The Underground Railroad was a network of people who hid fugitives from slavery in their homes during the day. At night they moved them north to free states, Canada or England.
Refugees naturally headed for New England. The region had banished slavery and nurtured a strong abolitionist movement. And people fleeing slavery could also get there easily from the South by rail and by coastal vessels.
People who helped African-Americans escape used railroad terminology as a code to describe their activities in case someone overheard their conversations. People who moved the refugees were called conductors. The buildings that sheltered them were stations and the people who fed and clothed them until they were ready to move on were stationmasters.
Here, then, are six New England stops on the Underground Railroad, one for each of the New England states.
Austin F. Williams House
The Austin F. Williams House and Carriage House in Farmington, Conn., played a central role in a major drama before the Civil War: The Amistad Affair.
Williams, an active abolitionist, conducted for the Underground Railroad. In the Amistad case, a group of slaves on board the sailing vessel Amistad managed to free themselves and killed the ship’s captain in 1839.
They were subsequently brought to America and arrested. Abolitionists viewed their case — which resulted in acquittal on the grounds that they acted in self-defense — as an important victory.
Following the trial, Williams built a house on his Farmington property where the freed Africans stayed before returning to Sierra Leone in 1842. The Williams property is not open to the public.
Abyssinian Meeting House
Portland became a northern hub of the Underground Railroad because it was so easy to get to by rail and sea. The city’s six hundred or so free blacks clustered in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood, and they mostly worked as mariners, on the waterfront or on the railroads.
In the 1820s, Portland’s African-Americans got fed up with shabby treatment by the Second Congregational Church. So they formed their own church, the Abyssinian Religious Society, in 1828. Then they started building the Abyssinian Congregational Church, a wood-frame building on a high brick foundation on Newbury Street.
The meeting house hosted a school for black children, church suppers, concerts and, of course, religious services. Abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison both spoke from the Abyssinian’s pulpit.
After the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, the church’s members organized escape routes for fugitives to England and Canada. They found safe houses for escaped slaves, fed them and transported them. Reuben Ruby, a church founder and hack driver, conducted slaves to freedom in his coach.
Portland’s Underground Railroad operated in complete secrecy, and the only written record of a successful escape appeared in the memoirs of a stationmaster’s descendant. The Abyssinian’s Rev. Amos Noe Freeman hid a fugitive from slavery in the meeting house.
The 1866 Portland fire destroyed the neighborhood, but church members saved the meeting house by putting wet blankets on the roof. The Abyssinian Meeting House fell into disuse, though. Then a landlord converted it to a tenement house. The city of Portland seized it for back taxes and in 1998 sold it to the Committee to Restore the Abyssinian for a small fee.
The Abyssinian Meeting House, at 75 Newbury Street, is currently under restoration.
Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties
Quakers Nathan and Mary Johnson harbored Frederick Douglass in 1838 at their home in New Bedford, Mass. The couple were free blacks who married in 1819 and became part of New Bedford’s robust African-American community.
New Bedford, a port city, was attractive to African-Americans because its industries — whaling and the maritime trades – were open to them.
By 1853, New Bedford had the highest population of African-Americans in the Northeast, and 30 percent said they came from the South.
It was estimated that at any one time before the Civil War, 300 to 700 fugitive slaves lived in New Bedford.
Nathan and Mary Johnson owned a confectionery store, several businesses and their home, a stop on the Underground Railroad. They were prominent abolitionists; Nathan, a pharmacist, was elected the president of the 1847 National Convention of Colored People in Troy, New York.
One of the Johnson properties was a residence, the other a Quaker meetinghouse.
The New Bedford Historical Society owns the Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties at 17-19 and 21 Seventh St. in New Bedford. To make an appointment for a tour, call 508-979-8828.
James Wood Farm
On the Croydon Turnpike in Lebanon, N.H., just before the East Plainfield line, the Wood Farm served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
James Wood, a prosperous and industrious Quaker, owned the 800-acre farm. Wood dealt in hay, kept bees and surveyed land.
Wood’s involvement as the station keeper for New Hampshire’s Hillsborough County on the Underground Railroad had scant documentation.
His journal from 1862, discovered by Steve Ristelli in a New Hampshire antique shop, uncovered additional details.
On June 1, 1862, Wood noted: “A fugitive slave? come here abt 10 o”clock this eve to stay all night. I fixed him a bed in wool room,” according to Slavery & the Underground Railroad in New Hampshire, by Michelle Arnosky Sherburne.
There is little additional information about the fugitives helped by Wood. Historians say the slight mention suggests that Wood did not consider the event to be particularly unusual. They say he probably helped others passing through. The Wood farm is not open to the public.
20 High St., Ashaway, R.I.
Rhode Island had both a sizable number of Quakers who supported abolition as well the densest African-American population in New England. As a result, the tiny state had a busy Underground Railroad before the Civil War. Free blacks and wealthy industrialists both conducted fugitives north to safety.
Jacob Babcock’s house in the village of Ashaway served as the first Rhode Island stop on the Underground Railroad. Babcock, a prosperous mill owner, believed strongly in temperance and in abolition. He hid fugitive slaves in tunnels under his house, then brought them to a Mr. Foster farther north.
Babcock enlisted his 16-year-old nephew, Isaac Cundall, to take the escapees in a wagon to Mr. Foster. Six decades later, Cundall told the Providence Journal about one close call.
A Close Call
In March 1858, Uncle Jacob told him he had to transport a woman fugitive in broad daylight. The sheriff and the slave owner were looking for her in the neighborhood. Jacob knew the sheriff would get a warrant to search his house. So Isaac asked his cousin Sarah Babcock to take a ride with him. She put on a big hat, a veil and a heavy shawl, and they took off in a wagon.
Sure enough, they ran into the sheriff. They made sure to chat with him, made sure he identified Sarah Babcok. Then they rode on for a mile and turned around. They saw the sheriff and told him it was so cold they decided to head back to get warmer clothes.
Back at Uncle Jacob’s house the fugitive woman put on Sarah’s clothes plus another wrap. Then they easily passed by the sheriff. Isaac took her to a minister’s house, and she safely made it to the next station.
Jacob Babcock’s house still stands, though privately owned.
Rokeby in Ferrisburgh, Vt., belonged to Rowland T. Robinson, who openly sheltered escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. Robinson’s extensive correspondence about how the railroad worked provides an important historic archive.
In 1793, Thomas and Jemma Robinson, Rowland’s parents, built Rokeby. He made abolition the cause of his life. Not only did he shelter fugitives, he negotiated freedom papers with slavemasters and found jobs for freedmen.
Today Rokeby, a historic farm property and museum, includes a 1780s farmstead. It also has eight agricultural outbuildings with permanent exhibits, and hiking trails that cover more than 50 acres.
You can find Rokeby at 4334 U.S. Route 7 in Ferrisburgh.
Photos: Austin F. Williams House and Carriage House By Ragesoss – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4674472. Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties By English Wikipedia user Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4384044. Rokeby By Mfwills – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11310696.
This story was updated in 2020.