The Underground Railroad in Vermont Before 1850

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Joseph Poland House, Montpelier, Vermont

Vermont was the first state to organize a statewide antislavery society in 1834. Three years later, it had 89 antislavery societies with nearly 10,000 members.

Stage is Set for the Underground Railroad

It set the stage for the development of the Underground Railroad there, and aid to fugitive slaves in the state is first documented in 1837 when Oliver Johnson, on a lecture tour in Pennsylvania, sent a fugitive slave named Simon to fellow Quaker, Rowland T. Robinson, in Ferrisburgh. Quakers Charles Marriott in Hudson, New York in 1842, and Joseph Beale in Harrison, New York (Westchester County) sent fugitive slaves to Robinson in 1842 and 1844. These associations were not related to any formal organization but to the informal Quaker network of abolitionists that connected Friends meetings.

Chauncey Knapp of Montpelier, a politically connected abolitionist, also collaborated with Robinson in aiding a fugitive slave who came to Robinson from a Saratoga, New York Quaker, Mason Anthony, in 1838. They were part of a wing of the Underground Railroad connected with members of Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society, though Knapp later joined the Liberty Party. It operated sporadically during this period, as indicated by the following letter from Kiah Bailey of Hardwick, Vermont to the Emancipator in 1843:

I have seen in the Emancipator an account of a Bale of Cotton moving off from New Haven . . . . This Bale, after moving from place to place for about three weeks, rolled into my house last evening, and this morning started for the dominion of Victoria, where it is now safely stowed away.

Collaborated with those in New York

The organization of the Underground Railroad in upstate New York was a major source of fugitive slaves to Vermont during this period. In April, 1838, William L. Chaplin, secretary of the state society, called for the organization of vigilance committees, the euphemism for Underground Railroad organizations. One of these committees was in nearby Albany where the Liberty Party was organized in 1840. Liberty Party members were typically active in the Underground Railroad and the party gained strong support in Vermont.

Two fugitive slaves were sent to Charles Hicks of Bennington County, Vermont, by Troy conductor and Liberty Party member, Rev. Fayette Shipherd. In a letter dated November 24, 1840, Shipherd wrote:

“As the canal [the Champlain the canal that connected Troy with Lake Champlain] has closed I shall send my Southern friends along your road & patronize your house. We had a fine run of business during the season . . . . We had 22 in two weeks 13 in the city at one time.” He also mentions that a slavecatcher from Baltimore was in Troy looking for fugitive slaves.

In 1842 the Eastern New York Anti-Slavery Society, a Liberty Party group and one of the most radical Underground Railroad organizations of the antebellum period was founded by notorious Underground Railroad conductors, Abel Brown and Charles T. Torrey. It aided hundreds of fugitive slaves during its three-year existence, often advertising their efforts in its newspaper, The Tocsin of Liberty as well as the Vermont Freeman, both newspapers affiliated with the Liberty Party.

A June 9, 1842 letter written by Abel Brown to Hicks said in part: “Please receive the Bearer as a friend who needs your aid and direct him on his way if you cannot give him work he come to us well recommended was a slave a few weeks since.”

More Liberty Party Connections

Further evidence suggesting Liberty party collaboration with New York and Vermont conductors was the forwarding to Vermont in 1843 of fugitive slave, Jeremiah C. Boggs. They sent him to Liberty Party member, Lawrence Brainerd, in St. Albans. However, a year or so later, he was recognized by a Vermont resident, A.G. Tarlton, who knew his master. As a result, he decided to join the Colonization society and settle in Liberia.

Brainerd was among the state’s most active Underground Railroad conductors and harbored “many” fugitive slaves at his home, his son, Aldis, wrote in an 1896 letter to Siebert. Vermont state chairman of the Liberty Party, Joseph Poland wrote Siebert two letters, one stated that, “Every large town had one or more reliable men to whom the fugitive could be consigned with perfect safety.” His letters included lists of participants and their residences, and described a western and an eastern route. Poland was the publisher of two abolitionist newspapers, the Voice of Freedom and the Green Mountain Freeman, and this as well as his position in the Liberty Party gave him particular insight into the state’s Underground Railroad.

In addition, ENYAS members like Henry Highland Garnet of Troy, New York and Orrin Shipman of Fort Ann, New York were sent on Liberty Party-sponsored lecture tours through Vermont during the 1840s. Garnet, a documented Underground Railroad conductor and colleague of the New York Committee of Vigilance, also was an agent of the Vermont Liberty Party.

With the decline of the Liberty Party after 1845 and the deaths of Abel Brown and Charles T. Torrey, who actively smuggled fugitive slaves from Washington, D.C., there were less reports of activity up through eastern New York before 1850. This seems also to have slowed Underground Railroad activities in Vermont during this time, though some like Vermont Wesleyan Methodist minister, Cyrus Prindle, who had made trips to Canada to care for fugitive slaves, was quoted in 1848 in the Green Mountain Freeman, that activity was occurring.

References:

  1. Tom Calarco, The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region (Jeffersonville, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2004)
  2. Wilbur H. Siebert Collection, Ohio History Center, Columbus, OH
  3. Wilbur H. Siebert, Vermont’s Anti-Slavery and Underground Railroad Record (1937. New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969).