Sunday, June 15, 2014

In 1845 An Abolition Activist Toured the Adirondacks

Gerrit Smith in the 1840sLate spring of 1845 found Gerrit Smith, a leader of the Liberty Party, touring the North Country in search of disaffected “Whigs and Democrats, whose intelligence and Christian integrity will not permit them to remain longer in their pro-slavery connections.”

Smith, from Peterboro, in Madison County, traveled from Saratoga Springs, through Glens Falls and then into Essex and Clinton counties on his quest to build a credible third party, a devoted anti-slavery party. His report, printed in the Albany Patriot in late June, details the villages his visited, the people he met, and the difficulties he faced.

In Elizabethtown, Essex County seat, his allies could not “obtain a house for me to speak in” on Sunday, June 8, so they set up outside, in a grove. ” ‘He preaches politics on the Sabbath’ is the condemnation which is everywhere written against me,” Smith reported. “I say, ‘to preach politics,’ for such is the odious name which the despisers of the slave give to my pleadings for him.”

Smith later founded the black settlement at what is now Lake Placid, to help gain voting rights for free blacks who were barred from voting unless they owned $250 worth of property. That’s how John Brown got to the Adirondacks, trying to assist those settlers at what became known as Timbucto.

In some North Country towns, such as Keene, Smith celebrated stalwart supporters: “Phineas Norton is an ornament to our cause.” Norton was also very popular locally — not always the case with strong abolitionists — and his name today adorns the town’s main cemetery. At other stops, Smith bemoaned what he saw as an unconscionable reluctance to speak out. At Warrensburg, he said, “There is not one man in this considerable village who is called an abolitionist… and… the ministers here never speak of the slave in their sermons or public prayers.”

Free Soil and Liberty PartiesSmith’s report also shows his sharp eye for land value. He was one of the wealthiest landowners in New York at the time, and reported on the soils, iron ore, timber value of the territory he traveled.

And the unpredictable Adirondack weather wasn’t much different than it is today. On May 30th the water froze at Glens Falls and Smith saw apple and plum trees destroyed by severe frost. But by June 11 in Keeseville he wrote, “I have seldom known the weather so hot and dry, as it has been for the last week or two.”

The traveler made his way North to Plattsburgh, and to visit the new state prison at Dannemora, which he judged to be well located to take advantage of local iron ore deposits and the “right kind of wood for coal.” The iron ore played out quickly, though, and Albany’s dream of a profit-making prison evaporated within a decade.

Smith’s Liberty Party dream didn’t pan out either. But the anti-slavery political movement that he was working to build on his 1845 North Country journey eventually helped to support a new liberal third party that did develop real political clout — the Republican Party.

Photos: above, Gerrit Smith in the 1840s; and below, a cartoon mocking the union of the Liberty and Free Soil parties. Smith served in Congress as a Free Soil Party Representative, in 1853–54.

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Peter Slocum lives in Keene and is a trustee of the Essex County Historical Association and a volunteer at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm.      

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