The visit appears in few historical sources, no doubt because it was long-held belief that it was not wise to identify Underground Railroad agents or their locations as a precaution against pro-slavery advocates attacking them.
Greater Oneonta Historical Society member Peg Twasutyn located a reference however, in the “Local Matters” column of the Oneonta Herald of Wednesday, October 28, 1857:
“Frederick Douglass is coming and will address the citizens of this town, on the subject of slavery, on Thursday evening, this 29th inst. We believe this is the first opportunity our citizens have had to hear this eloquent advocate of human Liberty, and we anticipate a large turn out to listen to his eloquence.
“Says the Franklin Voice: — Born and educated in the school of practical slavery – a school that teaches without books, and whose professors are apt only in the use of the lash – it is not strange that he feels only as a great soul can feel the horrible wrongs that crush his race. As an orator he has few superiors in any sphere but when the hard facts of his early life are taken into account, he stands pre-eminent, as orator, scholar, and editor.
“It does one good, however burdened by pro-slavery wickedness or softened by the genial dews of philanthropy, to hear such a man as Douglass. To most people the privilege comes only once or twice in a life-time. Come, then, friends, every one who can, and hear this great pleader for Humanity.”
The introduction of Douglass from a newspaper in the neighboring township of Franklin, Delaware County, suggests there was a cooperative spirit in the fight against slavery in the region.
The announcement did not indicate where Douglass’s speech was going to take place, or who hosted the event, but it provokes curiosity about who were the local personalities that set the stage for Douglass’s visit.
Anti-Slavery Work Around Oneonta
Like many places Otsego County was not mentioned in the two major sources for Underground Railroad history, William Still’s Underground Railroad (1872) and Wilbur H. Siebert’s The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898).
Local residents however, have long repeated the folklore that Eliakim Reed Ford was a leading Underground Railroad agent in their community. In Edwin R. Moore’s 1964 book, In Old Oneonta, Vol. 3, he shared an interview with Eliakim Reed Ford, Jr. about his father’s involvement with the Underground Railroad:
“It was nearly dawn when the big farm wagon drew up in the back yard of the Ford Stone Mansion and the small group of colored people alighted. The women went into the basement kitchen to help Mrs. Ford prepare breakfast while the men busied themselves with whatever tasks came to hand. After a hearty meal the runaway slaves were lodged in improvised quarters over the stables, there to sleep until nightfall, when they would set out, with fresh driver and horses, for Gerrit Smith’s home near Utica [at Peterboro], the next step on their way to Canada and Freedom.
“Such scenes occurred at intervals during the two decades just prior to the Civil War, for the Stone Mansion, located where the Wilber Bank now stands, was a ‘station’ on the Underground Railroad and Eliakim R. Ford, the most prominent citizen of Oneonta at the time, was the station master.”
“When we were a boy we heard E. Reed Ford, youngest son of the station master, tell of the work of his father in the movement. Reed Ford was a lad in the period just before the Civil War and witnessed the arrival of many ‘trains’ at his home. He recalled the gratitude of the negroes and their desire to do as much work as possible during their brief stay at the big house.”
Circumstantial evidence supported the folklore. The September, 21, 1848 issue of the National Era of Washington, DC, included an article about meetings of “Free-Soil Men” in Buffalo, New York in which Eliakim Reed Ford was identified as district elector for Otsego County.
In the 1885 edition of Frederick Douglass’ book, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he shared his thoughts about the Free-Soil movement:
“In 1848 it was my privilege to attend, and in some measure to participate in the famous Free-Soil Convention held in Buffalo, New York. It was a vast and variegated assemblage, composed of persons from all sections of the North, and may be said to have formed a new departure in the history of forces organized to resist the growing and aggressive demands of slavery and the slave powers.”
Another possible reason for Douglass’s visit to Oneonta was his respect for Gerrit Smith, who had Underground Railroad connections with some Oneonta citizens, particularly those affiliated with the local Presbyterian Church, established in 1800.
According to the “Calendar of the Gerrit Smith Papers” at Syracuse University Library “Rev. J.W. Paddock, Adam Broner, Timothy Sabin, John Livingston, Cornelius Brown, and Jacob Young” requested financial support from Smith to aid in repairing the Oneonta church in June 1839.
The timing of the request was approximately nine months after the Colored American, a newspaper published in New York City, provided in its September 1, 1838 edition a reprint from another abolitionist newspaper, Friend of Man.
It revealed that “J.R.J” had traveled to 10 counties in New York to access the anti-slavery positions in Presbyteries. He provided mix reviews, but for Otsego, the traveler indicated that “there are also hearts that feel, and tongues that speak, and hands that act in behalf of the oppressed.”
The words in code described three different levels of engagement ranging from passive resistance to direct engagement in Underground Railroad activities.
An example of such activities was the story of the freedom seeker Nathan Mead whose journey was recorded in Benjamin Drew’s 1856 book, The Refugee or the Narratives of Fugitive Slaves in Canada.
He escaped from Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, and settled in Evesham, New Jersey until 1836. A year later, he fled to Otsego County where he was reunited with his family before continuing his journey to St. Catherines, Canada West.
In his own words, he stated he “thought I had better leave for the North, which I did. I traveled some two hundred miles, most of the way on foot into Otsego County, N. Y., where I gave out through fatigue. I was sick when I got there. Here I was joined by my wife and children. I remained here until navigation opened. We were forty miles from the [Erie] canal at Utica.”
Nathan Mead would take the name Alexander Hemsley. William Still’s Underground Railroad recorded details about the first part of Mead’s journey in a profile of Underground Railroad conductor Thomas Shipley of New Jersey.
Five years later, Durham was no longer recorded as a part of the household. What happened to her? Was she a fugitive from slavery, who continued her journey north to Canada? Or did she remain in Oneonta, but passed on before the 1855 Census?
The Fords were not the only locals associated with the Underground Railroad movement. In the June 17, 1853 edition of Frederick Douglass’s Paper, Robert S. Cook of Oneonta was recognized for having provided a financial donation in support of the Chaplin Bail Fund which supported the work of movement participants. Douglass was clearly aware of anti-slavery activities in Oneonta.
On May 14, 1857, Douglass gave a speech at the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York against the Supreme Court ruling in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case, one of many such speeches he gave that year.
In the 1885 edition of the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, he expressed his disdained for “the cold-blooded decision of Chief Justice Taney in the Dred Scott case (March 1857), wherein he states, as it were, a historical fact that negroes are deemed to have no rights which white men are bound to respect.”
On August 3, 1857 in Canandaigua, Ontario County, NY, Douglass spoke about the anniversary of the August 1, 1834 emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies.
It might be expected that the Oneonta Herald reported about Douglass’s October 29, 1857 speech in its November 4th edition, but that issue is apparently no longer extant.
The newspaper did however, publish an important story about the Underground Railroad in Oneonta on August 1, 1860, though again it did not include the names of the hosts.
“A family of eight freedom seekers, a mother with six children, and a half sister were passed from this place, on the underground railroad toward Canada (where, thank God, there is no slavery) on Thursday night last, by some of our philanthropist citizens. They arrived in this village, on the Saturday before, completely destitute and weary, having traveled from Virginia. We are glad we have in our vicinity persons who feel it their duty to be benevolent to all classes of humanity. — After stopping here for a few days, and being clothed up and the ‘needful’ furnished, they went on their way rejoicing, and leaving their blessing on the good people of Oneonta.
“What an idea! Persons escaping from a country, which boasts of freedom and free institutions, to a land ruled by a Monarch, in order that they may enjoy their freedom. Shame to America!”
Frederick Douglass’s Rochester home was destroyed by a fire in 1872 which resulted, he said in 12 volumes of his papers, covering the period from 1848 to 1869, being destroyed.
It’s likely that papers relating to Oneonta were among those lost. Still, Oneonta’s remembrance of him will never be forgotten.
Illustrations, from above: Frontispiece in My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass, 1855; Eliakim Reed Ford and Harriet E Ford from D. Hamilton Hurd’s History of Otsego County New York, 1740-1878 (1878); and the Eliakim Reed Ford mansion in ca. 1878 from Hurd’s History of Otsego County.