"On Freedom's Trail": Researching the Underground Railroad in New York State

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"On Freedom's Trail": Researching the Underground Railroad in New York State

The passage of the New York State Freedom Trail Act of 1997 has sparked renewed interest in documenting the history of what is popularly known as the Underground Railroad, yet there is a surprising paucity of published scholarship focusing on the Underground Railroad in the Empire State. One would expect, given the public's interest in the dramatic story of freedom seekers following the light of the North Star, that historians and other professionally trained researchers would have applied their craft to the subject to a greater extent than they have. Instead, the research burden has been carded by journalists, volunteers associated with a variety of local and regional historical agencies, and writers who have been drawn to the subject by personal interest. Talk to guardians of the collections of a town or county historical agency, and they will, as a matter of local pride, have a story to tell about the Underground Railroad. As February approaches each year, representatives of the media and organizers of observances of Black History Month express interest in New York State's role in the Underground Railroad. Unfortunately, there are few wellresearched and reliable secondary sources to recommend. We tend to recycle familiar stories and recapitulate accounts from what might be charitably called "soft" sources without asking critical questions about evidence and historical significance. It is time for a concentrated and cooperative effort to apply the contents of the historian's toolkit to the topic of the Underground Railroad in New York State.

We need to approach this task by seeking clarity on the subject matter. Some treatments of the Underground Railroad conflate it with abolitionism or pre-Civil War African American history, generally, while others depict it as a far more systematized than the evidence merits. Not every confirmed abolitionist, black or white, helped runaways, nor was every African American church a hiding place for fugitives. The metaphor suggesting that the freedom seekers who made it across to Canada or found a place of refuge within the boundaries of the Empire State were transported via an invisible "railroad" has had a powerful, and, in some cases, distorting influence, causing us to construe more than the facts warrant. I propose that the research agenda for the Freedom Trail study in New York State employ a relatively restricted definition of the Underground Railroad. Setting aside arguments about where and when the term "Underground Railroad" was first coined, I define our topic as follows. The New York State Freedom Trail comprised the efforts of peoples of African descent hem as slaves to escape, with or without assistance, from the earliest decades of the colonial New York experience until the passage of the 13(th) Amendment in 1865 prohibiting slavery in the United States.

Because of the covert nature of the Underground Railroad and the tendency to construct romanticized accounts based on weak evidentiary threads, it may be helpful to draw lessons from the genealogists's enterprise. Dedicated family historians patiently mine the primary sources, testing oral recollections against documentary evidence, which itself is subject to cross-verification. They must construct their accounts from a variety of sources, winnowing the wheat from the chaff. Genealogists sometimes become mired in the minutia of their own story, just as promoters of specific properties, events, or personalities which are candidates for New York State's Freedom Trail are tempted to view their subject matter as unique or determinative. The challenge is to employ double vision, keeping one eye on the specific and focusing the other on the larger picture.

The handful of general accounts of the Underground Railroad in New York State are a helpful place to begin our investigation of the theme, but they are, for the most part, derivative in nature and bereft of theoretical insight and critical analysis. …