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By Mrs. Amy Post

Written for William F. Peck's 1884 Semi-Centennial History of Rochester

(appears as Chapter  XLIII, pages 458-462.) Typescript in Local History Division. 

A history of Rochester would hardly be complete without some reference to the wonderful "Underground railroad," which was kept in active operation as long as slavery of the Negro race continued.  The secrecy of its construction, its marvelous origin, the great number of passengers, the amount of freight transported thereon, can never be told.  All its work was done in the dark.  Although it had its depots, stations, passenger agents and conductors in every state in the Union, daylight never shone upon it.  Its stations had no electric lights, and the passengers no guide aside from that blessed light in the heavens known as the North Star.  Ignorant as these people were of book-learning, they all knew where to find the luminary, which they had learned, would lead them to the long-wished-for goal, Canada.  Sad to say, this starry guide was sometimes shrouded by clouds, and they would be obliged to hide in some friendly cave or sickly swamp unless they were so fortunate as to reach some one of those hospitable depots that were scattered all along their devious way.  Owing to these delays, their journeys were long and tedious.  They were obliged to subsist principally upon nuts, roots and such fruit and berries as they chanced to find in the woods; thus, they inevitably reached this end of the journey in a pitiable condition, footsore and weary, half-starved, and faint for want of sustenance appropriate to their needs.  Their backs were generally covered with scars, and frequently with unhealed wounds inflicted by the relentless slave-driver's lash; often, unable to go further, they were obliged to lie by, several days, for rest and recuperation.

These detentions were fearful to both parties.  To them belonged the ever-harrowing dread of being discovered and dragged back to such bondage as none but a slave can describe and dread; to us the terrible consciousness, ever present, that we could never insure them perfect safety, even in our homes, purchased with our own earnings.  After all this, we were liable to the encroachments of the minions of slavery every hour, for the fugitive slave enactments had become the law of our hitherto boasted land of freedom, and to disobey it was to risk our lives, our freedom and our fortunes.  Our houses were sometimes surrounded by hideous yells of madmen, and terrible were the battles fought in the efforts to save the poor fleeing fugitives from the grasp of their alleged masters.  In these cases the masters were always assisted by legal commissioners, and their willing dupes who were too often found in every city.

As we recall the incidents connected with the Underground railroad in Rochester, we cannot but think that history furnishes nothing more replete with deeds of heroic daring than the bold, constant and efficient help rendered to these fleeing fugitives by the colored men and women of this city.  They were always ready to fight for a fugitive slave, and, if they failed to rescue one here, they would form a company of stalwart men and follow the party, spy out where they were stopping for the night, and, generally finding the watchman asleep, they only failed once to return in triumph with their rescued brother or sister.  This failure--as related by Rev. Thomas James of this city, now eighty years of age--was in connection with the very first rendition of a fugitive slave from Rochester, which took place in 1823.  The victim was a woman who had escaped from her owner at Niagara Falls and had been living in this city for some time with her husband, who was a barber here.  The judge before whom the hearing was had, decided that she should be returned to her master. The colored people to the number of fifteen or twenty, gathered at the entrance of the Court House, and, as she was brought out by the sheriff and his assistants, they succeeded in overpowering the officers, got possession of her and carried her some distance before they were overtaken.  In the meantime the officers had received reinforcements and succeeded in getting her into their clutches again.  They then threw her into a wagon, where the officers and a few  other ruffians mounted guard and drove off toward Buffalo.  This was prior to the time of telegraphs and railroads.  The colored men took a conveyance and followed on as fast as possible.  After getting a number of miles they found they were on the wrong track, and, as the officers and their victim had so much the start of them, they were obliged to give up the chase.  The poor woman was carried to Buffalo, put on board a steamboat bound for Cleveland, to be taken from there to Wheeling, West Virginia, where her owner lived.  The thought of being forever separated from her husband and from her baby, nine months old, and the dread of the tortures and terrible punishments she would be subjected to, was too much for her, and she ended the tragedy by cutting her throat, preferring to lie down to rest in death.

The second case of seizure, which occurred in 1832, terminated more fortunately for the slave.  A woman who was almost white was stopping at the Clinton House with her master and mistress, who were here with their family, intending to spend the summer.  In her first attempt to escape she was caught by her master just as she was leaving the hotel.  Her owner, thinking his property not very safe here, packed up immediately and that afternoon started for the East.  As they were obliged to travel by stage they stopped at Palmyra for the night, where the colored men who had followed at a safe distance found them about midnight.  As they attempted to enter the hotel they were fired upon, but they were in such numbers and so well armed, that the occupants fled to the back part of the house, leaving the slave chained to a bed-post in an upper room, where her rescuers found her.  It was but the work of a moment to cut the chain with an ax, and she was immediately hurried to Sodus Point.

One warm and beautiful Sunday morning, three very gentlemanly appearing colored men drove up from the railroad depot to number 36 Sophia Street, in a carriage.  They bore no appearance whatever of being fugitive slaves, so different from any we had ever seen before, in dress, language and deportment.  We quite readily acceded to their strong desire to stay and abide in Rochester, having but little fear of even their nationality being detected; therefore they freely walked the streets and attended church with the colored people.  They soon found employment, which they faithfully and steadily filled.  All went well with them for several months, and all concerned were feeling happy over the experiment, when at an evening session of one of our anti-slavery conventions at Corinthian Hall, it was whispered around among us that a Southern slave-master, claiming that these noble, intelligent men belonged to him, was then in the United States commissioner's office (not exactly in the same building, but within a few feet of it), getting authority to drag them back to unrequited toil.  Think of it, ye lordly men, who either were silent, or voted for this inhuman law, called the"fugitive slave act."  Think, too, of those who bore the persecutions in the form of foul slander against character, bitter denunciations both public and private, and social and religious ostracism.  This was our reward for obeying the dictates of common humanity, "and for remembering those in bonds as bound with them." 

This was not strange, for the church and the clergy, ministers and elders of nearly all religious denominations, had become the abettors and apologists of slavery.

Those in the hall doubly watched, had to avoid the least appearance of fright or anxiety in countenance or movement, but the time for action was at hand--something must be done, and that immediately, for one of the very fugitives was then in the meeting, listening for the first time to the refreshing national language of "every man's right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness."  He seemed to be just realizing this boon of freedom, when Frederick Douglass's tall figure appeared before us.  Stepping into the broad aisle, he beckoned the fugitive to him, speaking something, which no one else heard.  They quietly left the hall, and the present agony was past.   The next day we found they were secreted, separately, though very anxious themselves to be together.  I called to see one of the three nearest us and found him just at the top of a flight of stairs, defying the approach of officers or master, with abundant implements of warfare at his command, and he told me, he would never go back alive.  I told him I hoped he would not take the life of any one, but his freedom so lately found and enjoyed, seemed to outweigh all things besides.  "My old master must not come up those stairs if he wants to live; he is not fit to live, though he is not as cruel as some of them."  The three were brought together on the third day of anxiety.  Disguised by wearing Quaker bonnets and thick veils, and seated on the back seat of a covered carriage, they were quietly driven to a steamer bound for Canada, a haven they at first so much dreaded, now hailing with joy.  They were soon engaged as hack drivers to and from Niagara Falls, but when they last visited us they were going to Australia, hoping for an easier and quicker way of gaining wealth.

Many other stories of narrow escapes might be written; one must suffice.  One Saturday night, after all our household were asleep, there came a tiny tap at the door, and the door was opened to fifteen tired and hungry men and women who were escaping from the land of slavery.  They seemed to know that Canada, their home of rest, was near, and they were impatient, but the opportunity to cross the lake compelled their waiting until Monday early in the morning.  That being settled, and their hunger satisfied, together with a comfortable and refreshing sleep, they became so elated with their nearness to perfect and lasting freedom that they were forgetful of any danger either to us, or to themselves, so that they were obliged to be constantly watched through the day to keep them from popping their heads out of the windows and otherwise showing themselves.  The husband of the eldest woman was a slave, while his wife, and mother of the children, was a free woman, but both sons and daughters had married slaves, so that they were all in danger of being sold or separated.  The mother of the children seemed to be much more intelligent than her husband, who had been obliged to work on his master's plantation some distance away from her home.  She said the South had "all gone mad after the money," and she had a great deal of trouble to keep them from being stolen away and sold into slavery.  For a long time she had not dared to sleep without some white witness in the house, and when she failed to get one she would taken them all and stay on the outside of some white people's house.  No colored person's testimony could be allowed in court, to prove that they were free people, which reduced her to this necessity.  She said she owned quite a large farm, and having three grown-up sons to help her carry it on, she had several horses, cows and pigs to sell, but the white folk would not buy them of her.  If she could have sold them for what they were worth she said they should have had enough to come all the way on the railroad; "but" she said, "I don't care now; they may have them all, I am going where I can work for more, and I have got all my children, and my husband, too, thank the Lord."  The welcome Monday morning came, and after a hearty breakfast, and a lunch for dinner, they left the house, with all the stillness and quietness possible, and we soon saw them on board a Canada steamer, which was already lying at the dock; with them on board, it immediately shoved out into the middle of the stream, hoisted the British flag, and we knew that all was safe; we breathed more freely, but when we saw them standing on deck with uncovered heads, shouting their good-byes, thanks and ejaculations, we could not restrain our tears of thankfulness for their happy escape, mixed with deep shame that our own boasted land of liberty offered no shelter of safety for them.

If is safe to estimate the number of those who found their way to Canada through Rochester, as averaging about one hundred fifty per year, and thus the work went bravely on, with varying success, till the issue between freedom and slavery had to be fairly met by the American people.  The time for compromise was passed.  The South appealed to the sword and was answered with equal firmness and bravery by the North, but it was not until many a fair field was drenched with blood that this government was willing to concede to the colored people their rights.  And now, in looking back through the vista of years to this long and terrible struggle between freedom and slavery, we would raise an enduring monument to those noble souls who risked all that life held dear in defending the downtrodden and helpless against a giant wrong, and, as they look across the dark valley to the bright land beyond, their greatest glory will be that they helped to break the fetters that bound the bodies and souls of their fellowmen.

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