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The origins of the Underground Railroad

On September 4, 1838, a twenty-year-old fugitive slave named Frederick Bailey arrived in New York City. He had long hoped to escape from bondage, gazing out at the ships on Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay as a child and seeing them as “freedom’s swift-winged angels.” He secretly taught himself to read and write, understanding, he later wrote, that knowledge was “the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

Bailey’s first attempt at flight came in 1836, when he and four friends devised a plan to abscond by canoe onto the bay and make their way north. But the plan was discovered, and the five were arrested, jailed, and returned to their owners. Two years later, while working as a caulker in a Baltimore shipyard, Bailey again plotted his escape, this time with the assistance of Anna Murray, a free black woman he planned to marry. Murray provided the money for a rail ticket, and Bailey borrowed papers from a retired black sailor that identified him as a free man. Dressed in nautical attire, he boarded a train, hoping to reach New York City.

“Plymouth Church,” by Amani Willett, from a series depicting significant locations in the history of the Underground Railroad. His work will be on view in January at the Ruth S. Harley University Center Art Gallery, Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York. Courtesy the artist

“Plymouth Church,” by Amani Willett, from a series depicting significant locations in the history of the Underground Railroad. His work will be on view in January at the Ruth S. Harley University Center Art Gallery, Adelphi University, in Garden City, New York. Courtesy the artist

Despite the short distance — less than two hundred miles — the trip proved arduous and complicated. Thirty-five miles north of Baltimore the passengers had to disembark and cross the Susquehanna River by ferry. At Wilmington, they boarded a steamboat bound for Philadelphia. There, Bailey later recalled, “I inquired of a colored man how I could get on to New York.” The man directed him to a depot, from which Bailey took a ferry to Camden, New Jersey, then the Camden and Amboy Railroad to South Amboy, then another ferry across the Hudson River to a dock at the foot of Chambers Street. Less than twenty-four hours after leaving Baltimore, he landed on the free soil of New York City.

In spite of his exhilaration, Bailey was frightened, alone, and had no idea what to do next. He wandered around and eventually encountered a fugitive slave he had known in Maryland who warned him that although New York was a free state, slave catchers roamed the city’s streets. Shortly thereafter, Bailey had a stroke of luck: a “warm-hearted and generous” black sailor directed Bailey to the home of David Ruggles, at 36 Lispenard Street, not far from the docks. Ruggles was the secretary and prime mover of the New York Committee of Vigilance, which had been founded three years earlier to combat an epidemic of kidnapping. Many years before Solomon Northup drew attention to this problem in his widely read memoir, Twelve Years a Slave, free blacks, frequently young children, were abducted from New York’s streets for sale into Southern slavery. In addition to providing fugitives from the South with shelter and transportation, the Vigilance Committee provided legal representation if they were apprehended.

Ruggles took Bailey into his home and advised him to change his name to help avoid recapture: Frederick Bailey now became Frederick Johnson. The fugitive summoned Anna Murray to New York at once, and a few days later the couple married in Ruggles’s parlor. But Frederick Bailey did not remain in New York. Ruggles, who knew that the situation of fugitives in the city was precarious, encouraged him to leave. He gave Frederick a five-dollar bill (more than a week’s wages for a manual laborer at the time) and a letter of introduction, and told the couple to head to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where another black abolitionist would help them. In the fall of 1838, having discovered that in New Bedford families with the surname Johnson were “so numerous as to cause some confusion in distinguishing them,” Frederick changed his name one more time. Henceforth he would be known as Frederick Douglass.

Douglass would make his mark as the most dazzling orator of the abolitionist movement, but until the publication in 2010 of a biography by Graham Hodges, his savior had largely vanished from history. David Ruggles was born in Connecticut in 1810, the oldest of eight children of a free black family. He had been educated at the Sabbath School for the Poor in Norwich and came to New York City at the age of fifteen. He worked for a time as a mariner, then opened a grocery store at 1 Cortlandt Street, on the corner of Broadway. Though he did not belong to the city’s black elite, he quickly became involved in the institutional life of the black community. He joined the Garrison Literary and Benevolent Society, a group for African-American youth devoted to abolition and societal reform, and the Phoenix Society, which promoted self-improvement and the liberal arts. But his main interest was abolition.

In November 1835, Ruggles called a meeting of free African Americans to respond to the spate of kidnappings in New York. Efforts to help fugitives and kidnap victims in the city were, he felt, ad hoc and sporadic. The result of Ruggles’s meeting was the creation of the Committee of Vigilance for the Protection of the People of Color, which took as its mission “to aid the people of color, legally, to obtain their rights.” An interracial executive committee was appointed consisting of five people: William Johnston, a white English-born grain merchant who served for several years as treasurer; George R. Barker, a white businessman; James W. Higgins, a black grocer; Robert Brown, a white attorney; and Ruggles. Soon afterward, the black ministers Theodore S. Wright, Samuel Cornish, and Charles B. Ray joined the executive committee, along with Thomas Van Rensselaer, a Sabbath school superintendent who, in 1819, had himself escaped from slavery in New York’s Mohawk Valley.

The Vigilance Committee survived until the eve of the Civil War, and over the course of its several incarnations it propelled the plight of fugitives to the forefront of abolitionist consciousness. The group held monthly meetings to raise money, report on its activities, and spread its antislavery message. It petitioned the New York State Legislature to expand the rights of free blacks and accused fugitives. It employed lawyers who went to court to block kidnappers, prevent the return of fugitive slaves, suppress the illegal slave trade, and secure the freedom of slaves brought to the city by Southern or foreign owners.

These were public and legal pursuits: what we might now call advocacy work. Yet the committee, as Ruggles announced in a December 1836 report, “did not scruple to help fugitive slaves to places of safety,” a task, he noted, “almost wholly neglected” before the organization’s formation. In the single year since its founding, Ruggles claimed, the committee had “saved” three hundred persons “from being carried back into slavery.” Before the formation of the Vigilance Committee, hundreds of slaves had arrived in the city poor, frightened, and friendless; in “nine cases out of ten, they were retaken.” Now, for the first time, organized assistance was available to aid them. “This,” Ruggles declared, was “practical abolition.”

Much of the Vigilance Committee’s success in its first few years can be attributed directly to the indefatigable Ruggles, “the most active man in the city,” as one abolitionist newspaper called him. His strategies were varied and often ingenious. At the harbor, the former mariner would board recently arrived ships looking for slaves. In one instance, this tactic allowed Ruggles and other committee members to rescue three Africans illegally brought into the port. He introduced them at a Vigilance Committee meeting, noting that more Africans had been shipped to New York by illegal slave traders in the previous year than the Colonization Society had “succeeded in exporting from this state to Africa.”

In 1838, Ruggles learned that three slaves had been working in Brooklyn at the summer home of a South Carolina family for two years. Ruggles entered the house and confronted the owner, explaining the time limit on slave transit prescribed by New York law: “They are as free as I am; after remaining here nine months, they have a right to demand wages for every hour’s service they have performed.” Ruggles refused to leave when ordered and eventually departed with one of the slaves; the other two evidently remained in slavery. The press reported the incident, with one newspaper calling Ruggles “an insolent black fellow,” another a “notorious and impertinent meddler.”

The Disappointed Abolitionists, an anti-abolitionist cartoon from 1838, by E. W. Clay, which depicts Isaac Hopper, David Ruggles, Barney Corse, and the slave owner John P. Darg © American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts/Bridgeman Images

The Disappointed Abolitionists, an anti-abolitionist cartoon from 1838, by E. W. Clay, which depicts Isaac Hopper, David Ruggles, Barney Corse, and the slave owner John P. Darg © American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts/Bridgeman Images

That same year, a free black New Yorker informed Ruggles that the captain of a coastal vessel had tricked his son and two other black sailors into leaving their ship in New Orleans, where they were sold into slavery. Ruggles gathered evidence from other sailors and secured the captain’s arrest. The committee succeeded in persuading the purchaser in the South to send the three home.

When not engaged in these operations, Ruggles was constantly writing. He produced his own antislavery and anticolonization tracts, and publicized the Vigilance Committee’s monthly meetings in the Emancipator, Colored American, and his own periodical, the Mirror of Liberty — the first magazine edited by a black American, which published five issues between 1838 and 1841. He filled the antislavery press, both black and white, with notices warning about the practices of the kidnappers who “infested” the city, some of whom he identified by name. Ruggles also offered detailed descriptions of their victims in notices that bore an eerie resemblance to fugitive-slave ads. One read:

Francis Maria Shields, a girl of about 12 years of age, is missed by her guardians and acquaintances. . . . She is middling size, dark brown complexion, short hair, with a scar over her right eyebrow. Her dress was a purple and white frock, white straw hat, lined with pink, and trimmed with straw colored ribbon, mixed stockings, and boots. Any person who will give such information as will lead to the restoration of said girl to her guardian and friends, shall be rewarded.

Taking cases of kidnapping to court to contest the rendition of alleged fugitives was not an easy task in a city where many public officials openly sympathized with slaveholders and some actually connived in kidnapping. Despite federal statutes outlawing the Atlantic slave trade, New York City judges treated foreign ships entering the harbor as if they were from the South and had the right to bring slaves into the city for as long as nine months. When Ruggles attempted to secure a writ of habeas corpus for a young “apprentice” (a temporary status of recently freed West Indian slaves) who had been brought on a ship to New York and was in danger of being transported to South Carolina to be sold, two judges refused to hear the plea: one claimed illness; the second, “as he wanted his dinner.” By the time a third judge agreed to issue the writ, the ship had departed with the youth.

Richard Riker, the city recorder, was the man who presided over the Court of Special Sessions, New York’s main criminal court. An attorney and important figure in the local Democratic Party, Riker held the office, with only brief interruptions, from 1815 to 1838. With a group of accomplices, including city constable Tobias Boudinot and the “pimp for slaveholders,” Daniel D. Nash, Riker played a pivotal role in what abolitionists called the Kidnapping Club. In accordance with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which established legal procedures for returning fugitives to the South, members of the club would bring a black person before Riker, who would quickly issue a certificate of removal before the accused had a chance to bring witnesses to testify that he was free. Boudinot boasted that he could “arrest and send any black to the South.”

Horace Dresser, the Vigilance Committee’s leading attorney, argued most of the cases before Riker. A graduate of Union College, Dresser later became famous as the author of works on legal and historical subjects. When he died, in 1877, the New York Times recalled that “at a time when it was exceedingly unpopular,” Dresser had been “the very first lawyer to plead the cause of the slave in the New York courts.” In the 1830s, Dresser was indeed “called upon in all slave cases,” as the Colored American put it. His “services are abundant,” it added, “but [his] remuneration is comparatively nothing at all.”

Against formidable odds, Dresser occasionally won legal victories. Sometimes he was able to obtain writs of habeas corpus to bring to court and liberate individuals held in captivity by kidnappers. Regarding fugitive slaves, however, there was little Dresser or his associate Robert Sedgwick could do, given the attitude of local officials and the duty to return fugitives that was required by the Constitution as well as by both federal and state law. In one instance, Dresser learned that an alleged runaway was about to be taken before the recorder. He rushed to the office only to see Riker rule in favor of the claimant and remark, “I am glad the man has got his nigger again.”

Because the legal obligation to return fugitives was clear, Dresser’s arguments generally revolved around identification: Was the accused actually the person referred to orally by the alleged owner and his witnesses or in a document from a slave state? In 1836, Abraham Goslee, who claimed to be a free man from Maryland, was brought before the recorder and charged with being a slave who had escaped the previous year. Though Sedgwick presented three black witnesses who stated that they knew Goslee and had seen him in the city before the date of his supposed escape, as well as an affidavit from the clerk of the Somerset County Court in Maryland affirming Goslee’s free status, Riker nonetheless pronounced Goslee a slave and ordered him dispatched to Maryland.

In April 1837, Boudinot and Nash, working with a policeman from Baltimore, arrested thirty-year-old William Dixon. Bringing him before Riker, they argued that he was actually a slave named Jake who had absconded from Walter P. Allender in 1832. Dixon, who earned his living as a whitewasher, denied being Allender’s slave or ever having lived in Baltimore.

The case lasted, on and off, for four months, while both sides rounded up witnesses and produced “tremendous excitement” among the public. Allender brought a dozen witnesses from Baltimore who identified Dixon as his slave. Dresser in turn produced several witnesses, both white and black, who testified that Dixon had lived in New York and Boston well before 1832. The Commercial Advertiser, a newspaper not known for sympathy with abolitionists, pronounced the testimony of Dixon’s witnesses “very strong in his favor.” Yet at least some of these witnesses had perjured themselves — for Dixon was indeed the fugitive Jake.


“Bialystoker,” by Amani Willett. Courtesy the artist

Large crowds of black New Yorkers, estimated by various newspapers at several hundred to nearly two thousand, gathered at the courthouse in lower Manhattan during the Dixon proceedings. (This pattern would repeat whenever a fugitive slave was on trial until the Civil War.) Hundreds of blacks who could not gain admission to the courthouse paraded on Broadway, wearing hats bedecked with mottos such as no slavery and down with kidnapping. At one point, after Riker decided to send Dixon south, “a rush was made instantly from all quarters.” The crowd seized Dixon and carried him away, but the police soon recaptured him. During the fray, Judge John M. Bloodgood arrived on the scene. Bloodgood remarked that had he known in advance of the riot, he would have “brought his percussion caps with him,” as he “would have liked to have sent a few of those damn niggers to hell.”

Costs mounted on both sides. According to the Mirror of Liberty, Allender spent $1,500 on the case and became “quite fatigued with the trouble and expense.” The Vigilance Committee spent $700, and Dixon himself incurred “heavy liabilities . . . in defending his liberty.” The case never reached a final judgment; Dixon was released on bail and fled to Canada. Allender, who was probably worn out by the time-consuming and expensive proceedings, returned to Maryland.

Dixon soon reappeared in New York and continued to enjoy his freedom. In May 1838, he addressed the committee’s second-anniversary meeting. Five months later, it was Dixon whom Frederick Douglass encountered on the streets on his arrival from Maryland. “Allender’s Jake,” as the fugitive then knew him, was quick to offer advice. As Douglass later recalled, Dixon insisted

that I must trust no man with my secret; that I must not think of going either upon the wharves, or into any colored boarding-house, for all such places were closely watched; that he was himself unable to help me; and, in fact, he seemed while speaking to me to fear lest I myself might be a spy, and a betrayer. Under this apprehension, as I suppose, he showed signs of wishing to be rid of me, and with whitewash brush in hand, in search of work, he soon disappeared.

Another celebrated case involved John McPherson, a Maryland slaveowner who encountered Henry Metscher on a New York street in October 1837 and claimed that he was Nat, a fugitive who had escaped four years earlier. Nash and Boudinot arrested Metscher on the pretext that he had committed an assault. Perhaps mindful of the near riot during the Dixon trial just a few months earlier, three judges declined to hear the case. McPherson finally located a judge to examine documents from Maryland indicating that a slave named Nat owned by McPherson had run away in 1833. The judge ruled that Metscher was Nat, which Metscher denied. Over the objections of Horace Dresser, whose witnesses for the defense the judge declined to hear, he sent Metscher to Maryland.

All these cases intensified demands, which extended well beyond the abolitionist movement, for the state to allow a jury, not a single official, to determine the status of an accused fugitive. “It is a momentous question,” declared the New York Evening Post, “whether the liberty of a man can be decided by any other tribunal than . . . a jury.”

Although those who challenged kidnappers and assisted fugitive slaves were rarely prosecuted, anyone involved in such activities exposed himself to danger. Ruggles was no exception. In 1838, he was arrested and “committed to a felon’s dungeon,” charged with harboring a criminal and encouraging a slave to escape. This unusual case arose when John P. Darg, a slave trader from New Orleans, arrived in New York with a slave named Thomas Hughes. Hughes, who had stolen $7,000 from his former master, sought refuge at the home of the Quaker abolitionist Isaac T. Hopper.

Hopper and Barney Corse, an abolitionist and leading light of the New York Manumission Society, offered to repay the money if Darg would grant Hughes his freedom. They raised the funds with the assistance of James S. Gibbons, of the American Anti-Slavery Society. But Darg had them all, including Ruggles, who had nothing to do with these events, indicted for complicity in theft. To delay Ruggles’s release, the court set his bail at $5,000; he spent two days in jail before his case was dismissed. (As for Hughes, he served two years in prison for robbery and agreed to return to New Orleans with Darg as a free man, though he ultimately turned up in New York in later years.)


“Red Bridges,” by Amani Willett. Courtesy the artist

Even before the Darg case, Ruggles had begun to alarm some of his fellow abolitionists, black as well as white, by acting in a far more confrontational manner than other leaders of the Vigilance Committee. In 1836, when a free resident of New York named George Jones was arrested, ruled to be a fugitive on the testimony of several notorious kidnappers, and “dragged to slavery,” Ruggles declared that blacks could no longer “depend on the interposition of the Manumission or Anti-Slavery Societies. . . . We must look to our own safety . . . remembering that ‘self-defence is the first law of nature.’ ” This was discomforting rhetoric for many of the committee’s leaders, who argued that “moral suasion” was the proper way to combat slavery.

The next year, at a protest meeting that followed Henry Metscher’s return to slavery, Ruggles proposed a series of resolutions, one of which seemed to countenance violence. “We cannot recommend non-resistance,” he said, “to persons who are denied the protection of equitable law.” A spirited debate followed. Some leaders of the Vigilance Committee objected to the resolution on the grounds that it violated the “peace principles” of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Ruggles replied “with much warmth” that a person seized by a kidnapper “ought not only to use words implying resistance, but should resist even unto death.” The meeting rejected his resolution.

By 1839, Ruggles and the committee leadership were holding public meetings to denounce each other. The charges against Ruggles expanded. Samuel Cornish (a Vigilance Committee member and the publisher of the Colored American) and others claimed that he had not kept proper financial records and had used the organization’s money for private purposes. Cornish, who had once praised Ruggles effusively, now denounced him for “wilful misrepresentations and base falsehoods.” Auditors appointed by the Vigilance Committee, whose independence might therefore be questioned, concluded that Ruggles owed the organization $326.17. For his part, Ruggles sued the committee for back wages.

The controversy disturbed many abolitionists. Ruggles, meanwhile, not only had exhausted his finances but was afflicted with health problems: at twenty-eight, he was nearly blind and suffering from a variety of bowel disorders. In 1839, he resigned from the Vigilance Committee. He tried to revive the Mirror of Liberty, which had been suspended, but failed — most of its final issue was devoted to a long article in which Ruggles accused Cornish and other abolitionists of engaging in a malicious conspiracy against him. The Vigilance Committee, Ruggles claimed, had “apostatized.”

Ruggles left New York in 1840, but he did not give up his long struggle against racial inequality. In 1841, a conductor violently evicted him from a segregated railroad car in New Bedford, the city known as the Fugitive’s Gibraltar, after he refused to vacate his seat. Falling back on the legal tools that had frequently served him well in New York, Ruggles sued the company. A local judge ruled against him, however, arguing that corporations had the right to exclude “vagabonds, wranglers,” and other undesirables, including blacks, from their trains.

Soon afterward, Ruggles moved to a utopian community in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he established a water-cure medical practice. (Originally he had attempted to treat his own deteriorating vision with hydrotherapy.) As the Liberator noted in 1849, Ruggles had become “familiar with the various applications of the liquid element”:

[P]ossessing a sound judgment and rare intuition, he was led to turn his attention to this mode of curing diseases for the benefit of invalids in his immediate neighborhood, though not dreaming of ever placing himself at the head of an infirmary. As one case after another was successfully treated by him, he found his patients multiplying to such an extent as to render some kind of an establishment necessary.

Ruggles did well in the enterprise. Patients showed up in respectable numbers — among them, in the summer of 1848, was the renowned abolitionist lion William Lloyd Garrison — and the facilities came to include a boarding house, a gymnasium, and a washhouse. But this prosperity was short-lived. In 1849, Ruggles’s health failed. Consumed by his medical duties to the very end, he died at the age of thirty-nine.

And what of his creation, the Vigilance Committee? It survived the debacle of 1839 and the departure of Ruggles, and it continued to function. Theodore S. Wright, who headed the organization in the 1840s, observed that in contrast to the highly public activities of abolitionist societies, the Vigilance Committee “deemed it prudent” to keep many of its actions secret. As a result, its labors often went “unnoticed and almost unknown.” Moreover, most of its work “devolves upon two or three individuals,” who were “quite exhausted” by the “incessant demands on their time.” This problem would plague the committee throughout its existence.

Nonetheless, the organization, which was finally dissolved around 1860, could boast significant accomplishments. Vigilance committees modeled on New York’s sprang up in other northeastern cities and led to the establishment of a network of local groups devoted to aiding fugitive slaves. In the 1840s, this network would become known as the Underground Railroad.

In the face of internal dissension, legal setbacks, and chronic funding problems, the New York Vigilance Committee claimed to have assisted more than three thousand fugitives “who are now enjoying the blessing of liberty” in the years before the Civil War. Largely composed of black New Yorkers, it won the support and respect of the nation’s leading white abolitionists. Speakers at its annual and monthly meetings included antislavery luminaries from as far away as upstate New York, Boston, and Canada.

Before the advent of the Vigilance Committee, the Emancipator noted, the plight of fugitives had been a matter “too little thought of by the professed friends of the colored man.” Many abolitionists, another antislavery newspaper remarked, had been “hesitant or timid” when it came to aiding runaway slaves. Helped in no small part by Ruggles’s uncompromising rhetoric, the committee emboldened abolitionists, making aid to fugitive slaves a central element of the movement.

The committee’s activities had also subtly changed public attitudes. The “tide of public opinion,” the committee declared in 1838, had forced kidnappers to change tactics: they now took victims directly to a judge for a secret hearing to avoid proceedings in open court, where sentiment might be against them.

During the governorship of the antislavery Whig William H. Seward, the Vigilance Committee finally achieved several of its legislative aims. In 1840, new laws mandated a jury trial to determine the fate of accused fugitives, required the claimant to post a bond to cover court costs in the event the jury decided the person was not a runaway slave, and prohibited local judges from issuing arrest warrants for fugitives. The following year, Seward signed a repeal of the 1817 law that allowed slaves to be brought to the state “in transit” for up to nine months. Henceforth, any slave who entered the state, except a fugitive, automatically became free.

is the DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and the author of numerous works on American history. This essay is excerpted from Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, out in January 2015 from W. W. Norton.

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