Saturday, April 15, 2017

Fact, Fiction On Chester’s Underground Railroad

Underground Railroad in the town of chester by donna lagoyThe publication of a new book about the Underground Railroad in the Adirondacks, focusing on its supporters and their good work in the Town of Chester in Warren County, rides a high wave of public interest in this dramatic chapter of our history. No bookstore lacks a full-frontal display of Colson Whitehead’s explosive novel The Underground Railroad, with Oprah’s golden imprimatur on the front jacket.

Regional scholarship is booming: in just the last decade, books and articles have documented Underground Railroad activity in Indiana, Buffalo, Detroit, Vermont, New York City, Pennsylvania, and the long flanks of Lake Champlain. Tom Calarco’s The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region (2004) is still the most inclusive, best synthesized, and detailed account of goings-on inside and all around the Blue Line. And cultural tourism in the region has gained immeasurably from the opening of the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm — the work, in great part, of two independent researchers, Don and Vivian Papson of Plattsburgh.

And to the board of offerings we can now add Donna LaGoy and Laura Seldman’s handsome and wide-ranging book The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Town of Chester, which limns the scope of one town’s engagement with the antislavery effort through a look at the material culture of the town, and some fresh research, too. It’s needed work, and all the more impressive when we learn that the authors could find nothing in the way of primary material that spoke of the experience of the fugitive in Chester and nothing that plainly revealed the specific names or strategies or track records of Chester’s operatives. Some evidence may have vanished in the town office’s several devastating fires. But more of it, most likely, was simply not recorded. It was not meant to be scrutinized or inventoried. The discovery of evidence of Underground Railroad activity would have put not only fugitives but anyone who moved, housed, fed, or funded them at risk of arrest and imprisonment, a risk that worsened with the passage of the 1850 federal Fugitive Slave Law.

It is a good thing, then, that the authors work hard to keep their story in perspective and launch their inquiry with a bird’s-eye overview of American slavery and what kind of impact the Underground Railroad had on its growth. The answer is (in terms of real rescues and escapes), not much. In 1860, less than one half of one percent of the four million enslaved Americans in 1860 were fugitives. This first chapter points out, too — notwithstanding the all-white Underground Railroad supporters in the Town of Chester — that most escaping slaves were helped by other slaves and free people of color. It notes the deep ideological divides in the movement between Garrisonians and political abolitionists, honors the good work of antislavery and Vigilance Societies, maps the major New York “depots” (in addition to New York City, freedom seekers escaped to upstate cities), and flags the work of upstate operatives, like Albany’s Stephen Myers, Syracuse’s Jermain and Caroline Loguen, and Troy’s Abel Brown and Henry Highland Garnet. Though I can’t say that what is here expands on what has been published elsewhere, it is still a useful backdrop for an inquiry to what was going on at home.

Which was what, exactly? Here the going gets much tougher. The challenge for local historians is to document a link between antislavery beliefs on the one hand and real action on the other. Lagoy and Seldman argue that because the paper trail is so thin, the only source of news is what they can glean from the material culture of the rumored “safe houses” in Chester and from the stories of these buildings’ past and present owners, who seem always ready, and maybe over-ready, to assert conjecture for fact. Oral histories are long on the page here, and the authors dutifully indulge every hunch and family legend.

I like a chewy rumor. Where there’s smoke, there may sometimes be a fire. But it must be noted how very often a desire to declare a site a safe spot for needy fugitives overrides the evidence. As Yale historian David Blight has said, there may really be two Underground Railroads in this country, one that can be documented with hard data and one that furnishes us with “a deep mythology, a set of legends the American people can’t seem to live without, especially the people in the North.” The need to claim a role, an active stake, in the great drama of struggle and redemption that was the War to Free the Slaves, is an intriguing cultural phenomenon in its own right. But the study of that need and the stories it has spawned belong not to history but folklore and sociology. It does strike me that the authors are not overly concerned with the distinction.

Even though we learn, for instance, that the notion of secret messages for slaves embedded in quilt patterns has been entirely discredited, we still get six full pages of Chester’s quilts. Now, the photographs are gorgeous, but even in the name of celebrating Chester’s material culture, does this advance the inquiry? Four pages on the construction of plank roads is interesting, but not as helpful as would be an overview of Chester’s political culture before the Civil War, with a look at the local popularity of the antislavery Liberty Party and how Chester’s Liberty turnout on Election Day compared with other towns around. Absent, too, is a portrait of the local anti-abolition lobby, about which something, surely, might have been culled from Warren County Democratic papers. Unremarked is the reflexive racism of the era evidenced in blackface minstrel shows and long jokes packed with racial stereotypes in local newspapers. And this is a pity, too. How can we fathom the rancor of the controversy over slavery if we don’t consider the workings of white supremacism? Or understand the real risks incurred by people helping fugitives and by the never-named freedom-seekers themselves?

The great antislavery radical reformer Gerrit Smith’s high praise for the antislavery community in Chester is rightly noted (Smith spoke at Chester’s Presbyterian Church in 1845). “I am much pleased with this people,” said Smith. “Their ministers are not ashamed, nor afraid, to plead the cause of the enslaved. Here are abolitionists of the truest class.”

Unfortunately, the authors revive the fiction that Smith gave land away in Essex and Franklin counties to five hundred free blacks and fugitives. Actually, there were three thousand beneficiaries of Smith’s great “scheme of justice and benevolence” that aimed to relocate free city blacks to Adirondack land, and of these thousands of “grantees”’ we can identify maybe a score we know were fugitives when they were given deeds.

So, some missed balls and chances here, but never mind. This book has roused extensive interest in Chester’s liberation history. It has clarified a link between the national struggle and a small Adirondack town. It has included stories in a way that makes history feel as inclusive, human, and warm-blooded as it is.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.

Related Stories

Independent scholar and Adirondack Life contributor Amy Godine has published scores of articles about Adirondack ethnic and social history. She has curated several exhibitions, including the John Brown Lives!-produced traveling exhibition, Dreaming of Timbuctoo, about an abolitionist-founded black settlement near North Elba. Amy has lectured widely in the region on migratory laborers, immigrants, ethnic neighborhoods and enclaves, peddlers, paupers, strikers, and other Adirondack "non-elites."

2 Responses

  1. MattDLM says:

    As far as I recall, Smith’s grants were not intended simply to form a community, but also two give the property qualification to free blacks so they could vote. It may also have been a form of 19th century property tax scheme. Not sure if anyone has any information.

  2. says:

    Hi Matt,
    You have this right. Gerrit Smith gave land away to help black would-be voters meet the terms of a racist and property requirement of $250 imposed on black New York men since 1821 (and reenacted in 1846). The 3000 forty-acre lots he gave away weren’t worth any $250, but his hope was that they might gain this value if they were worked and improved. There is much more about this story at the “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” exhibition in the upper barn of the John Brown Farm historic site, which should be reopening for viewing in a month. Go check it out, and bring a friend.

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox