Presented by Judith Wellman, Principal Investigator, Historical New York Research Associates; Professor Emerita, History, State University of New York at Oswego, and Karolyn Smardz Frost, Adjunct Professor at Acadia and Dalhousie Universities, and an Affiliated Research Scholar at the University of Buffalo’s Archaeology Lab

Awe-inspiring and intensely dramatic, Niagara Falls attracts tourists from all over the world. Yet before the Civil War, it was also a crucial Underground Railroad crossing between the United States and Canada. For more than two decades, the all-Black wait staff at the Cataract House hotel rowed hundreds of men, women, and children across the quarter-mile wide Niagara River from slavery in the U.S. to freedom in Canada. This presentation, one result of an NEH grant related to archaeological investigations at the site of the Cataract House, outlines their story.


Judith Wellman focuses on historic sites relating to women’s rights, the Underground Railroad, and African American life. She is the author of many scholarly articles, more than a dozen cultural resource surveys, more than thirty National Register nominations, thirty-five nominations to the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and four books: Brooklyn’s Promised Land: Weeksville, a Free Black Community (New York University Press, 2014),The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement. (University of Illinois Press, 2004), Grassroots Reform in the Burned-over District of Upstate New York: Religion, Abolitionism and Democracy (Garland Press, 2000), and Landmarks of Oswego County, Editor (Syracuse University Press, 1988). Dr. Wellman was the first historian at Women’s Rights National Historical Park. She lives in a house built on the banks of a millpond about 1830 by an African American miller. She views historical work relating to equal rights as a contribution to a future of mutual respect and justice for all people.

Karolyn Smardz FrostKarolyn Smardz Frost’s work in Black transnationalism began in 1985, when, as founding director of Toronto’s Archaeological Resource Center, she and her team worked with 3,000 schoolchildren at the first Underground Railroad site dug in Canada. Karolyn is the only Canadian archaeologist with a specialized doctorate in History (Race, Slavery and Imperialism).

Co-author of The Underground Railroad: Next Stop, Toronto (2002), her ground-breaking biography, I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, won the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2007, and received Honorable Mention for the Albert B. Corey Award as the best book in Canada-US relations published in 2007-2008. Karolyn co-edited A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland (2016), the first volume to apply borderland theory to Underground Railroad activism in the Great Lakes basin. Her Steal Away Home (2017), the only biography of a freedom seeker who fled to Canada by way of the Cataract House, won the Speaker’s Award for the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. In 2012, Karolyn was appointed the Bicentennial Visiting Professor for Canadian Studies at Yale University.