The Ross Homestead is on both the National Register of Historic Places and the National Park Services Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. (http://home.nps.gov/ugrr/TEMPLATE/FrontEnd/index.cfm).
As the first offering we are posting the National Register of Historic Place nomination for the Basil Dorsey/Thomas H. Jones House at 191 Nonotuck Street. The house was placed on the Register in 2004. The historical part of the application was written by Kathryn Grover, author of The Fugitive’s Gibralter: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Neil Larson of Larson Fisher Associates (http://www.larsonfisher.com/) wrote the architectural piece.
National Register Nomination
Basil Dorsey / Thomas H. Jones House
The Basil Dorsey / Thomas H. Jones House in the Florence section of Northampton, Massachusetts, was the home of two fugitives from American slavery. The escapes of both are fully documented and were also well known in their own time. While in national terms Jones was by far the more prominent in abolitionist circles, Dorsey affiliated himself in Florence with the founders of a utopian community that opposed the slave system in word and deed and both sheltered and otherwise assisted fugitives from that system.
After the community dissolved in 1846, Dorsey bought land from one of its founders and had this vernacular Greek Revival-style house built upon it. After selling the house in 1852, he remained in Florence for the rest of his life. Two years later, the wife of fugitive orator and Methodist minister Thomas H. Jones bought the house for their family while he continued on the abolitionist lecture circuit; the family remained there until 1859. No other property associated with Jones is known to survive [still checking this in Salem and Worcester].
The escape of Basil Dorsey (ca. 1810-72) from Maryland into Pennsylvania was unassisted, but Robert Purvis, one of the most prominent black abolitionists in the United States, helped him on his journey north. Purvis credited Joshua Leavitt, the western Massachusetts native who edited the abolitionist newspaper The Emancipator, with managing Dorsey’s move to Massachusetts. It seems highly probable that David Ruggles, the African American journalist and fugitive assistant who lived in Florence by 1842, also aided in Dorsey’s flight from bondage.
Dorsey himself left no direct account of his escape, and those narratives that exist differ in important respects. The account of Purvis, involved with Dorsey from the moment his presence in Pennsylvania became known, found its way into print at least twice, once in 1883 and again in 1898. These too differ: the former, recorded in a letter to historian R. C. Smedley, appears to be somewhat more reliable. With three of his brothers, Dorsey escaped from the district of Liberty in Frederick County, Maryland, on the Pennsylvania border, in the summer of 1836. Accounts of the brothers’ origins vary, but it appears that once promised and then denied their freedom they chose to escape. At that time, enslaved persons were an increasing minority of the population of Liberty and Frederick County at large. As the county and the rest of northern Maryland focused on growing wheat and corn—which, unlike tobacco cultivation, did not require full-time labor—the population of free people of color rose swiftly. Between 1790 and 1850 the number of free blacks in Frederick County rose from 213 to 3,760 persons, or 1665 percent; over that time the number of enslaved persons increased from 3,641 to 3,913, or only 7.5 percent. In Liberty by 1850, only 376, or 34 percent, of 1,103 black residents remained enslaved. In light of these changing demographic circumstances the Dorseys must have regarded the broken promise as especially staggering.
In 1867, safely settled in Florence, Dorsey himself may have told the nearby Springfield (Massachusetts) Hampshire Gazette that he traveled at night from Liberty to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, then eastward to Harrisburg, and further east to Reading. “He found employment in Bristol, Penn.,” the newspaper wrote. Purvis stated that between Reading and Bristol, however, the brothers went to Philadelphia, where they added the Christian names Basil, Thomas, Charles, and William to their existing Dorsey surname. Their presence there was brought to his attention. Purvis brought all but Thomas Dorsey to his farm at Bristol in Bucks County, found nearby farms on which Charles and William could work, and himself employed Basil. Basil’s wife Louisa, who was free, arranged with her brother-in-law to come to Philadelphia in August, and then came on to Bristol.
Dorsey’s situation soon became known in the abolitionist community when Louisa Dorsey’s brother-in-law betrayed him to Saulers in Maryland, whereupon Saulers, several associates, and a local constable seized him while he was plowing in one of Purvis’s fields and jailed him in Bristol. Purvis followed upon learning of the seizure, arranged counsel both locally and in Philadelphia, helped Charles and William Dorsey escape their pursuers, and rallied the local African American community to be present at Basil Dorsey’s upcoming trial and assist in “liberating him” should the court decide to return him to slavery. Just before the trial, when friends offered to purchase his manumission, Dorsey refused; “if the decision goes against me,” Purvis quoted him to have said, “I will cut my throat in the Court House, I will not go back to slavery.” On the grounds that the plaintiff’s evidence that slavery was the law of Maryland was not an authoritative compilation of state law, Dorsey’s counsel won a dismissal of the case, and Purvis drove Dorsey to his mother’s house in Philadelphia. “I afterwards accompanied him to New York, and placed him in the hands of Joshua Leavett, the editor of The Emancipator, who sent him to Connecticut to find employment on his father’s farm.”
Purvis erred slightly in one particular: Leavitt’s father’s farm was in Franklin County, Massachusetts, in the northwestern uplands of the state. Leavitt (1794-1873) had been born on his grandfather’s farm in Heath and graduated from Yale in 1814. Though trained as a lawyer, he returned to Yale to the divinity school, from which he graduated in 1825, and in 1831, the same year William Lloyd Garrison founded the Liberator, Leavitt became editor of the Evangelist. An early opponent of slavery, he helped form the New York Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. With such men as Elizur Wright and the brothers Arthur and Lewis Tappan—born in nearby Northampton in 1786 and 1788, respectively—Leavitt was also a leader in the American Anti-Slavery Society, founded the same year.
Leavitt had experienced antiabolitionist hostility firsthand on two occasions about the same time. In July 1834, a New York City mob destroyed black homes and churches and the home of Lewis Tappan; it is said that Leavitt’s home was threatened as well. In October 1835, Leavitt and his brothers Roger Hooker and Hart Leavitt attended a state convention in Utica, New York, sponsored by the Utica Anti-Slavery Society, that was similarly marred by antiabolitionist violence. These events helped Leavitt convert his father Roger (1771-1840) and mother Chloe Maxwell Leavitt completely to abolitionism. In 1837 Joshua Leavitt became editor of The Emancipator, an abolitionist newspaper based in New York, his brother Roger Hooker Leavitt (1805-85) became president of the Franklin County Anti-Slavery Society in 1836 and vice-president of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in 1838 and 1839, and his father—who by 1840 had moved from Heath just southeast to neighboring Charlemont, where his sons lived—agreed in that year to run for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts on the ticket of the Liberty party, the new national antislavery party that his son Joshua had had a hand in forming.
About the same time that Dorsey was sent to Charlemont, other fugitives were assisted to that place. A native of Westhampton, Massachusetts, then living in Northampton, Unitarian minister and author Sylvester Judd (1813-53) wrote in his notebook, “June 1, 1838. Bought pair of second hand pantaloons—gave $2.25. Gave 50 cents to aid in transporting runaway slaves to Charlemont.” James Crafts, born in Whately (north of Northampton on the xxxxx River) in 1817, recalled Charlemont as a stop on at least one fugitive’s passage north. In 1896 he told Underground Railroad memorialist Wilbur Siebert that Osee Monson of his town “was always credited with the honor of being the leader in assisting the poor black men to escape” and recalled a specific instance of Monson having “just returned from a trip to Charlemont where he had conveyed a black man who had been at his house.” Two persons, though both young at the time, attested the Leavitt family’s role in fugitive assistance. In 1895, Roger Leavitt’s granddaughter told Siebert that Leavitt was “a whole souled Abolitionist, & did all he could to help the slaves to freedom” though she averred that she could provide no specific details of his assistance—not surprising in view of the fact that she was born about 1833 and her grandfather died in 1840. In an undated letter to the Ashfield Historical Society, Caroline Blake, the daughter of George Abell of Goshen (on the Mill River diagonally between Northampton at the southeast and Charlemont on the northwest), wrote, “The fugitive slaves were cared for in our home and helped on their way. I was too young to remember all about what happened but it was always understood that a resting place was at Mr. [Hosea] Blake’s and Mr. Leavit’s. This was carried on with the greatest secrecy, because of the personal danger, not only to the slave but also to those who harbored them.” Caroline Abell Blake was nineteen years old in 1850 and living then in her father’s Goshen home.
Dorsey’s presence in Charlemont is corroborated in other sources. Charlemont records list the birth in that town of Charles Robert Dorsey to Basil and Louisa Dorsey on 29 August 1838. They also list the names and dates of birth of two of the couple’s children born in Maryland and then living there—Eliza, born 3 November 1834, and John Richard, born 18 May 1836. If the Hampshire Gazette’s record of Dorsey’s date of escape is correct, Dorsey left Maryland four days before his son John was born. Charlemont vital statistics also record the death of Louisa Dorsey scarcely two months after the birth of Charles, on 7 November 1838. Joshua Leavitt may have sent Dorsey to his father’s Charlemont home, as Purvis recalled, but he probably worked, if not lived, on Roger Hart Leavitt’s adjacent farm. About two weeks after Louisa Dorsey died, Joshua Leavitt wrote to his brother, “I feel for Mr. Dorsey in his bereavement and trust that you will do all that Christian benevolence requires in his care.” No record so far known indicates in which home the Dorsey family lived in Charlemont, and though they remained in Charlemont until 1844 the 1840 census records no people of color in either the Roger or Roger Hart Leavitt households. That he was in Charlemont in 1839 is indicated by the accounts of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, which list “B. Dorsey 50c” under contributions from Charlemont that year.
Purvis’s accounts do not offer specific details on the Dorsey family’s route to Charlemont, but the Hampshire Gazette in 1867 stated that he came first to Northampton to the home of Haynes K. Starkweather on South Street; it seems probable that Joshua Leavitt had directed him there. Leavitt had been admitted to the bar in Northampton and had married a woman from that town; no doubt he had numerous connections there, not the least of whom were the Tappans. Starkweather took the Dorseys straightaway to the home of Captain Samuel Parsons—“whose heart,” the Gazette wrote, “always beat in sympathy with the fugitive”—and after a “a day or two” there Parsons took the family by wagon from Northampton to the Charlemont home of Roger Hooker Leavitt. The newspaper stated that Basil Dorsey lived there with his three children “about five years,” his wife having died there, and in January 1844 he moved to Florence.
That David Ruggles may have collaborated with Leavitt in Dorsey’s escape seems likely. The Gazette stated that Dorsey had met Ruggles in New York City, and that Ruggles and Leavitt knew each other is clear: Ruggles had been a subscription agent for the Emancipator since 1833 and a correspondent since 1834. Dorsey must have come along the Connecticut Valley to Northampton. It is also known that Ruggles had used this route to move other fugitive northward at this time. In the fall of 1838 James Lindsay Smith of Northumberland County, Virginia, escaped with two friends by sailboat and then on foot to New Castle, Delaware, and then on to Philadelphia. Assistants there sent him “with a letter directed to David Ruggles” of the New York Vigilance Committee, and Ruggles in turn sent Smith off with “two letters, one to a Mr. Foster, in Hartford; and the other to Doctor Osgood, in Springfield.” Smith took a steamboat to Hartford and another to Springfield, where he found his way to the home of Samuel Osgood, pastor of Springfield’s First Congregational Church. By 1842 he moved to Norwich, Connecticut, David Ruggles’s native place, where he lived the rest of his life. Probably in 1839 or 1840, William Green, a fugitive from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, was taken aboard a vessel by a willing captain to Philadelphia, sent on to New York where he stayed at a boardinghouse until constables came looking for him, and then was somehow helped to escape from that place to the home of Ruggles, who sent him on the same route to Osgood’s Springfield home. When Green published a narrative of his life in 1853, he was still living in Springfield.1
Where the Dorsey family lived in Northampton between 1844 and 1849 is not yet known. That he purchased goods from the store of the Northampton Association of Education and Industry (NAEI) between 1843 and 1847 is known from its account books,1 and it is at least possible that he lived with one of the NAEI’s founders, George W. Benson Jr. Benson was the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison and son of one of the founders of the 1789 Providence (Rhode Island) Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.1 In 1841 he had moved to the Lonetown (by 1852 renamed Florence) section of Northampton from Brooklyn, Connecticut, and with associates had purchased the assets of the Northampton Silk Company, which New York capitalist Samuel Whitmarsh had begun in Northampton in 1829; Whitmarsh had moved the company to Broughton’s Meadow in outlying Florence in 1834. A year before Benson’s move, Lydia Maria Child and her husband David had moved to the Broughton’s Meadow area so that David could continue to experiment with the cultivation of sugar beets, a deliberate attempt to develop an alternative to sugar grown and processed by slave labor. By 1852, the district was renamed Florence in honor of the Italian silk-producing city.1 The NAEI, which Benson and others incorporated in 1841, saw silk in the same light, as an alternative to cotton textiles produced by the slave-labor system in which northern mills were deeply complicit. Radical abolitionists of the day patronized free labor stores, ate confections made with “free sugar,” and wore linen stockings.
Founded about the same time as such other Massachusetts utopian communities as Hopedale, Fruitlands, and Brook Farm, the Northampton Association was dedicated to nonresistance, manufacture, nondenominationalism, temperance, education, and equal rights “without distinction of sex, color, or condition, sect or religion.”1 In 1842, the year of its founding, Lydia Maria Child left her husband David in Florence to edit the National Anti-Slavery Standard in New York, and there she learned of the difficult situation of David Ruggles. Abandoned by several leading black abolitionists in New York City after a libel and monetary dispute in 1839, Ruggles was nearly blind and physically broken by other ailments. On 15 November 1842 David Lee Child went before the NAEI to ask that Ruggles be admitted as a member. The association resolved that Benson should invite him “to come amongst us and remain with us” until the members had a chance to come to know him “and his circumstances.” Ruggles was soon afterward admitted. About 1845, with the assistance of Northampton’s Payson Williston and his son J. Payson Williston, Ruggles purchased the “oil-mill house” where David Lee Child had processed sugar beets and converted it to a water cure, believed to be the first hydropathic hospital in the United States. Florence was equally well if not better known for its water cure, which endured until the late 1860s, long after the NAEI dissolved in 1846.1
Benson also had a direct connection with once-enslaved New Yorker Sojourner Truth (Isabella Van Wagenen), a resident of Florence from 1843 through about 1857. In the former year Truth visited the association and, though not impressed at first glance, was persuaded to stay overnight. She came to feel that in the Northampton Association, her amanuensis wrote, “all was characterized by an equality of feeling, a liberty of thought and speech, and a largeness of soul, she could not have before met with, to the same extent, in any of her wanderings.” Truth worried, as she had perennially, about supporting herself, especially now that “labor, exposure and hardship had made sad inroads upon her iron constitution, by inducing chronic disease and premature old age.” Yet, her narrative notes, she was somewhat less anxious in Florence, for she “remained under the shadow of one,* who never wearies in doing good, giving to the needy, and supplying the wants of the destitute.” This “one,” the asterisk explains, was George W. Benson.1 She too became an NAEI member, and at some point between 1846 and 1850, when she was able to purchase her own home in Florence with the assistance of NAEI founder Samuel L. Hill, Truth lived in Benson’s home.
In early May of the same year that Truth settled in Florence, the fugitive Stephen C. Rush was accepted as a one-week visitor to the association. Five days later he was “unanimously invited to consider the Community his home for the present.” William Lloyd Garrison, who with his family was spending that summer in Florence in a small cottage near the association, identified Rush as a fugitive in his Liberator after that year’s West Indian Emancipation celebration. “He said that he was induced to run away by hearing of Latimer’s case; and that as Massachusetts had given succor and protection to George Latimer, he thought he would try his luck in the same manner,” Garrison wrote, “He was also induced the more readily to escape, by hearing his master and other slaveholders cursing the abolitionists, of whom he formed a high opinion from that circumstance.” By early November 1843, after undergoing what seems to have been six months of probation, Rush was admitted a member of the Northampton Association. Active, with Ruggles, in local antislavery meetings in 1844, Rush left the NAEI and Florence in April 1846; nothing more is yet known of him.1
The Benson family had been involved in issues of racial equality since the early 1830s. From his retirement home in Brooklyn, Connecticut, Benson’s father, though in his early eighties, was reelected president of the New England Anti-Slavery Society in 1834. The year before, he had played a central role in the defense of Prudence Crandall in nearby Canterbury when townspeople violently attempted to close the school she had opened for young women of color. At that point, the Reverend Samuel J. May, also of Brooklyn and well documented for his fugitive assistance in Connecticut and upstate New York, began his Underground Railroad work. According to Connecticut Underground Railroad historian Horatio Strother, the Crandall affair also impelled the Benson family to begin to raise money to support fugitive escapes.1
By 1845 the silk manufacturing venture was on shaky ground, and, with other investors, Benson acquired the factory as well as ninety acres of land and half of the company’s debt. He incorporated a new venture, Bensonville Manufacturing Company, and with the help of Samuel and J. Payson Williston converted the operation to cotton manufacturing. Benson stayed with the company only until 1848, but it is possible that Basil Dorsey worked for Benson by 1845. The Hampshire Gazette stated that after the Dorsey family’s move to Northampton, Basil Dorsey “worked for Mr. Benson, a brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison.” The newspaper noted that Dorsey worked “as a teamster, first as an employee of the cotton-mill company, and latterly as a general jobber. He has always done the teaming for the cotton mill.”1
In the fall of 1846 Bensonville Manufacturing Company plotted house lots on the hill northeast of its factory on the Mill River in Florence, and on 12 November 1849 the company, through Samuel Williston, its president, sold Basil Dorsey lot 12 in Bensonville for thirty-five dollars.2 The house was standing by the time the federal census was taken in August 1850. At that time Dorsey and his family—his second wife Cynthia and their three children—shared their household with fifty-year-old Jacob Benson, his thirty-two-year old wife Eliza—both, like Dorsey, born in Maryland—and their one-year-old daughter, born in Massachusetts.2
Presumably because the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had stimulated a rash of captures and arrests of known and presumed fugitives, Dorsey’s friends then raised funds to purchase his freedom. The Hampshire Gazette noted the action was “against the wishes of many of his friends, who didn’t like to buy with money that freedom which God had endowed all men with; but as he sometimes visited Boston, Providence, and other cities, in his teaming business, it was feared he might, when away from home be made a subject for the fugitive slave law, and be hurried back to slavery. So it was deemed best to pay the price demanded and thus make his freedom secure.” The Gazette stated that the purchase occurred in 1850 for two hundred dollars, Dorsey himself contributing fifty dollars. But found among the papers of Swarthmore College dean Elizabeth Powell Bond in the 1890s was the bill of sale between Thomas Sollars and the Philadelphia attorney George Griscom for Dorsey, in the amount of 150 dollars, signed on 14 May 1851.2 Griscom presumably then manumitted Dorsey through the Maryland courts.
The family was living in the Bensonville house when, on 1 March 1852, Dorsey sold the land and the buildings on it to Selah B. Trask for eight hundred dollars.2 On the same day he bought from Trask other Florence property, on South Street (now Florence Road) between the house David Ruggles had lived in until his death in 1849 and the home of Henry Anthony, a man of color who had lived in Florence since as early as 1840.2 Trask himself lived in Dorsey’s former Bensonville house for scarcely two years before selling it, on 1 April 1854, to Mary Jones, wife of Thomas H. Jones. Trask also held a mortgage bond on the property through 1 April 1858.2
A stevedore working in the port of Wilmington, North Carolina, Thomas H. Jones (1806-90) arranged for the escape of his free wife and her enslaved children and then his own escape in 1849, thirteen years after Basil Dorsey escaped from Maryland. Jones, born to enslaved parents and raised on a plantation near Wilmington, was about nine years old when he was sold to a storekeeper in Wilmington. He then worked as a clerk and in domestic service. Jones married and had three children, but his family was taken from him when his wife’s mistress moved to Alabama. Bereft and then himself again sold after 1829, Jones remarried Mary R. Moore, who had three children of her own. He managed to raise the money to purchase and then free his wife, but in 1849 he learned that plans were afoot to sell the children. Working with a white lawyer, Jones tried to push the North Carolina legislature to pass a special act to emancipate them. When his efforts failed, in mid- to late June 1849 he somehow arranged for his wife and children—all but her son Edward—to be sent by coastwise vessel to the Brooklyn, New York, home of Charles Cousins.
Then, in August of the same year, Jones paid the steward of the turpentine brig Bell eight dollars to stow him away. At sea the brig’s captain discovered him, but rough weather prevented returning Jones until the vessel was near New York. When the captain went ashore to arrange Jones’s rendition and the mate aboard was otherwise occupied, Jones fabricated a rude raft and escaped from the Bell. Though the mate set out after him, a friendly vessel rescued Jones and brought him to Cousins. “The Sabbath after my arrival in Brooklyn, I preached in the morning in the Bethel: I then came on to Hartford,” Jones wrote in his narrative, issued in numerous editions under several slightly different titles. “A gentleman kindly paid my passage to that place, and sent me an introduction to a true-hearted friend. I stayed in Hartford twenty-four hours; but finding I was pursued, and being informed that I should be safer in Massachusetts than in Connecticut, I came on to Springfield, and from thence to Boston, where I arrived, penniless and friendless, the 7th of October.”2
By preaching and receiving contributions at several Boston churches, Dorsey was able to bring his family there, and by 1850 he and his family moved to Salem. He had preached at least once at the Free Evangelical Church in Danvers, adjacent to Salem, and the town was home to the family of John, Charles Lenox, and Sarah Remond, well-known African American abolitionists. The 1850 Salem enumeration shows Reverend Thomas Jones at 10 High Street Court with his wife Mary, seven-year-old daughter Mary C., five-year-old son John, and three-year-old son Alexander. Thomas and Mary Jones claimed Massachusetts as the place of birth for the entire family, though they were all born in North Carolina; the subterfuge, certainly not uncommon among documented fugitives, must have stemmed from Jones’s continued anxiety over the possibility of pursuit.
The threat Jones perceived remained high and was no doubt elevated after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in September 1850. In May 1851 he left his family in Salem and escaped to the Canadian Maritimes, where he presented a series of antislavery lectures in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and drummed up subscriptions for Garrison’s Liberator. “Quite free from terror, I now feel that my bones are a property bequeathed to me for my own use,” he wrote to his friend and supporter, the abolitionist Daniel Foster, shortly after his arrival in Canada, “and not for the servitude or gratification of the white men, in that gloomy and sultry region, where the hue of the skin has left my race in thraldom and misery for ages.” In 1852 he and his wife learned that her son Edward’s freedom could be purchased for 850 dollars, at which point Mary began a fund-raising campaign in and around Boston and Jones turned the full energy of his lecturing effort to that cause. His wife and one of her children joined him in Nova Scotia for a time, but by the time Jones returned to the United States in 1854 Mary Jones had already entered into a contract with Trask for the purchase of Basil Dorsey’s former property.2
Unlike Basil Dorsey, who was a relatively permanent and long-lived fixture in Florence, Jones’s presence in Florence as elsewhere to that point was intermittent by comparison. “Rev. Thomas H. Jones made this his headquarters during the intervals between his preaching and lecturing tours,” Arthur G. Hill recalled. “He lived on Nonatuck Street, second house from Cross Hill. He had in his lectures, handcuffs, yokes, chains, whips and gags as exhibits of the cruelty of the slaveholder.”2 Jones and his family left Florence in 1859 and settled in Worcester for about six years; by 1867 they moved to New Bedford, where directories list him as a lecturer and minister until his death in 1890.2
Florence is a demographic anomaly in the general African American experience in Massachusetts. In general, people of color, before and after the Civil War, gravitated to the commonwealth’s largest port cities, not to its inland cities or its smaller towns. In 1855, 3,768 people of color were listed as living in Boston and New Bedford combined and made up, respectively, 3.7 and 8.1 percent of each city’s total population. Thirty-eight percent of the state’s black population lived in these two cities in 1855. Away from the coast, only 282 people of color lived in Lowell and Worcester, whose economies were largely based on manufacturing; industrial jobs were virtually unavailable to blacks throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century. The population of Lowell, with 37,554 people one of the largest cities in the state, was only 0.2 percent black; Worcester, at 22,286, was 0.9 percent of color. Nearly 3.0 percent (399 persons) of the 1855 population of Springfield (13,788 in 1855) was black. Northampton at that time was home to 5,819 people, of whom 124, or 2.1 percent, were people of color.3 Westfield and Greenfield, towns of roughly similar population size in the Connecticut River Valley, counted only thirty-six persons of color among their residents combined in 1855.
Northampton’s A. G. Hill believed Florence was a “sanctuary” to people of color because of its liberal sentiments:
The North and the South of the United States battled long over the right to hold the colored people in slavery. Many people, politicians, statesmen and clergymen alike weakly knuckled to the arrogance of the South, while the colored fugitives from barbaric treatment found little comfort or safety in Northern towns or cities. . . . When the Bensonville associates reached their field of cooperative labors, each of them feeling that the brotherhood of man included all of whatever color or shape of head, early made it known that here at any rate was a house of refuge for the ill-treated wanderer whether from Southern slavery or Northern barbarity. Many residents of color therefore soon made this their home and were fraternally greeted and guarded.3
Hill was speaking only of Florence; Northampton itself was not esteemed among abolitionists. When Lydia Maria Child moved there, she called the “state of abolition” in the town “lifeless enough”; of the “saving of souls, &c more than enough; but of genuine love to the neighbor, as a child of one common Father, the manifestations seem to be of the smallest,” she wrote to Weymouth abolitionist Caroline Weston. “I don’t mean that they are worse than other people. You know what I mean.” In a letter to Abigail Kelley later in 1838 Child wrote, “This town is a great resort for Southerners in the summer season; and never in my life have I witnessed so much of the lofty slave-holding spirt. Will more influence ever reach these haughty sinners? Never. Much as I deprecate it, I am convinced that emancipation much come through violence.” Five years later the Hampshire Gazette noted that David Ruggles, a “black man,” had chaired a Northampton antislavery meeting. The Gazette declared it “not in very good taste or, at any rate, was not so regarded in this community, and we do not think it good policy to offend the taste of any community, in any way, when there is no necessity for it.” The newspaper went on to report that “a colored man, who has recently escaped from slavery” also addressed the meeting. “Such speeches—if speeches they may be called—can do no good. It was mere jargon, uttered in a tone and manner that was truly distressing. Such persons should be taught to confine themselves to the simple tale of their history, and not attempt to exhort.”3
In that same year, Florence received an opposite evaluation from a visiting schoolteacher from Dedham in eastern Massachusetts. Sophia Foord, who came to Florence to teach in the NAEI’s Educational Department, wrote in May 1843 to her friend Robert Adams, who shortly became a key fugitive assistant in Fall River, “This is becoming, or has already become quite a depot for fugitives—one left here on Thursday & another arrived the day following who will probably tarry a short time. He is quite intelligent, speaks of having been kindly treated by a Mr. Adams of Providence some day last week, who it is presumed is your father.—He says the slaves escape so frequently that their masters say the Abolitionists must have a rail road under ground; that many more would run away were it not for the belief they are taught to cherish, that abolitionists at the North would treat them.”3 The arrival Foord described was probably Stephen C. Rush. Arthur G. Hill, born in 1841 in an extant Federal-style house in Broughton’s Meadow, recalled, “A good many passengers stopped ‘five minutes for refreshments’ at my father’s, and conductors were often changed here. On a few trips I was either conductor or assistant conductor. Quite a number of the through passengers temporarily took up their abode in Florence, the balmy anti-slavery climate here proving very attractive to them.” Hill also recalled that Josiah Henson, who like Harriet Tubman returned to the South to assist others in their escapes from slavery, also stopped at Samuel L. Hill’s Florence home.3 Hill had also helped Sojourner Truth buy her Florence home and put his son Arthur to the task of copying Truth’s narrative of her life, taken down by “a kind lady in another town,” and printing it in pamphlet form. Hill also remained in the silk business when Benson had turned to cotton. He developed “machine twist,” a silk thread smooth and strong enough that home sewing machines could use it successfully, and upon its basis the silk industry became Northampton’s largest employer through 1874.
Samuel L. Hill moved to a new home in Florence probably by late 1845, and Austin and Fidelia Ross bought the Hill property when the Northampton Association collapsed in 1846. From the same area of northeastern Connecticut as Hill, Benson, and Ruggles, Ross had been dismissed from the Presbyterian church in Chaplin, Connecticut because of the strength of his antislavery sentiment, and he had come to Florence in 1845 to farm and to teach in the NAEI school. Nineteenth-century local historian Charles Sheffield stated that the fugitive “Wilson” lived on the Ross farm for a year and a half. This James Wilson worked as a night watchman after 1850 at what was then known as the Greenville (formerly Bensonville) Manufacturing Company, where Basil Dorsey continued to work as a teamster.3 A. G. Hill remembered him:
Before the decision of Justice Taney and its results, Wilson a fugitive arrived here. He decided to remain here, became a laborer, lived on Nonotuck St., got together a little money tramped back to Virginia to try to rescue his son from slavery. After a few months he appeared with his son. Leaving him he went back to get his daughter. He was captured and kept in slavery again for several months. He again escaped and arrived here with his daughter when the three started for Canada to happily breathe the air of freedom.3
Hill added that the 1857 Dred Scott case—in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger Taney declared that African Americans “had no rights which the white man is bound to respect”—“frightened the fugitives who had been drawn here by the anti-slavery sentiment of the place, so that they soon after migrated to Canada in which country the Dred Scott decision had no power. This place then became a station on the so called under-ground railroad for transporting the fugitives towards Canada,” Hill wrote. There may have been a decline in the overall black population of Northampton between 1855 and 1860, but there was a slight increase between1855 and 1865, from 108 to 125 persons. In addition, the proportion claiming to have been born in a slave state rose as well, from 5.6 percent of all persons of color in the town to 11.1 percent. In truth, their numbers are small. Only seven persons of color stated that they were born in southern states in 1855—the cook Robert Wright from Virginia; the barber George W. Brown, living in the same household; Henry Anthony, of Maryland; Basil Dorsey, who lived about a quarter-mile down the road from Anthony; Thomas H. and Mary Jones, who lived in Dorsey’s former home with their two children, the latter of whom did not claim southern birthplaces; and the Maryland-born farmer Thomas Washington, who lived with his wife in Jones’s household. Sojourner Truth was nearby. The Dorsey house represents what, at least at this stage of Underground Railroad research, an uncommon artifact—a dwelling built for one fugitive and occupied by two in a small Massachusetts community dedicated to and shaped by a commitment to racial equality and distinguished by its location on a documented path of fugitive movement.