“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.
Introduction and Contents
- What is an Underground Railroad site?
- Where to Find Evidence of Underground Railroad Activity
- What is Not Evidence of Underground Railroad Activity
- Buffalo Sites in Order by Address
- Some Claims We’ve Heard
- Summing Up
- More Reading
Featured here are addresses associated with the Underground Railroad (UGRR) in Buffalo, New York, according to period and primary sources. I invite others to document sites outside of the city limits of Buffalo.
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. If I find new evidence, I will update this page. As you’ll see, I also cannot guarantee that the addresses and stories I found, even though they are from the period, are 100% reliable.
The first obligation of anyone who does history, whether as a teacher, student, reporter, tour guide, genealogist, or webmaster like me, is simple: if we did not witness or participate in the events that we are telling you about, then you are entitled to ask how we know that these specific things happened. We have n obligation to cite our sources, or, in the age of social media, bring receipts. That is what I set out to do here. If you use these addresses and arguments in your work, please do the same and credit this page.
1. What is an Underground Railroad site?
I decided to classify potential Underground Railroad sites into three categories. This essay focuses on Type A addresses.
|Structures and means of transportation used by freedom seekers in the process of escaping from slavery. This category can include any kind of building, but also horses, carriages, wagons, roads, bridges, railroads, ferries, canal boats, and lake vessels.|
Secondary or Supporting Use
|Structures used to organize assistance or activities on behalf of people escaping from slavery. Activities can include recruiting volunteers, raising money, and organizing rescues or protests.|
Tertiary or No Direct UGRR Use
|Structures associated with abolitionists or the abolition cause in general, other than directly assisting freedom seekers. Type C could include courthouses, meeting houses, and churches.|
I wrote this page because I noticed, just as night follows day, that whenever a Buffalo building is assumed or found to predate the Civil War, it is inevitably accompanied by an Underground Railroad claim, which in turn is unsupported by any evidence. Everyone longs to claim some glory for a favorite old building without having to provide proof.
My research into period and primary sources began around 2005 and has not yet turned up any concealment narratives in Buffalo. It appears that there just weren’t many hiding places here. There are two good reasons for this.
It appears that there just weren’t many hiding places in Buffalo. 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 hide or flee to Canada. Examples of former fugitives 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)
- John Sella Martin (1832-1876)
- 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 a paradise, as Daniel Davis and Christopher Webb, victims of the Fugitive Slave Act, discovered. The North was not free of racism and exploitation then, just as it isn’t now. But whatever measure of freedom, opportunity, and dignity it did offer was still an improvement over living in bondage.
This raises the question of whether all buildings used by formerly enslaved men and women in their ordinary, post-slavery lives (workplaces? shops? schools?) should be considered part of escape, rescue, or resistance efforts.
2. Historian Frank H. Severance (1856-1931) supplies the other reason. Severance was the first historian 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.
Preservation Buffalo Niagara has launched the 1850 Project to map and document pre-1850 structures still extant in Buffalo. There are maybe a few dozen left. If we have demolished 99% of our pre-Civil War architecture, then, statistically speaking, we have demolished 99% of our Underground Railroad sites.
Fresh, new 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 today’s average 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. Consider also that a printed story can become the basis of an oral legend just as easily as an oral legend can become the basis of a printed story.
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.
“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”–Christopher Hitchens
It is important to note how many UGRR tales first appear in print in the 1920s and 1930s, after virtually all eyewitnesses and participants were deceased and could not correct the record. 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 places to avoid was as critical as what places might be safe. If the level of threat was so high in Buffalo that 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 uniformly hostile, it would imply, contrary to the evidence, that slavery enjoyed widespread support in Buffalo and that Buffalonians 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, the buildings that survive from this era would most likely 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 freedom seekers. My findings bear this out. Pine Street, a small, predominantly Black neighborhood in pre-Civil War Buffalo, is linked to at least two UGRR sites in Buffalo.
“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.
2. 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 log off and visit actual libraries and archives. Here is some good research advice from the Hudson Valley. First you have to prove that the building predates the Civil War, but after that, you must study the people associated with an address, not the structure itself.
- 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 is really 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.
3. What is Not Evidence of Underground Railroad Activity?
- Windowless rooms. The existence of a windowless room is no guarantee that it was ever used to conceal someone
- Supposed tunnels. Safe, successful tunnel construction requires engineering knowledge and is not something that well-meaning but untrained merchants, tradespeople, and farmers could accomplish with simple hand tools. I say more about tunnels below.
4. Buffalo Sites in Order by Address
Sources are supplied for each of the addresses below so that you can judge their plausibility for yourself. 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.
The Wellman Scale, developed by Dr. Judith Wellman, is a good way to evaluate the verifiability of an Underground Railroad claim. These addresses are rated accordingly.
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.
|Address & Status||Sources||Wellman Level|
|Broadway, 18 |
Home of abolitionist Lucas Chester (1806-1871) until 1862.
|White, Truman, ed.|
Our County and its People, vol. 2, p. 466.
Boston, MA: Boston History Company, 1898
|Wellman Level 2|
|Commercial Slip |
Partially restored. Terminus of the Erie Canal. Many people escaping from slavery traveled on the canal and disembarked in downtown Buffalo. Unearthed & rewatered at Canalside.
|Edwards, S. J. C.|
From Slavery to a Bishopric: Or, the Life of Bishop Walter Hawkins of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Canada
London: John Kensit, Publisher, 1891
|Wellman Level 5|
|Delaware Ave., 184 Demolished. |
Stable behind the house of Thomas C. Love & Maria Maltby Love. Presently the site of the Avant Buiding, built ca. 1970 as the Dulski Federal Building.
|Correspondence of Maria Love Cary Bissell, probably in the collection of the Buffalo History Museum, as cited by: Little, Karen Berner. Maria M. Love, p. 10. Buffalo, NY: Western New York Heritage Institute, ©1994||Wellman Level 2|
|Ellicott St., 329 Demolished. |
Home of John Spencer Fosdick (1817-1892). According to his grandson, Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), John rowed fugitives across the river to Canada. Presently the site of a parking lot.
|“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
|Wellman Level 2|
|Ferry St, Foot of Demolished. |
Dock of the Black Rock Ferry Many freedom seekers took the ferry to Canada. Presently the site of Broderick Park on modern infill. Has been formally recognized by the National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
|Freeman’s Manual, vol. 1, no. 11, November 1, 1853, p. 175||Wellman Level 5|
Morris Butler house, built ca. 1857. Supposedly had a hiding place. Presently the site of a mid-20th century medical office building.
|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
|Wellman Level 1|
|Main St., 310|
Site of the American Hotel. Employee Samuel Murray, who was African-American, gave food to freedom seekers and directed them to the Black Rock Ferry. Burned down in 1850, rebuilt, and burned again in 1865. Presently the site of the Ellicott Square Building.
|Severance, Frank. |
Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier, 2nd ed., p. 197. Cleveland, OH: Burrows Brothers, 1903
|Wellman Level 4|
|Niagara & Pearl Demolished.|
Abolitionist & attorney George W. Jonson boarded here in Edwin A. Marsh’s house. In July 1842, a Unitarian pastor brought him a family of freedom seekers. Jonson took them to a colored boarding house on or near Michigan Street. Presently the site of the Main Place Mall, Rath Building, or Family Court.
|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
Wellman Level 5
|Oak St. “above Broadway”|
Home of Rev. Samuel G. Orton. Samuel’s son Edward Orton says that in 1838, two sleigh-loads of Negroes from the Western Reserve were brought to the house. Rev. Orton was a pastor at what later became Lafayette Presbyterian Church. Presently the site of parking lots & office buildings.
|Siebert, Wilbur H.|
The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom, p. 35
New York: Macmillan, 1898
Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier, 2nd ed., p. 232
Cleveland, OH: Burrows Brothers, 1903
Buffalo City Directory, 1837
|Wellman Level 2|
|Oak St., 291|
Home of bookseller H.H. Matteson in 1860. Freedom seeker Louisa Picquet stayed here. Presently the site of office buildings & parking lots.
Louise Picquet, the Octaroon, p. 43.
New York: The author, 1861
|Wellman Level 5|
|Pine St., 13 |
Home of William Wells Brown (1814-1884). Known as “the fugitives’ house,” according to his daughter Josephine Brown. Presently the site of First Shiloh Baptist Church.
|Brown, Josephine. |
Biography of an American Bondman, pp. 52-53. Boston, MA: R.F. Wallcutt, ©1855
|Wellman Level 5|
|Pine St. at N. Division Demolished. |
Home of George Weir, Jr. Weir brought 8 freedom seekers 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, Sr. of the Vine St. AME Church, known today the Bethel AME Church. Presently the site of 20th century houses or vacant lots.
|Frederick Douglass Paper, January 4, 1855||Wellman Level 5|
5. Some Claims We’ve Heard
|“There used to be a tunnel…”||People often mention tunnels when claiming a site for the UGRR. Yet no one can ever point to an actual surviving tunnel, what important destination was at the other end of it, how it got filled in, or why there is no archaeological trace of it. Where did they hide all the rock & soil they dug out? The problem with tunnel claims is that nowhere in slave narratives does anyone describe tunnels. Nor are they mentioned in memoirs by those who did help people escape from slavery. If you think tunnel digging was that simple, check out this 1844 tunnelling manual. Tunnel claims are the result of taking “underground” literally.|
|“Residents of Black Rock dug tunnels under the Niagara River to get slaves into Canada.”||Ordinary merchants, tradesmen, and farmers with no great wealth or training in civil engineering, without dynamite or tunnel boring machines, somehow used hand tools and leisure time to dig a mile-long tunnel through limestone? When they already had regular ferry service? In 1855, William Wallace calculated that it would cost $855,475 to dig a tunnel under the Niagara River. That’s more than $30 million in today’s dollars. An 1855 booklet proposing a tunnel tells us that there were no tunnels in 1855.|
|“Rev. Nash was an Underground Railroad pastor.”||The great Rev. J. Edward Nash was born a free man in 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, though she apparently did speak in nearby Westfield, NY.|
“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 (now offline)
|“Fugitives got themselves across the Niagara River by using a rope ferry.”|
Alternate version: “Fugitives got to the foot of Ferry Street and swam or made rafts to get across the Niagara River to Canada.”
|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. Any rope strung across it would have blocked the passage of other vessels or been constantly broken by them. Freedom seekers rode the Black Rock Ferry like everyone else.|
|“The Stone Farmhouse at 60 Hedley Place was used as slave quarters.”||The Stone Farmhouse was not built until 1830 at the earliest; probably closer to 1840 or 1850. New York State abolished slavery in 1827.|
|“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 US. I have not yet found any mention of them in any early settlers’ accounts, explorers’ accounts, or early anthropological studies of Native Americans.|
Archie Butler Hulbert, an expert on early American highways, claims that Indians did not even cut down trees to bridge creeks; they detoured until they found a downed tree already crossing a waterway.
Trail Trees are a completely natural phenomenon. Tom Bain shows how they happen.
|“There’s just this vibe about the place.”||Actual quote from someone claiming UGRR status for an old house. Yes, old buildings are often a powerful presence on the landscape. But we do not suspend the rules of evidence just because a site evokes strong sensations or impressions.|
6. 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
- 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 should not 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, reporters, and tour guides 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 require 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. I cannot stress this enough. It could also mean providing Type B support: food, drink, clothing, cash, a warm fireplace, a bath, a bed, a doctor, a lawyer, a pastor, a job, a boat or train ticket, advice and directions, or an escort to the Black Rock Ferry.
The bottom line is that we suffer from a supply and demand problem. Demand for cinematic secret hiding places exceeds the supply, which inevitably results in spurious attributions.
7. More Reading
- 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 suspect. Scroll to p. 11.
- Betsy Ross Redux: The Underground Railroad “Quilt Code:” Quilt historian Leigh Fellner walks you through why quilt codes are fictional, courtesy of the Wayback Machine
- 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 may have assisted fugitives
- Underground Railroad Agents in Buffalo and Erie County, compiled by Chris Densmore and others
- 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
- Was the Michigan Street Baptist Church a Secret Hiding Place? 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 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 are what we have. When reading them, pay attention to what period evidence, if any, the authors provide for their claims. Lots of writers expect you to take their word for it.
- The Mason-Dixon Line, Part XIII: Tunnel Myths: An engineer disputes the notion that untrained people with pre-Civil War hand tools were digging tunnels
- Researching the Underground Railroad: Advice from the National Parks Service
This page was first launched in 2010. Last updated January 17, 2023. ©2023, all rights reserved.