The Little-Known History of the Underground Railroad in New York

Pultizer-Prize winning historian Eric Foner uncovers the hidden story behind this passage to freedom

Cyrus Gates House Underground
Cyrus Gates House, in Broome County, New York, was once an important stop along the Underground Railroad. Wikimedia Commons

New York City wasn’t always the liberal Yankee bastion it is today. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the city was strongly pro-slavery and anything but a hotbed of abolitionism. The city’s banking and shipping interests were closely tied to the cotton and sugar trades, industries that relied on slave labor. Any change in the status quo, such as the abolition of slavery, would significantly damage the forces that made New York the financial capital of the United States. But even then, the Underground Railroad, the network of secret safe houses and getaway routes used by fugitive slaves seeking freedom in the North, operated through the city. Fredrick Douglass and thousands of others escaped via what was even then the most populous city in the nation.

The true nature of the Underground Railroad’s breadth in New York, however, has been largely unknown because of the city’s anti-abolitionist fervor. “While there is a lot out there on the Underground Railroad, very little has been done about New York City,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Eric Foner, a professor at Columbia University. “This was pretty much a pro-Southern town and the Underground Railroad was operating in much greater secrecy than in many other parts of the North, so it was a lot harder to ferret out.”

Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad

The dramatic story of fugitive slaves and the antislavery activists who defied the law to help them reach freedom. More than any other scholar, Eric Foner has influenced our understanding of America's history. Now, making brilliant use of extraordinary evidence, the Pulitzer Prize–winning historian once again reconfigures the national saga of American slavery and freedom.

As Foner details in his new book, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, New York was a crucial way station from the Upper South through Pennsylvania and onward to upstate New York, New England and Canada. Between 1830 and 1860, a handful of New Yorkers, black and white, helped more than 3,000 fugitive slaves make their way out of bondage. Their story forms a chapter of resistance to slavery that has, until now, received relatively sparse attention from historians.

The book draws on a “very remarkable and unusual document” that had been gathering dust in Columbia’s manuscript archives for more than a century. The Record of Fugitives, compiled by New York City abolitionist newspaperman Sydney Howard Gay, was unknown to scholars until a student tipped off Foner to its existence. As he began to comb through it, he discovered a meticulous accounting of the movements of more than 200 fugitive slaves who passed through the city in the 1850s.

The Record speaks of fugitives long forgotten “such as James Jones of Alexandria who, Gay recorded, ‘had not been treated badly, but was tired of being a slave.’“ But he was an exception, according to interviews Gay and his colleagues conducted. As Foner relates, many fugitives cited physical abuse as much as a desire for freedom as the reason they ran away, using words like “great violence,” “badly treated,” “ruff times,” and “hard master” in their complaints.

John Jay II, the grandson of the first chief justice of the Supreme Court, also appears in the Record. By the late 1840s, he had emerged as the city’s leading lawyer in fugitive slave cases, frequently providing his services free of charge, “at great risk to his social and professional standing,” as Gay wrote.

The book includes accounts of escapes aided by the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman, but also by a little-known and strikingly named man whose death certificate decades later would list his occupation as, “Underground R.R. Agent.”

Louis Napoleon was an illiterate African-American furniture polisher and porter who may have been born a slave in New York or Virginia. He appears on the very first page of the Record taking a fugitive to the train station. His name later turns up in letters, writs of habeas corpus and in some of the most important court cases arising out of the contentious Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.

Napoleon lived around the corner from Gay’s office in lower Manhattan, not far from the ferry terminal where passengers from Philadelphia and points farther south disembarked. He was, Foner said, “the key guy on the streets in New York bringing in fugitives, scouring the docks, looking for people at the train station.” As the Brooklyn Eagle would observe in 1875 of the then elderly man, “few would have suspected … that he had ever been the rescuer of 3,000 persons from bondage.”

The author, who used the Record as a jumping off point to delve deeper into New York’s fugitive slave network, also traces the origins of the New York Vigilance Committee, a tiny group of white abolitionists and free blacks that started in 1835 and would form the core of the city’s underground network until the eve of the Civil War.

“Over the course of its life,” Foner wrote, “it propelled the plight of fugitives to the forefront of abolitionist consciousness in New York and won support from many outside the movement’s ranks. It forced the interconnected issues of kidnapping and fugitive slaves into the larger public sphere.”

Gateway to Freedom brings to two dozen the number of books Foner has written on antebellum, Civil War and Reconstruction America. His previous book, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, won the Pulitzer Prize.

I spoke to Eric Foner about New York’s hidden role in the Underground Railroad.

How did this book come about?

This is an unusual book for me. This started with this one document, the Record of Fugitives, which was serendipitously pointed out to me by a student at Columbia who was doing a senior thesis on Sydney Howard Gay and his journalistic career. She was in the manuscript library at Columbia and said there’s this thing about fugitive slaves and I’m not sure what it is but you might find it interesting. So I kind of filed it in the back of my mind. It was virtually unknown because it was not catalogued in any way. You had to know it was there to find it.

What was New York like during this time?

The prosperity of New York City in the half-century before the Civil War was closely tied to slavery and the cotton South. This was a city whose merchants basically controlled the cotton trade, and had very close ties with cotton plantation owners. Many of the jobs on the docks were connected to this. The shipbuilding industry, insurance companies, the banks who helped to finance slavery. Southerners were here all the time. They came to do business, they came up for vacation. Lincoln never carried New York City either time he ran for president. Now, of course, there was a free black community and there was this quite small band of abolitionists, but it was a very difficult environment for them to work in.

Was there one Underground Railroad or many?

There were routes in Ohio, Kentucky. This was one major set of routes I call the metropolitan corridor because it went from city to city up the East Coast. It was one of a series of networks that assisted a good number of fugitives. Nobody knows how many.

One shouldn’t think of the Underground Railroad as a set group of routes. People thought, ‘Oh you could make a map. Here’s where they went.’ It was not quite so organized as sometimes we think. It was not like there was a series of stations and people would just go from one to another. It was more haphazard. It was more disorganized -- or less organized, anyway. But there were these little networks of people who were in contact with each other and would assist fugitives. And once they got further north to Albany, Syracuse, then they were in the real anti-slavery territory and it became very much more open. It was totally public and nobody seemed to do anything about it. People advertised in the newspaper about helping fugitive slaves. That was a very different environment than New York City.

How did fugitive slaves get to New York?        

‘Underground Railroad’ should be taken somewhat literally, toward the end anyway. We tend to think of runaway slaves as running through woods and of course that happened but from the 1840s and ‘50s, many of them came to New York by railroad. Frederick Douglas just got on a train in Baltimore and got to New York.

A lot got to New York by boat. Ship captains took money from slaves to hide them out and bring them to the North. There were a lot of blacks working on vessels at that time.

The book also looks at the larger impact fugitive slaves had on national politics.

Most of these fugitives who ran away are anonymous but they helped to place the slavery question on the national agenda. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was a very draconian law that aroused a lot of opposition in the North. Local action, local resistance actually reverberated way up to the national level. So that’s another thing I wanted to emphasize -- not just the stories of these people but the way that their actions actually had a big effect on national politics and the coming of the Civil War.

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