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Genealogy & Local History in Buffalo, NY


Underground Railroad Sites in Buffalo, NY

By Cynthia Van Ness, MLS

"The thrust of professional history has more often been toward puncturing the cliches of popular historical myth than toward sustaining them."  --Richard Evans. In defense of history. New York: W.W. Norton Co., 1999, p.178.

Featured below are addresses associated with the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Buffalo, New York, according to eyewitnesses and other primary sources.   I urge others to document sites outside of the city limits of Buffalo.

Please note: I do not presume to suggest that these are the only possible UGRR sites in Buffalo; only that these are addresses for which I have found period evidence that you can evaluate for yourself. I will update this page whenever I find new evidence.

A Regrettably Necessary Preface That You Really Need to Read

An important reminder to teachers, students, historians, webmasters, bloggers, authors, journalists, etc. This website is the result of years of painstaking original research, reveals discoveries that are mine alone, and is fully protected by copyright. 

If you use these arguments and addresses in your work, please link back to this page and cite it properly.

If you want to use a properly attributed quote or excerpt, be my guest.  But copying and pasting this entire page into your blog, social media page, term paper, press release, or anywhere else is an unauthorized use.

Don't be like the students who prepared this study and clearly know better.  They borrowed heavily from this essay and did not credit me (see p. 19), unlike all of the other sources they cited.


Here's a sample citation in Chicago style.  Use CitationMachine for other styles.

Van Ness, Cynthia. BuffaloResearch.com, "Underground Railroad Sites in Buffalo, NY." Last modified March 25, 2012. Accessed March 29, 2012. http://www.buffaloresearch.com/ugrr.html.

 Table of Contents


  What is an Underground Railroad Site?
  Correcting Some UGRR Myths
  Summing Up
 Where To Find Evidence of Underground Railroad Activity
  Buffalo Sites in Order by Address
 Recent Claims We've Heard That Just Aren't True
  Required Reading

What is an Underground Railroad Site?

At the risk of oversimplification, I decided to sort potential Underground Railroad sites into three categories.  Call it the Van Ness scheme if you wish.  This scheme was developed and added to this page in April 2013.

Type A.  Structures and means of transportation used by fugitives in the process of escaping from slavery.  This category could include many kinds of buildings and also bridges, wagons, trains,
ferries, canal boats, and lake vessels.  Consider A a direct or primary use.

Type B.  Structures used by individuals and groups to organize assistance or activities on behalf of fugitives escaping from slavery.  Activities could include recruiting volunteers, raising money, and organizing rescues or protests. 
Consider B a secondary or supporting use.

Type C.  Structures associated with abolitionists or abolitionism in general, other than hosting fugitives or organizing activities on their behalf.  This could include courthouses and churches involved with efforts to end slavery in the US.

This essay focuses on Type A addresses.

 Correcting Some UGRR Myths

"Such fictions rely for their plausibility on the premise that the operations of the Underground Railroad were so secret that the truth is essentially unknowable. In fact, there is abundant documentation of the underground’s activities..."
  --
Fergus M. Bordewich, "History's Tangled Threads."  New York Times, Feb. 2, 2007.  Emphasis added.

I created this page because I noticed, just as night follows day, that any identification of a pre-Civil War building is inevitably accompanied by an Underground Railroad claim, which in turn is unsupported by any evidence.  No one tries to find the "abundant documentation" that Bordewich mentions.  

Unfortunately, we suffer from a supply and demand problem.  Demand for Type A Underground Railroad hiding places exceeds the supply, which inevitably results in spurious attributions. Everyone longs to claim the moral high ground for a favorite old building. 

My research into period and primary sources over the last decade or so has not yet turned up any concealment narratives for Buffalo.  It appears that there just weren't many hiding places here. There are two good reasons for this.

1.  Many African-Americans who escaped from slavery found enough safety and opportunity in Buffalo to live openly, hold jobs, and own property without having to be concealed or flee to Canada. Examples include: Keep in mind that New York State abolished slavery in 1827, which resulted an environment of relative freedom and safety. In 1843, Buffalo hosted the National Negro Convention.  In 1848, the anti-slavery Free Soil Party was founded in Buffalo.  Five years into the Fugitive Slave Act, in 1855, Buffalo was openly defying it. 

This is not to argue that Buffalo was an interracial paradise, as Daniel Davis and Christopher Webb, victims of the Fugitive Slave Act, discovered.  The North was not free of racism then, just as it isn't now.  But what measure of freedom, opportunity, and dignity it did offer was still a big improvement over living in bondage. 

This begs the question of whether all buildings openly used by former fugitives in their everyday, post-slavery lives (workplaces? shops? schools?) should be considered part of a covert activity.

2.  Historian Frank H. Severance (1856-1931) supplies the other reason.   Severance was the first to write about the Underground Railroad on the Niagara Frontier.  In 1903, he noted the paucity of sites in Buffalo:

"...comparatively little seems to have been gathered up regarding Buffalo's stations and workers.  The Buffalo of ante-bellum days was not a large place, and many personally escorted refugees were taken directly from country stations to the river ferries, without having to be hid in the city."   --Severance, Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier, p. 195.  Emphasis added.

Today, my unscientific guess is that maybe 1% of Buffalo's urban fabric predates the Civil War, meaning that out of any 100 houses and buildings, only one dates from before 1865. This is a generous estimate; perhaps the reality is that only one in 200 or one in 500 Buffalo buildings dates from before the Civil War.  If we have demolished 99% of our pre-Civil War architecture, then sadly we must conclude that we have demolished 99% of our Underground Railroad sites. My findings bear this out.

Modern claims about UGRR sites must be approached with skepticism.  If those who were present at the time left no record of a site that has been uncovered after 150 years of research, we must ask: how can the average living layperson "know" that a previously undocumented site was on the Underground Railroad?  These claims are never attributed to eyewitnesses, such as "My great-grandma owned that property and she told my mom who told me."

Certainly, oral legend may be all that survives from people who couldn't read and write.  If so, how come there are no surviving legends that match the addresses found (below) in period sources? At least some of them must be accurate and therefore known to those who were active in the cause but not necessarily literate.

Even when a story's provenance can be established, genealogists and historians know that myths are handed down through generations just as easily as facts, if not more so.  Genealogists have a saying, "Without proof, there is no truth."  This is why we look for evidence to substantiate or disprove legends.

It is important to note how many tales first appear in print in the 1920s and 1930s, after virtually all eyewitnesses were deceased and UGRR efforts began to be considered romantic and laudable.

We must also note a puzzling absence in the popular folklore.  For anyone trying to evade capture, the knowledge of which houses to avoid was as critical as which houses to approach.  If the level of danger was so high that even in Buffalo, everyone escaping from slavery needed to be concealed at all times, why are there are no legends of unsafe houses?   (Having said this, we now expect to hear new evidence-free claims about unsafe houses, as if made to order.)

If the climate was that hostile or dangerous, it would imply, contrary to the evidence, that Buffalonians strongly favored slavery and were likely to betray fugitives to the authorities.  If it was so dangerous that fugitives needed to be concealed at all times, then statistically speaking, most buildings that survive from this era would have been owned by enemies, not friends, of escaping slaves.

Also missing from UGRR folklore in Buffalo is the reality that African-Americans provided most of the assistance to fugitives:

"Perhaps the most tenacious Underground Railroad myth of all was the monochromatic narrative of high-minded white people condescending to assist confused and terrified blacks. Only recently have African Americans begun to be restored to their rightful place at the center of the story, both as fugitives who liberated themselves by fleeing bondage, and as organizers and leaders of the Underground Railroad itself. During the long night of Jim Crow politics, this truth was actively suppressed, or at least aggressively forgotten."   
--Fergus Bordewich, The Underground Railroad: Myth and Reality.  New York Times, June 27, 2005.


"The colored people of Buffalo are noted for their promptness in giving aid to the fugitive slave." 
--William Wells Brown.  Narrative of William Wells Brown, an American slave: Written by himself.  London: Charles Gilpin, 1850, p. 112.  Emphasis added.

My findings bear this out.  Pine Street, a small African-American neighborhood in the ante-bellum period, is linked to at least two UGRR sites in Buffalo.  

 Summing Up

"Interpretations of the past that fail the test of historical evidence still have real consequences."
--Robert R. Archibald. A place to remember: Using history to build community. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 1999, p. 101.

  1. Saying that a building was "on the Underground Railroad" is an extraordinary claim.  It is a rare and honorable distinction, like liberating concentration camps, and cannot be awarded lightly.  We've all seen politicians claim bogus military service and it demeans everyone who did serve.

  2. As Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  Tunnels legends are usually just that: legends. They are not proof of UGRR activity any more than chimneys are proof that someone owned a Jewett stove.  Carol Kammen's essay (scroll to p. 11) explains why geology makes tunnel legends suspect in Upstate New York.

  3. Wishful thinking and fakelore are not enough, or we might as well admit that in Buffalo, we automatically award UGRR status to everything found to pre-date the Civil War (and some post-Civil War buildings!), because what owners, neighbors, students, bloggers, and promoters want to believe is sufficient.

  4. Lovable old houses are usually just that: lovable old houses.  Because of their scarcity, pre-Civil War houses are special and worth saving on their own merits.  None of them need to claim UGRR status to be considered important.  It is just plain wrong to commit historical fraud in the service of historic preservation.

  5. Most importantly, giving aid to fugitives does not automatically mean providing concealment, a Type A use.  It could also mean providing Type B support:  food, drink, clothing, cash, a warm fireplace, a bath, a bed, a doctor, a lawyer, a job, a horse, a steamboat or train ticket, a rowboat, advice and directions, or an escort to the Black Rock Ferry.  

Where to Find Evidence of Underground Railroad Activity

So where is all this evidence?  Much of it is on paper.  You may have to turn off your computer and visit actual archives and libraries. Researchers should study:

First-hand accounts from before the Civil War are the most credible.  This just scratches the surface of sources that might substantiate or disprove a UGRR legend.

Buffalo Sites in Order by Address

Sources are supplied for each of the following addresses so that you can judge their plausibility for yourself. These books and articles can be found in various libraries. Several are online in full text. Preference has been given to first-person accounts and accounts dating from 50 years after the Civil War, which represents the average life span of a participant or eyewitness.

If a place you have heard about does not appear below, it is because I haven't found any period evidence to support its claim.  Submissions are welcome.  I cited my sources; please cite yours.

Street Name, House Number & Map

Description

Source(s)

Status

Broadway, 18 Home and dye shop of abolitionist Lucas Chester (1806-1871) until 1862, when he moved to 38 Virginia. Truman White claims that Chester's home was an UGRR station. White, Truman, ed.
Our County and its People, vol. 2, p. 466
Boston, MA: Boston History Company, 1898
Demolished. Presently the site of the Rand Building.

Delaware Ave., 184

Stable behind house of Thomas C. Love & Maria Maltby Love

Correspondence of Maria Love Cary Bissell, probably in the collection of the Research Library, Buffalo History Museum

Little, Karen Berner
Maria M. Love, p. 10
Buffalo, NY: Western New York Heritage Institute, 1994

Demolished. Presently the site of the Avant Buiding, built ca. 1970 as the Dulski Federal Building.

Ellicott St., 329

House of John Spencer Fosdick (1817-1892), who rowed fugitives across the river to Canada, according to his grandson Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969).

"Story of the Underground." Buffalo Morning Express, Nov. 21, 1909, p. 8

Fosdick, Harry Emerson
The Living of These Days, pp. 11-12
New York: Harper & Bros.
1956

Demolished. Presently the site of a mid-20th century warehouse for Ferguson Electric. Pre-Civil War Buffalo city directories give the Fosdick address as 329 Ellicott Street at the corner of Virginia.

Ferry St, Foot of Dock of the Black Rock Ferry, which delivered many fugitives to Canad

Severance, Frank
Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier, 2nd ed., p. 197
Cleveland, OH: Burrows Brothers, 1903

Presently the site of Broderick Park on modern infill. An historical marker for the UGRR has been installed here.

Linwood, 300

Morris Butler house, built ca. 1857

Severance, Frank
Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier, 2nd ed., p. 195
Cleveland, OH: Burrows Brothers, 1903
 

"Story of the Underground."  Buffalo Morning Express, Nov. 21, 1909, p. 8

Demolished ca. 1927.  Presently the site of a mid-20th century medical office building.

Main St., 310


Site of the American Hotel. Employee Samuel Murray, an African-American, gave food from the kitchen to fugitives and directed them to the Black Rock Ferry.

Severance, Frank
Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier, 2nd ed., p. 197
Cleveland, OH: Burrows Brothers, 1903

Burned down in 1865.  Presently the site of the Ellicott Square Building.  

Niagara & Pearl
Houses were not numbered yet so we cannot pinpoint the exact address.
Attorney & abolitionist George W. Jonson boarded here with silversmith Edwin A. Marsh.  In July 1842, a Unitarian pastor brought him a family of fugitives, which Jonson took to a colored boarding house on or near Michigan Street. The next day he sent them to Detroit. 
Heintzman, Nelson Terry
"Not a Scintilla of Abolition in Buffalo:" The Rise of a Liberty Man as Revealed in the Journals of George Washington Jonson, pp. 125-126.
University at Buffalo MS thesis, 1990
Demolished. Presently the site of the Main Place Mall, Rath Building, or Family Court.
Oak St. "above Broadway"
Houses were not numbered yet so we cannot pinpoint the exact address.
Last recorded address of Rev. Samuel G. Orton, acording to the 1837 Buffalo City Directory.

Professor Edward Orton, Samuel's son, recalls that in 1838, two sleigh-loads of negroes from the Western Reserve were brought to the house in the night-time." Samuel Orton was a pastor at what later became Lafayette Presbyterian Church.
Siebert, Wilbur H.
The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom,p. 35
New York: Macmillan, 1898


Severance, Frank
Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier, 2nd ed., p. 232
Cleveland, OH: Burrows Brothers, 1903
 

Demolished.
Oak St., 291 According to the 1860 Buffalo city directory, this was the home of bookseller H.H. Matteson. Louisa Picquet stayed here. Picquet, Louisa
Louise Picquet, the Octaroon, p. 43.
New York: The author, 1861
Demolished.  
Pine St., 13 Home of William Wells Brown (1814-1884), known as "the fugitives' house," according to his daughter Josephine Brown

Brown, Josephine
Biography of an American Bondman, pp. 52-53
Boston, MA: R.F. Wallcutt, 1855

Demolished.
Pine St. at N. Division

Home of George Weir, Jr.  Took 8 fugitives to a "public house," then delivered them by sleigh to Black Rock, where they took the ferry to Canada.  Weir was the son of Pastor George Weir of the Vine St AME Church, known today as Durham Memorial.

Frederick Douglass Paper, January 4, 1855

Demolished.


Recent Claims We've Heard That Just Aren't True

Myth Reality
"Rev.  Nash was our Underground Railroad pastor." Rev. J. Edward Nash was not born until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War.  He became the pastor of the Michigan Street Baptist Church in 1892, almost 30 years after the Civil War.
"Sojourner Truth led people out of slavery and they stayed at the Michigan Street Baptist Church." This author checked several Truth biographies and was unable to find any mention of her visiting Buffalo.  In addition, she was not known to have rescued anyone from slavery:

"Although Sojourner Truth was not an active participant in the Underground Railroad, she did assist many blacks who had previously traveled this route to freedom by helping them find new homes."
--Sojourner Truth Institute, Battle Creek, MI
"Fugitive slaves got themselves across the Niagara River by using a rope ferry." The Niagara River is a mile wide between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Canada. No one strung a rope across it, because the rope would either have been ruined by or blocked the passage of other vessels.

Charles D. Norton's 1863 essay, History of the Black Rock Ferry, describes the progression of river-crossing methods from Buffalo to Canada. No mention of rope ferries. Fugitives rode the same ferry boats as everyone else.
"The Stone Farmhouse at 60 Hedley Place was used as slave quarters." According to the 1820 Federal Census, Niagara County had a total of 15 slaves, which averages out to less than one per town. (Erie County was not separated off from Niagara County until 1821).  In 1827, the State of New York abolished slavery, so the 1820 census figures are the most reliable we have for establishing the incidence of slavery in what is now Erie County.  

The Stone Farmhouse was not built until 1830 at the earliest; probably closer to 1840 or 1850.  In addition, segregated slave quarters were a feature of southern plantation life, where hundreds or thousands of slaves were bound to one land owner. Western New York never had a plantation economy. Those 15 slaves were dispersed among multiple households and were housed as well or as poorly as servants or hired hands.


The 1820 census figures are care of  the University of Virginia's Historical Census Browser.
"Indians bent trees in the woods to point fugitives towards Canada. 'Trail Trees' from the UGRR era can be found in the woods outside of Buffalo." Fans of Trail Trees (also called Thong Trees) claim to have documented thousands of them across the American continent. If they were an aboriginal artifact, a practice that common and widespread would have been observed and commented upon. Wouldn't Lewis & Clark have noticed them?  But they are not mentioned in any early settlers' accounts, explorers' accounts, or early anthropological studies of Native Americans.

Trail Trees are a completely natural phenomenon.  Tom Bain shows how they happen. 
"We know it was a UGRR site because there was a tunnel..." Tunnels legends are often the only "evidence" that many people offer when claiming a site for the UGRR.  The problem with tunnel claims is that nowhere in slave narratives does anyone mention tunnels. Nor are they mentioned in memoirs of those who helped people escape from slavery.  In Buffalo, why would tunnels be needed in a community where fugitive slaves could live in relative safety? Tunnel legends are the result of people taking the "Underground" metaphor too literally.
"Residents of Black Rock dug tunnels under the Niagara River to get slaves into Canada." Case in point: merchants, tradesmen, and laborers with no training in engineering, geology or hydrology, without dynamite or tunnel boring machines, somehow used hand tools and spare time to dig a mile-long tunnel through bedrock limestone under water flowing at 12 MPH and about 70 million gallons per minute? Where did they put the mountains of stone & soil removed during this mile-long excavation?  How did they ventilate it and prevent leaks or  flooding? No one died from decompression sickness?

Required Reading



Copyright 2010-2014 by Cynthia Van Ness, all rights reserved. Updated 4 October 2014
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