By Philip R. Devlin
Last week’s column dealt principally with the life of scholar, athlete, and author Horatio Strother. Though born in New York City, Strother spent most of his adolescence and adult life living in Middletown and Higganum, CT.
It was in Middletown that young Horatio began to distinguish himself both as an athlete and as a student. A star football player for Woodrow Wilson High School and a state champion in track and field, Strother also developed a keen interest in American history in general and in the Underground Railroad in particular. He pursued his interest in history at UConn and became a social studies teacher at Hale-Ray High School in the Moodus section of East Haddam. Later, he became a professor of history at a community college in New Haven.
Though discouraged to do so, Strother persisted in writing his master’s essay on the Underground Railroad in Connecticut. His pioneering study of this subject was first published 59 years ago in 1962 by Wesleyan University Press and was reprinted in 2012. Strother’s research was hampered by the fact that finding documented sources dealing with the topic was very difficult due to the fact that aiding runaway slaves was an illegal activity. Consequently, “conductors” on the underground railroad were very circumspect about their activities and were understandably reluctant to keep any records of their actions. Nevertheless, Strother’s dogged determination to research his topic yielded many results. In an appendix published in his book, Strother identifies 86 “underground agents” by county. Below are some of the highlights of Strother’s research:
- The first slave appeared in Connecticut in 1639. By 1680 there were 30 slaves in the state. Fifty years later the number had dramatically increased to 700. By 1755, there were an estimated 4,000 slaves in Connecticut. The number peaked in 1774 with 6,562 slaves identified; thereafter, the number of slaves in the Nutmeg State quickly declined to 2,759 in 1790 and just 951 ten years later in 1800. By 1840, there were only 17; finally, in 1848, Connecticut outlawed slavery completely.
- By 1837 there were 39 anti-slavery societies in Connecticut — most formed during the decade of the 1830s. The largest by far was in Mansfield. Though a small town, Mansfield’s anti-slavery group had an incredible 300 members! Hartford had the second-highest number of members with 120. None of the other 37 anti-slavery societies had more than 100 members. Strother also notes that Clarissa Beman of Middletown organized the second female anti-slavery society in the United States on April 2, 1834. It was called the “Colored Female Anti-Slavery Society of Middletown.”
- New Haven was a hotbed of anti-slavery activity. Strother points out the courage and legal acumen of a young lawyer named Roger Baldwin whose actions in court freed a runaway slave. Baldwin then went on to argue successfully on behalf of the crew of the Amistad. He later was elected governor and a senator for Connecticut.
- The Compromise of 1850 resulted in a new, strict Fugitive Slave Law. Connecticut abolitionists, such as the fiery Rev. George W. Perkins of Meriden, were quick to speak out against it. Perkins preached an “almost inflammatory” sermon in Guilford entitled “Conscience and the Constitution.” In his sermon, Perkins asserted that Americans were bound to obey two authorities: the Constitution and the law of God, “but in the case of conflict between the authority of the U.S. and the authority of God, obey God and disobey the United States.” Led by the Lyman family, the farmers of Middlefield echoed similar sentiments by adopting a resolution in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, saying that “conscience, humanity, self-respect are greater than the Union and these must be pursued at all hazards.” (The distinction between manmade law and a higher law had been made famous by Henry David Thoreau in his famous essay “On Civil Disobedience” just a couple of years before — an essay also centered around anti-slavery sentiment.)
- Runaway slave ads commonly appeared in Connecticut newspapers until the 1820s. One of the last runaway slave notices appeared in the Connecticut Courant on Aug. 5, 1823. Elijah Billings of Somers placed an ad looking for the return of a mulatto named William Lewis. The ad read, “Any person who will return said boy shall receive one cent reward and no charges paid.”
- Strother also reports in his book that so fervent was the spirit of anti-slavery in some Connecticut communities that law enforcement personnel often refused to cooperate with the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law. For example, two fugitive slaves, claiming to be jockeys for the famous thoroughbred racehorses Phantom and Fashion, settled in Meriden, working for Homer Curtiss in his lock shop. Curtiss, described by Strother as a “stout Underground man,” refused to allow their Southern overseer to re-claim them and was supported in his refusal by the local sheriff. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation from legal authorities, the slave owner returned home without his two slaves.
One of the first people Strother thanked in the preface to the book was Cedric L. Robinson. Most people reading the book would probably have no idea who Robinson was. Cedric Robinson of Windsor was one of the most respected book dealers in the United States in the decades following World War II. He specialized in Americana and was undoubtedly a valuable source for Strother in acquiring pamphlets and sermons dealing with the Abolitionist movement and with the Underground Railroad. There could have been no better source for that kind of material than Cedric Robinson. It is likely that Robinson was the source for the narrative appearing as “Appendix 1” near the end of the book. It is the compelling narrative of Nehemiah Caulkins, who describes in graphic detail the horrors of slavery during an 11-year period in North Carolina. The narrative was first published in pamphlet form in 1839. To read it online, click here.
Strother quite properly devotes an entire chapter to “Farmington, The Grand Central Station” of the Underground Railroad. He notes that like most Connecticut towns, opinions regarding slavery were divided; however, the author maintains that the Amistad incident changed many people’s minds about slavery. In writing about the relocation of the slaves from the ship to Farmington, Strother notes that “their simple friendliness and almost childlike delight in the new sights about them did much to break down local prejudice against people of color.” It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the people of Farmington adopted a more enlightened racial viewpoint and became very committed to the Underground Railroad. To read more about Farmington’s role in the Underground Railroad and in the Amistad incident, click here.
Of the six New England states, Connecticut had more slaves than the other five combined; nevertheless, at its peak in Connecticut in 1774, slaves accounted for less than 3% of the state’s population, with the highest concentration of slaves being in two towns — New London and Fairfield. Approximately half of Connecticut’s ministers, lawyers, and public officers and about one third of all doctors owned slaves just prior to the American Revolution. A gradual movement toward banning slavery in Connecticut began in the post-revolutionary period, eventually culminating with its abolition in 1848.
The abolitionist spirit was alive and well in antebellum Connecticut and found expression in the Underground Railroad — what Horatio Strother defined as “a widespread and loosely knit network of hideouts and secret routes of escape.” From the 1830s to the Civil War, the Underground Railroad operated actively here. The necessarily clandestine nature of the Underground Railroad will never allow a complete picture of its operation to emerge fully, but anyone who would like to add to or modify the story must start with Horatio Strother’s pioneering work on the topic — The Underground Railroad in Connecticut, published exactly 50 years ago.
Notes, Sources, and Links
The Underground Railroad in Connecticut by Horatio Strother (1962).
To see a list of the 18 identified homes on the Connecticut Freedom Trail used during the era of the Underground Railroad, go here: www.ctmq.org/underground-railroad-trail-18/