By Renée S. Gordon
“That the fall of slavery is predetermined in the counsels of Omnipotence I cannot doubt;”
–John Quincy Adams, 1838
From the time enslavement was introduced into the New World those enslaved sought to free themselves from bondage by escaping and there were always those assisted them. Virginia passed the first law that mandated a penalty for offering shelter and sanctioned the issuing of a bounty for the capture of fugitive slaves in 1642. In 1793 the first Fugitive Slave Act was enacted to legalize the recapture of those fleeing bondage. It linked criminals, indentured servants and slaves who fled together only in the manner of their extradition. The fine for harboring a fugitive was $500, more than $8000. today.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was part of the Compromise of 1850 and was legislated in response to state laws that made the 1793 Act difficult to enforce, the growing abolitionist sentiment in the country and the increasing number of fugitives. The federal commisioner was created to make recapture easier. They were granted the authority to issue federal warrants for the arrest of fugitives and an official writ for their return south. They were paid $10. for each person identified as a fugitive and removed and $5. if they found recapture unjustified.
In the same year as the first Fugitive Slave Law Ontario, then Upper Canada, outlawed slavery. Seven years later it was declared illegal in Quebec and in 1833 slavery was outlawed in all of Canada. By 1860 approximately 2 percent of Canada’s population was comprised of runaways.
The enslaved’s desire for freedom, stringent laws regarding recapture and return to bondage and strong personal beliefs helped create and mold antislavery movements in the colonies and later in the states.
The Quakers, or the Society of Friends, is the religious group most closely tied to abolitionist sentiments and they were indeed the first white religious group to state that slavery was contrary to Christian beliefs. The first public statement was issued in 1688 in Germantown, PA. While not all Quakers were abolitionists, and some owned slaves including William Penn, many remained steadfast in their beliefs. In 1755 it was decided that expulsion was the penalty for any member engaged in slave importation and 35 years later they petitioned the government to abolish slavery.
There is much debate regarding the beginning of the Underground Railroad (UGRR) and though many scholars date it from the 1790s it is believed to have been at its height between 1820 and 1860. This intricate web of escape routes, individuals, safe havens and methods of transportation spread throughout the northern and some southern states and into Canada. Each person in the UGRR chain risked fines, incarceration and/or loss of property, limb and life. It is believed that as many as 100,000 freedom seekers fled via the UGRR. www.nyhistory.com/ugrr
There were a number of routes that led to Canada and one of the most significant but lesser known is the Champlain Line of Northeastern New York along the Adirondack Coast. This line led up the relatively flat East Coast along Lake Champlain to Canada, generally through Steamboat Landing at Rouses Point, the northernmost UGRR station in the area. An auxiliary line ran west to Ogdensburg, the narrowest point between New York and Ontario. www.rousespointny.com
The North Star Underground Railroad Museum, located inside a former horse nail factory, in Ausable Chasm is the ideal place to begin an exploration of the people and places connected with Northeastern NY’s UGRR. The museum tour begins with an introductory film, “The Forgotten Story of John Thomas,” and culminates with a film starring local residents that recounts stories of escape using the Champlain Line from 1830-1861. The room in which the video is shown has a section of glass encased ceiling from which an escapee appears to be peering down on you.
The displays in the galleries introduce viewers to a cast of characters including abolitionists, members of anti-slavery societies, UGRR workers and those who rode those rails, black and white, male and female, bound and free. Many of the named individuals are newly researched and their contributions were little known.
One of the most interesting is Vermont Quaker minister Joseph Hoag who experienced a vision in 1803. He predicted that the churches would divide on the issue of slavery and that a civil war would follow. His journal, containing this prediction, was published in 1860.
The famous “Jerry Rescue” is also fully interpreted as is the participation of the Keese family, Samuel and Catherine Robinson Keese and their nephew, Samuel Keese Smith, who offered safe haven, as well as their cousin, Peter, an outspoken abolitionist.
Plan to spend two hours in order to hear the voices and understand the ordeals of those involved. The museum has a gift shop with a fine selection of books and unique items. I cannot recommend this site highly enough as a perfect orientation point for the UGRR story in the region. It is open seasonally and by appointment. www.northcountryundergroundrailroad.com
A few hundred feet from the North Country Underground Railroad Museum is Ausable Chasm, open to the public for more than 140 years. Comprised of some of the oldest rocks on earth, the chasm was cut by the Ausable River as it flowed to Lake Champlain. It travels from 5,344-ft. high in the Adirondack Mountains to approximately 100-ft. above sea level. The stunning natural features of the two mile chasm can be explored by hiking one of four trails with increasing levels of difficulty or by float tour, tubing or rappelling. Rainbow and Horseshoe Falls, Devil’s Oven Cave, Column Rock and Mystic Gorge are spectacular and can be viewed on a relatively easy trail walk.
A restaurant, shop, picnic area, motel and campground are on site and this gem is open year round. www.ausablechasm.com
This region of the Adirondacks had no permanent inhabitants when first sighted by Samuel Champlain in 1609. It was the hunting ground of the two indigenous tribes, the Algonquin and Mohawk. As a result of the British victory in the French and Indian Wars (1754-1763) land was sometimes given to soldiers, in lieu of salary, who fought in the conflict.
Peru, NY, less than 20 miles from Ausable Chasm, was settled in that manner. A former soldier named William Guilliland purchased 30,000-acres and in 1772 he rented land to the first permanent resident, William Hay. By the end of the 1780s Quaker settlers began to arrive in Peru and the town was officially founded in 1792.
Babbie Rural & Farm Learning Museum is a delightful, family owned, 9 building complex and guests can easily spend one-hour or five here. The mission of the museum is to introduce visitors to 1850-1950 Champlain Valley farm life. This is achieved through displays, memorabilia, dioramas and fully functional models in thematic settings. Highlights of the interior tour are animal treadmill-powered machines, kitchen implements and patterned seed sack clothing. Because every machine works there is ample opportunity to try your hand at various tasks.
Outdoor exhibits shelter live animals including horses and miniature donkeys. Stagecoach rides are offered or you can take a photo in the Flintstone car. No matter what you choose to do the welcome here is very warm. www.babbiemuseum.org
Rulf’s Orchard has been the place in Peru to purchase fresh produce and tasty bakery treats for 60-years. You can eat a treat on the spot, select area specialties to take home or take a stroll through the on-site greenhouses. www.rulfsorchard.com
Plattsburgh’s earliest settler was Zephaniah Platt, a slaveholder, in 1784. Ironically he hired Quakers, notably William Keese, to survey a portion of his 117,760-acres and paid him in land grants. Thus, from the very beginning the stage was set for the area’s stances on enslavement.
The Kent-Delord House Museum, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is one of the first homes in Plattsburg. The oldest portion of the home was built in 1797. Henri Delord moved here from St. Lucia in 1796 and lived, with his slaves, in a Quaker community. In 1810 he purchased this 3-acres and a Federal cottage for $850.00 and the family lived in the house until 1913. Highlights of the interior tour are the 1805 Chinese export porcelain and family silver in the dining room and the family portraits. All the furnishings are original. www.kentdelordhouse.org
The view of Lake Champlain from the house is breathtaking and a few steps away is a monument to Champlain designed by Hugh McLellan and dedicated in 1912.
During the Battle of Plattsburgh the Delords, buried the silver and left their home. The British then occupied it. Visitors can learn all about this battle and every other aspect of the War of 1812 in the region on a self-guided tour of the War of 1812 Museum.
Tours begin with an excellent 10-minute film, “The Battle of Plattsburgh.” The film provides the necessary background information for a better understanding of the complexities of the 1814 Battle of Plattsburgh. www.battleofplattsburgh.org
It is believed that the attacks on Washington and Baltimore were simply diversions and the real target was Plattsburgh, the largest military supply point in the northeast, to facilitate the capture of Maine and control of Lake Champlain. Only 600 men were left to defend the area against 11,000 British troops and those remaining were prisoners, laborers and the wounded. The British had 648 horses, more than all the American troops. Despite the overwhelming odds the Americans were victorious in the region.
The chronological tour features copies of British orders to support the exhibits of artifacts and dioramas. An important station on the tour is a five minute, aerial view, diorama of the battle. There is also an interactive area for children to dress in period outfits. A changing exhibit is presented every 18-24 months. The gift shop has a collection of books and miscellaneous items that enhance your knowledge of the battle and the war. www.champlain1812.com
This is also a region with unique eateries and several are worth a special mention.
Pasquales Pizzeria in Peru offers a 10 page menu filled with delicious Italian food created from family recipes. The service and hospitality are equally noteworthy. www.pasquales-pizza.com
Delish is a gourmet deli and bakery located in the heart of Plattsburgh. The sandwiches are huge, fresh and so good you won’t believe it. It is within walking distance of the major sites. www.irisescafe.com/HTML/delish.html
Legends Bistro & Wine Bar is situated inside the Plattsburgh Comfort Inn & Suites. The bistro is wonderful but the real draw here is Plucky Rooster Ale, the War of 1812 Beer. It takes its name from a 200-year old rooster and its ingredients from 212-year old brewery recipes used by Washington and Jefferson. It was created featured to pay homage to the War of 1812.
This destination Comfort Inn is centrally located for the first portion of our trip and provides easy access to the major routes for part two. It offers all the standard amenities plus free WIFI, an indoor spray park, health club and breakfast. www.plattsburghcomfortinn.com
We have covered a large area but there are always more options. Visit the websites for the most current information. www.goadirondack.com and www.iloveny.com
I wish you smooth travels!