Ephraim Wright of Springfield, Vermont always walked with his head turned to the side, one eye cast over his shoulder looking for enemies. He wasn’t paranoid, there very probably was someone out to get him.
Wright was a fugitive slave, one of countless men, women and children who passed through Vermont on their way toward Canada during the decades that led up to the Civil War.
The state’s robust Underground Railroad was not surprising, since Vermont was always ahead of its time on the issue of slavery. In 1777 the state’s Constitution banned it at a time when slavery was still widely accepted. In the early 1800s, the state passed laws expressly making it illegal to kidnap black citizens to transport them to southern slave states.
By the 1830s, antislavery societies had more than 10,000 members in the state. In 1840, a law was passed to guarantee fugitive slaves trial by jury and in 1843 another law forbid the use of state police in capturing fugitive slaves.
In 1850, passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Law that strengthened the rights of southern slaveholders to force the return of slaves who had escaped made Vermont’s corridor of the Underground Railroad even more important, as escaped slaves realized they were now unsafe in northern states and fled to Canada in greater numbers.
It’s not clear exactly how many slaves used the Underground Railroad to gain their freedom, with estimates ranging from 6,000 to 30,000, but once escaping slaves reached Vermont, there was a well-established network of families who could be counted on to help move the escapees north to Montreal.
Rebecca (Safford) Holmes recounted for historians her recollections as a child on her father’s farm of slaves arriving, being fed and staying overnight before heading off, first to Perkinsville, then to Woodstock, then on up the line.
Rebecca’s father Noah was one of many outspoken critics of slavery in Vermont. Safford was an inventor of Safford’s Straw Cutter. Born in 1789, son of a Revolutionary War lieutenant, Safford’s mowing machine was popular in New England. And in the 1820s, he began selling it in the southern states. It was during business travels that many northerners first came face to face with slavery.
“This was in the days of slavery,” the History of the Town of Springfield recounts, “and he saw many slaves sold to go to the rice and cotton plantations. These scenes made him swear eternal war on slavery.”
“His house was welcome shelter for the fugitive slave. He demanded that all anti-slavery speakers be heard in the pulpit and lecture room. His emancipation opinions caused much opprobrium and social ostracism to be cast on him, but his sunny, loving nature overlooked it all.”
When Ephraim Wright (a name he likely adopted) arrived in Springfield, Noah Safford gladly put him up and helped him get established. In the end, Wright decided to stop his run in Springfield. There he married another fugitive slave, had a family, and joined the Congregational Church.
But the legend is he never stopped looking over his shoulder, and when asked what he would do if he caught sight of his old master behind him, he said, “I think I should fight.”