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Follow the North Star

Article and Photos by Mary Carpenter

The United States has a history of conflict – the Revolutionary War and then the War of 1812 for starters. But by the 1830s the country had moved on from the early wars. And then a new concern emerged – slavery. The concept was not new. Slaves had been imported since the first days of the Virginia settlement in 1620. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries slave trade increased until 1807 when Congress passed an act to make slave importation illegal.

While people may have believed cutting off the source of new slaves would end the heinous practice, that was not to be, as children of slaves continued to be born into slavery. The U.S. census of 1830 counted two million enslaved people, the majority of them living and working on cotton plantations in the southern states. The invention of the cotton gin, in the early years of the 19th century, sped up the processing of the cotton, but slaves were still needed to pick the cotton from the bolls. That meant more slaves –men, women and children — were needed to keep up with the cotton boom. Census number of following decades showed increases in the slave population topping off at four million in 1860.

While the use of slaves was popular in the southern states, for the most part it did not have the same appeal in the North. By the mid-19th century, a strong abolitionist movement had emerged and a great debate was underway about the morality of enslaving people for their labor. An outgrowth of the abolition effort was the establishment of a network known as the Underground Railroad designed to help people escape to the North. The term was actually a metaphor. It was not conducted underground, but through a network of people utilizing homes, barns and churches to help former slaves get to freedom. Nor was it a railroad, but places that sheltered runaways in what were referred to as stations. It was made up of loosely organized groups of people who had a passion for justice and were determined to help end the practice of slavery. According to best estimates the Underground Railroad helped more than 100,000 people escape from slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War.

If you would like to learn more about the Underground Railroad and how it operated in the North Country, there is no better place to start than a wonderful museum located just off Route 9 at AuSable Chasm, New York. Established and maintained by the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association (NCUGRHA), the museum offers displays, including one that depicts the story of Stephen Keese Smith. A devoted Quaker, Smith’s family, the Kesses, established a settlement, called the Quaker Union, in the town of Peru that grew to include homes, businesses and a school for both boys and girls. Smith was a strong opponent of slavery and worked tirelessly to minister to the needs of slaves who made it to our community. His former home at 625 Union Road still has the barn where he sheltered fugitives. A hidden room in the barn can be viewed by visitors during special tours/programs offered by the Museum. It is estimated that Smith spent approximately $1,000 in his efforts to help runaway slaves. ($35,000 in today’s currency.)

Another prominent abolitionist featured at the Museum is Gerrit Smith who gave away 120,000 acres of land in New York State to black men– many from the New York City area —who were willing to work the land. Ownership of land worth $250 carried with it the ability to vote. Each grant was for 40 acres and it is estimated 3,000 former slaves took advantage of Smith’s generosity.

While the land he donated was spread across the State, large areas were located in the Lake Placid and Malone areas. The climate of the region and the rocky land proved difficult and many of the farms were abandoned, but Smith maintained his commitment to oppose land monopoly by the rich. He was also a strong supporter of John Brown, who came to the area to help blacks who received land from Smith. Brown, who was an abolitionist, became a resident of North Elba. He was captured and executed for the failed incitement of a slave rebellion at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia preceding the Civil War.

A video – The Story of John Thomas — a slave, who fled from Maryland because his wife and children were sold, and then stayed in the North Country — plays in the Museum’s Object Theatre. Another video, Northward to Freedom, features local actors relating the stories of fugitive slaves and the hardships they endured to gain their freedom.

The North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association is committed to the research, preservation and interpretation of the history of the Underground Railroad, slavery and abolition along the Lake Champlain corridor of New York. The Museum is a reflection of the importance of human freedom and its relevance for present and future generations. And it is an amazing place to spend a quiet afternoon.

North Country Underground Railroad Museum 1131 Mace Chasm Road AuSable Chasm, NY 12911 518 561-0277

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