Monthly Blog

A Journey Toward Freedom, “Montrose Role In Breaking the Bondage of Slavery” (Part Two)

By: John Eidenier ∼MRC Board Member∼

Part II

 

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Montrose and Susquehanna County

There are conflicting views on just how important a role the Montrose area played in assisting the enslaved people to make their way to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

According to Scholastic Teachers Activities Guide, “Myths of the Underground Railroad,” most people who helped the escaping enslaved were either “…free blacks or those that had managed to escape on their own.”  It should also be noted that the majority of the enslaved who attempted to escape were caught and returned to their owners.  The slave owner did not give up easily and published routinely in the local papers in an attempt to find their property.

Charles Dickens in 1842 recorded some of these ads in his “American Notes For General Circulation.”  One ad protested  against “…that abominable and hellish doctrine of abolition, which is repugnant alike to every law of God and nature.”  Here are two other ads that identified the runaways that the slaveholders were looking for.

          “Ran away negress Fanny.  Had on an iron band about her neck.”

“Ran away, a negro boy about twelve years old.  Had round his

neck a chain dog-collar with De Lampert engraved on it.”

While it is difficult to determine the degree of involvement that Montrose and Susquehanna County played in assisting the enslaved to make their way to freedom, it cannot be doubted that the town and county did play a role.

The Wikipedia account: “History of African Americans* in Montrose, PA and Susquehanna County,” states that Montrose played a significant role in assisting the enslaved but these historians have found little documentation to support the Underground Railroad claims.

Other historians take an opposite view and see Susquehanna County as an active abolitionist area and say Montrose was central to the effort to help the enslaved make their way to freedom.

Based on my research, I think there is evidence that our area did play a role in assisting the enslaved and it is likely that there is at least one residence that was a “safe house” located in Montrose.  The Susquehanna County Historical Society and the Center for Anti-Slavery Studies remain dedicated to identifying and analyzing primary documents of the time.

As early as 1792, Printz Perkins, a former slave, established a “…small black settlement in Brooklyn Township.”  He and his family welcomed fugitives and by 1820 there were fifty-one residents in the County.  Robert Hutchinson Rose, a physician and reformer, established a colony for African-American farmers and by 1850 the colony numbered 162.

Gabriel Chappell also settled in Montrose and worked for Judge William Jessup, who was an ardent anti-slavery advocate.  Joseph Drinker, also of Montrose, employed the runaway, Hamilton Young.  When the Civil War broke out, Mr. Young  joined the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment.

One of the most vexing questions facing many whites was what to do with “discarded property”?   As long as the enslaved were viewed as property they were of value.  Once they could no longer be claimed as property, they became worthless.

There have been varying accounts of the support the enslaved received in their effort to escape slavery.  It is clear that the effort to assist the them was not a unified effort and neighbor was pitted against neighbor.  This conflict would eventually lead to the Civil War.

Conflicting Views

1. Colonization

While many in the North believed that slavery should be abolished, there was wide disagreement as to what to do with the freed blacks.  The Susquehanna County Colonization Society, whose members included: Joshua W. Raynsford, President; David Dimock and Samuel Warner, Vice Presidents; William Foster, Treasurer; Asa Dimock, Secretary.  The annual dues were 50 cents and lifetime membership was $10.00.  The Colonization Society’s main objective was to raise money to make transportation arrangements so that those freed could settle outside the United States, mainly in Africa.  In fact, many were sent to Liberia in Africa.

 

Dr. Rose’s Estate

One of the underlying reasons for having those freed  settle outside the United States was to remove them from influencing those that remained in slavery.  The view of the Colonization Society was reinforced by the failed experiment of Dr. Robert H. Rose, who, in 1809, purchased one hundred thousand acres of land and by 1838, he had established a farming community of runaways, “…to which he gave free land and equipment in exchange for labor and shares.”

After a few years, four of the farmers, John Thomas, Thomas Belt, David Johnston, and Thomas Davis, began to see this arrangement as a form of slavery and began to protest.  Dr. Rose attempted to break the group up by placing them on different farms.  The four took their case before Judge William Jessup, “…complaining that Rose was ‘”trying to drive off all the colored people.'”

Dr. Rose felt that he had spoiled the farmers and the more he gave, the more they wanted.  He believed that they would do better working on separate farms under the direction of a white owner.

Dr. Rose’s disillusionment is well stated when he wrote: “I have hitherto treated them much better than my white tenants, as the latter did not require a fourth part of the favors I have lavished on the former.”

The farming community that Dr. Rose established lasted for only two years and ended in 1838.  For some of the tenants, especially John Thomas and eight others, all escaped slaves, believed that “there were too many parallels between living on Dr. Rose’s land and their lives in slavery.”

Dr. Rose’s view echoed the belief of many in the community, that the African-Americans “…should not be allowed to gather in groups of more than two or three.”  There was constant fear of slave violence, and Dr. Rose was opposed to African-Americans holding meetings or forming a governing body.

David Johnston, another tenant on Dr. Rose’s land, pursued a legal remedy when Dr. Rose sought to remove him from his land (at least Mr. Johnston thought it was his land).  The two lawyers that Mr. Johnston asked for help were Ralph B. Little and Albert L. Post.  They issued an opinion that found disfavor with Dr. Rose.  On March 29, 1838, Dr. Rose wrote to the lawyers that David Johnston had no contract for the farm on which he was living.

He went on to say: “There is an extent of waste and carelessness among some of them, which, I fear is incurable; no good can be done with persons of that character.  It will increase this evil if certain gentlemen at Montrose endeavor to force on me persons whom I ought not to keep about me.”

It is reported that the discouraged black farmers left in the night, taking one of Dr. Rose’s wagons and two of his horses and made their way to Binghamton, NY.

2. Abolition

Many who had supported colonization became abolitionists and felt that the effort to colonize those fleeing slavery was an unrealistic effort.  One such person was Issac Post.  In a letter, dated January 1, 1837, to John Mann who was President of the Susquehanna County Anti-Slavery Society, he stated that he had “…become convinced…of the truth of the abolition principle…”

Evidently Isaac’s change of heart did not come easily for the states that he studied long and hard before changing his mind.  The Abolitionists wanted an end to slavery and believed that those freed should be allowed to find homes in America.  “In February, 1836, the First Presbyterian Church of Montrose held an Anti-Slavery Convention attended by hundreds of people.”

Continuing and Growing Conflict

The Anti-Slavery Society was quickly condemned by some members of the community.  Less than one month after its first meeting which was held on May 5, 1836, it was officially labeled “…a band of criminals.”

At a public meeting a declaration, signed by 134 men including James C. Biddle, Alomon H. Read, Henry Drinker, passed a declaration calling for the expunging “…from the history of our county the folly and madness of immediate abolitionism.”

The movement against the Anti-Slavery Society charged that its meetings represented unlawful assembly and that its position “…does materially disquiet, molest and disturb the peace and tranquility of the good people of the…commonwealth.”

In spite of the opposition, the Anti-Slavery Society grew in numbers.  It held its first annual meeting on July 4, 1836, at the Presbyterian Church.  At that time, 100 wanted to join.  A year later, the Society claimed it had 275 members.  The Society, along with the Free Discussion Society (which encouraged discussion of the slavery issue), was based in Montrose and its members came from throughout the county and in adjoining counties as well.

While there was a movement toward the anti-slavery position, there still was deep conflict that tore at the fabric of the community.  In 1837, members of the Bridgewater Baptist Church in Montrose, became deeply divided over the issue of slavery.  With the resolution that stated that slavery was a sin and  was a “…great evil in the land…” and ought to be abolished, many members left the church, including Davis Dimock, his father, Elder Davis Dimock, and Nehemiah Scott.  They, along with others, formed the Bridgewater and Montrose Baptist Church.  The two Congregations were reunited in 1842.  The main reason for coming back together was not that they had come to a compromise on the issue of slavery but rather “…that the population was not large or wealthy enough to sustain two churches.”

On October 7, 1850, a very painful and heartfelt letter was published by the Democrat, a newspaper serving Susquehanna County.  The letter was written by African-American Alexander Dorsey, addressing the decision that the trustees made concerning the new Susquehanna Academy that had recently opened.  In his letter, Mr. Dorsey states that he finds it hard to believe that African-American children would no longer be allowed to attend the Academy after having allowed them to do so for the first two weeks the Academy was opened.  This decision was especially painful since many had helped build the Academy and had been given assurances that their children would be allowed to attend.

In the letter, Mr. Dorsey states that “...some half-dozen of our little ones were sent and received into the primary departments and our hearts were gladdened with the thought that Christianity had gained triumph over prejudice and hatred of color.”

He goes on to ask the question: “Shall we do evil that good may come?”  The only reason I found for this decision by the trustees was that it would be wrong to have a mixed school.

The Montrose community, like may other communities in the North, was almost equally split as to what to do with the fleeing enslaved.  “There was at least as much condemnation in Susquehanna County of the Underground Railroad and the problems of slaves and ex-slaves as there was support.”

The Montrose Democrat, the most supportive local newspaper, reported that in the summer of 1861, people became violent.  The paper reported that about 15 or so men came to the house of Loren O. Tiffany, where they took Tiffany’s hired African-American man, Mr. Henry Purdy.  The men “…shaved (Mr. Purdy) one side of his head, tarred him, … and ordered him to get out-of-town.”  It is unclear as to what these men had against Mr. Purdy.

Life In Montrose After The Civil War

There was an African-American community in Montrose and the surrounding area prior to the Civil war and well into the 1900s.  The area in Montrose that African-Americans settled was called by them “Pleasant Valley” whereas the whites referred to the area as “Colored Valley”.

At the turn of the century and up until the 1970s, the African-American community resided in Montrose and/or the County.  In 1900, it was reported by the Independent Republican (May 25, 1900) that a performance was held in Montrose by “The Pickanina Trio.” This trio consisted of three “little colored children, two girls and one boy, and their up-to-date ”coon”’ songs.”  It was reported that the songs and dances “…are a marvel.”  It was also reported by the same newspaper, on June 1, 1900, a cake was made by A. W. Lyon’s (an African-American ) bakery.  The cake was a “watermelon” cake and was said to be the “…finest and most elaborate cake ever made in Montrose.”
                                                                         Watermelon Cake

In 1931 the Montrose Independent, reported that a fun raising event was held at the high school.  The black residents put on a play: “Wedding of the Seasons,” given by “…the colored people of the town.”  The production was sponsored by the maids at Rosemont Inn and about $100.00 was “…realized for the benefit of the A.M.E Zion Church.”

The Rosemont Inn

 

African-American Churches In Montrose

There were two African-American Churches build in Montrose.  The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, which still stand on Berry Street and The African Methodist Bethel Church which was located on Chenango Street and is no longer standing.

A.M.E. Zion Church Montrose

 

A.M.E. Zion Church As it stands today

By 1840, there were enough African-Americans to form their own church.  I believe the first church to be established was the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, hereafter referred to as the A.M.E.Z.  The A.M.E.Z. began in a little house where the old jail now stands.  About twelve members attended.  The first church was built around 1847, and the present church, which is still standing, was built on Berry Street.

It is reported that in 1905, some of the A.M.E.Z. congregation broke from the church.  It seems that the riff was over an annual assessment of $20.00.  Some thought this amount was oppressive.  It may be at this time that the second church was formed, the African Methodist Bethel on Chenango Street.  I could not get confirmation of this so it is a guess on my part.  The two factions fought over the church going so far as “…padlocking the door and other means.”  The two factions finally put to rest their feud and renovations were made to the building on Berry Street in 1948.  In 1953, a youth group was formed called the “Buds of Promise of the Montrose A.M.E. Zion Church.”  I have been told that the last service at the A.M.E.Z. was a wedding in 1975.

The A.M.E.Z. was very active and many of its members became well-known in the community.  One example was Edwin Bacon, who became a grocer, with his wife, Marands, opened a restaurant on Montrose’s South Main Street. The restaurant was noted for its “…nice dish of oysters and a dish of pickled cabbage.”  George Allen of Heart Lake, remembered that Bacon kept all kinds of dishes, especially dishes known as majolica.

“…when the majolica ware first came out he got a large box of it and I happened to go in there as he was taking it from the box, …he took out a bread plate that struck my fancy, so I asked the price and he said two dollars.  I gave him the money–that was nearly fifty years ago.”

Mr. Allen goes on to say that he would have paid much more.

 

There are several accounts as to who became pastor of the A.M.E.Z. One account is of a fugitive who settled in Montrose, in early 1840, by the name of Robert Booey.  It is reported that he became pastor, it is also reported that he and his wife, along with their four children, were well-known in the community.

In his book Finding Sanctuary at Montrose, William C. Kashatus provides an account of a runaway named William Smith.  Mr. Smith packed his belongings, “…tearfully bade farewell to his sister, and set out for the Pennsylvania border.”  Mr. Smith, along with others, settled in Montrose, PA.  He was hired by William Post.  Now that he was safe and employed, Mr. Smith married Elizabeth Lusk.  They had ten children and Mr. Smith helped establish the A.M.E.Z. church.  It is also reported that William Smith became its pastor and served for the next thirty-four years.  Mr. Smith was a very large man and a special chair had to be made “…from a hogshead cut to fit.”

(It is not clear, at least to me, if both Robert Booey and William Smith both served the A.M.E.Z. church at the same time.)

 

Hogshead chair made out of a wooden barrel.

 

Lewis Williams, an African-American, lived in Montrose from 1840 to 1897.  Some of the African-Americans who settled in Montrose are buried in the Cemetery.  One stone reads “Born in slavery–died in freedom.”  Another well-known African-American who lived in Montrose was Dr. Belle Price.  She was a known authority on wildlife and perfected a method to combat diseases in wildlife.  I was told that the method she perfected had to do with preventing chickens from disease.

Conclusion

The last known runaway slave who came to Montrose by way of the Underground Railroad, was Hamilton Young who died on May 4, 1908.

Montrose had many who risked their lives in helping the runaway fugitives to escape and often were at odds with member of their community.  Most thought (with the exception of most slave holders) that slavery was wrong.  It is also known that many of the runaways who settled in the Montrose area did not have easy lives.

Most of the Montrose African-Americans, by the 1970s left the area, many to find employment in the factories and mills that were in Binghamton, NY.  The African-Americans who came to our area left an important footprint on the history of our county and on Montrose.  The Underground Railroad was an important step in recognizing the importance of human dignity.  The issue of how to deal with our fellow human beings remains an issue even in our own times.  Let us hope that we too have the courage that it took to help those seeking freedom to find their way where they could live their lives as free men and women.

 

Center for Anti-Slavery Studies

 

 

SOURCES

Scholastic Teachers Activities Guide, “Myths of the Underground Railroad”

Wikipedia, “Fugitive Slave Act”

Google Search, “The Center for AntiSlavery Studies”

Finding Sanctuary at Montrose, by William C. Kashatus; http://www.phme.state.pa.us/portal/communities/pa-heritage/files/finding sanctuary-montrose.pdf

Waiting for the Lord, “Nineteenth Century Black Communities in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania”, by Debra Adleman; Picton Press, Camden, Maine, 1997

A Brief History of Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church, Susquehanna Historical Society Archives

Slavery Days, Montrose PA, “The Last Slave Here”, by D. T. Brewster; Susquehanna Historical Archives

History of Susquehanna County Pennsylvania, “From a Period Preceding its Settlement to Recent Times”, by Emily C. Blakman; Philadelphia, Claxton, Remsen and Haffelfinger, 624, 626, and 628 Market Street; 1873

Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, By William J. Switala; Pub. 2008; The Center for Antislavery Studies website

Pocono Today, Stroudsburg PA, June 21, 1981

The Place I Call Home, “How Abolition and the Underground Railroad Shaped the Communities of North Eastern Pennsylvania”, by Sherman F. Wooden; Pub. by The Center for Antislavery Studies, Inc.; 75 Church Stree, Montrose, PA 18801; Pub. 2009

delanceyplace.com, March 19, 2018, “American Notes For General Circulation” by Charles Dickens, Pub. 1842

The New York Times, “‘African-American’ Appears Earlier than Thought”: Reporter’s Notebook, by Jennifer Schuessler; April 21, 2015

Special thanks to Cindy Wooden, Secretary CASS and the Susquehanna Historical Society whose help was invaluable.

*The term African-American was first used in THE PENNSYLVANIA JOURNAL, May 15, 1782, in an article “Two Sermons”, by “African-American; one of the captured of Lord Cornwallis to be sold by W. Woodhouse, A. Smith, & S. Saviel.  In modern times, the term was made popular by Jessie Jackson.

*I may well have made some mistakes in attempting to write about the Underground Railroad, hopefully the mistakes are not too severe and deserving of forgiveness.

 

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