ESSAY –Interpreting the Upper-Ground Railroad

The essay excerpted below originally appeared in Max van Balgooy, ed., Interpreting African American History and Culture (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 75-88.  It argues for a more sophisticated understanding of interpreting Underground Railroad sites, one that emphasizes how open much of the defiance of the fugitive rendition system really was in the antebellum era –at least in the North.


Interpreting the Upper-Ground Railroad

by Matthew Pinsker

“I have never approved of the very public manner in which some of our western friends have conducted what they call the underground railroad, but which I think, by their open declarations, has been made most emphatically the upper-ground railroad.”

–Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845)


At the very outset of the twenty-first century, historic preservationists scored a rare victory for African American history during a public showdown with major commercial developers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They forced multi-million dollar plans for a new convention center to be altered, and space created to protect an underground cistern that was thought to have been used by radical abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens while hiding runaway slaves.

The problem with this political victory, however, was that it was based on a shaky point of historical interpretation. Stevens certainly helped runaways, sometimes perhaps even as a local “stationmaster” in the terminology of traditional Underground Railroad lore. Yet by far his more significant contributions to the cause came as an attorney, in real fugitive slave cases which had both national and enduring significance. Yet if preservationists had fought merely to protect the war room of a great fugitive lawyer in the antebellum era buildings that contained both his law offices and residence, without also highlighting that mysterious cistern in the rear of the complex, they would have surely failed in their efforts. The archaeologists who had investigated the alleged hiding place never really proved much about any particular escapes connected to that cistern, but they managed nonetheless to capture public imagination in the way that the most popular stories about the Underground Railroad have always done.[1]

In other words, they were probably right for the wrong reasons. People expect high drama in their tales of nineteenth-century freedom seekers. They want to hear all the elusive details about coded quilts and songs, secret passageways, whispered warnings, and nighttime flight. The possibility of the old, feisty, half-crippled abolitionist peering into the darkness of a hollowed-out cistern only seemed to confirm what everybody in Lancaster thought they knew about the great underground resistance movement.

The challenge for modern-day interpreters of the Underground Railroad is to puncture some of those myths without diminishing otherwise sincere public interest in the story. That is a tricky proposition though it has been made far easier in recent years by an outpouring of first-rate scholarship and through a series of determined efforts at preserving a wider range of African American public history associated with the destruction of slavery.[2] It is now possible –for the first time really– to share a fully nuanced and national portrait of the overlapping, mixed race networks that helped people escape from bondage, and to appreciate those often-complicated individual stories within the context of the larger legal and political effort to destroy slavery in the United States. The result might not seem quite as dramatic as uncovering a secret code or some hidden escape route, but it does offer the startling realization that active resistance to slavery was remarkably open in certain sections of the country and supported by an aggressive phalanx of lawyers, financiers, and propagandists who deserve greater credit for their skill and determination. Frederick Douglass worried that the “upper-ground railroad” would undo them all, but it turned out to be a prime factor in the antislavery movement’s ultimate success.

Since American enslavement was a particularly brutal form of human tyranny, it is sometimes hard to convey just how much the law actually mattered in defining the peculiar institution. Yet there should be no doubt that the slave system demanded extensive statutory and judicial support –and so did the effort to undermine it. You simply cannot –or should not—discuss slavery-related historic sites without at some point setting them in the context of American law. Practically every colony in British North America, for instance, had some kind of fugitive statute prohibiting both runaway slaves and indentured servants from freeing themselves.[3]   Yet there was always a strong element of backcountry resistance to this form of patriarchy from the lowlands or Eastern elites. Thus, the issue of fugitives from service remained a perennial problem for colonial masters who complained bitterly about the lack of enforcement for the rules. This was the contested legal tradition which helped inform the notable (and awkwardly phrased) fugitive clauses which the Founders inserted into both the Northwest Ordinance and the U.S. Constitution during the summer of 1787.[4]

Such is also the context necessary to understand the short, divisive history of fugitive slave laws in the United States. There were only two federal statutes, 1793 and 1850, both controversial and each which proved to be utter failures. The first law emerged out of a 1791 kidnapping case from Washington County in western Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania wanted to extradite three Virginians accused of seizing one of its free black residents, but Virginia declined to do so in the absence of a clear federal statute executing the provisions of the Constitution’s fugitive clause. The result, after much debate, was a new law that authorized a general interstate extradition process, and then also provided loosely for rendition procedures that would apply to what the statute still delicately referred to as “persons escaping from the service of their masters” or “fugitives from labor.”[5] Just as the Constitution had avoided the term “slavery” or “slave,” so eventually did both federal fugitive “slave” laws –neither of which actually used that word.

It is fair to describe the 1793 rendition process as loose, because the brief statute (less than 700 words) simply authorized the “agent or attorney” of an aggrieved master to “seize and arrest” fugitives wherever he found them and to take them to “any Judge” or “any Magistrate” at federal, state or local court, in order to obtain an unspecified “certificate” that would provide “sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive.” Moreover, anyone who knowingly harbored fugitives or intentionally obstructed the rendition process was then subject under federal law to a civil procedure that might result in up to $500 in fines, without any jail time.[6]

From the perspective of slaveholders, this was bad law made even worse by national and international trends working against them. By the 1790s, it was clear that domestic slavery was becoming an almost entirely sectional phenomenon. Northern states had begun a process of gradual abolition and their representatives had been fighting successfully to keep slavery out of northwestern territories. Then a series of international events such as the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Mexican abolition (1829), and British Empire abolition (1833) combined to stoke the sensation that southern slave states were becoming ever more isolated and vulnerable, especially to the problem of slave escapes into nearby free soil.[7] Even the dramatic expansion of slavery into the American southwest following the introduction of the cotton gin only served to fuel this impression. Since nothing provoked runaways faster than the break-up of their families, the exploding domestic slave trade of the early nineteenth century actually encouraged more escapes.[8] Moreover, since so many of those broken families came from the slave-exporting border region, Upper South states such as Kentucky, Maryland and Virginia were compelled to work furiously just to keep up with the runaway problem. They attempted to implement their own ever more ambitious regime of “slave-stealing” statutes.[9]

Northern states passed their own laws, too, but more as a kind of sovereign defense mechanism than as enforcement measures. The problem as they saw it was that antebellum slave-catching agents frequently ignored the niceties of people’s legal status and too often ended up kidnapping free blacks (such as with the famous case of Solomon Northup from New York). Though northern states rarely demonstrated any concern for the civil rights of their antebellum black residents, these kidnapping episodes provoked a serious states’ rights backlash. What resulted was the emergence of personal liberty laws, which were anti-kidnapping statutes adopted by various northern states beginning in the 1820s and which had the effect of frustrating implementation of the federal fugitive slave code.[10] Surprisingly few fugitives were successfully returned back to the South after the 1830s (at least by legal means), and hardly any northern antislavery activists ever faced even the comparatively weak civil punishments threatened by the 1793 statute.

Abolitionists capitalized on these developments during the 1830s and 1840s by publicizing the successes of what they were just then starting to call the “Underground Railroad.” By the same token, almost every instance of futility associated with the federal fugitive system became an opportunity for pro-slavery extremists to argue angrily that southern rights were being trampled upon.   That is why U.S. senators Andrew Butler (D-SC) and James Mason (D-VA) proposed sweeping revisions to the federal fugitive rules in January 1850, and why their proposals ultimately became an essential component of the so-called Compromise of 1850. The deal which passed Congress in September included a new, much tougher fugitive slave law as part of a series of measures designed to pave the way for California’s admission to the union as a free state.[11]

The 1850 fugitive slave law was the notorious one, made infamous by its harsh provisions which included a new class of federal commissioners who were to be paid more for rendering accused fugitives to the South than if they chose to acquit ($10 versus $5), the denial of any opportunity for accused fugitives to testify on their own behalf, and punishment for anyone who knowingly harbored fugitives or obstructed rendition now with up to $1,000 dollars in fines and potential imprisonment for as long as six months.   The statute also went out of its way to expose anyone who aided and abetted fugitives to even further civil damages. This was certainly the type of enforcement system white southerners had always wanted, but it turned out yet again to fall short in their reality.[12]

This frustration for white southerners often gets obscured by the heated propaganda of the sectional crisis. It has been too easy to assume over the years that laws on the books equaled realities on the ground. Yet despite its notorious reputation, the 1850 fugitive law was hardly any more effective in reigning in runaway slaves than its predecessor. During its twelve years of effective operation, the 1850 statute generated only around 350 cases, about a third of them in Pennsylvania and none in New England after 1854. The hated law provoked such an embittered reaction that some northern states, such as Wisconsin, actually tried to nullify it. The U.S. Supreme Court, dominated by pro-slavery southerners such as Chief Justice Roger Taney, fought back by attempting to address the dubious constitutionality of state personal liberty laws. On two major occasions, the court ruled against these anti-kidnapping statutes —Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842) and Ableman v. Booth (1859)– but neither ruling seemed to quell any of the state-based resistance to fugitive rendition in the North.[13]

One of the surest ways to appreciate the depth of this legal controversy is to return to old Thad Stevens and his law office. In late 1851, attorney Stevens helped organize a successful defense for more than three dozen men who had been accused of committing treason against the United States for their role in protecting four runaway slaves. The fugitives had crossed over into Lancaster County, Pennsylvania from Baltimore County, Maryland during the late 1840s, where they had found help from a local black self-protection society and from sympathetic white farmers in the otherwise quiet rural community.[14] On September 11, 1851, however, an armed federal posse caught up with them and a shootout ensued, known locally as the “Christiana Riot.” The resistance at Christiana provoked heated national attention because the Maryland slaveholder who traveled with the federal marshals, Edward Gorsuch, was actually killed, and (at least according to southern newspapers), had his body mutilated afterwards by vengeful ex-slaves. The fact that the charge was treason and not any violation of the new federal fugitive slave law only serves to demonstrate just how inflamed the situation had become by the early 1850s. The first year of the new law’s operation had been thoroughly problematic. On the one hand, dozens of fugitives had been rounded up and returned to the South, though to howls of outrage from the antislavery press, but on the other hand there were also ominous examples of open, sometimes violent resistance to the federal law in places such as Boston (Shadrach Minkins) and Syracuse, New York (William Henry, a.k.a. “Jerry”). The Christiana riot was the most violent of these early confrontations over the new statute and had a profound effect on collapsing sectional relations.[15]

To begin, all of the runaways from Christiana escaped successfully, aided by a wide network of northern supporters (including Frederick Douglass, then in Rochester, New York) who helped remove the young men and several of the leading rioters to Canada. Left behind, however, were 38 local men, some white but most free black residents, charged with levying war against the U.S. government (still to this date the largest group charged with treason in American history). These accused rebels received generous support and ultimately free legal counsel paid for by the antislavery community to help with their custody and the federal trial which was held in Philadelphia in late November and early December 1851. Stevens and the other defense lawyers succeeded in making a mockery of the government’s case, exposing perjury among some federal witnesses and ultimately compelling even the presiding judge (Supreme Court justice Robert Grier) to acknowledge in his charge to the jury that the high threshold for treason had not been met. The jury subsequently acquitted the first defendant (a white man named Castner Hanway) within about 15 minutes and eventually prosecutors released the others. Nobody ever went to jail for the murder of Edward Gorsuch.[16]

Naturally, such an outcome sent shockwaves across the already agitated South. Editorial and political outrage was palpable and had far-reaching consequences in ways not always immediately apparent. An enslaved family from St. Louis, for example, discovered that their fate was almost inextricably bound up in the politics of resistance to the fugitive law even though they had never run away from anything. In 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott had sued the widow of their deceased owner in Missouri court, anxious to secure freedom for themselves and their young daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, after they had been held for years as slaves in northern territory. They won, at first, but then found their legal victory reversed on appeal to the state supreme court in Scott v. Emerson (1852), a decision which threw out decades of Missouri precedent for such “freedom suit” cases. The state chief justice did not invoke the Christiana episode by name in the opinion, but he was explicit about blaming what legal scholars describe as the breakdown of comity, or interstate legal relations, commenting darkly, “Times now are not as they were.”[17] An even more provocative example of unintended consequences from Christiana came in the form of a bitter memory lodged in the mind of an aspiring Maryland actor who was then attending school with Edward Gorsuch’s now-orphaned son, Tommy. During the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth would later recall the killing of his schoolmate’s father as one of his litany of examples of northern aggression against southern honor.[18]

Yet despite all of this, the Christiana Treason Trial has been forgotten, at least in the popular memory, along with dozens of other notable fugitive slave cases. This is a crucial mistake. Beyond their obvious significance at the time, these legal battles also have the advantage for modern-day interpreters of having generated a small mountain of documentary evidence –witness statements, trial notes, newspaper accounts, and polemical pamphlets—that fully attest to the wide range of openly defiant activities undertaken by the so-called Underground Railroad. In recent years, scholars have employed evidence from these trials to remarkable effect, producing rich, engaging accounts of Christiana and many other pivotal episodes.[19] The net effect of this literature is to render the antebellum sectional battle over fugitives in more realistic terms, and to appreciate how power shifted above the Mason-Dixon Line and the Ohio River. Enslaved people and their allies were still often embattled minorities in the North, but they were by no means powerless and the law –at least state law– was quite often on their side. Anyone who interprets historic sites that concern the resistance to slavery should be aware of these materials and should consider using them to help document the reality of the public fight against slaveholders.

The great antebellum fugitive cases also provide some fascinating glimpses into the covert side of antislavery activities. During the testimony for the Christiana Treason Trial, for instance, it was revealed that antislavery activists in Philadelphia had developed a remarkably effective spy network that allowed them to monitor the movements of federal marshals. In fact, it was a spy for the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee who had warned the four runaways holed up in Lancaster County that their master and his federal posse was coming after them, and it was that warning which made the entire resistance effort possible.[20]

Northern vigilance committees represented the organized core of the Underground Railroad.   They acted essentially as self-protection societies located in various communities and populated mostly by black men, though their ranks also included a fair number of white men and women of all colors. Nineteenth-century committees of vigilance existed to combat lawlessness in American communities wherever effective municipal police force had not yet developed.[21] For free blacks, their vigilance movement emerged during the 1830s, first in New York, but then across a host of northern cities, such as Philadelphia, Boston, and Detroit, and aimed squarely at defeating the kidnapping rings that were harassing members of their community.[22] Yet from the beginning, these vigilance committees also helped runaway slaves, never hesitating to presume that anybody they helped was either born free –or meant to be free.

The story of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee offers a good example of how antebellum vigilance networks operated. The mixed race group had a variety of names and iterations in the period between 1837 and 1861, but was led primarily by either Robert Purvis, a prominent mixed race businessman, or William Still, a hardworking free black clerk born in New Jersey. For most of its existence, the committee operated as a kind of adjunct to the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, a largely white-led abolitionist group that formed during the mid-1830s as part of William Lloyd Garrison’s movement for immediate agitation against slavery. Abolitionists found especially fertile recruiting ground around Philadelphia, because of the concentration of both free blacks (the nation’s second largest urban black population after Baltimore) and some especially feisty anti-slavery Quakers. Philadelphia vigilance activists maintained regular communication with other committees across several northern cities and with supporters in both Canada and Great Britain. The group also had secret contacts in slave territory, particularly throughout Delaware, District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Thus, despite having a full-fledged organization, complete with officers, publicity agents, fundraisers, and various attorneys on retainer, the vigilance committee also served as the covert hub for the mid-Atlantic network that provided aid to escaping slaves.[23]

All of their “underground” activity can be easily documented, however, because the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee kept careful records. Today, these once top-secret escape journals, which typically detail the names of fugitives and agents, experiences of ex-slaves, routes used for escapes and even the associated costs, are now fully accessible online. Anyone who wants can view operational letters, whether directing the transport of “four large and two small hams” (tongue-in-cheek code for four adults and two children) or requesting reimbursement for replacing worn out shoes that had been provided to none-other-than Harriet Tubman.[24] Nor do such records exist just for Philadelphia and its environs. Massachusetts high school students have helped digitize expense records and other documents from the Boston Vigilance Committee. Antislavery editor Sidney Howard Gay kept a detailed journal for his vigilance activities in New York, the subject of an important new monograph from historian Eric Foner. Antislavery newspapers, now digitized from what Frederick Douglass called “our western friends” (meaning abolitionists in places such as Michigan and Ohio) contain periodic but quite specific tallies of fugitive traffic passing through their committees.[25]

There were certainly northern individuals and families who kept their involvement in the resistance movement secret and who deliberately avoided keeping records or joining formal committees –but they were probably in the minority. This is such an essential and widely misunderstood point that it deserves particular scrutiny. Northern defiance of slaveholders was never popular or easy, but it was usually open. Even those who aggressively broke federal law did so with an impunity that seems to have been lost in modern translation. There does not appear to have been a single northern Underground Railroad operative who was killed while helping slaves escape –at least not if he or she remained in the North. No major vigilance leaders spent any significant time in prison, and hardly any ever faced serious legal jeopardy. There were a few passing exceptions, occasional arrests, and sporadic attacks, but they only serve as a reminder that the northern rule was a near total absence of effective punishment for anyone aiding and abetting runaway slaves.

The contrast in the South could not have been greater. Anyone who got caught helping slaves escape below the Mason-Dixon Line could expect the harshest form of legal or extralegal retribution. In 1844, a territorial court in Florida ordered one defendant, a brave but hapless ship captain who had transported some fugitives once, to have his hand branded, “SS” for slave-stealer. One captured underground operative in Kentucky spent literally decades of his life in prison. The famous story of Henry “Box” Brown perhaps best illustrates the stark dichotomy between northern and southern punishments. Brown was a Virginia slave whose friends literally shipped him in a box from Richmond to Philadelphia in March 1849, under the auspices of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee. Brown survived the journey and his escape quickly created a national sensation. Yet neither James McKim, head of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society (where the box was delivered), nor William Still, the organizer, received any punishment for their role in the affair. The only officials who came after them were representatives of the Adams Express Company who sternly warned against attempting any more such shipping adventures. Sadly, however, one of the men who had helped crate Brown up in Richmond was caught, convicted and ultimately forced to serve nearly seven years in the Virginia state penitentiary.[26]

Scholars of the Underground Railroad have been working diligently to recapture the nuances of these regional differences. Some of the best recent work in the field has involved what might be considered microhistory of particular antislavery communities. We now have rich studies of fugitive aid networks in places such as New Bedford, Massachusetts, Oberlin, Ohio, Ripley, Ohio, south-central Pennsylvania, Washington, DC and several others.[27] Taken together, they help create a national tapestry that situates the Underground Railroad more completely than ever before in the story of rapidly changing nineteenth-century American life. The new work enables modern-day students to appreciate the variety of institutions which contributed to the underground movement –not only churches and antislavery societies, but also barbershops, factories, (real) railroads, shipping companies, newspapers, and even the telegraph. The term “Underground Railroad” was a metaphor born out of the great market, transportation and communications revolutions of the early nineteenth century. We need to remember and interpret it in that context, too.

We also need to do better in situating the Underground Railroad within the story of the Civil War. The fugitive crisis of the 1850s was just as relevant to the coming of the war as the territorial crisis and yet it occupies a lesser role in standard accounts of the antebellum period. The rendition of Anthony Burns, the last fugitive returned from New England before the Civil War, occurred during the same week in May 1854 as the final passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Both events received overwhelming coverage in the newspapers of the day. Yet American history textbooks and state history standards are far more inclined to omit the rendition of Burns and the violent reaction by the Boston Vigilance Committee (they killed a federal marshal), than the presidential ambitions of Stephen Douglas or the explosive controversies over “Bleeding Kansas.” When southern states issued resolutions justifying their decisions to leave the Union in 1860 and 1861, they were just as likely to invoke violations of the fugitive slave law as any other single factor.[28]

Almost every major slavery-related controversy from period had a direct connection to the fugitive problem. John Brown, for example, was an Underground Railroad operative who went out to the Kansas Territory during the mid-1850s. He had labeled his vigilance effort in western Massachusetts, the “League of Gileadites,” but in Kansas, he simply called his men an army. Yet his violence in both Kansas and at Harpers Ferry owed more to the vigilance community than most modern students realize. Brown recruited both men and money from vigilance operatives in the North. They helped supply and support him during his final years as an antislavery terrorist. Then after his execution, it was William Still who hosted Mary Brown at his home in Philadelphia and James McKim who helped her gather the body from Virginia and return it for burial in New York. Later during the Civil War, vigilance committee veterans such as Still, Harriet Tubman and Thomas Wentworth Higginson helped organize and lead black recruits for the Union army. Others, such as McKim helped educate wartime runaways, known as “contrabands” through various relief associations. Underground Railroad operatives quite literally contributed to the destruction of American slavery at every stage of the process.[29]

These interpretive admonitions should not be hard to accept for anyone who works at Underground Railroad sites or simply cares about African American historical preservation. The idea of connecting the story to a wider context is just common sense. Physical locations always serve to underscore the importance of place and geography in the understanding of history. Anyone with site experience knows that it is impossible to successfully interpret a historic structure without considering its wide-ranging social, economic and political connections to specific communities and eras. Yet the allure of Underground Railroad mythology has been so powerful over the years that too much of this context has been washed away in the spirit of celebrating heroic individual actions. During the first generations of post-Civil War memory those heroes were often white, usually Quaker, and invariably acting in the shadow of recollected, grave antebellum dangers. Beginning with scholar Larry Gara’s groundbreaking revisionist study, The Liberty Line (1961), however, modern interpreters have been more inclined to focus on the heroism of the fugitives or freedom seekers themselves and to downplay the role of the northern abolitionist network. Thus, by the late 1990s, an important scholarly work such as Runaway Slaves (1999) by John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger could dismiss the Underground Railroad as “shrouded in myth and legend,” devoting only two index entries to the topic within an otherwise comprehensive monograph.[30]

It was probably no coincidence that the same year in which Franklin and Schweninger passed judgment on the sad state of Underground Railroad scholarship, Oprah Winfrey was able to popularize a book about quilt codes that historian David Blight eventually blasted as “a myth, bordering on a hoax.”[31] When scholars ignore important subjects, other interpreters occupy the void. The book, Hidden in Plain View (1999), purported to explain through the oral tradition of one African American family from North Carolina how coded squares sewn into slave quilts were used to convey information about secret escape routes.[32] Over the years, especially since the mid-twentieth century, there have been many such loose claims about codes embedded within songs, quilts, or rural customs, but trained historical researchers have never been able to find corroborating evidence for this folklore. Instead, quite often, as in the case of Oprah’s quilt story, they can find signs of profiteering at work. Oprah certainly had no intention of perpetuating a hoax, but that was arguably the result.

By the same token, three years later when preservationists in Lancaster County invoked the discovery of a mysterious cistern to justify halting plans for a massive convention center project, they were not intending to misrepresent history. They thought, as many did (and still do), that Underground Railroad operatives in the North existed almost totally in secret, relying on a hidden network of “safe houses” and secret passageways to protect themselves and the people they aided from persecution by the tyrannical power of slaveholders. Folks in Lancaster might well have been correct about the cistern, but they did not understand or even imagine the open defiance of the “upper-ground railroad” that existed in antebellum America, and which is only now becoming more apparent to scholars. It is imperative, however, that anyone who aspires to shape the public understanding of how slavery in America got destroyed considers this new scholarship, and attempts to challenge some of the more popular myths about this vital struggle.

Of course, scholars make mistakes, too, and almost never fully agree with each other regardless. There will always be more to discover about such complicated and elusive subjects. Thankfully, there has been a concerted effort in recent years to promote both greater preservation and more sophisticated interpretation of the Underground Railroad. In 1998, Congress adopted the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act which has so far generated documentation for hundreds of sites, facilities and programs associated with the general effort to help runaway slaves. Each year, the National Park Service also now convenes an impressive scholarly conference on the Underground Railroad.[33] Many states have commissioned studies and engaged in their own renewed preservation efforts. Individuals have helped, too. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey donated one million dollars to help launch a National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and while the museum has sometimes struggled in a tough economic climate, it is still standing.[34]

So, too, is the new Stevens-Smith Historic Site in Lancaster, despite being literally wedged inside the hotel / convention center complex. It turns out that the compromise which preservationists and developers forged in 2002 was unusual. They agreed to preserve only the façade of the Stevens law office as part of the actual convention center, and then planned to make an interpretive museum somewhere inside that would feature the cistern and the story of Stevens and his longtime mixed race housekeeper (and perhaps soul mate), Lydia Hamilton Smith.   That was the plan anyway. The façade has since been restored and the convention center is open, but there is no museum. Local preservationists now admit they will not even be able to begin fundraising for such an ambitious venture until 2020.[35] For now, the public can peer at the cistern through a glass window in the lobby. Or determined tourists of the Underground Railroad can drive about 30 minutes away through the winding rural roads of southern Lancaster County to encounter a state historical marker on what is now an Amish farm. The blue-and-gold sign indicates the nearby location of the once-notorious Christiana riot. It is not enough, surely, but at least, after so many decades of myth-making, it is all finally above ground.



[1] For detailed analysis of the convention center showdown in Lancaster, featuring the contributions of the archaeologists, see Fergus M. Bordewich, “Digging into a Historic Rivalry,” Smithsonian Magazine (February 2004), and Kelly M. Britt, “Archaeology –The ‘Missing Link’ to Civic Engagement? An Introspective Look at the Tools of Reinvention and Reengagement in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,” in Archaeology as a Tool of Civic Engagement, edited by Barbara J. Little and Paul A. Shackel (Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2007), 151- 72. The actual report from the archaeologists can be found online via the Digital Commons at Buffalo State; see James A. Delle and Mary Ann Levine, “Excavations at the Thaddeus Stevens and Lydia Hamilton Smith Site, Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Archaeological Evidence for the Underground Railroad,” Northeast Historical Archaeology 33 (2004),

[2] This essay will detail numerous examples of the emerging scholarship, but the best overview of the topic probably comes from a collection of essays edited by David W. Blight, Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2004).

[3] See the classic study by Marion Gleason McDougall, Fugitive Slaves, 1619-1865 (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1891),

[4] Northwest Ordinance (1787), Article VI: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.” US Constitution (1787), Article IV, Section 2: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

[5] See Chapter 4 in Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson 2nd ed. (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001), 81-104.

[6] See full text of the 1793 statute under Acts of Congress, February 12, 1793, from Annals of Congress, 2d Congress, 2d Session; A Century of Lawmaking, American Memory Project, Library of Congress,

[7] Numerous works describe the unfolding of emancipation in the Atlantic world and its impact on the southern slaveholding worldview. One of the best recent summaries comes from David Brion Davis, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[8] Scholars now estimate more than two million domestic slave transactions in the decades before the Civil War. See Walter Johnson, Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 17.

[9] According to editors from the Maryland State Archives, that state for one, “continually adjusted its laws concerning fugitives.” See a useful summary of those changes across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at “Legacy of Slavery in Maryland: An Archives of Maryland Electronic Publication,”

[10] Thomas D. Morris, Free Men All: Personal Liberty Laws of the North, 1780-1861 (orig. pub. 1974; Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 2001). See also Carol Wilson, Freedom at risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780-1865 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994).

[11] See Fergus M. Bordewich, America’s Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise that Preserved the Union (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012), 126-7.

[12] See full text of the 1850 statute, passed on September 18, 1850, at The Avalon Project, Yale Law School,

[13] Though he reaches somewhat different conclusions about how to interpret these facts, see Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law: 1850–1860 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1970) for statistical details. Congress did not officially repeal the Fugitive Slave Law until June 28, 1864, but its enforcement was almost nonexistent from the second year of the Civil War.

[14] There are some conflicting accounts about the exact number and identities of the runaways from Gorsuch’s plantation, but according to the most reliable accounts, there were four young men, all in their mid-20s: Noah Buley, Nelson Ford, George Hammond, and Joshua Hammond.

[15] The best scholarly account of Christiana comes from Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991). For a good description of the national aftermath of the 1850 fugitive law, see Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Underground Railroad and the War for the Soul of America (New York: Amistad, 2005). It’s worth noting that in later paperback editions of this well-written survey, the publisher altered the subtitle to read: “The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement.”

[16] For the full text of the Christiana Treason Trial, see James J. Robbins, Report of the Trial of Castner Hanway for Treason (Philadelphia: King and Baird, 1852),

[17] For a useful summary of the Dred and Harriet Scott case in the Missouri courts, see “Missouri’s Dred Scott Case, 1847-1857, Missouri State Archives, For a fascinating new biography of Harriet Robinson Scott full of insights about slavery and the law, see Lea VanderVelde, Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

[18] Booth mentioned the killing of Gorsuch in his recently rediscovered draft speech manuscript prepared in Philadelphia in December 1860. See John Rhodehemal and Louise Taper, eds., “Right or Wrong, God Judge Me,”: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 55-69.

[19] See Slaughter, Bloody Dawn (1991) as well as some of the following superb monographs (by publication date): Gary Collison, Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press, 1997); Albert J. Von Frank, The Trials of Anthony Burns: Freedom and Slavery in Emerson’s Boston (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); H. Robert Baker, The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2006); Mary Kay Ricks, Escape on the Pearl: The Heroic Bid for Freedom on the Underground Railroad (New York: William Morrow, 2007); Steven Lubet, Fugitive Justice: Runaways, Rescuers, and Slavery on Trial (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

[20] Slaughter, 126.

[21] For a good discussion of “vigilance” as a nineteenth-century concept, see Richard Maxwell Brown, Strain of Violence: Strain of American Violence and Vigilantism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 114-118.

[22] There are very few good studies of the northern vigilance committees and their leaders, but there is finally a first-rate biography of David Ruggles, the movement’s founder. See Graham Russell Gao Hodges, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). Other notable vigilance leaders, such as Robert Purvis and William Still (Philadelphia), George DeBaptiste (Detroit) and Lewis Hayden (Boston) currently lack serious adult biographies. There is, however, a wonderful resource for primary sources related to the movement from C. Peter Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers: Vol. IV, The United States, 1847-1858 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). All five volumes of the BAP are also now available in full-text searchable database format via ProQuest.

[23] For general background, see articles by Joseph A. Borome, “The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 42 (1968), 320-52 and Larry Gara, “William Still and the Underground Railroad,”  Pennsylvania History 28 (1961): 33-44, For a compelling first-person account, see William Still, The Underground Railroad (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872),

[24] See a good searchable full-text of Still’s memoir at “Slavery & Abolition in the U.S,” Dickinson College Archives, . To view the actual page images of the vigilance journal, visit the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, To view directly the letter concerning the “four hams,” and Harriet Tubman’s worn-out shoes, go to the Underground Railroad Digital Classroom, and

[25] For the Boston Vigilance Committee, see Account Book of Francis Jackson, PrimaryResearch.Org, Eric Foner’s forthcoming study of the Underground Railroad in New York is tentatively entitled: Gateway to Freedom (W.W. Norton, 2015). Various antislavery newspapers have been digitized and are currently available behind subscription paywalls, but increasingly students can also find freely available examples through the wonderful “Chronicling of America” project by the Library of Congress: or also from the research engine at the House Divided Project at Dickinson College,

[26] Jonathan Walker was the ship captain who received “The Branded Hand” in Florida (later immortalized by a John Greenleaf Whittier poem and a striking 1845 daguerreotype; see Massachusetts Historical Society, Calvin Fairbank was a Methodist minister from New York who was arrested twice in Kentucky for aiding runaway slaves, ultimately serving over 17 years in prison; see Randolph Paul Runyon, Delia Webster and the Underground Railroad (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996). The finest account of Henry “Box” Brown (and the fate of Samuel A. Smith, his friend who was arrested in Richmond), comes from Jeffrey Ruggles, The Unboxing of Henry Brown (Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2003).

[27] New Bedford, MA: Kathryn Grover, The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001). Ripley, OH: Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Underground Railroad (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002). South-Central PA: David G. Smith, On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870 (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013). Oberlin, OH: Nat Brandt, The Town that Started the Civil War (New York: Dell, 1990). Washington, DC: Stanley Harrold, Subversives: Antislavery Community in Washington, DC, 1828-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 2003).

[28] Stanley Harrold helps detail the case for integrating the fugitive crisis within the coming of war story in Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). To view the secession documents directly and to see the emphasis on violations of the fugitive law, go to “Declarations of Secession,” The Avalon Project from Yale Law School (

[29] The best recent biography of John Brown does a good job of detailing his vigilance connections. See David S. Reynolds, John Brown: Abolitionist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005). For an insightful depiction of how the “contraband” issue both preceded and helped lead to emancipation and ultimately abolition, see James Oakes, Freedom National: The Destruction of Slavery in the United States, 1861-1865 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2013). Useful online resources for these topics also include the Emancipation Digital Classroom, and Visualizing Emancipation,

[30] A good example of the early “pro-Quaker” historiography comes from Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad: From Slavery to Freedom (New York: Macmillan, 1898), Larry Gara groundbreaking study was originally published in 1961 but has since been reissued in paperback: The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1996). John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 336n.

[31] David Blight quoted in Noam Cohen, “In Douglass Tribute, Slave Folklore and Fact Collide,” New York Times, January 24, 2007,

[32] Jacqueline L. Tobin and Raymond G. Dobard, Hidden in Plain View: The Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

[33] See National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom homepage,

[34] For some examples of recent state context studies freely available online, see Matthew Pinsker, “Vigilance in Pennsylvania: Underground Railroad Activities in the Keystone State, 1837-1861,” or Raymond Paul Zirblis, “Friends of Freedom: The Vermont Underground Railroad Survey Report,” William A. Weathers, “Oprah Gives Freedom Center $1M,” Cincinnati Enquirer, July 9, 2004,

[35] Jack Brubaker, “Restoration on Hold at Stevens Home,” Lancaster Online, September 12, 2013,


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