The Crooked Lake Review

Fall 2005

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Saints, Sinners and Reformers

The Burned-Over District Re-Visited


John H. Martin

Table of Contents of Saints, Sinners and Reformers

Chapter 14

Gerrit Smith, Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman

The Anti-Slavery Impulse in the Burned-Over District

As an outgrowth of the religious revivals which spread through western New York in the 1820s, the anti-slavery and then the abolition movements were to grow in the rural sectors of upstate New York; they were later to spread to the cities in the 1830s. It was not a continuous growth since, although the various religions opposed slavery as a sinful situation in the period after the War of 1812, the major denominations had second thoughts in the 1830s and tried to back away from the spreading abolitionist tendencies in the United States.

At first there were towns which were luke-warm to the anti-slavery sentiment, particularly in and around the villages of Canandaigua, Geneva, and Bath, centers of the established old families of inherited position after the War of 1812. Some of these families had originally been encouraged by Charles Williamson to come from the South to the lands of the Pulteney Estates, for here was virgin land where large tracts could be purchased, and thus southerners came with their slaves to create a new "plantation-type" of agriculture. In 1803, for example, Captain William Helms came from Virginia bringing with him his fifty to one hundred slaves, and other settlers followed from Virginia and Maryland along with their slaves. The New York State legislature had forbidden the selling of slaves in New York State in the early 1790s, but Charles Williamson's record book shows that he was buying slaves beyond this date. The 1810 census listed one hundred and sixteen blacks in Bath of whom eighty-seven were slaves.

By 1813, New York State had banned slavery within the State, but two years later a huge Conestoga wagon went through Bath supervised by a man with a whip. Shrieks and cries emanated from the wagon, for Captain Helms had seized some of his former slaves and their families and was trying to transport them to Kentucky for sale. By the time the wagon reached Olean, most of the former slaves had escaped, and Helms was arrested, tried, and imprisoned for a short time for his defiance of New York law. Even Judge Thomas McBurney of Steuben County was tried for a similar offense. In general, the Southern Tier region of New York was not open to many of the reforms which were to ensue across the Ontario Plain of the State, for this less viable agricultural land lacked the infusion of Yankee blood which entered New York across the old Mohawk Trail. Many of the early settlers in the Southern Tier portion of New York State had come from Maryland and Virginia, and they lacked the religious inclination and reforming instincts of the settlers from New England. It would take a number of years before a unanimity in favor of abolition would take place in New York State.

New York Yankees were inheritors of the old Puritan New England spirit, and they were to be an inquisitive populace. Prior to 1820 there were some one hundred and twenty-nine weekly publications in upstate New York, for these rural immigrant Yankees believed in education and reading. The various denominations had their religious periodicals, and these especially circulated within the rural areas, their moralistic tone opposed to the various sins to which human flesh was heir—and one of the sins against which they held was that of slavery. However, perhaps the most heinous of sins denounced from pulpits was that connected with alcohol, and a strong temperance movement was thus furthered by religious magazines. The first of the reforms in which western New Yorkers would become active, therefore, was in the various Temperance Societies which arose. Temperance had its divisions, however, for there were those who had no objection to wine in the Communion service, or even hard cider as a refreshing beverage, and they restricted their ire primarily against hard liquors. Others naturally opposed all kinds of intoxicating beverages, no matter how dilute. The temperance movement would flourish and wane in the decades after 1820, but then the sin of slavery was one which would gather the greatest of attentions in religious publications as the years went by.

The concern about slavery can be seen in the time of the founding of the United States, for Thomas Jefferson, albeit a slaver holder, and Gouverneur Morris of New York had tried to have slavery banned in the creation of the United States Constitution, an effort derailed by Southern opponents at the Constitutional Convention. Even Washington had freed his slaves in his will on his death. The concern about slavery lessened in the period of the early political years of the new nation, but it revived once more after the War of 1812, even among some Southerners. One aspect of this revived concern can be seen in the establishment of the American Colonization Society in January of 1817. Its goal was the emancipation of slaves and their return to Africa from which they had been taken by force. There were, however, limitations proposed for such a return: those slaves to be returned to Africa were to be either ones who had been voluntarily surrendered by their owners or those free, former slaves resident in the United States.

Among the sponsors at the 1817 convention which established the American Colonization Society were Daniel Webster, Thomas Frelinghuysen, John Marshall, James Monroe, and Henry Clay, a stellar cross-section of leading American figures. It did not, however, provide a realistic solution to the problem of American slavery, but it does indicate that the moral concern was alive in both the North and the South. There were those in the North of a narrower view who favored the Colonization solution, not for moral reasons, but since it would help to empty northern slums where crime and poverty were at large, and often among former slaves who had taken refuge in the North.

In 1827 Henry Clay estimated that it would cost $1,000,000 per annum to transport 52,000 slaves each year to Africa—and the U.S. Congress was in no mood to fund such an expenditure, although the U.S. government did help to select Liberia as the place for a return of slaves. The Colonization Society did appeal to some earnest reformers, particularly to Gerrit Smith who lived near Utica in western New York, a participant who was involved in all of the reforms of the era. Although he was at first an ardent supporter of the Colonization Society, he was in time to become a more ardent abolitionist, as was true of others who became disillusioned with the impractical attempt to return slaves to Africa. Obviously the plantation owners in the South were not going to free their slaves for such a venture, and those ex-slaves who were now free saw the pitfalls involved in returning to a foreign land where they would have no means of livelihood.

The great revivals which Charles Grandison Finney launched across the Ontario Plain were meant to bring mankind closer to perfection by the elimination of one's sins through religious conversion. The temperance movement, as noted, was one of its first crusades, but the sinfulness of holding another in slavery was another of the evils against which Finney and others would speak. Their viewing slavery as sinful did not call for action, however, and it was to be among their younger followers who saw the need for activity on the part of the morally concerned. Theodore Dwight Weld was one of Finney's young disciples, and he came under the influence of Charles Stuart, an English abolitionist who was active both in Britain and in the United States. Weld was also influenced by the Reverend George Gale who founded the Oneida Institute, later Knox College, at Whitesboro near Utica, a religiously based institution which became a center of the anti-slavery movement in upstate New York. Weld moved to Cincinnati where he enrolled in Lane Seminary, headed by the Reverend Lyman Beecher, father of Harriet Beecher Stowe of later Uncle Tom's Cabin fame, and here his anti-slavery indignation would lead him in new directions.

In 1833 the British government had abolished slavery, and Charles Stuart returned to the United States to foster a similar action in America. Theodore Weld, before heading west in 1833, had attended a meeting called by the Tappan brothers of New York City, wealthy philanthropists and reformers, who. were excited by the British action in banning slavery,. The meeting was to discuss the formation of a national anti-slavery society whose goal would be a call for immediate emancipation of American slaves. Weld became one of the first agents of this new Anti-Slavery Society formed in December of 1833, and he was to speak throughout the mid-West on slavery as the great American sin.

Some thirty to forty young men in the Cincinnati seminary soon became enflamed with the anti-slavery spirit, and they tended more and more to favor "abolition now." Lyman Beecher, as the head of the Seminary, became alarmed at this diversion from the young men's theological studies, and, as a result, these reforming students abandoned Lane Seminary to move to Oberlin. It was at Oberlin College that Finney and the Tappan brothers were establishing the Oberlin Theological School for the Lane dissidents, and the new seminary was to become the font of a generation of young abolitionists.

The concern over the sin of slavery had been growing in western New York, and it was to reach new heights in the 1830s as the great revivals Finney had begun continued to flourish. By 1834 the nascent American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City realized that upstate New York was ripe for the dissemination of its "immediate abolition" doctrine; soon the national society would have some 2,000 branches (of which 200 were in New York) with 200,000 members. Weld was urged to return to New York, which he did in 1836 to further the cause in western New York. Meantime, a number of church organizations had actively proclaimed slavery as a sin, and these included Congregational and several Baptist church organizations. The ground swell of anti-slavery feelings was being heightened.

Weld's return was accompanied by a host of lecturers who would speak at the many national societies which were burgeoning, and these lecturers of seventy young ministerial radicals were alive with the fire of abolitionism. Their lectures were being enhanced by the numerous anti-slavery journals which were appearing, The Rights of Man in Rochester, the New York City Emancipator, the Union Herald of Cazenovia, The American Citizen of Warsaw, and The Friend of Man in Utica. Naturally, the most noted of these anti-slavery journals was that of The Liberator of William Lloyd Garrison in Boston which first appeared in Rochester in its first issue in January 1831 during the great Finney revivals, and the Rochester Observer welcomed it and sympathized with its intent.

Weld's seventy compatriots were trained by Weld himself along with Henry Stanton, the husband of Elizabeth Cady Stanton of Women's Rights fame; Henry had been a disciple of Finney and one of the Lane Seminary rebels. These two men and the "Seventy" helped to move the abolition impulse to the fore in the 1830s, bringing the movement which had begun as a benign concern of revivalism over the sinfulness of slavery to an active attack on slavery itself with the new demand for immediate abolition. These "Seventy" were to speak throughout the North and West for "abolition now," but they served as well as "Conductors" on the "Underground Railroad" which helped fleeing slaves to safety in the North and to Canada. By the 1840s the movement had become political with the formation of the Liberty Party which stood for abolition on the national scene, and it nominated its first candidate for the United States Presidency in 1840. In 1844 the Liberty Party received 60,000 votes in its campaign for the Presidency, but it was to be absorbed in time, along with other "radical" groups of the day, into the new Republican Party in the 1850s.

Weld and Stanton remained active in the American Anti-Slavery Society until the 1839-1840 national convention in which Garrison packed the house with his followers and wrested control of the Society. Weld and Stanton resigned from the Society to form the new American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society in its place. Theodore Weld was not always greeted with acclaim on his speaking engagements, for he soon became known as "the most mobbed man in America" as those who opposed abolition attacked him and attempted to break up public meetings which were in favor of abolition.

The anti-slavery movement, now a movement for abolition, continued to expand on a popular level, but it gradually lost favor within the major churches of the North and particularly in the Burned-Over District. Under the spirit of the Revivals, the emphasis had been upon the salvation of the sinful nature of the individual, not upon social movements of reform. Its goal was to convert every last sinner, not every sinful institution. Thus as the church organizations grew more conservative, the anti-slavery forces found themselves losing their right to hold a public position within the religious organizations. By 1836 the annual Oneida Conference of the Methodist Church saw the bishop exclude the pro-abolitionists from the conference, forcing the dissidents to meet elsewhere. As a result, many of the Methodist clergy moved into the abolitionist camp, and the threat of the splitting of the church was possible. One group of Methodists reacted against the growing conservatism of the Methodist hierarchy, and by 1840 the Wesleyan Anti-Slavery Society had become a national organization and presented a petition to the Methodist conference signed by 10,000 signatories in favor of a more active anti-slavery stance. In 1843 the first split occurred when the separate Wesleyan Methodist Church was formed on the basis of teetotalism and abolition. (It was the church of the Wesleyan Methodists in Seneca Falls which was to be made available for the first Women's Rights Convention in 1848.) A further split would come when the Free Methodist seceded on the basis of an anti-Episcopal stance.

The Methodist Episcopal Church eventually did come around to a more liberal anti-slavery position in 1844. As a result the main Methodist Church split in 1844 when the Methodist Episcopal Church South seceded over the abolition issue, the Southern Baptist Church splitting between north and south in 1845, and then the Presbyterian Church splitting on a north/south basis as well. Only the Episcopal Church remained intact—it was weakest in the North and strongest in the South where it was primarily the church of the well-to-do Southern planter "aristocracy."

If the "Seventy" were "Conductors" on the "Underground Railroad," they were not alone in facing the problem of fugitive slaves. The problem itself goes back to the United States Constitution which had provided for the return of escaped slaves, and then the "Fugitive Slave Law" of 1793 implemented the legal requirement that escaped slaves be returned to their owner and that those who assisted escaped slaves be penalized. Among the first to defy this law were the Quakers of Pennsylvania, particularly in Philadelphia, Lucretia Coffin Mott being one of those Quakers most noted for her work in opposition to the slave trade. Philadelphia became a center for the "Underground Railroad" which defied United States law by assisting and hiding escaped slaves making their way to freedom. The Quakers not only hid and abetted these escapees, but they opened their homes and their finances to assist the unfortunate individuals fleeing the South. This was despite the threat of legal retaliation under the law. Their stance was put most forcibly in the debate over the Compromise of 1850 in which William Henry Seward, Congressman from New York with his home in Auburn, New York, in the Burned-Over District, indicated that in the pursuit of justice "there was a Higher Law than the U.S. Constitution."

There were many routes for the Underground Railroad which extended into Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio. Indiana, and Illinois, few of which routes can be easily identified because of the secrecy involved in the undertaking which was against Federal law. Few fugitive slaves made their way to New England since this did not provide the shortest route to Canada and ultimate freedom from those Federal Marshals seeking to re-enslave fugitives on behalf of southern owners. Those who did arrive in New England often came by way of Yankee boats which had put into southern ports and often served as a means of escape from the South. Among the land routes of the Underground Railroad, Elmira, New York, was one of the major entry points for fleeing slaves who had made their way from Virginia and Maryland through Pennsylvania. Then in 1854 the railroad from Williamsport in Pennsylvania to Elmira was completed, proving another means of egress for fleeing slaves. Such fugitives could then be sent on by a night-time train via Watkins Glen and Canandaigua where a transfer to the New York Central line could make possible their ultimate arrival at Niagara Falls and Canada.

Although Elmira had its southern sympathizers, it had a nucleus of abolitionist business men as early as 1836, led by the Reverend John Frost of the First Presbyterian Church along with John Selover who had been in favor of the American Colonization Society approach to solving the slavery situation. He had been involved with Gerrit Smith in Utica in the colonization program, but when the anti-slavery group was driven from Utica he had moved into the abolitionist camp.

Jarvis Langdon, the future father-in-law of Mark Twain, was early involved in the Underground Railroad in Elmira, and in 1844 he was active in protecting a group of thirty-nine slaves fleeing from slave hunters who were on their trail. Langdon and his associates provided the men with food and money and helped them on by night-time flights to Oswego to harbor land owned by Gerrit Smith, and there they were able to escape by boat to Canada. Langdon and others of his associates (including Simeon Benjamin, one of the founders of Elmira College for Women) eventually split from the First Presbyterian Church since their form of anti-slavery interests and actions had caused them to wish to found a church which would be strongly abolitionist in spirit. Thus they formed the Park Church, an independent Congregational Church in 1845, and its successful place in the community was further insured when the Reverend Thomas Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) served as its pastor from 1854 to 1900. An article by Barbara S. Ramsdell in the Crooked Lake Review in the autumn issue of 2000 and two more articles thereafter lists the major individuals in Elmira who were involved in the Underground Railroad.

In Elmira, an escaped slave, the twenty-seven year old John W. Jones and four other slaves, walked the three hundred miles from Virginia to Elmira and to freedom in 1844. In Elmira, Jones learned to read and write, and in 1847 he became the sexton of the First Baptist Church, later of the Main Street Cemetery as well, and then of the Woodlawn Cemetery when it was created. Jones and his family lived in a house next to the Baptist church, and he often had to hide as many as thirty fugitive slaves at a time as they made their way to Canada. It is said that during the Civil War he was responsible for overseeing the ongoing movement of some 800 escaped slaves fleeing to the North. Jones is most remembered in Elmira and anti-slavery history for the part he paid in the burial of the almost 3,000 Confederate soldiers who died in the Union prison camp in Elmira.

At the beginning of the Civil War, a camp was created in Elmira for the reception and training of volunteers for the United States Army, and then on July 6, 1864, it became a prison camp for captured Confederate soldiers. Everything was wrong with the camp, ranging from inadequate response from the War Department for help by the managers of the camp, to the fact that in the first winter the prisoners had to live in tents, and, when more solid buildings were created, the source of the camp's drinking water was Foster Pond alongside the Chemung River. A contaminated body of water, the pond led to illness and the ultimate death of 2,973 prisoners. In Barbara Ramsdell's account of the period, she records that John Jones supervised the burials in an area back of his farm, a portion of which today is the Woodlawn National Cemetery. He kept accurate records of each burial with the name, rank, company, regiment, and date of death of the prisoner. The wooden marker he set at each grave was eventually replaced with a simple stone grave-stone by the United States government. Jones built his last home on his sixteen-acre farm at 311 Woodlawn Avenue, close to the Woodlawn Cemetery, a house built possibly from some of the salvaged wood when the prison camp was disbanded. In 1998, the city of Elmira intended to tear down the house as part of an urban renewal plan, but groups of citizens have been successful in having the house moved a half a block from its original site to Davis Street (on part of what had been Jones' farm) as an historic site. On his death, John Jones was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in which he had interred the almost 3,000 Confederate soldiers.

If there is one name mentioned in connection with the Underground Railroad, it has to be that of Harriet Ross Tubman (1820?-1913). Born a slave on a Maryland plantation, at twelve she was made a field hand, and in the course of a problem on the plantation she was hit in the head by a heavy object which was to cause sudden blackouts throughout her life. Married to a free black man when she was twenty-four, she decided to flee to the North and freedom when her master died in 1847 and there were rumors that his slaves would be sold. Her husband, out of fear, refused to accompany her, and thus she abandoned him and her other slave relatives. She made her way north, first through the kindness of a Quaker woman who introduced her to the Underground Railroad, and then with the assistance of those of that illegal organization who helped her to Philadelphia where she found work in a hotel kitchen. Befriended by local abolitionists, she determined to become a part of the Underground Railroad in order to help other slaves to their freedom. Returning to Maryland in 1851 to try to convince her husband to move north, to her dismay she discovered that her husband had remarried in her absence and would not leave Maryland. Returning north, Harriet became a part of the Underground Railroad, and in the course of her incursions into slave holding territory she eventually brought her parents and her sister and her brothers to freedom in the north.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 made it exceedingly dangerous for former slaves who had escaped to the north since Federal Commissioners were stationed in all the States to bring about the return to slavery of any escaped slave—and there were heavy financial and penal penalties to those who aided and abetted escaping slaves. Locating to St. Catherine in Canada as a safe refuge, Harriet eventually moved to Auburn, New York, in the Burned-Over District. Here William Henry Seward, Congressman from that region, sold her a two-story, brick house for a modest sum, an illegal venture under the law of the time. Over the next ten years, Harriet Tubman made nineteen sorties into the South to help some three hundred slaves to make their way north and to freedom. She carried sleeping powders to use on crying babies to quiet them as they and their parents escaped, and she carried a gun with which to force onwards those who became recalcitrant on their journey and wanted to turn back.

Harriet Tubman's modus viviendi was to plan an escape for a Saturday night since slaves were generally given Sundays free, and thus they would not be missed until Monday morning, thereby permitting them to put miles behind as they fled to the north. Miraculously, she never lost any of those three hundred slaves she was shepherding north, always finding places of refuge en route as well as food for them. Among slaves she was known as the "Moses of her people." Her involvement with John Brown might have embroiled her in the raid on Harpers Ferry had not illness prevented her from becoming a part of that failed venture, but thereafter she spoke ever more forcibly for the end to slavery and for women's right to vote.

During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman worked both as a nurse to black soldiers and as a spy, even to leading African-American soldiers on raids in South Carolina. On this latter incursion into the South she met Nelson Davis, one of the soldiers, and after the death of her first husband who had re-married, they were married in 1869 in Auburn where they lived thereafter. After the war she continued her charitable work on behalf of former slaves turning her home in time to a facility for the welfare of elderly blacks. (That brick house was later demolished.) In 1953 the Harriet Tubman Home, the care facility she had created for indigent and elderly blacks, and which had long since ceased to exist as a charitable organization, was re-dedicated to her memory by the AME Zion Church. Additional buildings have since been created as a museum, library, and meeting hall, and in 1974 the Department of the Interior named Harriet's former charitable Home a national historic landmark

Gerrit Smith (1797-1874) has been mentioned in conjunction with one of the Elmira anti-slavery men, and he is a prime example of how religious enthusiasm between 1820 and 1850 could sweep an individual from one reform to another. One of the early supporters of the religious revivals which Charles Grandison Finney had undertaken, an early and continuing proponent of temperance, a believer in human perfection who started Knox College which was dedicated to the anti-slavery movement, he moved from being a firm supporter of the American Colonization Society to the more radical abolitionist position in time. Disgusted with the insufficiently strong reaction against slavery by the main-stream churches of his day, he created his own church in Peterboro for the Religion of Reason. Smith's father Peter had been a fur trader and an associate of John Jacob Astor in this trade, and he acquired a large tract of Oneida Indian land from New York State, and here in the town of Peterboro his son Gerrit Smith was to live and die. Of the eight children Gerrit and his wife had, only one son and a daughter survived into adulthood, and that daughter Elizabeth was the creator of the Bloomer dress (which became notorious under Amelia Bloomer who popularized the outfit). Elizabeth Smith was a favorite of her cousin Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Smith turned away from colonization to abolition as a result of the 1835 attack by a mob intent on breaking up an anti-slavery meeting in Utica, a meeting which he then had adjourn to his estate at Peterboro. This and similar attacks on those opposed to slavery redounded to the cause since many saw such mob actions as a repudiation of the democratic ideal of freedom of speech. Another incident involved Smith in contempt for the Fugitive Slave Law when an escaped slave "Jerry" was apprehended in Syracuse and jailed. Jerry broke away during the court hearing, abetted by the onlookers. When the slave was re-taken by the Federal Marshall and his men, Gerrit Smith and Samuel May (another strong abolitionist adherent) planned Jerry's rescue by organizing a crowd which broke into the courthouse and freed the slave. Although some eighteen individuals were arrested for their unlawful action, the court dismissed all charges— instead the judge put the United States Marshal who tried to detain Jerry on trial for kidnapping, since the Syracuse judge declared the Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional—at least in his jurisdiction.

A wealthy man and a noted philanthropist, Gerrit Smith not only spoke frequently in favor of abolition, but he contributed financially to the anti-slavery movement as well as permitting his home to be one of the major stations of the Underground Railroad. From his extensive inherited land holdings (he was the largest land holder in New York State), he generously gave away forty acres to each of 3,000 poor, but temperate, free Negroes, thereby providing them with the land which satisfied the law and permitted them to vote . (John W. Jones of Elmira and his brothers were among the recipients of this generosity.) A portion of the land at North Elba, New York, he gave to John Brown in the hope that the Brown family could assist the other newcomers to these donated lands. Given the nature of Adirondack soil, this generous action unfortunately did not lead to successful farming. Ultimately, John Brown was buried at his farm site after his hanging as a result of his failed Harpers Ferry raid. Smith and the "Secret Six" of New England were involved with Brown in his planning of the Harpers Ferry event which Smith helped to finance. The defeat of the raid and the execution of Brown caused a breakdown for Smith and confinement temporarily to a mental home.

Smith was one of the major supporters of the Liberty Party which stood for abolition from its inception in 1840 until its absorption into other pre-Civil War political parties. As a result he was nominated by the Liberty Party for the Presidency of the United States in 1848, 1856, and 1860, unsuccessful campaigns. He did serve one term as Representative to the U.S. Congress as the only outspoken advocate of abolition. He worked closely with Henry Stanton in furthering the cause of the Liberty Party and abolition, and it was at his house that Elizabeth Cady and Henry Stanton met, fell in love, and eventually eloped. Although he had been a staunch supporter of women's rights and the movement which was headed by his niece Elizabeth Cady Stanton, he fell out with the women's group when he supported the Sixteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which gave suffrage to African-American men but did not include suffrage for women, white or black.

Gerrit Smith favored a strong military position for Lincoln's government in its attempt to subjugate the Southern Confederate states so as to preserve the Union. On the other hand, he favored a lenient policy to the newly conquered seceding states after the war, even standing security bail for Jefferson Davis since he felt that both sides of the slavery conflict had been to blame for the situation which had resulted in war. In his final reaction to the Civil War and its aftermath, he had a statement printed in which he blamed the new Republican Party for its failure to protect the rights of the newly free and enfranchised slaves. One of the longest lasting of Smith's relationships was with Frederick Douglass since they both worked for the same cause and both were supporters of the Liberty Party. There is a picture of Smith at the 1850 Cazenovia anti-slavery meeting in which the handsome young Douglass stands in front of the older Gerrit Smith.

Frederick Douglass no doubt is the most noted name in the fight for the freeing of the slaves and for the rights of African-Americans after the conclusion of the Civil War. He was born on the 10,000-acre Lloyd Plantation near Easton, Maryland, in which his mother was a field slave and his father was a white man, possibly the slave master on that plantation. Douglass was to develop in time into a six-foot, handsome young man with an olive brown countenance. When he was six years old he was taken from the care of his grandmother, as was the custom of slave owners of the time, to become part of the slave holdings of the plantation. As he developed, he was sent to be a house slave for the Auld family, relatives of the plantation Lloyd family, and there he was treated well. In time, his growing independence was more than the Aulds could handle, and he was returned to the plantation where he suffered under a brutal slave master, the basis for many of his later speeches on the problems of the three million slaves in the South and their mistreatment. As a growing adolescent, he rose against the slave master one day when being severely punished, and he downed the man in a fight. He was sent to a shipyard as a slave laborer, and there, tracing the letters on the sides of ships under construction, he gradually taught himself to become literate. With the ability to read, he happened upon a booklet which exposed him to the idea of gaining his freedom.

In 1838, at the age of twenty, Douglass made his break from slavery. He borrowed the papers of a freed black sailor, and, donning sailors garb, with money given to him by Anna Murray, his future wife, he took the train from Baltimore to the north. In his new life he adopted a new name, that of Frederick Douglass which he took from Sir Walter Scott's "Lady of the Lake." Protected by a white abolitionist in New York City, Douglas sent for Anna Murray, his fiancée, and they were married. They settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he felt he could obtain work in the shipyards, but discrimination was to force him to work at menial labor in Boston to support his growing family, a family which eventually included five children. He joined the Massachusetts branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1841 at one of their conventions in Nantucket he was moved to speak with passion about the sufferings of those in slavery. At that meeting, William Lloyd Garrison was so taken with Douglass' demeanor, his speaking ability, and his rich voice that he hired him as a lecturer to serve the anti-slavery movement throughout the North.

In 1845, Douglass wrote his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, a volume which immediately caught the public fancy and sold thousands of copies. In the book he detailed the problems of the life of a slave on a plantation, using the incidents and names of those who were part of the plantation on which he had labored. Since the details of his life and his escape to the North made him liable to capture under the Fugitive Slave Law, he was advised to sail to England as a protection against his being seized by Federal Marshals. The next two years he lectured throughout the British Isles on the life of slaves in America, and he became an internationally known and respected speaker whose oratorical skills had developed greatly. British abolitionists were so taken by the man that they raised the $700 to purchase his freedom, thereby enabling him to return the United States.

Garrison and other abolitionists in Boston wished to have Douglass return to the lecture stage under their auspices, but he determined that he needed the freedom to act upon his own impulses and his own needs in speaking against slavery. He and Anna moved to Rochester, New York, in 1847, a town with abolitionist leanings, where they bought a house, and there he started his own newspaper the North Star, a name taken from that star in the sky which escaping slaves used as their directional guide in their flight to the North. The paper had as its statement: "Right is of no sex, Truth is of no color." The newspaper was to be by black writers and for black people, and its name, as Douglass' fame grew, was changed to the Frederick Douglass Weekly. Operating a newspaper was an expensive proposition, and in order to meet the accruing bills Douglass had to return to the lecture platform to support his family and his paper; in fact, for a time he had to mortgage their home in Rochester to pay their bills.

An English friend, Julia Griffiths, came from England to manage the paper for him and to bring it to financial stability. She was white, and she lived with Douglass and his wife; as his assistant she often walked with him arm in arm in Rochester, to the dismay of those who looked for scandal. In 1852 she moved out of the Douglass home to discourage gossip, and in 1855, having put the paper on a solid basis, she returned to England. One of Douglass's great disappointments during these years was his wife's illiteracy, and although he hired tutors to try to bring her to literacy, Anna never did become literate. Thus their interests were diverging although their family life continued intact. She was a most able housewife, and she looked after the many fleeing slaves who took refuge in the Douglass house; Frederick, having become the head of the Underground Railroad in the Rochester area, often found refugee slaves on his newspaper doorstep in the morning, and it was not unusual for Anna to have to feed up to eleven escaped slaves at a time. Disturbed by the fact that Rochester schools were segregated and that he had to hire a tutor for his children, he was influential in moving the Rochester city government to integrate its schools in 1857.

Douglass became the most noted black leader of his day, and he became involved with other reforms as well, particularly the Women's Rights movement at which he was a primary speaker at the 1848 convention in Seneca Falls. He was one of the few men at that meeting to vote wholeheartedly in favor of woman suffrage. Through Garrit Smith he became involved in the Liberty Party and then the Free Soil Party which opposed the extension of slavery into the new Western states being formed. He was a friend of John Brown, but he refused to become involved in the October 1859 Harpers Ferry raid since he saw that it would bring down the wrath of the Federal government and would not accomplish its goal. Documents found after the raid implied his involvement in the planning of the raid, and thus he had to flee to Canada from which he sailed once more to England in November of 1859. His British stay lasted but six months, terminating when the furor over the Harpers Ferry raid had subsided and because of his beloved daughter Annie's death in 1860.

During the campaign for the Presidency he was a firm supporter of Abraham Lincoln, and when the war broke out, his two sons volunteered to become a part of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an all black regiment, the most noted of the military units in which some 200,000 black soldiers served during the Civil War. He was not happy with Lincoln's Presidency at first since he wished abolition to be a goal of the war, an issue which was settled on January 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass was active in support of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the latter of which permitted for black male suffrage. It was this latter amendment which caused a break with the Women's Rights Movement since it did not permit for female suffrage. Douglass regretted the split with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other women of the suffragette movement, a breach which was later made up. His stance in this matter came from his feeling that it was essential that black males have the right to vote, particularly in the South after the Civil War, a situation which unfortunately did not work out since the Hayes administration removed the Federal military from the South.

Frederick and Anna Douglas moved to Washington, D.C. in 1877, buying a house which became his last home, and here he became an influence in national black affairs in the Reconstruction Period. Anna died in 1882, and two years later Frederick married one of the secretaries on his staff, a white woman, and the cause of much controversy which he ignored. In 1889 he was appointed Minister to Haiti by the U.S. government. As the Grand Old Man of the anti-slavery movement, he was criticized by young blacks as time went by since the Republican Party did not live up to its earlier support of blacks, especially in the South, while Douglass refrained from criticizing the Party. These younger black critics and some self-seeking black politicians did not realize the part he had played in helping to bring the white citizens of the North to favor abolition and the emancipation of the slaves. Douglas died in 1895 and his body was interred in the Mt. Hope Cemetery in Rochester, the town from which he had been most active in his fight for the emancipation of American slaves.

The Burned-Over District of New York thus had its part to play in the anti-slavery movement from the 1820s to 1865. Much of the reform movement, at first came from the Revivals which had swept over the area and made individuals conscious first of their own moral weaknesses and eventually of the major shortcoming of society in their time—particularly that of the holding of their fellow men and women in slavery. After 1865 the new industrialization of New York cities in the Mohawk Valley and the Ontario Plain would see a decline in much of the reform spirit as the population of the area became more diverse. Nonetheless, in the case of the anti-slavery impulse, the people of the District had acted with commendable effort.

Further Readings

Barkun, Michael. Crucible of the Millennium: The Burned-Over District of New York in the 1840s. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York. 1964

Barnes, Gilbert. The Anti-Slavery Impulse, 1830-1844. n.p. 1933.

Bradford, Sarah H. Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman, the Moses of Her People. Auburn, New York. W. J. Moses, printer.1869. (Re-printed in 1993 by Applewood Books, Bedford. Massachusetts.)

Buckminster, Henrietta. Let My People Go: The Story of the Underground Railroad and the Growth of the Abolition Movement. n.p. 1941.

Conrad, Earl. Harriet Tubman. Associated Publishers. Washington, D.C. 1943.

Cross, Whitney R. The Burned-Over District, the Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850. Cornell University Press. Ithaca, New York. 1950.

Douglass, Frederick. Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself of His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History to the Present Times. N.p. 21895. Encarta Encyclopedia.

"Harriet Tubman." Microsoft Corporation. 1997.

"Frederick Douglas:" Microsoft Corporation. 1997.

"Frederick Douglas: The RochesterYears." 3.htm

Frothingham, Octavius Brooks. Gerrit Smith, a Biography. n.p. New York. 1878.

"Gerrit Smith."

"Gerrit Smith."

"Gerrit Smith."

"Gerrit Smith."

Harlow, Ralph. Gerrit Smith, Philanthropist and Reformer. n.p. New York. 1939

"Harriet Tubman." The Harriet Tubman Center. Auburn, New York. 2003. at Tubman

"Harriet Tubman."

"Harriet Tubman."

Siebert, Wilbur. The Underground Railroad: from Slavery to Freedom. n.p. 1898.

Sperry, W. L. Religion in America. Macmillan. New York. 1946.

Sterling, Dorothy. Freedom Train: The Story of Harriet Tubman. Doubleday. Garden City, New York. 1954.

Sweet, William W. Revivalism in America: Its Origins, Growth, and Decline. Scribner, New York. 1944.

Sweet, William W. The Story of Religion in America. Harpers. New York. 1950.

Tyler, Alice. Freedom's Ferment: Phases of American Social History until 1860. University of Minnesota Press. Minneapolis, Minnesota. 1944.

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© 2005, John H. Martin
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