Canadian Alexander Milton Ross’s mission as an abolitionist spy to entice slaves to freedom is among the Underground Railroad’s most heroic efforts.
A Spy for the Underground Railroad
After graduating from Medical School in 1855, Ross alleged that he visited Gerrit Smith and asked for help to go into the South to aid the escape of slaves. He claimed that Smith took him on a journey from Boston to Indiana to acquaint him with prominent operatives in the Underground Railroad. Following this journey, in 1856, he claimed that he made three separate sojourns into the South in the guise of an ornithologist, to inform slaves of the Underground Railroad in the North and, when he could, to personally assist their escape. This took place over a period of three years, during which he personally aided 35 slaves, while spreading the hopeful message of the Underground Railroad.
Ross also claimed to have had a personal relationship with John Brown, spending time with him on at least two occasions and sharing correspondence, and to have undertaken a spy mission for Lincoln during the Civil War. His memoirs, published in 1875 and updated in 1893, are testaments to a remarkable man. But there is a problem. No corroborating evidence exists that they are true.
The chink in Ross’s armor of integrity stems from his alleged relationship with Brown. The abundance of scholarly study of Brown’s life that has accumulated over the years has unmasked a systematic effort of deceit by Ross. The first historian to take note of this was the eminent Canadian John Brown scholar, Boyd B. Stutler.
“Don’t put your faith in anything he says unless you have strong supporting evidence,” Stutler wrote to a colleague, “I am convinced that he never knew him [Brown] and had no dealings with the man in the flesh.”
Louis Albert DeCaro, one of the foremost modern John Brown scholars, researched Stutler’s claims about Ross, and published them in a carefully detailed blog in 2005 that is no longer accessible. Not only did he learn why Stutler had his misgivings, but he found an accumulation of “fabrications” made by Ross so that in Stutler’s words, “we can safely write Dr. Ross off as one who invented intimacies in order to bask in the refulgent light of reflected glory.”
No corroboration for Ross’s missions to the South or his Civil War mission for Lincoln into northern New York has turned up. Cursory inquiries regarding the correspondence of Gerrit Smith and research by a local historian in northern New York into his spy mission for Lincoln that took him to Champlain, New York have revealed nothing.
Is Alexander Milton Ross a Fraud?
Consequently, the likely conclusion is that Alexander Milton Ross, rescuer of slaves, spy for the Union forces, and intimate friend of John Brown, was simply a fraud.
This revelation weighs heavily on considerations of what the Underground Railroad actually was. It casts further doubt on the traditional view that a network of conspirators that reached across states, given credence by early accounts like those of Ross, who claimed Smith introduced him to such a network in 1855. It makes one suspicious that others “basked in the refulgent light of reflected glory” as well.
Because of similar doubts, a revisionist view has gained currency among mainstream historians that there was little organization in the Underground Railroad, that the number of fugitive slaves aided was exaggerated, and that the old accounts overstated the contributions of the Underground Railroad.
This view was well articulated by Larry Gara in his book, Liberty Line, in 1961. Though it provides food for thought, it is the only serious analysis that provides details to support this view. The problem is that it includes errors of fact and interpretation and has influenced many works about the Underground Railroad since its publication.
In the last 20 years, a surge of interest and research into the history of the Underground Railroad has occurred. It indicates that there was indeed a great degree of organization and networking, closer to what was described in the traditional view. However, further scrutiny of the old accounts is needed, in much the same way that Stutler and DeCaro examined the accounts of Ross. The increased accessibility of antebellum newspapers and documents makes this easier today and should enable us to more accurately assess what the Underground Railroad was and how it functioned.
- Louis Albert DeCaro, “Cheating at Solitaire”: The Self-Made Myth of Alexander Ross, the Canadian Friend of John Brown, John Brown, the Abolitionist, a Biographer’s Blog, published Dec. 31, 2005, but no longer accessible.
- Alexander Milton Ross, Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist (Toronto: Roswell and Hutchinson, 1875).
- Alexander Milton Ross, Memoirs of a Reformer (Toronto: Hunter, Rose, 1893).