Underground Railroad Tours
Charles B. Swain is the minorities' historian for Greene
County, N.Y. His was the first such appointment in the United States. He is the author of several books:
The history of the Underground Railroad really begins before the Revolutionary War and the American Declaration of Independence. In the early 1600's Africans were brought to the America's as laborers. Gradually, the reality of slavery and the legal devices permitting and governing, it became a part of the colonial culture. In 1787 the United States Constitution included slavery as a right of American citizens. In 1793, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed to protect the rights of slave owners by giving them the right to "recapture" runaways.
Slavery in America developed as a response to economics. The major crops and exports of the southern states were tobacco, rice, cotton, and sugar. These crops required longs hours of hard work in the hot sun, time consuming, oftenbackbreaking labor, and a cheap source of laborers. Slavery was the answer to all of these problems.
From the very beginning, people tried to escape from slavery with varying degrees of success. By the early 19th century, white and black abolitionists, African American Staves, American Indians, and members of religious groups including Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists, had established a fluid and informal system of aiding escapees that came to be called the Underground Railroad. After the 1820's, Missouri established the boundary between free and slave territory. Most escaping staves were trying to get to the borders of the free states of Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Delaware. Those who sought the security of distance traveled further north, and a few went all the way to Canada.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was in response to the success of so many fugitives to reach the free states through the early Underground Railroad. It required federal marshals to assist in the capture and return of escaped staves, levied fines, and prison sentences on those who helped runaways, and allowed unscrupulous traders to kidnap free African Americans on the slightest pretext and sell them south into slavery. This forced runaways to flee to Canada, Mexico and even Europe in order to be safely free.
In response to this increased need and danger for fleeing fugitives, the Underground Railroad increased in size and activity. Many residents of the northern states joined the movement and put the lives, security, and freedom of their families in jeopardy to shelter and assist runaways to reach the safety of Canada. It is estimated that more than 500 African Americans were regular "conductors" on the Underground Railroad, and that the Railroad was responsible for the freedom of over 75,000 former slaves during its existence.
New York City and the Hudson River Valley formed a natural combination of resources and geographic advantages to create a major route on the Underground Railroad. There are many well-established connections to the historical railroad in the area. The secrecy and misdirection that was necessitated by the nature of the Underground Railroad makes it difficult to research. That which was kept hidden in order to serve its purpose was not revealed when it was no longer needed. Thus, much of the history was forgotten and lost.
One community where a fortuitous combination of circumstances allowed actual structures and oral history to survive is Catskill, New York. Situated on the banks of the magnificent Hudson River, Catskill is a village with a rich history of Pre-Colonial, Revolutionary War, and Civil War involvement. By 1800, the Hudson River and the railways from New York City encouraged many to build summer homes along the river. There is a tunnel in Greene County with the entrance/exit disguised as a property marker, according to Charles B. Swain, minorities' historian for Greene County, N.Y. The tunnel on the tour of Underground Railroad sites is, to date, the only documented, surviving tunnel in the connections to the Underground Railroad that are now being researched. One of these is the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church built in the mid-1800's that has a false panel behind the pulpit to hide fugitives.
A central character of the Underground Railroad was Harriet Tubman, born a slave in Maryland in 1821, and escaping to freedom in 1849. This resourceful and courageous woman dedicated herself to helping as many slaves as possible to escape to freedom. She made nineteen trips to the sough and back, bringing 319 former staves to freedom, losing not a single one. An immediate legend, she was given the nickname of Moses. Enraged slaveholders put a bounty of $40,000 on her for capture. After 1850, and the Fugitive Slave Act, Harriet Tubman escorted her charges to Canada through Philadelphia and New York State, developing an extensive support system of friends and associates in the Hudson River Valley. It is known that she traveled through the Greene County area and had acquaintances here. Descendents of those families, both black and white, who helped with the Underground Railroad, still live in Greene County.
After the Civil War, and the Emancipation, Harriet Tubman settled in Auburn, New York, where she had purchased property in 1857 for a home for her and her parents. Harriet Tubman died in her Auburn home in March 10, 1913.
Tours are held several times each year. Bus tours are $3.00 per person; individual tours are also available. Each tour is accompanied by adjunct activi- ties that are entertaining and educational. All activities are appropriate for both children and adults alike.
Please call (518) 943-5241 for more information.
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Copyright © 1999 by Richard Frisbie -- All rights reserved.