Before the Civil War, many liberals who supported the abolition of slavery lived in the area now called the Essex National Heritage Area. By the mid-nineteenth century, American abolitionists operated an increasingly sophisticated network of assistance to escaped slaves throughout the Northern states called the Underground Railroad (UGRR), which was neither “underground” nor a “railroad.”
The harbors, rivers and access to the sea of the Essex National Heritage Area made it an important escape route for runaway slaves headed to Canada. Free blacks, white liberals and religious leaders were among the railroad’s “conductors” who risked their own freedom, since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 made it mandatory for free states to return runaways. Free blacks who aided runaways were especially at risk, as they could be sent back into slavery. All participants risked their property and their standing in a divided community that often feared war and believed slavery was an issue best dealt with by the Southern states. No one knows for sure exactly how many or how often escapees came through Essex County. However, traces of escaped slaves passing through Salem and its environs may be found in local newspaper ads offering rewards for the return of individual runaways, in personal records and letters, in anti-slavery society reports, and in local publications.
While the most active period of the underground railroad occurred from the early 1800s to the end of the Civil War in 1865, earlier events foreshadowed its activities. There were active attempts at escape in North America during the late 1600s and 1700s by African
and Native American slaves. Although most escapees fled to the free Northern states and to Canada, some fugitives went to Spanish Florida and Mexico.
The strength of abolitionism was in its diversity. The call to end human bondage inspired freed African Americans and northern white liberals, especially Quakers, to form abolitionist societies, such as the New England Anti-Slavery Society. However, although white abolitionists were crucial to the operations of the under- ground railroad, not all of them participated in or sanctioned its activities. The majority of assistance to runaways slaves came from fellow slaves and free blacks. The organized efforts of the northern free blacks provided most of the shelter, financial support, and direction to successful runaways.
From slave insurrections that were inspired through radicals such as Nat Turner and John Brown to African American writers and speakers, such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Charles L. Remond, who condemned slavery through their words and deeds, African American abolitionists strove to end slavery and played a key role in underground railroad activities.
Pike House, 18 Crombie Street
Prince Farmer, a black businessman who sold oysters, lived at this address in 1844-45. Mr. Pike was a member of the Masonic fraternity in Salem and an important member of the abolition movement in the city. Several black families lived at this address in the nineteenth century. One resident was Leonard Jackson, born in South Carolina in 1845, who was possibly a freed slave.
Lyceum, 43 Church Street
Sarah Parker Remond, a member of one of the prominent African American families in Salem, was one of the founders of the Salem Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1834. The Society sponsored lectures at the Lyceum by important abolitionists, such as Lucy Stone, Charlotte Forten, and William Lloyd Garrison. Remond was a well-known anti-slavery lecturer herself, and toured the eastern United States and England.
Bowditch House, 9 North Street
This home is the birthplace of William Ingersoll Bowditch, son of Nathaniel Bowditch (best known as the author of the New American Practical Navigator, first published in 1802). William, who became an abolitionist, spent his childhood years here.
Salem Public Library, 370 Essex Street
This mansion was the home of merchant and philanthropist John Bertram, who provided financial support for the education of freed slaves.
Joseph Story House, 26 Winter Street
This was the home of the Supreme Court Justice and abolitionist who was involved in the U.S. Supreme Court decision concerning the vessel Amistad. In 1839, a group of Africans was taken by a Spanish schooner and brought as slaves to the Caribbean, where they mutinied off the coast of Cuba. The Africans were captured and tried in the United States, and in 1841 the Supreme Court found that they were free men and victims of kidnapping, a significant victory for the abolitionist movement in the United States.
A.C. Orne House, 21 State Street
This house was used for secret meetings by leaders of the underground railroad in Marblehead and Salem. Leaders of the cause who attended gatherings here included Simeon and Betsy Dodge, Samuel Goodwin, and John Purvis.
Ambrose Allen House, 9 Merritt Street
Abolitionist Ambrose Allen was one of six residents of Marblehead who voted for candidates of the Liberty Party in 1844. The formation of this political party was the beginning of political activism by the abolitionist movement. Among other issues, the Liberty Party advocated the total abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Abolitionism was very popular in Marblehead, and many major figures in the movement lived in the town.
Simeon and Betsy Dodge House, 236 Washington Street
For over twenty years, the Dodges provided shelter to a large number of freedom-seekers at this address. They housed, clothed and fed escaped slaves, sometimes for long periods of time, until a safe escape could be planned. Among the escapees sheltered by the Dodges were the Craft family and Henry “Box” Brown.
From Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts