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UGRR and Those Who Operated It

Springfield Union—March 25, 1900

The “Underground Railroad” and those who operated it.–II

Western Massachusetts and Vermont, Authentic Traditions of the Trying Times. Written by Aella Greene for the Sunday Republican

“Fugitives fleeing from slavery at the South and reaching New York and Westchester county were heartened there to resume their journey toward freedom in Canada and then they fared on through the shore towns to New Haven. From thence two routes of the Underground system extended northward across Connecticut, one of them going though Southington and places north of it, and entering Massachusetts at Southwick and Westfield, the other one extending through North Guilford and Meriden to Hartford and Springfield. The two routes came together at Northampton. And at the corners of the triangular section of the Bay state described by these converging lines of the road were kept three principal stations of the system. The agents at these points were true men and brave, and the conductors making trips to and from those stations had both the wisdom and the intrepidity fitting them for the hazardous business in which they were engaged. Faring through Connecticut by either of the two routes, the fugitives found that which had they dared to sing at all would have caused them to sing, “Jordan am a hard road to trabbel, I beliebe.” In every one of the towns on each route there were people of pronounced pro-slavery ideas, people glad to see the slaves sent back to the servitude from which they were fleeing, and some of whom were not adverse to aid in their rendition,–at least not averse to putting the hunters on their track. Risky business, indeed, was it for the fugitives to traverse Connecticut, and hazardous for the agents of the road to do their work.

In one of those Connecticut towns there still lives a matron of pro-slavery notions who was between 30 and 40 years of age when the Underground people were the most active in their work, and she boasts to this day that “she didn’t help the niggers—not she.” Near by the farm on which she then lived and which she still holds as “her own probberty” lived then two men that afterward went to the South and worked plantations with slaves, and “didn’t think niggers wuz fit fur ennythin’ but ter be made ter wuk fer white folks,”—and “she didn’t nuther.” This woman had other neighbors who held similar pro-slavery notions. But let her great age insure her protection from severity of criticism now that slavery is done away; let her and her neighbors and their like be forgiven. Connecticut clock peddlers who went South before the war to vend their wares among the planters, were often so desirous of pleasing those of whom they sought patronage that they did not scan closely the workings of the “peculiar institution.” These peddlers often made a “good spec” at their business and were hospitably entertained by those who bought their time-pieces. So they came back with their original ant-slavery notions modified; or some of these peddlers confessed to a “change of views” on the question. And of these, some were even ready to help catch the runaways.

Another element which enters into the computation of the interest which some Connecticut people took in fostering “the institution” is the fact that the cotton gin, which helped to make slavery profitable, was the invention of Eli Whitney, a Connecticut man. Sometimes, too, young men from that state went to the South and found places as slave-drivers, in which business some of them showed great aptness, and received great pay. Other men from Connecticut went to the South to teach families of the planters. Thus it came about that Connecticut Yankees not only sold the slaveholders clocks and cotton machinery, but also taught their children and tasked and flogged their “niggers.” Connecticut Yankees might be said to have had a selfish interest in slavery at the South, and it would be natural for them to look with disfavor on those whose operations endangered the perpetuity of “the institution.” And there were still others in Connecticut who opposed the operators of the Underground road. They disliked, or pretended to dislike, slavery; but they thought that, “seeing there was a law” against helping fugitive slaves on their way, the law should be obeyed. But the opposition in that state to the business of the Underground road sprang also from the inbred hatred of many of the people of the state for the Negro. This hatred “had come down from former generations.” It had been carefully kept through all the stages of its transmission; it had been fostered with the fondness given a favorite child; it had been guarded as a precious treasure: it had been prized a a sacred jewel. It was in this state that the negro prisoner “Cato” was for a long time kept chained to the cold, damp, rock floor of a noisome cell, below ground—kept there until the fastened leg rotted of or wore off. Records do not mention the exact cause of the sundering of the leg, but it was in the ancient prison in the “Copper Hill” neighborhood, near Simsbury. It was in Connecticut, too, that the “nigger haters” made themselves notorious by a great fuss about

Prudence Crandall’s colored school

On Canterbury Green!

To this school Miss Crandall insisted on admitting the children of Negroes to be taught with the children of white people, and those who hated “niggers” subjected her to many indignities and continued their persecutions until they had her apprehended and jailed for some fancied breach of the law. For this insult and injustice the state Legislature, years afterward, made the tardy atonement of a little pension, which was doled from the public treasury to aid in the support of the veteran, then living at the West, during the few years that remained of her old age.

Yet let not Massachusetts people taunt those of Connecticut. For in the years of the anti-slavery movement Massachusetts men, working in the interest of pro-slavery greed, enacted in Boston and within the sight of Faneuil hall itself, and even within the very walls of that cradle of liberty scenes for which they and their descendants should forever blush. They mobbed anti-slavery speakers and assaulted, arrested and dragged with ropes around the neck those who from human motives befriended the hapless Negro fugitives from slavery. And from the Bay state those fugitives were sent back to the South to be scourged, and to take on their flayed shoulders the burden of bondage. Even in Western Massachusetts, and within the limits of the valley of the Connecticut, there exist to this day traces of the cruelties endured by Negroes held in slavery. Up in Colrain, the town settled by those Scots, the McClellans, Taggarts and others of Caledonian nativity as well authenticated as theirs, the farms were once worked by slaves. And until recent years there was a tree standing on one of the heights of that town—if it does not there remain to this day—to which these Negro slaves were tied to be whipped into tractability.

Nor let the people of the small but smart “state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” too much boast in the presence of Connecticut people. Let them not too much boast in that presence, even when they think of their own Plenty streets, Peace streets and “Christian hill” neighborhoods, and think of the reasons for honest pride, which their political history and their ecclesiastical history give them. Let them not too much boast, for some of the financial foundations of fashionable society in their world-famed Newport rest to this day on fortunes amassed, or, at least begun, in the slave trade. The gatherers of those Newport fortunes, did not, indeed, make their money by working Negroes as slaves in the rice fields and cotton fields of the South, nor by selling slave holders clocks or cotton machinery, or by teaching their children or whipping their slaves. But they were as guilty of the “robbery and ruin” of others as were the planters who grew rich by the compelled and unpaid toil of the blacks. For they bought those blacks and brought them to the marts at the South and sold them to the planters,–bought them of those who had kidnapped them from their native wilds, and, in the noisome holds of slave ships brought them to taste the experiences of lives of bondage—slavery that was to extend to their children and children’s children forever.

Nor let New Hampshire people boast too loudly, they too, were responsible in some degree for the sway which the slave power gained in the nation. True, from that state came Horace Greeley with his pen that was so might in the cause of freedom—from that state came that prophet statesman John P. Hale, with the warning cry that was prediction fo the bloody struggle of the civil war, “I tremble for my country, when I remember that God is just.” In New Hampshire there were many in the walks of private life who did much or the anti-slavery cause. Mrs. Charles Horne of Great Falls, a worthy matron with a numerous family of children found time to help the fugitive slaves on their way; and many were the sable pilgrims whose dusky faces lighted up with hope as she fed them at her door or admitted them to the cheer of the hearth of her house. And there were others in other towns of the state who aided the pilgrims toward freedom—others doing like deeds of kindness, others all the way from Cheshire county to “away up in Coos,” where the Aldriches, Inghams, Rays and their neighbors were noted for their hospitality to the friendless. Yet the people of the Granite state admit that there is justice in this severity of Emerson:–

The God who made New Hampshire

Taunted the lofty land

With little men!

For the state of Daniel Webster, John P. Hale, Salmon P. Chase, Horace Greeley and Charles A. Dana was also the state of “poor Pierce.”

The Connecticut agents of the underground road were “heart and soul” in the business; and, generally speaking, they were as sagacious as they were earnest. One of these was Rev. Zolva Whitmore of North Guilford, for a quarter of a century minister of the Congregational church. In his work for the runaways he was aided by the Bartletts and others of his parishioners. Those still living remember that one Sunday evening he helped a darkey on his way to the next station, carrying him concealed in a load of hay, on a farm wagon. The Whitmores and their anti-slavery friends were strict observers of the Sabbath. But they doubtless thought that aiding a fugitive slave on his way toward freedom was one of the “acts of necessity and mercy” that were allowed even by the most Puritanical of Sabbatarians. One of the minister’s daughters asked her mother, “What is papa going off with the load of hay Sunday night for?” And the answer was, “Daughter, please don’t ask any questions.” The girl when grown was informed of the meaning of this Sunday evening hay carting. Some of his parishioners were opposed to his course in this cause, and finally made things so unpleasant for him that, after 25 years of faithful work as a pastor and as a preacher of the gospel and of that righteousness that includes justice for all, he resigned his pastorate and sought for a field, elsewhere. This he found in Massachusetts, where he labored for scor of years, dying at a good old age esteemed by all who knew him ad respected there and by his anti-slavery friends in Connecticut for what he did for the oppressed.

On their way north from North Guilford the fugitives soon reached Meriden, where they found food and harbor at the farmhouse of Levi Yale. He was a man of very pronounced views against slavery, and one who had the courage of his convictions. There were a few others in the town who disliked slavery, and two of them voted with him the Liberty party ticket for president. These men were a Mr. Isbell and one of the many Curtisses in the town. The two were manufacturers, and their shop in the west part of Meriden was burned by incendiaries, incited thereto by the pro-slavery men. All sorts of opprobrium was heaped on Mr.Yale for his aid to the runaways—ridicule given by those whose children would hardly like to read it, printed now in conjunction with the names of their fathers. The route northward from Meriden was intersected by branches of the road coming from New London, New Bedford and Providence. And what with the passengers they had brought from New Haven and North Guilford and these relays coming in from the other directions, the Underground trains went heavily loaded from Hartford to Springfield.

There were several agents of the Springfield Underground station, and they were of widely differing church preferences, while some had no church belongings whatever. Yet, in spite of their variety of opinion on creeds they all worked harmoniously in the cause of freedom. One agent was Rev. Dr. Samuel Osgood, the orthodox minister of the First church; associated with him in the Underground business were Methodist brethren, whose Arminianism he rejected, while another helper in the anti-slavery cause was a free-thinker, and still another a Spiritualist. But in the anti-slavery cause unbelievers and believers, Calvinists and Arminians “saw eye to eye” and worked “hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder.”

Dr. Jefferson Church was one of the agnostics, who, differing with the sturdy divine of the First church on theologic matters, coincided with his anti-slavery views, and cordially entered into the work of aiding the fugitives that came to Springfield. Rufus Elmer, the Spiritualist was active in the same work. So was Thomas Thomas, a colored man, who was a personal friend of John Brown, who used to buy and sell wool in this city, as has been so often told. An anti-slavery man known here was Rev. Josiah Henson, the colored preacher, who, as far as some of the features of the hero of Mrs. Stowe’s great story were concerned, was the original who sat for the portrait of “Uncle Tom.” Mr. Henson came to Springfield to lecture and get money to aid him in building the village of Dawn in Canada, for runaway slaves. He had been a slave in Virginia, where the son of his master broke his shoulder by striking him with a fence rail. The fractured bone was bunglingly set, and Henson was lame in both arms ever after. He was a man of practical sense and of ready wit. Some matter-of-fact man, who delighted to annoy people, thought to nonplus Henson by saying: “Look a-here, Mr. Henson, the man Uncle Tom in the story died. Now here you, who pretend to be the real Uncle Tom, are around alive—how can that be?” “Why,” replied Henson, “I believe in the resurrection!” Mr. Henson was entertained during his visit by Lewis H. Taylor, who was one of the Methodists who took a hand in the Underground business.

The Boanerges of the denomination in this region was Rev. Jonathan D. Bridge, once pastor of the old Pynchon street church. He was not a man of leonine proportions but, small of stature though he was, he had a voice of which a giant might well boast. Though a man of gentle disposition and kindly ways, he had a hearty hatred of oppression; and the intensity of his ardent nature glowed in the fire of face and vibrated in the accents of his powerful voice as he denounced the sins of the slaveholders. And he dared not only to speak as he thought, but to act as he thought. So pronounced were his anti-slavery opinions that it was feared he would leave the Methodists with Rev. Orange Scott, leader of the “Scottites.” But Mr. Bridge chose to remain in his own denomination and do his work there. He was so exemplary in his life that no one could say aught against him. His “gifts, grace and usefulness” were acknowledged by all; and even those who did not relish his radical anti-slavery views were compelled to respect him for his pulpit talents and for his goodness as a man. For vigor of denunciation of the sin of slave-holding there were few in the country who could equal Mr. Bridge. And his words were seconded by his acts. His son, M. Wells Bridge of this city distinctly remembers that Negroes on their way to Canada called at his father’s house, and he as a boy was sent to secure lodgings for them in the homes of some of the parishioners who sympathized with their pastor in his wish to aid the runaways. Other Methodist preachers stationed at Pynchon street were eloquent in their denunciation of slavery. One of these was Rev. Fales H. Newhall, father of the present principal of Wilbraham academy. Very earnest here in his utterances against slavery, he increased in his intensity when he went from Springfield; and in Boston, where he preached when John Brown was hanged, he pronounced a eulogy on the martyr, for which address and for other utterances he got better abuse from southern newspapers.

Rev. Mark Trafton, who as a member of Congress had seen the arrogance of the pro-slavery champions in the House at Washington, was not sparing in criticisms of the “sum of all villainies.” Neither was Rev. Justin S. Barrows. He was preacher in charge at Pynchon street when the civil war began; and he distinctly remembers that another Springfield minister had said so much against the idea of maintaining the national government against attacks of the pro-slavery rebels that he thought it necessary to have his house guarded to protect it from the ire of those he had incensed. Before coming to Springfield Mr. Barrows preached in the eastern part of the state, where he had not only spoken for the black man’s cause, but had personally done work for the Underground railroad. One of the fugitives whom he aided was sent to him by William Lloyd Garrison. The Negro, when after knocking at the parsonage door, had been bidden by the minister to enter, still remained outside, where he said: “I am a fugitive slave—you may not want me here. This note” (it was unsigned) “is from Mr. Garrison.” Mr. Barrows insisted that the man come in. So he entered the parsonage. Mrs. Barrows made ready a dinner, and the pilgrim ate it. Then the minister went out and called on two of his parishioners, who gave him money to aid the man on his journey. There were other blacks whom Mr. and Mrs. Barrows and the abolitionists of their congregations aided. One of them had talent as a speaker and, as Mr. Barrows remembers, spoke to an audience with such power and so much self-respect that some of the hearers who came to scoff at a “nigger orator,” remained to listen and to applaud. No mention of the Underground people of this city is complete that does not include the name of that quiet good man, John M. Wood, who used to be employed by the Merriams and who was one of the most esteemed of the old-time Odd Fellows of Springfield.

The Underground station here, had the reputation of doing such a large business that it was much in the thought of the officers who were charged with the execution of the laws which forbade helping the runaways. Some of those officers seemed to like to aid in the capture of the fugitives and in bringing to punishment those who helped the farers on their way. If these officers had feelings of humanity that might have been touched at thought of the pilgrims, being sent back to servitude, they held those feelings in abeyance. What was it to them that there was a fugitive slave law? Such a law there was, and it must be executed, though the heavens fell—or a “nigger” died! But there were officers who held other ideas of the meaning of the fugitive slave law, or who had a lower estimate of its importance, and who, it may be, thought at times that the law was unjust. Perhaps, too, they had friends who stood high socially and in the business world, and who held anti-slavery opinions, friends to whose views they thought it was well to make, if possible, some concessions. And perchance, too, these officers had a great liking for playing a practical joke, such, for instance, as outwitting the slave hunters while pretending to be eager to aid them. And it may be that these officers saw, at times, that there must come a day in the history of the country when slavery would be done away and when the aggressions of the slave power would be denounced by all and when those who had aided the slave power would be derided, and their names become a hissing and a byword among men. Be the actuating motives what they were, there were some of the officers charged with the execution of the fugitive slave law who not only showed a strange lukewarmness in the work of their mission, but who seemed to wink at the infractions of the law, if not to assist those who defied it.

One of these officers was Isaac O. Barnes of Boston, United States marshal for Massachusetts. He disliked the law and did not a little to nullify its effect. Being a government officer, he was bound to carry out the provisions of the law, and if he found runaway slaves, apprehend them and take them before a magistrate, to be remanded by him back to slavery. So the point with Marshal Barnes was to fail to find the fugitive! Those from whom slaves escaped were naturally quick to notify the authorities of the exodus. And if the runaways were likely to pass through Mr. Barnes territory the earlier he was informed of their escape from the South, the better chance, so thought the masters, there would be for their capture and return. But the earlier he was informed of their escape from the South the better their chance to get beyond his reach. If he thought they would be likely to come through Springfield on their way northward, he at once betook himself hither. Of course, he came furnished with precepts for apprehending them. On arriving he at once called on the Underground people, giving them a description of the fugitives whom he sought, and winding up his errand with, “Now, if any such runaways come along here, you tell them to make tracks, for I shall have to arrest them if I find them here when I come again.” He then went elsewhere on his quest, and when he returned he found that the blacks had come, and that being told his warning, they had concluded to act on his advice, and had journeyed on, one of them remarking as they went, “Right smart curis ossifer am dat ar Mass’r Barnes—hey Sambo!” And the response was “Fo shuah, Mose, dat Mass’r Barnes! Pears like he play possum wid de slave ossifers—pears like he am one of de abolitioners, fo shuah, Mose.”

Munching a luncheon furnished by Dr. Osgood, the darkeys kept on their way to Chicopee Street, where there were abolitionists of the ‘true blue” sort. One of these was the titanic Titus Chapin, whose will power was equal to his large size, whose sense of justice made him an intense hater of slavery and the sympathies of whose great heart enlisted the whole man in the cause of the fleeing bondmen. Mr. Chapin will be remembered by the older residents of Chicopee as having a farm on the east side of the Street, with a house a few rods north of the old church; and they will remember him as a constable whose agility made him the dread of evil-doers. On his farm he raised, besides his main crop of corn and potatoes, a lot of garden stuff, which he marketed at Cabotville. He was occasionally called to quell rows among the unassimilated population of that new mill village, and those who saw him walking fearlessly through the throngs of irate roughs and fetching forth the ringleaders to be locked up and on the morrow fined, will readily second the statement that the slave-hunter who should have attempted to capture from Constable Chapin a Negro whom he was protecting would have found the stalwart officer “a foeman worthy of his [stock?].” At his farmhouse Mose and Sambo call, Marshal Barnes has just stopped to “leave word: similar to that which he “gave out” to the Springfield Underground men, and has gone up to Willimansett to repeat his warning to Otis Skeele. Chapin takes the farers in and tells them Barnes’s injunction. Then, leading the way to a chamber, he bids them remain there saying, “Mind that you keep still, for if Mr. Barnes knew you were here he would have to arrest you.”

“Yes, sah, Mas’r Chapin,” says Mose “we’ll keep still as death fo’ shuah.” And soon Officer Barnes, returning from Skeele’s halts at Chapin’s and charges him, “Now be sure and remember my request about those runaways—tell them to make tracks for I shall surely arrest them if I catch them.”

“Yes, Mr. Marshall, “responds Chapin I’ll do the errand, surely.”

And when the officer has gone, the farmer climbs upstairs again and tells Mose and Sambo what Barnes has again said and Sambo replies, “Yes, Mas’r Chapin, dat am what he tole down dar to de Springfield abolitioners, fo’ shuah; and ‘pears like he abolitioner heself, fo’ shuah.”

“All right, Sambo; you and your friend keep quiet here for to-day, and I’ll start off early with you to-morrow morning for the North.”

Before the break of day and even before the “airly” time for starting with his load of truck for Cabotville, Mr. Chapin is up and has his span hitched to a business wagon and is soon driving north with Mose and Sambo. Crossing the river at the South Holyoke ferry, he drives on through the “New city,” as Holyoke was then called, and leaves the fugitives on the Smiths Ferry road. Giving them “bread and cheese” enough for the day and handing each a silver half-dollar, he instructs them to keep in the woods and pasture of the foothills of Mt. Tom and Mt. Nonotuck till near night, planning their jaunt so as to reach King street, Northampton, “in the edge of the evening.” Then, with definite directions as to what part of the town to enter to find King street with the least inquiry possible, and to find there the house of Payson Williston without any inquiry at all, Mr. Chapin tells the blacks, “Now friends, lookout for yourselves, and don’t let any one stop you on your way. When you get to Mr. Williston’s you’re safe against all the slave hunters ‘pon arith. Good-by.”

“Good-by, Massa Chapin—de Lor’ bress yer, seven times ober!”

And the farmer “cramps and backs and turns” his team around, and, saying “Git up,” is soon out of sight of the friendless ones whom he has befriended and who, as he afterward learns by a letter from Mr. Williston received at the Cabotville post office, duly reached his harbor of safety, and were kept, fed and sent on their way under trusty escort, to the next station. On his way home Mr. Chapin is met at the gateway of a farmer of pro-slavery sympathies, who demands: “Didn’t I see you go’long here before light a-carryin a couple o’ niggers?”

“Yes, I did—and what if I did?” replies the stalwart man. Then springing from the wagon seat, he walks up to the interlocuter and lying a hand on a shoulder of the man declares: “And if you, or any o’ your kind, have anything to say against my driving along this ere road or any other road that runs north, an’ carryin’ one negro or two or any number on ‘em, now’s your time to speak. But, mark my work, it’ll be risky business to interfere.”

Another crushing pressure of Chapin’s hand on the shoulder ot the questioner gives him convincing proof of his neighbor’s ability to “back up his bragging.” Still further evidence in this line the interrogator hears in the ringing smack of a monster whip that, handling as easily as if it was a willow stick, Chapin, who has climbed to his wagon seat, swings briskly in the air, taking care that it does not hit his horses. And, at his “Git up,” they trot off homeward.

On reaching his place, Mr. Chapin finds that his “hired man” has the load of garden truck ready for him. Giving his team a few minutes in which to rest, the gardener hitches them to the load and walks them into Cabotville, and, to give them as little to draw as possible, trudges along the way himself, instead of riding, as some would have done. The man whose humane heart prompts him to help his brother man in need is just the one to be kind to dumb animals. Mr. Chapin is a little late in distributing supplies to his customers, and to one who, as he has learned, is a pronounced anti-slavery man, he tells the cause of his tardiness, and receives in reply the compliment: “Good for you, Mr. Chapin; if that’s the reason, I’d wait a day or a week, much as I like your truck.”

Mr. Chapin and his neighbors, A. G. Parker and Otis Skeele, voted the Liberty party ticket for president. And there was still another abolitionist at Chicopee Street. This was Rev. E. B. Clark, pastor of the old church in those days. Mr. Skeele was “a power” in the anti-slavery cause. He fed the runaways at his house, and sheltered them in his barn, in which they were so safely stowed away that it would have puzzled the shrewdest hunter to have found them. Pastor Clark once kept a runaway for several weeks. This Negro, whose name was “Henry,” thinking his master had given up searching for him, came from his hiding at the parsonage and went to Springfield, where he sought and found work as waiter at a hotel—it is thought at “Uncle Jerry” Warriner’s. There, one day as he came into the dining-room, bringing an order for a guest, he saw his master seated at one of the tables. Quickly setting down his tray, Henry made his exit and nothing was heard of him for a long time. Finally his master, finding his attempts to capture his man unsuccessful gave up all search for him. Henry came to light at New Haven, where he lived for years and where he married a free colored woman. There were at Chicopee Street other abolitionists than those above mentioned.