For many years Wilbur Siebert was considered the greatest historian of the Underground Railroad.
From Freedom to Slavery
His classic work, The Underground Railroad from Freedom to Slavery, published in 1898, still is the subject’s most comprehensive study.
His version of the story portrayed a loosely organized network of individuals who through various means aided tens of thousands of slaves obtain their freedom, with most being sent to Canada. This story conformed closely with the personal narratives of former participants like Levi Coffin, William Still, and Eber Pettit, as well as Robert Smedley, whose book was based on participants’ accounts.
Underground Railroad Circular
Siebert’s book, however, was much broader in scope, and his methodology different. A professor of history at Ohio State University, Siebert not only researched every available source, but also developed a survey, or circular, as he called it, with seven questions. He began circulating it to former Underground Railroad participants, or their relatives and friends in 1892. It contained seven questions:
- What was the route of the Underground Road, (names and locations of “stations,” and “Station Keepers”)
- Period of activity of the “Road”
- Method of operation of the “Road,” with system of communication among the members
- Memorable incidents (with dates, places, and persons)
- History of your own connection with it
- Names and present addresses of any persons able to contribute other information
- Short bio of yourself
Siebert received hundreds of responses, some with many pages, numerous details, and rich anecdotes, and they formed the basis of his book. He continued receiving this correspondence until 1954 and this also formed the basis of his other three Underground Railroad books: The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts (1936), Vermont’s Underground Railroad and Anti-Slavery Record (1937), and The Mysteries of Ohio’s Underground Railroad (1951).
As the years passed the legend of the Underground Railroad grew, and some accounts became exaggerated, like the exploits of Harriet Tubman. The idea of secrecy and hiding places became emphasized so much that every old home with a crawl space began to be thought of as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Of course, Siebert never suggested this. Nevertheless, challenges to his scholarship emerged.
These began with the publication of Larry Gara’s Liberty Line, published in 1961, whose complaint was not only with Siebert’s sources but most other sources whose accounts were published during thirty-year period following the Civil War.
Gara Doubts Underground Railroad Reminiscences
“Reminiscent accounts are bound to be full of inaccuracies,” Gara wrote. And because of this historians “seldom … accept the reminiscences of aged participants without careful evaluation of such material” because the “details become hazy” and their memories have faded. He also charged that some of these old accounts were “too fantastic to be taken seriously,” and “lacking in objectivity and precision.”
This cast doubt on the method that Siebert used and questioned his credibility as an historian. These questions become all the more compelling in light of discredited accounts like those of Alexander Milton Ross and exaggerated claims made by those like William Lambert.
Gara’s skepticism was healthy. However, there was a problem with his criticism of Siebert: he reviewed only a small sample of the letters and those he did use were poor choices. More egregious, however, was that he distorted the information in them by taking them out of context.
In addition to Joshua Young, considered in my post, Larry Gara’s Liberty Line, A Critical Assessment, was a letter from H.D. Platt. As with the Young letter, Gara quoted selectively, just one sentence from a 14-page document: “There was a peculiar fascination about the ‘UGRR’ biz. that fires me up, even now when I recall the scenes of excitement and danger,” Platt wrote. This letter included a 13-page description of the persons, routes, and methods used in the Underground Railroad in western Illinois. But it was not the only letter concerning the Platts that Siebert received, all which Gara either discounted or failed to review. A five-page letter came from Jireh Platt, the father of the family; another three-page letter from H.D.; and letters from three people outside the family corroborating the Platts’ Underground Railroad activities.
Gara makes compelling arguments, especially to those who haven’t researched the Siebert letters and the other sources Gara faults. Following his lead, a major shift has occurred in the thinking of mainstream historians about the Underground Railroad. Among important modern historians who are much more critical of Siebert is David Blight, who wrote in his book, Race and Reunion: “Siebert’s book, along with the collection process that produced it, reflected the sentimental retrospection of many Northerners as the century came to a close.”
I will examine Blight’s mistakes regarding Siebert in a different post. Suffice to say that there was no reason for these individuals to exaggerate. Wilbur Siebert was an unknown history professor during the 1890s and those who wrote him then had nothing to gain.
Today, two slightly different versions of Wilbur Siebert’s vast Underground Railroad collection are stored at Harvard University and the Ohio History Center in Columbus, which made a digital copy available online last year. They include books, diaries, letters, photographs, newspaper articles, biographies, memoirs, county histories, dissertations, annual reports, trial records, U.S. and Canadian census reports, legislation, Congressional speeches, and personal interviews Siebert conducted with Underground Railroad agents and former fugitive slaves.
It’s time for serious historians to examine these documents carefully before they dismiss them because of Gara and other historians, who have given them only a cursory review, or have not read a single letter but are quick to discredit them and Siebert because of preconceived notions that they were taught.
- David Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001.
- Larry Gara, Liberty Line (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1996 edition).
- Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio Historical Society, Columbus, Ohio.