When it comes to Vermont’s history with the Underground Railroad, where’s the line between myth and truth? And whose voices are missing from the story?
Those are the questions Brave Little State set out to answer after hearing from listener Carlie Krolick, of Charlotte. Carlie wanted to know how Vermont’s local legends square with the historical record.
"Was there an Underground Railroad in Vermont?" Carlie asked. "What do we know about the existence of a system to help slaves escape toward Canada? And were escaped slaves able to settle and live here openly?"
About 40 miles south of Charlotte, in the town of Brandon, there's an ongoing conversation about the extent of the town's Underground Railroad history.
Back in the 1990s, when the town’s Fourth of July Committee needed to raise money for its yearly parade, longtime resident Joan Thomas, the chair of the committee, got an idea for a fundraiser.
“We lined up, it was either seven or eight homes — seven, I think, homes, and one was a barn — to show these secret spaces, which were attics, cellars, holding rooms, and a tunnel entrance,” Joan recalled recently.
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Joan planned a walking tour of these secret spaces — little cubbies and compartments that homeowners believed had been part of the Underground Railroad. You know the story: African-Americans who escaped from slavery in the south traveled north, getting help from people along the way. In the years before the Civil War, fugitive slaves supposedly hid in Brandon, in these houses on the tour. This was all based on oral history.
“This was information that was passed from one family down to the next, and then onto the neighbors, Joan says.
She worked with the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce to promote the heck out of the tour. It got picked up by the New York Times Travel section.
“And it was a huge success,” says Bernie Carr, the current head of Brandon’s Chamber of Commerce. Back then, he was a board member.
“The various houses that had the rooms opened up their houses, let people go in their basements, their attics, their sheds and their shanties. It was just amazing,” he says. “We made $600 or $700 on it for a Chamber event, which was a lot of money.”
“The first year, we sold out,” Joan says. “There were so many people from out of state that had come. It was something. We only charged $5 for the tickets, and I think we could have charged $25, and we would have still sold as many.”
The first tour was in the summer of 1995. It was such a success that Brandon held one again in 1996. That year they also sold a little cookbook with photos of the homes on the tour and old family recipes. (“And that too was a big seller,” Joan says.) There was a third tour in 1997, also very popular. But it was the last.
“I think the people with the houses decided they’d had enough of people coming through their houses and walking through everything,” Bernie says.
These days, every once in awhile someone will float the idea of bringing the tour back. But according to Kevin Thornton, that’s a very bad idea.
“I think people would say we’d like to do this again, this is like the best fundraiser we’ve ever had,” he says. “But, you know, we really can’t do it honestly.”
Kevin is a historian. He moved to town after the tours ended. But he says the whole Underground Railroad thing here is way overblown. As far he can tell, there’s only one piece of evidence of runaway slaves hiding in Brandon. It came from a local abolitionist named Jedidiah Holcomb.
“He wrote a letter to a national anti-slavery paper, and he’s very coy. He says something like, ‘There are rumors of certain people coming through town, and being hidden here, and I’m not going to deny them.’ And that’s all he says.
“There definitely was a strong anti-slavery movement in Brandon, and I think people confuse that with the Underground Railroad pretty extensively. So there’s this kind of mish-mash of truth and rumor and wishful thinking that leads to this notion that every old house is a haven for runaway slaves. And it just wasn’t happening.”
Joan Thomas, the original tour organizer, has heard Kevin’s critique. And she doesn’t buy it.
“I and many others disagree with him,” she says. “Just from all the stories that we’ve heard about the slaves running away and whatever, I just can’t believe that it’s not true.”
‘The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont’
A lot of this story is going to be focused on myth-busting. But before we get to the Underground Railroad myths, we need to talk about a Vermont myth you might have in your head. Maybe you think that because we were the first state to abolish slavery, in 1777, we were always a shining bastion of freedom and abolition. Not quite.
“Slavery still continued on the ground in some ways,” says Harvey Amani Whitfield, a professor of history at the University of Vermont. “The reason why I love this topic and the reason why I love Vermont history is because of the complexity and the nuance. I mean, if you’re a black person and you’re living in Vermont in the 1790s, you could own property, you could take a white person to court, but at the very same time, you could be kidnapped or re-enslaved.”
Amani wrote a book about this, called The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810. It came out in 2014. During a VPR interview he did in January of that year, Amani said that even though abolition was enshrined in Vermont’s constitution, “it wasn’t enforced. Owners of slaves just sort of subverted it, ignored it.”
Plus, there was a loophole that allowed people to continue to enslave children. Amani found examples of this kind of stuff all the way up to 1810. So that’s one thing: Slavery had a foothold here. Another thing to know is that Vermonters had complicated views about all this. Here’s Vermont historian Ray Zirblis:
“Lots of people, I think, of good will in the antebellum period are on the fence. Slavery is reprehensible, but the destruction of the union would be a terrible outcome. So people we would consider, they would say, ‘gentlemen of property and standing,’ upstanding members of the community, are very often on the side of a more temperant middle ground.”
Keep this stuff in mind as we try to answer Carlie’s questions about the Underground Railroad. Because the history plays out in front of a backdrop that, to use Amani Whitfield’s words, is full of nuance. That’s a key word for this story, actually.
“Nuance, nuance,” stresses Jane Williamson, the director of Rokeby Museum in Shelburne. Rokeby was the home and sheep farm of the Robinson family, who were Quakers. Four generations of the family lived on this property; one of those generations featured a husband and wife named Rowland and Rachel. They were abolitionists, and they sheltered or aided dozens of fugitive slaves here on the farm in the 1830s and ‘40s.
Rokeby’s connection to the Underground Railroad is so legit that the museum is a National Historic Landmark. But Jane says that people come here looking for a different story than the one the museum actually tells.
“The lantern in the window, the hidden room, the loose floorboard,” Jane says. She adds that people are kind of obsessed with hiding places — like in Brandon — because there’s this popular image of slave-catchers prowling around the countryside, looking for fugitives. But there’s no evidence that that happened in Vermont. We’re too far north.
“So, nobody was hiding here. That’s manifestly clear. And there’s no reason to think anybody would have been hiding anywhere else in Vermont,” Jane says. “But people have this just ingrained, the depth of this story in people’s thinking, so anytime they see anything — in the hall under the staircase we have a closet, and they go, ‘Oh, oh, that’s where they hid the fugitive slaves!’ It’s just, everything people see, that’s the first thing they think of. [But] it’s a root cellar. It’s a cistern.
“So, we’re in the business of bursting people’s balloons,” Jane continues. “But I think that what we give them is actually more interesting.”
Take the story of a man named Jesse. Documents show he was enslaved on a small farm in North Carolina, by a man named Joseph Elliott. When Joseph died, his son Ephram basically inherited Jesse. There are tax records and estate papers that show all this — and then at a certain point, Jesse is not in the North Carolina documents anymore.
“It appears that Jesse was quite a capable person. Because he managed to get from Perquimans County, in northeastern North Carolina, all the way to northwestern Vermont,” Jane says. “I think he must have gone by boat. And that was the fast way. I mean, if you got on a boat, you could be up in Boston Harbor.
Jesse ended up in Ferrisburgh. The Robinsons gave him a job on their farm, and paid him for his work.
“And we know that because he saved up $150,” Jane says. “And if you were working as a farm laborer in Vermont, in 1837, and you earned $150, that would be a lot of money.”
This helps answer part of Carlie’s question, about whether escaped slaves could live here openly. Jane figures, if Jesse was working on the farm, then “obviously he wasn’t in hiding.”
So Jesse was working for a wage, and he saved up $150. And according to Jane, he saved it for a specific purpose: he wanted to buy his freedom from Ephram Elliott, the slave-owner he ran away from.
“The other part of this story is that Ephram and Jesse were almost the same age,” Jane adds, which she says means they’d probably grown up playing together on the farm in North Carolina.
So when Ephram gets a letter from Rowland Robinson, the owner of Rokeby, about Jesse buying his freedom, Ephram's reaction isn’t what you think:
“His response to Rowland is like, ‘Oh, Jesse was a man I had great regard for and one hopes he will do well. If he would like to come back I would love to see him.’”
Ephram doesn’t send someone to recapture Jesse; he wishes him well. Jane thinks there was something else going on there, too. She says, look, Jesse was savvy enough to get himself out of slavery.
“Ephram Elliott, on the other hand, never really acquired much more land than what he inherited from his father,” she says.
Ephram maybe wasn’t the greatest businessman. He was also illiterate.
“I looked at a number of documents which he marked with an X,” Jane says. “So, there seems to be some difference in how capable they were, or how ambitious, or ... the agency of the two guys was kind of askew. So, Jesse may have just thought, ‘This guy’s going nowhere, I’m getting out of here.’ Who knows. But he did something very hard.”
This is what Jane means when she talks about nuance.
“And really make it less about these kind of cardboard cartoon characters, who do the same thing in every story. They’re not very deep, they’re not very nuanced, there’s like no complexity there. They’re just wonderful white people and evil slave catchers,” Jane says. “In those stories, the slave loses out. So that’s not good, because they’re the star of the story.”
Here’s Dr. Cheryl Janifer LaRoche’s take on the popular Underground Railroad narrative: “I often say that many of these people managed to get themselves completely out of slavery and into the north and all of a sudden they seem to fall apart and turn into these frightened shivering fugitives. Now they may be cold and they may be frightened but it has not stopped them from moving through the land to get to freedom.”
Cheryl is an archeologist and a historian and she teaches at the University of Maryland. She’s also the author of a book called Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad: The Geography of Resistance. She makes an important point about how the history of the Underground Railroad is told. She says it’s really one-sided.
“We have this inequality in access to literacy, and so many of the people who worked on the Underground Railroad — Quakers, for example — who are diarists who write who leave this written record of their work on the Underground Railroad,” Cheryl says, “as opposed to people who had been legislated into not being able to read or write. So there is a great unevenness in the record that's left behind.”
This is definitely true at Rokeby, where generations of very literate Robinsons left behind 15,000 letters. But there’s nothing written by Jesse, or any of the other fugitives who passed through.
“So much African-American history is on the cutting room floor,” Cheryl says.
‘Friends of Freedom’
That being said, there are a handful of free black Vermonters who show up in a big state report about Vermont’s Underground Railroad called "Friends of Freedom." And at least one of them was literate: a man named Loudon Langley.
According to historian Ray Zirblis, Langley, who lived in Hinesburg, in a community of African-American farmers known as Lincoln Hill, was “a real letter-writer to the newspapers on abolition issues. And along the way, he happens to mention in passing that he is putting up a fugitive.”
Ray finished the "Friends of Freedom" report in 1996, in the era of Brandon’s walking tours. It’s an exhaustive study of all the Vermont Underground Railroad activity he could find, from hard records to oral histories.
“There were five categories of ratings,” Ray says, “from, this is absolutely an Underground Railroad identified structure, or this is a person who we absolutely can prove was active on the railroad, to at the bottom, a person or place where there is no evidence and only a whisper of a possibility.”
Out of the 174 people and sites Ray surveyed, he found hard proof that 25 Vermonters were Underground Activists. This was Category A.
“For me the idea was, these are folks I could have convicted in a court of law,” Ray says.
The Category A activists were Quakers, clergy, free blacks — and they were mostly spread out along what today is Vermont’s Route 7 Corridor, from Bennington to St. Albans. People and sites in Categories B through E get harder to prove, and more spread out across the state.
One Category A activist in Ray’s report is in Montpelier, a guy with a great name: Chauncy Knapp.
The other great thing about Chauncy Knapp is that he actually sheltered a fugitive slave when he was Vermont’s secretary of state. (“Now there’s a politician who’s doing something!” Ray jokes.)
This was in 1838. Chauncy Knapp helped out a young man named Charles Nelson. Charles hadn’t traveled on his own all the way up from the South. He’d actually been brought along on his master’s honeymoon to Niagara Falls. He escaped from the hotel, and ended up at Rokeby, with the Robinson family.
“They sent Charles to Knapp, and Knapp wrote a very jaunty letter back to the Robinsons to say that Charles had indeed arrived safely, and that they were sitting in his office, the secretary of state’s office in the Statehouse — this is the old Statehouse before the fire,” Ray says. “But how wonderful to think of this teenager, newly having escaped from slavery, and being there in the Statehouse.”
Eventually Chauncy Knapp helped Charles get a printer’s apprenticeship in Montpelier.
“The moving thing about that for me is that Knapp himself, when he was a boy, his father had walked him down to Montpelier and apprenticed him in the trade of printing,” Ray says. “So in helping Charles out, he was in a sense trying to give him, you might say, the same start that his father had given him.”
Another example of a former slave living openly in Vermont. Now, Ray is clear that Vermont’s Underground Railroad was not a highly organized network. Some of the activity appears to have been random, and some was more based on loose affiliations. We can see this in another piece of evidence. It’s written by a young Bennington girl named Jane Hicks, and it’s Ray’s favorite document.
“And the reason is that Jane is about 12 years old in 1843 when she writes a letter,” he says.
She’s writing to her older sister.
"Friday evening, my dear sister, it rains very hard here. I was interrupted last evening by a loud rap at the door. Father went to the door and a gentleman came in and said, ‘You wouldn’t turn a man out of doors on such a night as this.’ Father told him no. The man had a load in his wagon. They drove to the shed and came in. It was Mr. Van Housen with a black man, his wife and three children escaping from slavery. They stayed until morning, when Henry went and carried them to Mr. Bottum’s house. He did not want to go for he had carried one group before this week. Please burn this as soon as you read it. Let no one see it. Jane.’”
Ray says the letter gives us a glimpse into one small leg of a family’s journey — from the Hicks Farm to the Bottum Farm, in Shaftsbury. It also shows us that this was a family affair.
“Wives and children are involved, and others,” he says. “In this case, Henry, the teenage boy, does not want to take this family the next leg of the journey because he’s already made such a journey. You know, this is the antebellum, abolition equivalent of having to mow the lawn, and Henry doesn’t want to do it.”
All told, Ray found documentation for 29 fugitives passing through Vermont between the 1830s and the 1850s. But he says those numbers are really shaky.
“On one hand, there are not that many. Though [there could be] many more than I’ve been able to track down. Of course in terms of oral history, in terms of tradition, one person, or out of one moment, the myth may kind of locate in a given town.”
And this brings us back to Brandon.
There’s nothing from Brandon in Category A of Ray’s report, where we have the best evidence. But less substantiated activity in town does show up in Categories B, C and D. One of the sites was the crown jewel of Joan Thomas’s walking tour: the Marsh House mansion, on Pearl Street.
Kevin Thornton and another Brandon history buff named Blaine Cliver took me to see it.
The owner of the house, Rodney V. Marsh, was a high profile abolitionist in Vermont. This massive Greek Revival house was finished in 1853, and it has a very special reputation.
“You know, there’s rumors that there was a tunnel,” says Hoyt Gahagan, the fifth owner of the old house. “But we haven’t actually found the tunnel. I know a lot of people have tried to. But there’s parts in the foundation wall where it has been patched, so whether there was a tunnel there at some point, we’re not sure.”
Joan Thomas says she saw the tunnel, when she was a young girl. She used to babysit for the family that lived in the Marsh house.
“Down cellar, there was a big hole,” Joan recalls. She says that one day, “the oldest boy was, I was coming home from school, and going down there with his friends, and playing. Well I went down one day because it was pretty quiet down there, and they had gone through this hole and they were in this tunnel. And that tunnel went down to the railroad tracks.
Hoyt has heard the stories.
“Across the street, there’s several houses and behind those houses there’s a very steep bank,” he says. “And so basically the thought was that they would get off the train and come up the ravine on the other side of the street, into the basement of those houses, and then across the street underground, into the basement of this house.”
“That doesn’t make much sense to me,” Blaine. “Because you’d have to dig a pretty good tunnel, and it’d be easier just to run across the street.”
Kevin and Blaine are very skeptical of this story, and many others that gave rise to Brandon’s Underground Railroad tour. But even though Hoyt’s not sure about his house, he’s open to other stories.
“Oh, I think this whole town was engaged in it,” he says. “I really do.”
This is the power of oral history. Yes, sometimes it veers into rumor and exaggeration — the Marsh house is probably a good example — but not all historians are dismissive of it. Not even Ray Zirblis.
“Rather than have people simply shut up, I’d rather have people tell the stories, and bring them up, and pass them onto their kids,” Ray says. “And then we in the present, or the future, can look at the cases, and make our own determination.”
This is why Ray included places like the Marsh House in his big report. The house has no hard records that we know of, but it’s had these stories swirling around it for so long.
“With all the smoke, maybe — maybe — there’s a little bit of fire,” Ray says. Of course, they’re feel-good stories, too. “They say something about how we wish to imagine ourselves.”
“The Underground Railroad has proven to be a sturdy vehicle for people to feel good about themselves, particularly white folks sort of patting themselves on the back,” says Dr. Chery LaRoche.
Because, right. A lot of stories, at least in Vermont, have been passed through generations of mostly white people. But Cheryl says oral histories are an important part of her efforts to surface African-American narratives in Underground Railroad history.
“I say that that is a research component. That we do not dismiss these things,” she says. “Learn how to use oral histories responsibly. Take them seriously.”
Cheryl says this goes back to the fact that African-Americans often couldn’t record their stories.
“First you legislate people into being unable to read or write, and then you render the primary source of their information gathering — oral — inaccurate, unstable and not credible,” Cheryl says. “And so we're ham-stringed on two ends. So how do we overcome these obstacles? How do we get around them, and how do we learn to look at the Underground Railroad from a different angle?”
And Cheryl says based on little clues she sees in Ray Zirblis’s report, there’s potential for more research into the African-American narrative in Vermont.
“You might not have the same type of network — I'm using that term very loosely, let's say connectedness — that we might see in other places,” Cheryl says. “But I would be willing to bet that you have a very powerful narrative here of African-American involvement.”
Abolition & anti-slavery
At the end of my tour of Brandon, Kevin Thorton and Blaine Cliver brought me to one last spot with some important history: the Baptist Church.
“It was the locus of anti-slavery in Brandon,” Kevin says. “The Brandon Anti-Slavery Society met here for years, the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society had its convention here.”
Their activity, starting in the 1830s, is well documented.
“Organizing, arranging speakers, women would do things like knit mittens for runaway slaves in Canada, they’d petition constantly,” Kevin says.
Kevin says they made a difference — it’s just that meetings and petitions don’t make for a good story. So they take a back seat to the Underground Railroad.
“What they did wasn’t the dramatic stuff of hiding people in basements, which you didn’t need to do in Vermont,” Kevin says.
They weren’t just in Brandon. Rokeby Museum has an entire exhibit devoted to the abolitionist movement.
“They boycotted. They published hundreds of newspapers. They spoke out,” says Jane Williamson, Rokeby’s executive director. “They understood that if you want to make change in a democratic society you have to change public opinion. And they did. You know, they started in the early 1830s and by the time of the Civil War public opinion had changed enormously on the subject of slavery.”
Jane says the reason the Robinsons helped fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad is because they were part of this movement.
“And that legacy is something we really want to honor,” she says. “I mean, the issues that the Robinsons worked at have not gone away. I think racism is just remarkably resilient. You can pass laws and make changes that cut it off here and cut it off there, but it’s like water. It worms around, it finds another way, and it just keeps doing that. And it’s a big deal right now.”
Dr. Cheryl LaRoche says that’s why history is so important: because it helps us understand the present.
“If you have a deep knowledge of African-American history, nothing that is happening today would surprise you in the least,” Cheryl says. “One would know that our country and its promises have yet to be fulfilled. Or let's say they are partially fulfilled, and have we have a long way to go.”
Recommended reading & resources:
- Discovering Black Vermont by Elise Guyette
- Friends of Freedom: The Vermont Underground Railroad Survey Report by Ray Zirblis
- The Vermont Historical Society's Underground Railroad Project
- "The Perilous Lure of the Underground Railroad" by Kathryn Schulz
- The Vermont African American Heritage Trail
Thanks to all our listeners who shared their curiosity for this show: Carlie Krolick, Becca Golden, Jesse Webster and Joan Sterner. And thanks to Oliver Riskin-Kutz for help with research.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public Radio. We have support from the VPR Innovation Fund, from Local First Vermont and from VPR members. If you like this show, consider becoming one.
Editing this month by Henry Epp. Our theme music is by Ty Gibbons. Other music in ourepisode was used under a Creative Commons license: