Aug 19, 2013

Peterburo, New York and the Underground Railroad

Garrit Smith was one of the New York States’ strongest supporters
of the abolitionist movement. Smith is just one of the many people who helped slaves get their freedom. Actually, Smith purchased some slaves and then freed them. Smith was a close friend of Frederick Douglass, the African American who, after his escape from slavery, became a leader in the abolitionist movement and an advocate of other social reforms. I often wonder what my position would have been at that time considering it was illegal.

Garrit Smith was born in Utica but spent most of his life in Peterboro, New York.  Peterboro is the home of the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum.  It is where John and I started our visit.  The Hall of Fame is located on the second floor of the Smithfield Community Center which in 1835 was the Presbyterian Church and where the New York State Anti-Slavery Society held its first meeting.  Honored are those who helped bring an end to slavery. Today their mission is “…to complete the second and ongoing abolition – the moral conviction to end racism.” An
expansive flowing timeline traces slavery from colonial times to the Civil War. Many names of those honored are familiar such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth.  Some people may be surprised to see John Brown included remembering him as the wild-eyed traitor who was hanged for his part in the raid on the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry. Smith was one of the “Secret Six” who funded Brown and his radical group.  Smith sold Brown land on the hilltop near the ski jump in Lake Placid.  

Down the road from the Hall of Fame is the Garrit Smith Estate, a National Historical Landmark.  His home is no longer standing but there is a visitor center with an introductory video and a barn with a display called, “Heaven and Peterboro,” plus the Land Office and other buildings. Most of the citizens of Peterburo were in accord with the abolitionist movement so runaway slaves felt it was a “safe place.”  I liked the quote, “…slaveholders cannot come to Heaven or Peterburo.”

Near the barn is the laundry that was operated by Harriet Russell,

the nanny of Smith’s wife and a slave freed by Smith. Smith located Russell’s family in Kentucky, purchased their freedom and brought them to Peterburo.  The small red brick Land Office built in 1804 was where the Smith family conducted their real estate activity.  It is where Garrit Smith sold farmland for one dollar to 3000 African Americans, many of whom he aided in their escape to freedom.

Smith’s daughter, Elizabeth Miller, was an advocate and financial supporter of women’s rights. She felt dress reform was essential to freeing women from their traditional roles.  She wore Turkish-style pantaloons under her knee-length dress. Amelia Bloomer liked the new style and popularized it. The word “bloomer” became part of the American lexicon. In the Visitor Center there are some of the 3000 birds Greene Smith, Garrit Smith’s son, collected. Some of his birds were donated to universities such as Colgate, Cornell, and Harvard.

While the name “Garrit Smith” may not be a household word today, he and his family were definitely “makers and shakers” during the mid-1800s.  He was the Liberty Party candidate for president in 1848, 1856, and 1860. He served in Congress representing Madison and Oswego Counties in 1853.