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Nathan Thomas - Memories of a Conductor


In 1882, Nathan Thomas responded to a series of questions posed by A. S. Dyckman about the operation of the Underground Railroad. The questions have been lost, but they can easily be reconstructed from Thomas's answers.

In reply to your inquiries I will state, that after the time the Society of Friends, or Quakers, had succeeded in inducing their members to liberate their slaves, first at the north and ending in the south near the commencement of the war of the revolution, and their passage of emancipation acts by the northern states soon after the close of that struggle, slaves began to escape from their masters, and take refuge in the north, that being the case they were first attracted to the Quaker settlements immediately north of the line between freedom and slavery and from such points were conveyed secretly to northern localities.

In regard to your 2 first questions I can say but little as the secrecy with which everything was conducted connected with the escape of the fugitive slaves was such that nothing was published except in cases of prosecution for the rescue of the slave from bondage; I therefore do not know whether there were any other lines where fugitive slaves escaped, known as Underground Railroad except the western lines. But at an early day, slaves were known to be escaping north aided by such men as Isaac T. Hopper of New York City, Thomas Garret of Wilmington, Delaware, and Levi Coffin of Newport, Indiana, then of Cincinnati, Ohio. It has been stated that Thomas Garret aided in the escape of over 2000 slaves and was prosecuted with John Hann for the rescue of fugitive slaves, for which he was pecuniarily a heavy sufferer. That case was published in the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Also the case of Richard Dillingham who was convicted at Nashville, Tennessee, for an attempt to run off slaves and Sentenced to the state prison. This case, with that of Calvin Fairbanks for a similar offense, was published in the Appendix to Levi Coffin's Reminiscences.

There was also the Jenny [Jerry] rescue that occurred near Gerrit Smith's residence in New York. Also the noted Burns Case at Boston in 1854 where a war vessel, under orders from the government of the United States, took Anthony Burns and returned him to slavery from which he had just escaped.

As the conflict between freedom and slavery became more and more violent, the number of fugitives from slavery increased, and the slave [hunter] persistent in his efforts to regain possession of his escaping slave, which led to the removal of many of those who were located in the vicinity of Cincinnati to Canada; and the line from that point through Newport, Indiana, to Canada, the slave hunters gave the name of the Underground Railroad and designated Levi Coffin as its president.

As regards the 3rd question the line running through Schoolcraft; I am not aware of there being any fixed points where the fugitives crossed the Ohio or Mississippi rivers or where the stations were located in Indiana or Illinois. But many of the fugitives came through the Quaker settlements in Indiana, and were sent to Cass County, Michigan. On this line the fugitives entered the British possessions from Detroit.

4th This line was formed of 2 branches, one came through Indiana and the other through Illinois, uniting in a single line in Cass County, Michigan, and with a few small branches composed the main line running from Cass Co. through Schoolcraft and Battle Creek to Detroit. There may be an uncertainty as to what date this became an established line.

In 1836 the first fugitive made his appearance here; he remained in the Country. The 2nd in the fall of 1838 came from the far south through the Quaker settlements in Indiana to Josiah Osborn of Cass Co. and Mr. Osborn sent him to me. I gave him a letter to Wm. M. Sullivan of Jackson, the editor of the first antislavery [newspaper] published in the state, with the names of friends at different points on the way to that place. He spent the winter with old father Gillet in Washtenaw Co. and went to Canada the following spring. Others followed, and the Underground Railroad was gradually established through the state. In 1842 John Cross of Illinois passed through this state and adopted essentially the same line after having fixed the line of the Illinois branch. For further information in regard to the Indiana branch of this line, I will refer you to Jefferson Osborn of Calvin, Cass Co Michigan. On the Illinois branch E. McIvain at Niles kept the first station on the west. We have known but little of the men who operated in Illinois. Zachariah Shugart when living could have furnished some facts in regard to them. But McIvain, Shugart and Cross are all dead; and I cannot refer you to any one who can. Possibly Jefferson Osborn may be able to do so.

5th This line did not have a President. But that part of it located in Mich was under the management of the following friends of the Cause, to wit, Thompson Nicholson, Josiah and Jefferson Osborn, Ishman Lee, Stephen Bogue, Zachariah Shugart, William Wheeler, Wm Woodriff, Delemore Duncan, Dr. NM Thomas, Rufus Rogers, Friend E. Bird, Joel Gardner, Erastus Hussey, Dr. SB Thayer, Henry Willis, Joseph Merritt, Charles T. Gorham, George Ingersoll, Wm M Sullivan, Seymour B Treadwell, Guy Beckley, Horace Hallack and Samuel Zug. Of the above named Josiah and Jefferson Osborn and Zachariah Shugart of Cass Co, Wm Wheeler of Flowerfield, Dr NM Thomas of Schoolcraft, Joel Gardner of Climax, Erastus Hussey of Battle Creek, George Ingersoll of Marshall, Seymour Treadwell of Jackson, Guy Beckley of Ann Arbor and Horace Hallack of Detroit, were station agents or keepers of stations and furnished lodging and meal for the fugitives as they passed. The back yard of Horace Hallack's residence extended down to Detroit River. From that point the fugitives were set over to Canada in a skiff. Zachariah Shugart of Cass Co. was one of the most efficient agents, in providing for the wants of the fugitives, and in sending them forward with his team to Schoolcraft Station and occasionally to the other stations further east. For further information in regard to the line station agents and many other incidents I will refer you to Hon Erastus Hussey of Battle Creek, and Horace Hallack of Detroit.

6th The number of slaves that escaped by this line have been estimated at between 1000 and 1500. I am under the impression the greatest number came within the years between 1845 and 1852. The line was in existence about 20 years.

7th I do not remember the names of any fugitives who passed through to Canada without stopping except 1 or 2 of the first. I remember the names of many of those who stopped for a time or remained in Michigan. But much the largest part passed on without sojourning in the state.

8th The escaping slaves generally received friendly aid to only a limited extent from persons residing in slave states. But success depended mainly upon their own efforts. They obtained food at night from the Negro quarters, during their passage through the south.

9th The fugitives came from various localities in the slave states. But most of those who passed on this line were from Kentucky. Some were from Missouri, and occasionally one from the far south.

10th They are a very devotional people when religiously inclined; and those of that class were, I think, generally strongly impressed with the belief that God would ultimately deliver them from bondage.

11th They did not bring much property with them; and their clothing was generally barely sufficient to prevent them from suffering. The most destitute cases were generally relieved by their friends, after their arrival in the free states.

12th Much the largest part of the fugitives were males; a very small part were children.

13th Their travel with some rare exceptions was entirely by night, and generally on foot until they passed from the slave to the free states. In some cases they were conveyed by friends secretly in wagons or other conveyances in the slave states, and occasionally by being secluded in steam boats on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers made their escapes to the free states. Men without women in passing through the free states traveled on foot. Women traveling alone or with men and children were conveyed by teams from one station to another furnished by station agents or some other friends and their travel was entirely in the daytime, except in the country bordering on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.

14th In the state of Indiana and in Cass Co. Michigan where the Quakers were numerous, they did more to aid the escaping slaves than the people of other denominations.

Respectfully yours,

N M Thomas

Source: Nathan Thomas Collection, Box  1, History of the Underground Railroad, Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

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Updated 08/31/2010

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