorm and became ill. He found shelter at the home of his fellow abolitionists, John and Laura Mosher, in nearby Canandaigua. The expectation was that he simply needed rest. But instead of recovering, he became gravely ill, and on November 7, he died at the Mosher home at the age of 34.

Reference:

  1. Catherine Brown, Abel Brown Abolitionist, edited by Tom Calarco (McFarland and Company, Inc.: 2006).
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