Windham Life and Times

The Underground Railroad by Charles T. Webber 1893   

Black History in New England

The Abolitionists | Anti-Slavery Societies | Underground Railroad.

     Quakers, protestant clergyman, individual abolitionists, and free blacks all worked together and provided assistance and support to the African-Americans traveling on the Underground Railroad from the South, through New England and into Canada. They defied and broke the laws of the federal government, which supported the institution of slavery, in order to assist the self-emancipated blacks. Opinion was divided in New England and many parishes broke apart over disagreements over slavery.  The federal government and its power and reach supported the southern slave owners in working to capture and return escaped slaves. In fact, the federal government and the powerful elites who supported slavery, worked to clamp down on freedom of speech by maligning and arresting those people in the United States who were advocating for the end of slavery. You see, at the time, cotton was the biggest export of the United States, closely followed by sugar and tobacco. All were run with slave labor and produced huge profits for the planters and the government.

Underground Railroad in New England – Courtesy New England Antiquarian Society

     Wilbur Siebert, in his book about the Underground Railroad in Massachusetts says, “Anti-Slavery Societies were being formed throughout Massachusetts one hundred and eighteen towns and cities having one or more of them by the year 1837.” Windham formed its Anti-Slavery society in April 8, 1834. Morrison says, “William Lloyd Garrison, the apostle of this crusade, started a paper called the Liberator Jan, 1, 1831 and advocated immediate and unconditional emancipation of the slaves in the country. He gave his first talk in Boston MA., at the Park Street Church, July 4, 1829. It caused intense excitement. ‘Benjamin Chase the historian of Chester said, ‘Ecclesiastical bodies passed resolutions denouncing abolition and, and religious newspapers and theological quarterlies published long and labored articles defending slavery from the bible.’ George Thompson, the celebrated English champion of human rights, was mobbed in Concord, N.H., Oct. 21, 1835, and about five thousand gentlemen of wealth and influence turned out in a mob and quelled a meeting of the Female Antislavery Society in Boston. Politicians and clergymen vied with each other in their devotion to slavery, and in an effort to squelch the emancipation movement.”

   Morrison continues, “An American Anti-Slavery Society was formed, ‘The Liberator’ found its way to Windham, and Deacon Jonathan Cochran and others were its readers before 1834. They became convinced of the monstrous wickedness of human slavery, and never ceased their opposition to the same…” The Anti-Slavery Society was founded in Windham on the early date of April 8, 1834, which was an auxiliary to the National Anti-Slavery Society. The object of the society was, “by all means sanctioned by law, humanity and religion, to effect the abolution of slavery in the United States…”

   One interesting account of how the self-emancipated were transported is told about Israel How Brown, who…”had a market wagon, with high sides and a false bottom on which he placed straw for his passengers. The wagon was then filled with garden produce for the Fitchburg market. He started on his trip of twenty-three miles at three o’clock in the a.m., and was only once delayed by officers of the law. They discovered nothing however, for they did not require him to unload. Mr. Brown is credited with having transported more than a hundred refugees.”

     The Underground Railroad had five major routes out of Massachusetts. One route out of Boston, went to Medford, “where their were friends of the runaway. Thence it extended to Woburn and finally crossed the Merrimac east of Lowell to Dracut or ‘Black North…’”  Black North was a settlement of African-Americans in Dracut MA., “not far from the New Hampshire boundary.” “A large community of emancipated slaves of wealthy landowners settled here early in the eighteenth century. According to Fred Coburn, the historian of Chelmsford and Lowell, this settlement afforded shelter to the escaped slaves who passed that way. Their next stops were at Pelham and Windham, both in New Hampshire, the former being but four miles north of Dracut and the latter an equal distance farther on.” Another branch ran from Woburn to Reading, northeastward, which was on the main line to Andover, South Lawrence, and across to North Salem, New Hampshire.”

     “Straight up the ‘pike’ two miles north of Andover Hill was the thriving manufacturing center of Frye Village, now Shawsheen Model Village of the American Woolen Company. There William Poor and his sons had a flourishing wagon factory, Elijah Hussey, a sawmill, and William C. Donald an ink factory. Being pronounced abolitionists, these men had separated from South Church and organized the Free Christian Church in 1846. The Donalds, Poors, Fryes, John Dover and John and Peter Smith—all members of the new church—contributed generously to the fund for fugitive slaves. William C. Donald, Elijah Hussey, Joseph W, Poor, and perhaps others could be counted on to speed the black wayfarers on their journey. When Mr. Poor heard a gentle rap on his door or other subdued sign in the night, he dressed quickly, went out, harnessed his mare Nellie into a covered wagon and started out…” with his African-American passengers, most probably headed for North Salem, New Hampshire. “On the top of a hill at that place were several large excavations, lined and covered with slabs of stone, which had furnished retreat for the neighboring inhabitants when the Indians were on the war path, but which now afforded refuge to fugitive slaves. Mr. Poor was always back in time for breakfast.”

    So which Windham resident or residents sheltered self-emancipated slaves? The most like candidates are one or all of the following: Rev. Calvin Cutler, Jerimiah Morrison, Deacon David Campbell, and Deacon Jonathan Cochran, whom Morrison says, “those who were the most active leaders in the movement.” Among the Anti-Slavery Society members in Windham besides those mentioned above, were Rev. Samuel Harris, Deacon Jacob Harris, Deacon Theodore Dinsmoor, Deacon Samuel Anderson, Giles Merrill, Dr. Daniel L Simpson, David Campbell, 2d, John Hills, J.A. Burnham, Stephen Fessenden, and many others.” 

   The emancipated slaves might have stayed in New England were it not for the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1851. The numbers of runaways remained in New England in comparative peace and contentment until the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 sent them in a mad rush to Canada.” “runaways were being brought into New Bedford at least as early as 1819…” By 1851 the African-American inhabitants of New Bedford numbered between six and seven hundred.

    “Rev. Hiram K. Wilson, a Worcester man, went to the region of Ontario on the east side of Detroit River as a missionary among the fugitive slaves, and in the winter of 1856 took a census of them, He reported their number at 35,000. By 1860 it was reported their number had increased by 10,000, which was probably too low an estimate.” “Those aiding fugitives were also liable to prosecution and heavy penalties…The Anti-Slavery enterprise from south to the North, of the slave population continued to pour in a swelling flood, in spite of the masters. The love of freedom proved to be stronger than the fear of death, and ‘dangers in the most frightful shapes’ had been dared to achieve liberty. This was one of the triumphs of the Abolitionists…”

Next week, A fiery anti-slavery sermon and impassioned Defense of the cherished American civil right of freedom of speech.

The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts

The Underground Railroad from Freedom to Slavery- William H. Siebert

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