County historian gives underground railroad program at Westfield-Mayville Rotary Club Meeting
WESTFIELD – Conductors, local sites of the underground railroad, various routes and anti-slavery accounts were discussed by Michelle Henry, Chautauqua County Historian, during her Aug. 14 presentation to the Rotary Club of Westfield-Mayville. Her interesting program, which was titled “The Underground Railroad in Chautauqua County,” was given at The Parkview in Westfield. Janese Berkhouse, Past Club President, introduced Henry and was the sponsor of her program.
Henry said, “The name ‘underground railroad’ has led to many misconceptions, such as the belief that it was a subterranean phenomenon. Railroad terminology and a code were used. In 1851 the largest underground railroad in New York state was between New York City and Dunkirk. There is no documented evidence of tunneling in New York state. Also, it is not true that a tunnel existed to move people from the McClurg Museum, an 1820s mansion in Westfield, to Lake Erie. “
She noted that the Western New York area was a popular underground railroad system due to Routes 5 and 20, and also the lake. Hundreds of people made their way into Chautauqua County from Pittsburgh, PA and also Sugar Grove, PA. They traveled to Dunkirk, Fredonia, Silver Creek and Buffalo, and eventually into Canada.
Henry stated, “The ‘conductors’ typically only knew of those near them and what they needed to know for shuttling the people on a secret route. Those involved could be fined $1,000 and spend six months in jail. It is very unlikely that anti-slavery supporters housed the folks in their homes, since those traveling on the underground railroad wore the same clothing during their trek. Their clothes would have been very dirty and contained vermin. The travelers would have been sheltered in outbuildings, not in homes.”
County Historian Henry continued, “In the 1830s and 1840s many people in our Western New York communities were signing anti-slavery petitions in support of not allowing Texas to be admitted to the Union, and they were sending the petitions to Washington, D.C. These petitions are now housed in the National Archives. The thought at the time was that because Texas was so large and since it supported slavery, if admitted to the Union it would immediately be subdivided into six states, thereby giving a majority to the pro-slavery states.”
On Sept. 18, 1850 the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. Henry stated, “This federal law basically required that all escaped slaves, if captured, would be returned to their masters and that local law enforcement officials had to cooperate. There would be no trial, no court representation and no defense at all for the slaves. In this year there were 135 ‘colored’ escaped slaves living here. For them there was the fear of being recaptured and taken back South.”
Henry added that although there are very few firsthand accounts about the underground railroad, there are 29 different sites in Westfield and 14 identified sites in the village of Westfield. Her tip for local residents who want to know if their homes were stopping points on the underground railroad would be to find out who resided in the home in the 1840s and 1850s. Documents about the anti-slavery petitions signed during that period would be then searched for the former homeowners’ names.
Giving credit to a group of hardworking volunteers, Henry unveiled a website with an interactive map that gives detailed information on the 787 points in Chautauqua County which have documented evidence about the anti-slavery movement in this county from 1840 to 1860. The map is also mobile friendly. To learn more about Western New York anti-slavery activists in the 1800s, visit the web site of https://orbitist.com/ugrr and click on the various icons to uncover historical information and images.
The Rotary Club of Westfield-Mayville thanks Michelle Henry for her very informative program about the local underground railroad. Also, it gratefully acknowledges her and local volunteers for their ongoing efforts with researching Chautauqua County history.