William Still. Photo from African American Registry.
I’d like to give you some stories about people who traveled on and worked with the Underground Railroad.
One story I came upon happened in 1840. It was about four siblings named Davie, Isaac, James, and Hannah Arthur who escaped eastern Maryland with the hope of getting to Haddonfield Quakers who were active on the Underground Railroad. The parents of the young self-emancipators had died and so they dared to run away to ensure that they would be together. Enslaved people always had the fear that they would be sold to someone else and be forced to leave family and friends. Although we don’t know what age the four Arthurs were, we do know that they traveled mostly by foot and managed to cross three state lines. And they did all this while evading slave hunters. Once the quartet entered southern New Jersey, they were identified by people working with the Underground Railroad, who got them safely to Haddonfield. The Arthurs stayed in the area and their descendants live in Lawnside (near Haddonfield), a town founded in 1840 by former slaves and other people of color. (Fiaschetti).
There also is the story of William Still (born 7 October 1819 or 1821), whose father, Levin Steel, purchased his freedom from his owner in Maryland and moved to New Jersey. Levin then changed his name to Levin Still, to protect his wife Sidney, who remained enslaved in Maryland. Sidney made one escape, got caught, and was returned. Luckily, her second escape was successful, and she was able to join her husband, but could bring only two of their children with her (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center).
William Still was born in Burlington County, New Jersey. He took a job in 1847 as a janitor with the Philadelphia Society for the Abolition of Slavery, but soon began giving aid and shelter to fugitive slaves, one of whom was his brother Peter, who had been left behind when their mother escaped (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center).
Still kept meticulous records about his activities, however he destroyed many of them before the Civil War started to protect those he had helped. In 1872, he wrote a book, The Underground Railroad, which “is one of the most important historical records we have.” The book emphasizes self-emancipators “as courageous individuals who struggled for their own freedom” (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center).
Lawnside, New Jersey (known as Snow Hill back then) was also home to Peter Mott, a free man. He was preacher and Sunday school superintendent at Mt. Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mott purchased a lot in 1844 and on it built a two-story house, which served as an Underground Railroad station. Local Snow Hill women reportedly would bring food to the Mott house when Peter and his wife hid runaways The story goes that Mott took self-emancipators by wagon to Quakers living in Haddonfield and Moorestown so they could move further north. The Mott house was purchased and restored in 1992 by the Lawnside Historical Society and is open to the public (Fiaschetti). It certainly would be worth your while to visit if you live in or near New Jersey.
The Peter Mott House. Photo by the Lawnside Historical Society
People not only are still uncovering the history of the Underground Railroad, but also the history of the many black communities established in New Jersey. One such group lived in Sourland Mountain, a place with which I’m familiar. In the 1700s, the first African Americans in the area worked as slaves on farms in the valleys around the mountain. As New Jersey began to prohibit slavery – a process that took nearly 30 years – self-emancipators hid in the dense woods of Sourland Mountain (Stoutsburg/The People), most likely on their way to Underground Railroad stations in New Brunswick.
The Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum “was born out of decades’ worth of research conducted by two of its advisory board members, Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck." The two women were working to establish the Stoutsburg Cemetery as the burial place of William Stives, who fought in the Revolutionary War and was among the early black settlers in the Sourlands. As Mills and Buck got into their research, they uncovered more information about the early African American settlers and realized that these powerful and uplifting stories needed to be made public. So, the two wrote a book, If These Stones Could Talk, which they hoped, would “be used as an addendum to the little known, missing black history facts left out of our family histories, our textbooks and libraries. The goal is to engage readers - and educate students - not only in New Jersey but also across America and beyond” (Stoutsburg/About). Do I need to say that I want to get that book?
I brought the information about the Stoutsburg museum up because it is important to know the history of all the people, not just a few. I’m glad the folks working at the Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum have undertaken this effort, making them part of a greater group throughout the USA doing the same.
The story of the Underground Railroad, the bulk of its history hidden, needs to be uncovered as fully as it can be, as do the other aspects of black history.
Sources for this blog:
Fiaschetti, Patricia Weigold. “Freedom’s Path: The Underground Railroad in New Jersey,” New Jersey Monthly Magazine, 23 January 2015.
“William Still.” National Underground Railroad Freedom Center website.
Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. “The People.”
Stoutsburg Sourland African American Museum. “About.”
Other Sources Relating to Previous Blogs:
Bordewich, Fergus M. Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement. (New York: Amistad-Harper Collins Publishers, 2006)
McCauslin, Debra Sandoe. Reconstructing the Past: Puzzle of the Lost Community at Yellow Hill. (North Charleston, SC :Book Surge Publishing, 2007)
Papson, Don and Tom Calarco. Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City. Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives. (Jefferson NC: McFarland, 2015)
Switala, William J. Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey. (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2006)
A map of Underground Railroad Stations in New Jersey, from
Opportunities for travel by self-emancipators were numerous in New Jersey. There were major waterways such as the Delaware River and Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Hudson River. The state also had plentiful rivers and streams that could lead to inland Underground Railroad Stations. People moving to freedom could travel by commercial steamboat, sailing vessel, and other boats.
New Jersey had a well-developed road system. In the mid-1800s, roads in New Jersey generally ran east to west, from New York to Pennsylvania. However, south of Trenton roads were less developed or missing altogether. The roads that were there ran along the coast from Cape May to Newark, or from Cape May west to Fairfield, Greenwich, and Salem, and north to Trenton. Travel was by foot or wagon, or sometimes even by stagecoach.
Travel by rail was available to runaways, too. The largest railroad was the Camden and Amboy, the main line between Philadelphia and New York city. However, escaping slaves also made use of the West Jersey, New Jersey Central, and the Woodbury and Camden Railroads.
The goal of using any of these methods of travel on the Underground Railroad was to reach New York City and other points north and head toward Canada.
As mentioned in Friday’s post, UGRR routes and lines were determined by several, although not all, of these variables: the number of free blacks living in an area, the presence of an abolition society, an African Methodist Episcopal congregation, an African Methodist Episcopal Zion congregation, a Colored Presbyterian Church, a Quaker meeting, a Methodist congregation, and/or a Presbyterian congregation.
There were three Underground Railroad networks in New Jersey. The Southern Network was located in the southern New Jersey counties of Cape May, Cumberland, Salem, and Atlantic, and parts of Gloucester, Burlington, Camden, and Ocean counties. It was the entry-point for self-emancipators arriving from Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and other Southern states. Most of the runaways though entered New Jersey by crossing the Delaware River or the Delaware Bay. Once in the Southern Network, escapees would be channeled north to towns of Camden and Mt. Holly.
The Central Network’s southern most part ran from Swedesboro to Barnegat at the Atlantic Ocean and its northern part ran from Bordentown to the Atlantic shoreline. The network included most of Burlington, Camden, and Ocean Counties, as well as bits of Gloucester County.
The image below combines the routes in the Southern and the Central Networks
Finally, the Northern Network’s southern most reach ran from Bordentown to the Atlantic coast and to the north it covered the entire the state up to its borders. It had three main lines. Most of the activity, though, was located in Mercer, Middlesex, Monmouth and Somerset Counties, and parts of Warren and Hudson Counties. Little of the activity seems to have occurred in Warren County, home to the town of Blaineton in the Saint Maggie series. That does not mean that Underground Railroad activity did not occur there, though. By locating my fictional characters in Warren County, I simply put a little “fiction” in the “historical fiction.”
Below is an image of how all the networks and routes looked when put together. Just remember, though, it’s likely that the image does not represent all of the lines and routes, major and minor, that existed.
Image from http://www.state.nj.us/nj/about/history/underground_railroad.html
I live in Somerset County, so the Northern Network line of the most interest to me is a minor one running from Easton, Pennsylvania to New Brunswick. There were three possibilities once runaways crossed the Delaware River to Phillipsburg, New Jersey. One of them was was a stage line running through Phillipsburg that had two different routes: 1) to Trenton or 2) to Somerville and on to New Brunswick.
Somerville is the county seat of Somerset County. Upon reaching Somerville, self-emancipators would travel south to Hillsborough Township and approach New Brunswick from the southeast. There are mountains in Hillsborough (well, mountains for New Jersey) called the Sourlands. These mountains are rocky and wooded, which makes for an excellent hiding place. (See the photo below.) There also was a community of free blacks living there, as well as an African Methodist Episcopal Church. No surprise there was an Underground Railroad station there - and it's within shouting distance of where I live. Okay, maybe not shouting distance. A short car drive.
For those of you who think New Jersey is all roads and dying industries and cities, here's a photo of what the Sourlands still look like.
Image from https://www.njhiking.com/sourland-mountain/
On Wednesday, I'll have a couple of stories about people who traveled the Underground Railroad in New Jersey, because stories are so much more interesting that all the details I just laid on you!
See you then.
Robert Smalls, a wheelman who commandeered a Confederate steamer and carried himself, fellow workers, and their families to freedom in 1862. (See link at the end of the blog to access his story and those over four other people who made amazing escapes.)
You may wonder how people escaping slavery got from Point A to Point B. That is a very good thing to wonder, because travel on its own was not easy in the nineteenth century. Add to that the always-present danger that a runaway could be caught and returned to face terrible consequences.
For an enslaved person living in the southern states freedom was something that was far, far away. The northern states offered the opportunity to be free, but even if an individual managed to get there he or she ran the risk of being discovered by “slave hunters” empowered by the Fugitive Slave Acts. Not to say that some escaping people did not end their journey in northern states, but a sure-fire way to get free and remain that way was to go to someplace where the Fugitive Slave Acts had no power. The obvious place was Canada. However, two lesser-known locations were Florida and Mexico.
Florida had been under Spanish rule until it became a U.S. territory in 1822. At that point, free black people, Seminole Indians, and enslaved people escaped to Cuba. They knew what was coming and that it would have a dreadful impact on their lives. Therefore, Florida was no longer a good place to which escape to after 1822.
Mexico, on the other hand, was a nation unto itself. In 1821, after a long struggle, its colonial status with Spain ended. The Fugitive Slave Acts could not reach self-emancipators there and, in 1824, Mexico’s boundaries occupied most of what is now the American Southwest. Over the decades its territory was ceded – one way or the other – to the United States until 1867 when the national boundaries of what we now know as Mexico were settled. But in the years preceding the American Civil War, it would have been possible for an enslaved person to make the arduous journey to Mexican land and grasp freedom.
However, most self-emancipators opted to go north, either to the northern American states or to Canada, most likely because these locations were more accessible and escape routes were better established. In Canada, fugitives would find support systems comprised of communities of free blacks as well as whites connected to the Underground Railroad. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, Canada bestowed freedom upon slaves who left the United States and crossed its border.
We know that there were three main northern routes. The Western Route traveled up the Mississippi River Valley, went through the Kansas and Missouri Territories, and up to Iowa and Illinois. Once in those two states, self-emancipators would be escorted through Michigan (often traveling through Detroit) to Canada.
The Central Route took people from the heart of the South to Kentucky, West Virginia, and Western Maryland, and then to Ohio. From there they traveled either to Indiana, Pennsylvania, or western New York. Once in either of those states, self-emancipators entered Underground Railroad systems that would guide them to Canada.
Finally, there was the Eastern Route. This journey took fugitives from the southeastern South up to Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. From there they would go to either Pennsylvania or New Jersey, and then travel to New York or New England. Again, in those last two states, fugitives would find UGRR webs that would help them make the final leg of the journey to Canada.
The routing may seem a bit roundabout to us today, but they were designed that way to move people to freedom as safely and secretly as possible.
So, now we know about the routes, but what about the nuts and bolts of actual travel? Did every self-emancipator walk? No. But some did travel overland, especially if they were leaving Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky. Using the North Star as their guide, they followed roads or trails by night to avoid slave catchers and hid by day in barns, outbuilding, corn fields, brush, or under a bridge. If self-emancipators happened to stumble upon a UGRR station, the station masters would hide them in their house, barn, or other outbuilding. Again, with any luck, fugitives might find an Underground Railroad conductor guide them along the next leg of their journey.
Escaping slaves also traveled by vehicles like buggies, carriages, and wagons. There are stories about runaways stealing a wagon or a horse to make their escape. If they had help from the Underground Railroad, they might be hidden in the false bottom of a wagon or under hay, straw, boxes, or bags. Self-emancipators with light skin also had the option of disguising themselves as white people.
The quickest form of travel in the nineteenth century were trains, and self-emancipators made use of them, too. They might hide on board (most likely in freight cars). If their skin was light, they might disguise themselves and board as a passenger. If accompanied by a white UGRR "conductor," a fugitive might appear to be the servant or slave of the "conductor."
Steamboats, canoes, skiffs, schooners, and other water vehicles offered another way to travel. Sometimes steamboat captains were sympathetic to the UGRR and would sneak escapees on board. Other times captains might accept a bribe to carry runaways. Again, light-skinned self-emancipators could disguise themselves as whites and openly book a northbound steamboat. Along the coastline, skiffs or schooners offered runaways the opportunity to stow away.
As if any of that were not enough, there were extreme ways to get to freedom. An intrepid, daring self-emancipator could arrange to have a container shipped north and hide in it. I’m serious! We know the name of one individual who actually did it. He was Henry “Box” Brown. If you want to read his story click here: http://www.pbs.org/black-culture/shows/list/underground-railroad/stories-freedom/henry-box-brown/. Robert Smalls, pictured above, actually commandeered a steamer to get to freedom. You can find a short version of Brown’s story, Robert Smalls’ story, and the story of three other people who made some amazingly brave escapes at https://www.history.com/news/5-daring-slave-escapes.
If all of the above looks incredibly difficult and dangerous, it was. But freedom was worth it. When faced with a life-time sentence of being someone else’s property and having no control over one’s activity and indeed one’s very life, the sweet call of freedom moved the determined few to risk all.
On Monday: specifics on the Underground Railroad in New Jersey.
Have a good weekend, everyone!
The spring house at the Cyrus Griest House. This is where Cyrus Griest and his wife Mary Ann (Cook) Griest hid self-emancipators. The Griests were members of the Menallen Friends Meeting in Menallen Township, PA.
Earlier I made mention about the diverse group of people involved in the Underground Railroad, so let’s get a more in depth look at them today.
Of course, people of color were the largest group participating in the UGRR. First and foremost were the self-emancipators, or runaway slaves. They would take part in the organization while they were escaping, but many “gave back” by serving in other capacities once they were free.
Free black men and women also took part in the Underground Railroad. In 1787, before anyone knew anything about an Underground Railroad, the Rev. Absalom Jones and the Rev. Richard Allen formed the Free African Church in Philadelphia and through it the Independent Free African Society, the earliest group to provide help for those who had been recently freed through manumission or self-emancipation.
Black churches also played a major role in the UGRR. These included the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), founded in 1816 by the Rev. Richard Allen, a black Methodist minister from Philadelphia. Another prominent church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AMEZ), was founded in 1821 when a group of black Methodists walked out of New York City’s John Street Methodist Church.
White religious groups also worked with the UGRR. The Quakers (the Religious Society of Friends) struggled with anti-slavery sentiments until 1754 when the society officially condemned the institution and urged its members to free their slaves immediately. Most of the colonies’ 360,000 Quakers lived in southeast and southern Pennsylvania and New Jersey, as well as northern Delaware and Maryland. They were located in a perfect area to help shepherd people north.
But other religious groups shared abolitionist sentiments, too. The Presbyterian Church condemned slavery in 1787. However, the issues of slavery and abolition within the Methodist Episcopal Church: eventually led to a split in 1844 between its northern and southern churches. The Baptists also had an abolitionist branch. Not surprisingly, then, white Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists became involved in helping runaway slaves through the Underground Railroad.
Abolition societies were the final group of people who were active in the Underground Railroad. These societies began to emerge in the late-1700s-early 1800s. They were scattered throughout the northern states and tended to merge and/or change their names as membership grew, which makes it a bit hard to tell who’s who. For instance, the Philadelphia Abolition Society grew into the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. The New York Committee for a National Anti-Slavery Society (whew, some moniker) merged with the New England Anti-Slavery Society and became known simply as the American Anti-Slavery Society.
As a side note, women early on made a connection between the plight of people of color and their own unequal existence. When females became active in anti-slavery societies and attempted to sit on the floor with the males at yearly meetings, they were told that women were not permitted to do such things. This treatment led directly to the creation of the Seneca Falls Convention (New York) in July 1848, the first women’s rights convention in the United States.
I live in New Jersey and around here people sometimes claim that certain old houses were stations on the Underground Railroad. But is the claim true? If there are no supporting documents or other sources of proof, we might be able to guess at the likelihood of the claim. We do that by asking a few questions. Who or what were located in the same town or nearby as the house? Were there a number of black people living there? What about an AME or AMEZ church? Were white Methodists or Presbyterians nearby? Was a Quaker meeting house in the vicinity? Did the town have an anti-slavery society? If two or more of those groups were in the town or the neighboring area, then there just might have been an Underground Railroad there, too.
Here’s an example. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania had a black community and an AME Church. Just north of Gettysburg is an area called Yellow Hill, although it was known as Pine Hill at the time of the Civil War. Pine Hill, founded by a man named Edward Mathews, was a black community and is now believed to have been a safe home for self-emancipators. Not far from Pine Hill was a community of Quakers. So, was there Underground Railroad activity there? Why, yes. Yes, there was. However, this is not to say that we don’t need to do any other research to uncover hardcore facts! In the case of Gettysburg and Adams County, researchers have uncovered sources that support the presence of the UGRR there. So, homework is always a good idea.
Helping self-emancipators escape into freedom did not come without risk. If you were a runaway and you were caught and returned to your “owner,” you would be subject to any number of painful, brutal punishments: whippings, disfigurement, and torture to name a few.
If you worked as conductors, station masters, or other personnel on the UGRR, you faced some serious punishment of another kind if you were caught aiding and abetting. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made aiding a runaway slave a federal crime and carried a fine of $500. The penalty for this federal crime grew harsher with the promulgation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. This increased the fine to $1,000 and jail sentence of 6 months for each fugitive you helped.
The Underground Railroad carried a significant risk for all involved, but people undertook the work because of compassion, because they believed owning other people was wrong, and because they saw the humanity of enslaved people.
On Friday, I’ll give a bit of detail on how self-emancipators traveled from southern states to northern states and often up to Canada. Or… would you believe south to Mexico? Yes. It’s true.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder