- The UGRR and Local History
Carol Kammen uses examples from Upstate NY to urge caution when claiming Underground Railroad sites. Our unforgiving geology makes tunnel legends especially suspect. Scroll to p. 11.
- Escaping the Land of the Free: History, Myth, and the Meaning of the Underground Railroad
A speech by Dr. Keith Griffler, SUNY Buffalo Dept. of African and African-American Studies
- African-American Activists in Buffalo, NY
Names and biographies of mid-19th century men who probably assisted fugitives
- Buffalo’s Ante-bellum African-American Community and the Fugitive Slave Act, 1850
Scholarship by Dr. Jean Richardson of Buffalo State College, 2003
- History’s Tangled Threads
Fergus M. Bordewich exposes some of the most persistent UGRR myths
- “Still They Come:” Some Eyewitness Accounts of the Underground Railroad in Buffalo
A peer-reviewed essay by the author of this website, originally published in Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 2012
- Search Through Time Turns Up Surprises
An editorial by the author of this website, originally published in the Buffalo News, June 13, 2013
- Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Fingerlakes
A detailed explanation of how some sites were substantiated in Central New York
- Underground Railroad in the Buffalo Area: A Bibliography
No book-length history of the UGRR in Buffalo has ever been published. This is why historians must locate and study primary sources. Until someone does publish that book, these titles come the closest. When reading these books, pay attention to what period evidence, if any, the authors provide for their claims.
- Reform, Religion, and the Underground Railroad in Western New York
A list of names associated with the UGRR, plus some local newspaper accounts from the period
- The Mason-Dixon Line, Part XIII: Tunnel Myths
An engineer disputes the notion that ordinary people with pre-Civil War handtools were digging tunnels.
- Researching the Underground Railroad
Research advice from the National Parks Service
- Wellman Scale
A very useful scale, the first of its kind, for categorizing Underground Railroad sites according to how well a site’s story can be substantiated.
- The mailing list message by Archivist Chris Densmore that inspired this page
“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.
Cynthia Van Ness, MLS
|Featured here are addresses associated with the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Buffalo, New York, according to eyewitnesses and other primary sources. I invite 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
An important reminder to teachers, students, historians, webmasters, bloggers, authors, journalists, etc. This website is the result of years of 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.
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 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, but 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 or the abolition cause 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.
“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.
Correcting Some UGRR Myths
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 bothers to look for 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 some moral glory 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.
- 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:
- William Wells Brown (1816-1884)
- Daniel Davis
- James Duncan (possibly a pseudonym)
- Peyton Harris (1792-1882)
- Walter Hawkins (1809-1894)
- Joseph “Black Joe” Hodge (dates unknown)
- Henry Moxley (1808-1878)
- Jack Ray (dates unknown, servant of the Pratt family)
- Henry K. Thomas (1809-1882)
- Humphrey Tolliver (ca. 1810-1881)
- Christopher Webb
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 raises the question of whether all buildings used by former fugitives in their ordinary, post-slavery lives (workplaces? shops? schools?) should be considered part of rescue or resistance efforts.
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, Frank. 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, statistically speaking, 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 does 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? 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 UGRR tales first appear in print in the 1920s and 1930s, after virtually all eyewitnesses were deceased and could not refute anything. UGRR efforts began to be considered romantic and laudable at this time.
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, of pro-slavery Buffalonians?
If the climate was that hostile or dangerous, it would imply, contrary to the evidence, that Buffalonians favored slavery and were inclined 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 anyone seeking freedom.
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.
“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.
- 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 asserted lightly. We’ve all seen politicians claim bogus military service and it demeans everyone who did serve. As Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
- Wishful thinking and fakelore are not enough, or we might as well admit that 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.
- Lovable old houses are usually just that: lovable old houses. Because of their scarcity, pre-Civil War houses are worth saving on their own merits. None of them need to claim UGRR status to be considered important. It is unethical to commit historical fraud in the service of historic preservation.
- 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 offline and on paper. You may have to turn off your computer and visit actual archives and libraries. Researchers should study:
- Slave narratives, the most important source
- Period UGRR histories and scholarship
- WPA Life Histories
- Period newspapers, especially African-American papers
- Abolitionist memoirs and newspapers
- Archival collections and manuscript collections
- 19th century denominational newspapers
- Buffalo maps & atlases
- Deeds and building permits, to see if a building really is that old
- Letters & diaries
- Census records
- Ctiy directories
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. I limit my sources 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 yet to support its claim. Submissions are welcome. I cited my sources; please cite yours.