Harriet Tubman is perhaps the best-known figure related to the underground railroad. She made by some accounts 19 or more rescue trips to the south and helped more than 300 people escape slavery. Her life and character are an outstanding example of selfless dedication to freedom and the abolition of slavery. More recent scholarship has found that she made approximately 13 trips, and more significantly her work with the Union Army in the Department of the South resulted in the freeing of far more than 300 enslaved persons.
She was born a slave in Bucktown, near Cambridge, Maryland around 1820 as Araminta Ross. She came to be known by her mother’s name in her early life, Harriet. At age 13 an incident occurred where she tried to interfere with the punishment of another enslaved person. The angry enslavement supervisor hit her in the head with a two-pound weight which fractured her skull and caused her to have black outs for the rest of her life. She married John Tubman, a free black, in 1844. She escaped from enslavement in 1849 and went to Philadelphia where she vowed to return for other members of her family and to help others escape. She made her first trip back to the south after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 and returned a total of 13 times. Her story is chronicled in Scenes In The Life of Harriet Tubman, published in 1869 by Sarah H. Bradford.
Harriet Tubman is known to have had some family in our region around Troy and Western Massachusetts. In Scenes In The Life of Harriet Tubman the story is told of the rescue of Charles Nalle from arrest under the Fugitive Slave Act in Troy, New York in 1860. Tubman is described as having been present in relation to visiting family in the area.
The rescue of Charles Nalle was a considerable event in Troy at the time. A plaque is now present at the place where the event occurred.
Harriet Tubman went on to be a scout, and nurse for the Union Army in the Civil War. After the war she settled in the Auburn area in New York State and sought to establish a home for the aged for African American former slaves.
The person who came to be the most important leader of the local underground railroad movement from the 1830’s through the 1850’s is Stephen Myers. Other significant figures came and went, but Myers remained in Albany throughout the period. It is without a doubt that Stephen Myers assisted thousands of individuals to move through Albany to points west, north, and east on the underground railroad. At first, in the early 1840’s he used his own resources and the Northern Star Association, which he headed, and which published his newspaper. Later, in the 1850’s, he was the principal agent of the underground railroad in Albany. Under his leadership the Albany branch of the underground railroad was regarded as the best run part of it in the whole state by some.
He was born in 1800 in Rensselaer county as a slave, and freed at eighteen. Over his life he worked as a grocer, and steamboat steward, but started his journalistic enterprise in 1842. His wife, Harriet worked with him on the paper. He was a leading spokesperson for anti-slavery activity and rights for African Americans. His newspaper was called the Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate. In its pages he writes about temperance, rights of African Americans, the need to abolish slavery and many other things.
Later in his life he had other publishing ventures including the Pioneer, and Telegraph and Temperance Journal.
The picture of Stephen Meyers accompanying this text is taken from The Afro-American Press and Its Editors by Garland Penn. Copies of Stephen Myer’s newspaper are available at the NYS Library Archives. Important information may also be found regarding him in the notes provided to one of the articles authored by him included in The Black Abolitionist Papers, volume 3, edited by C. Peter Ripley, University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Albany Evening Times – Monday evening February 14, 1870 — Obituary (1800-February 13, 1870)
This, the oldest and most celebrated of our colored citizens, died yesterday morning in the eightieth [sic] year of his age. Mr. Myers has passed an eventful life, having witnessed the greater portion of the most important epochs in the history of our country. For many…to the households of many of our Governors and other leading and distinguished citizens. He was also steward, for some years, in the earlier part of the century, on some of the North River steamboats, a most important position in those days. Until a few years since, he could always be found about the Capital during the Legislative session, and from his kind and pleasant manner made many warm friends. He was a prominent man among his race, being an agent for the “Underground Railroad” before the war, and did more for his people than any other colored man living, not excepting Fred. Dougalss. In days gone by, he was THE representative of them to the politicians of this State. With Wendell Phillips and Garett Smith, he was one of the leading anti-slavery lights in this State in days when, to be known as such was to incur the displeasure of a large number of people.
During the past few years, Mr. Myers, at one time, held the position of steward at the Delavan House; he was also for a few seasons, steward of the Fort William Henry Hotel, at Lake George. For some time before his death, Mr. Myers held the position of Janitor to Gen. Jones, postmaster in the City of New York. Mr. Myers was a firm christian and died in the faith in which he lived. He will be buried from the A. M. E. Church on Hamilton street Wednesday afternoon.
William Henry Johnson was born near Alexandria Virginia of free parents in 1833. He was a notable Abolitionist and crusader for the rights of African Americans. After a career including the underground railroad, organizing volunteers for the Union Army, political and social activism, he put together an autobiography. Copies of his autobiography are in the Pruyn Room of the Albany Public Library and in the New York State Library Archives.
Johnson left home in Virginia at the age of twelve to travel to Philadelphia where he learned the hairdresser trade. He came to Albany in 1851 where he immediately became involved in the underground railroad. He assisted Stephen Meyers in the work he was pursuing.
He returned to Philadelphia in 1855 where he continued his work as an abolitionist and activist with the underground railroad. He became involved in the Banneker Literary Institute and other organizations where he could write and speak against slavery. The work he was doing with fugitive slaves forced him to flee Philadelphia in 1859.
When the Civil War began, he joined a Connecticut unit and participated in the Battle of Bull Run, Roanoke and Newberne. Johnson returned to Albany in 1864 where he began an involvement in local and state politics. He was a member of the NYS Equal Rights Committee and became its chairman from 1866-73. He drafted an amendment to the military code of NYS striking the word “white” from the document. This change was accepted in 1872. He drafted Civil Rights legislation that became law in 1867 and assisted in abolishing the property clause in the constitution that prevented many Blacks from voting. William Henry Johnson crusaded for and won in 1891 a bill that ended discrimination against African Americans in the insurance industry.
He continued an active career throughout his life until his death in 1918. By the time of his death he was a Grand Master in the Masons, had been a delegate to several Republican conventions, had published several newspapers including the Albany Capitol and produced his own biography.
Henry Highland Garnet was active in the capital area from 1839 to 1846. In that time, he pastored the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy and was active in the underground railroad in Rensselaer County.
Born in 1815, Garnet was led out of slavery in Maryland by his father (George Garnet) in 1824 along with ten other family members. He attended the African Free School, and the Phoenix High School for Colored Youth, in New York City between 1826 and 1833. In 1835 he and several other black youth attended the Noyes Academy in New Hampshire. An anti-integrationist mob drove them out of the school.
He graduated from the Onieda Institute in 1839 and began an eight-year residence in Troy, New York. He pastored the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church and edited two short lived publications. One was the Clarion, and the other was the National Watchman. He also founded a school for black children in Geneva, New York.
Garnet gained national prominence in delivering an address to the 1843 Black convention in Buffalo where his speech for black freedom was generally perceived as a call for slave revolt.
In 1850 Garnet went to Britain for two years, then accepting an appointment from the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland, served as a missionary in Jamaica where he worked from 1853-55. In 1856 an illness forced his return to the United States. He accepted a pastorate at New York City’s Shiloh Presbyterian Church. In the 1850’s he helped found the African Civilization Society, an organization that encouraged black missionary work and entrepreneurship in Africa.
During the Civil War, Garnet organized black troops for the North and afterwards became the first African-American to preach a sermon in the House of Representatives in 1865. In the remainder of his life he was appointed president of Avery College in Pennsylvania, and was U. S. minister to Liberia in 1881. He died in 1882.
Although I have seen many short pieces on Garnet and his life, the best short piece I have seen was included in a footnote to one of the selections in The Black Abolitionist Papers Volume 3, edited by C. Peter Ripley, University of North Carolina Press, 1981.
Two people, of whom little is known but who played an important part in Albany’s underground railroad effort, are Lydia and Abigail Mott. They seem to have been cousins of the more famous Lucretia, but their importance for Albany is greater as far as local efforts are concerned.
We had previously stated that the Mott sisters were from a Quaker community in Western Albany County. Recently a couple of researchers who have also done research on the Mott’s story have shown that that the sisters were rather from another Mott family line. The family had lived in Albany from a while and had originally come from down state New York. The work of the sisters in connection with temperance meetings in the community is noted in Howell and Tunney’s history of Albany.
Lydia and Abigail are in Siebert’s list of underground railroad operators as active in the Albany area. Unfortunately, there is no other reference in Siebert regarding the Motts. Information has to be gathered from other sources.
One such source is Charles Blockson’s The Underground Railroad: First Person Narratives of Escapes to Freedom in the North. This book, published in 1987, collects short writings from primary sources which tell stories about fugitive escapes from slavery. One account is that of Austin Bearse. Mr. Bearse was a native of Massachusetts and a commercial sailor. Sometimes the boats he worked on were involved in shipping in the south and sometimes slaves. The treatment of slaves was revolting to him, but he said little of it until after 1834 when he began reading the Liberator. In July 1847 he sailed with a ship for Albany, New York. He says:
“On my arrival there [in Albany], I called upon the Mott sisters, ladies well known to the anti-slavery friends in Boston and elsewhere. Miss Mott told me they had a slave secreted just out of the city, who was in danger. His name was George Lewis. A writ was out for him, and she wished me to take him to Boston. As soon as I was ready to sail, she brought him to my vessel at night, with his baggage, and I stowed him away. In three days, I passed New York, and on getting into Long Island Sound, I told George Lewis he could safely show himself on deck, which he was glad to do.”
This story of the active work of the Mott sisters, though we don’t know which of the two is being referred to here, is one of the few references we have been able to find in our readings. We are sure there is more to be told and we are busy trying to search out such information. From this passage we can see that the Mott in question was taking a clear and active role in hiding, assisting, and arranging safe passage for fugitives.
Abel Brown was a radical abolitionist and Baptist minister who was active in Albany, Troy and Sand Lake around the late 1830s, and early 1840s. He was noted as an uncompromising and provocative individual who went to great lengths for the cause of the abolition of slavery. He was very active in assisting fugitives and not at all secretive about it. He published a newspaper called the Tocsin of Liberty in which he daringly not only published the first names of fugitives he helped, but also the names of their former slave masters. He was so provocative and helped so many that slave owners sent arrest warrants from far away cities seeking his capture.
Brown was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1810. He began a career as a Baptist minister at age 22 as a temperance preacher. His provocative style provoked many enemies. He was driven out of Auburn for his temperance preaching early in his career by a mob.
“The Mob pursued me about eight miles,” he wrote in his journal “[I] fled to the woods and was hunted . . . until ten o’clock at night [a total of 11 hours]. His crime had been “visiting about one hundred Drunkards’ families, and telling to the community their wretchedness.”
Brown and Miss Mary Brigham of Massachusetts moved to Chautaqua County in southwestern New York state after they were wed in 1835. By 1836 Brown claimed to have become “an abolitionist in the full sense of the word.” While lecturing for the American Anti-Slavery Society he became an agent for the Anti-Slavery Society of Western Pennsylvania. During his residence along the Ohio River, he is known to have assisted fugitive slaves in their quest for for freedom. While there he attempted to open a school to train others in anti-slavery. The school was, “to be established at some eligible point on the river Ohio … to be instituted … by a body of men actively engaged in purifying the church from the contaminating influence of Slavery.” His confrontational style offended many local clergy and the lack of success with the school resulted in his move to Albany. He also was disappointed in the refusal of many of his ministerial colleagues to condemn those who owned slaves.
In April 1841 became pastor at the Sand Lake Baptist Church. The Albany area was well suited for his anti-slavery work as it was “a city which from its location on the banks of the Hudson, was the constant resort of fugitive slave, when travelling [sic] in the direction of the North Star, to seek shelter under the wings of Queen Victoria’s dominion, or happily, perchance, to find an Asylum in the nominally free States”, according to a biographical memoir published after his death in 1849 by his second wife, Catherine.
John Brown lived for a time at North Elba, New York near Lake Placid. He moved there in 1849 to work alongside free blacks who had been granted land in that area under a program instituted by the Garrit Smith. Brown hoped to teach farm skills to the new rural residents.
Brown was born in 1800 in Torrington, Connecticut and lived as a child in Ohio. He lived in Springfield, Massachusetts from 1846 to 1849. In 1849 he moved to North Elba.
In 1855 he and his five sons went to Kansas to help keep it from entering the Union as a slave state. They were involved in the fighting in “Bleeding Kansas” over the slavery issue. In 1857 he began to collect arms, men and supplies for a campaign to free slaves through an invasion of the south. Toward this end he raided the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia with 18 followers on October 16, 1859. The next day he and his men were defeated by federal troops led by Robert E. Lee and arrested. He was tried for treason. He was convicted and hanged on December 2, 1859.
Brown’s larger historical importance stems from his role in bringing about the Civil War and the end of slavery. He also played an important part in assisting fugitives to escape slavery, providing support to free settlements in Canada. Many regarded him highly at the time because he gave his life to set others free. He is buried in North Elba.
Solomon Northup was a black resident of Saratoga County in the period before the Civil War. He was an educated man who had been in business for himself, as well as worked for others. He had a family and owned a home. In 1841 he was lured to Washington, D. C. and kidnapped into slavery. He spent the next 12 years working on plantations in Louisiana. He was finally freed through the intervention of friends whom he had reached through correspondence. Strictly speaking it is not an underground railroad story, but it is an important story that should be told along with the story of the underground railroad.
Northup’s incredible recall of detail allowed him to write a narrative of his years in captivity which became a best seller. It revealed the horror and depravity of American slavery. Fortunately for Northup he was able to get a letter off through a sympathetic person. Upon being able to identify his location his friends in the Saratoga area were able to approach the Governor of New York to appoint a delegation to find him and free him.
The story of Charles Nalle is one of the well-remembered stories for our region from the time of the underground railroad. Charles Nalle was a fugitive from slavery who lived in the Rensselaer County around 1860. He had come to the area on his flight to freedom and decided to remain in the area as it was felt to be satisfactorily safe. The Troy area had many supporters of John Brown and significant support for the efforts called the underground railroad. Troy itself had an active vigilance committee and a small but significant community of African descendency.
Charles Nalle was born in 1821 in slavery in Stevensberg, Virginia. At 16 he was given over to Blucher Hansborough, the son of a Virginia planter. Hansborough also acquired other members of Nalle’s family. At a later time, when hard times had befallen Hansborough, he decided to auction off his slaves. At this time Nalle chose to flee, rather than risk being sold south and away from the family and relations he had developed. Nalle and another slave, Jim Banks, arranged a plan that they felt would allow them to escape and later be reunited with their families in freedom. They made their escape in October 1858.
The fugitive slave act of 1850 required all citizens to assist in the recapture of fugitive slaves and put in place a system of U. S. Commissioners who supposedly were not judicial officials but who would hear the arguments of claimants who captured escaped slaves as to if they should be appropriately returned to slave owners. This system was widely resisted in the north, but it did have its supporters. Anyone assisting fugitives from slavery was subject to fines and jail time under this law, but many resisted it regardless.
Nalle found work with William Scram in Sand Lake. Unable to read and write, he sought the assistance of an unemployed lawyer and local newspaper man named Horace Averill (Averill Park is named after Horace Averill). He wanted Averill to help him write letters that might help free his family members. Unfortunately, Averill had southern sympathies and betrayed Nalle to his former enslaver.
Nalle later found work with Uri Gilbert. Gilbert was a leading industrialist in Troy. Nalle began living in Troy with the family of William Henry. Henry was a black grocer in Troy. He was also a member of the Vigilance Committee.
Nalle was on his way to the bakery when he was arrested by U. S. Deputy Marshall John W. Holmes and Henry Wale, a slave catcher from Stevensberg, Virginia in the employ of Blucher Hansborough. This was April 27, 1860. When friends noticed his disappearance, they searched for him and quickly discovered what had happened. He had been taken before the U. S. Commissioner to get authorization to take him back south.
The local vigilance committee swung into action and a crowd quickly gathered at the U. S. Commissioner’s office. They were looking for an opportunity to free Nalle. As it happened, Harriet Tubman was in the area to visit relatives. She took aggressive steps to engage the situation. The ensuing struggle is recounted in local newspapers of the time and in Harriet Tubman’s biography by Sarah Bradford. It is also shared in a well-researched article by local writer Scott Christianson in the Winter 1997 issue of American Legacy Magazine, a magazine of African American History. Nalle was freed by the intervention of Tubman and the Vigilance Committee. He escaped to Niskayuna where he stayed in a secret location until it was regarded as safe for his return to Troy. Friends raised funds to buy his freedom.