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A Journey Toward Freedom, “Montrose Role In Breaking the Bondage of Slavery”

A Journey Toward Freedom: “Susquehanna County’s and Montrose’s Role in Breaking the Bondage of Slavery”

By: John Eidenier ∼MRC Board Member∼

Part I

When I first started researching the role Montrose played in helping runaway slaves seek freedom, I thought I would be writing about the Underground Railroad.  But, as I gathered information, I realized that the Underground Railroad was only a means to an end, a dangerous means which hopefully would lead to freedom. The journey that African-Americans (here after referred to as blacks or enslaved) made was not an easy one and it was one that was greeted with much controversy.  This is my attempt to present to you the dangers faced by both white and black and their courage in an effort to end slavery and the controversy that accompanied this effort.

It is unknown how many blacks made their way to freedom using the Underground Railroad.  It is known that many white abolitionists helped, along with the free black community and the fugitives themselves.

The dangers that were faced in fleeing from slavery, seeking freedom in the North and on into Canada, are difficult for us to imagine today.  What must it have been like to leave children, a wife, a mother and father, behind as the attempt to make it to freedom was undertaken?  Equally dangerous was the attempt to reunite with loved ones left behind, to bring them north, where they too might have the opportunity to live a life which was not bound by slavery.

I believe that this journey was not only a journey of blacks seeking freedom, but our journey as well. While it may not have been explicitly expressed, it was none the less felt, that slavery affected all people in that it pitted one group from another.  When that happens we all suffer in that one group is made to feel degraded when it is told it does not belong to the human race.

All of the original thirteen colonies were slave-holding states.  The institution of slavery was well entrenched and would take a civil war to cut the chains that allowed one group to enslave another.  Pennsylvania’s attempt to emancipate enslaved people began in 1780 with the passage of the Gradual Emancipation Act. Some historians believed that indentured servitude was more profitable than owning slaves and this was one of the reasons why Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Emancipation Act.

Canada acted well before the United States in granting the enslaved their freedom.  Canada abolished slavery in 1834 and this was one of the reasons why many fleeing slavery attempted to make it to Canada.

The Fugitive Slave Act, September 18, 1850

While the enslaved were escaping from the south well before 1850, the attempts increased along with help from the north when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed by congress.  It is said that America is a nation which is ruled by law.  While this may be true, what happens when many believe the law to be unjust?  That was especially the case when the Fugitive Slave Act passed Congress.  Perhaps more than any other law affecting slavery, this act made the need for the Underground Railroad even more urgent.

The Fugitive Slave Act strengthened the earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 in that it made it a federal crime for any official who did not arrest a runaway.  If the official refused to arrest the runaway, he/she would be liable to a fine of $1,000 (about $29,000 in today’s dollars).  The act also applied to anyone who offered assistance to a runaway.   The act overturned the Supreme Court ruling in Prigg v. Pennsylvania (1842), that states did not have to offer “…aid in the hunting or recapture of slaves…”

This act was greeted with great resistance in the North.  The Abolitionists called it the Bloodhound Law “…for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves.”  Slaves for many years prior to 1850, had been escaping to the North.  The act of 1850, was an attempt to curtail and hopefully end their escapes. But the act only furthered the resolve of slaves to escape, as well as furthering the Abolitionists’ resolve to help.  It is ironic that an act seeking to preserve slavery only hastened its demise.

It should be noted that the Quakers were among the first to move Pennsylvania toward becoming a free state.  The Quaker belief of an inner light or the presence of God in every man was a belief that moved them to help those enslaved gain freedom.

The Hunted and the Hunter

There was a concerted attempt on the part of slave owners to reclaim their property and to at least curtail, if not put an end to, enslaved people escaping.  The owners would hire agents who would hunt down runaways and travel to the North to find them.  In 1899, David T. Brewster, gave a talk to the Susquehanna County Historical Society.  Mr. Brewster recalled an incident that took place sometime between 1842 and 1845. He recounts that slave hunters came to the area.  Some came “…in covered cage-like wagons well supplied with shackles, chains, and whips,”  Horace Brewster (David’s father), along with two other men, found the fugitives before the hunters and “…furnished them with some lunch and a little money, and started them on toward Canada.”  It was also recalled that some anti-slavery activists would keep “…two big kettles full of hot water on cranes…to throw on slaveholders if they broke in.”

Other accounts did not end so well, for either the escaping black person or the person helping him to escape.  William Still gives several accounts of the danger faced by blacks attempting to gain their freedom and those who tried to help. One account was of a black woman named Saunders Griffin.  Ms. Griffin took her four children and ran away.  She was pursued by slave-hunters, was caught and brought back into slavery.  Ms. Griffin “…had been a witness to the fact that her own father’s brains had been blown out by the discharge of a heavily loaded gun, deliberately aimed at his head by his drunken master.”  In another account, a white man named Miller, who was helping a black family escape “…was found drowned, with his hands and feet in chains and his skull fractured.”

The Underground Railroad

 

“Driven by a sense of increasing frustration that set in after the Compromise of 1850, …” hundreds of enslaved people decided to risk their lives in seeking their freedom and the Underground Railroad became an even more important vehicle in assisting those seeking an end to bondage.

One of the most reliable accounts, according to The Center For Anti-Slavery Studies, is William Still’s Underground Railroad, which was published in 1872.  Still, a black man, interviewed fugitives that came under his protection.  He recorded their histories which included where they were enslaved, how they escaped, and why they escaped.  Two such accounts was of the fugitive, Henry “Box” Brown, “…who freighted himself to freedom in a wooden crate, and Ellen and William Craft, who …disguised themselves as a slave master and servant.”

 

Henry “Box” Brown

 

The Underground Railroad began in the late eighteenth century after the abolition of slavery in the northern states, with the greatest activity between 1835-1865.  Because of the danger, there was a need for secrecy and it was decided that the vocabulary of the railroad would be used.  The routes were secret, hence the term underground railroad was the term used to designate the various tracks used by the slaves on their journey to freedom.  Those who assisted the slaves were called station masters and their homes were known as stations.   These stations were used to hide the slaves as they made their way further north and often into Canada.  Those who guided the slaves between stations were called conductors.  This effort was supported by financial donations and the donors were referred to as stockholders.  Both whites and blacks who supported those seeking freedom, shared the belief that all humans should be free.  They risked their lives for this to become a reality.

 

This concludes Part I, the second part will appear in a forthcoming blog. Part I gives a general overview of the journey toward freedom, Part II will focus on Susquehanna County and Montrose.

I would appreciate your thoughts and any suggestions, new information, etc. that you may have.  The sources that I have used will appear at the end of Part II.

 

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