Formation of an Anti-Slavery Society in 1836 Ellicottville, NY

Slavery and the attitude each individual embraced regarding the subject was a very volatile, emotional topic during the 1800s. Right here in Cattaraugus County emotions were strong. This county is an area where few if any slaves could be found at that time, however, that did not temper the reaction of the people.  We must remember the strong division of our country during this period in regards to slavery. As you ponder these thoughts consider even the President of the United States, George Washington owned slaves.The constitution of the United States in Article IV Section 2 provided a guarantee to the right to repossess “any person held to service or labor”.  There was no mechanism for executing the law until the passage of the fugitive slave act in 1793 held individuals responsible for harboring fugitive slaves even if they were located in non-slave states. A fine of $500 could be imposed. This fugitive slave act of 1793 was very loosely enforced.  Anti-slavery groups were increasing in numbers during this period in history.

Here is the story of one of those groups formation in Ellicottville, NY. The information has been taken from Everts, L. H.  History of Cattaraugus Co,.1879.Very exciting scenes were witnessed in Ellicottville at the formation of the Cattaraugus County Anti-Slavery Society in 1836.The story of its formation, and the excitement attending it, is told in the following extracts from the Ellicottville Republican:

    From the issue of April 28, 1836:
    “This exciting and dangerous topic continued to be the subject for popular and exciting lectures throughout the country. Notwithstanding the great mass of the people have pronounced it inexpedient and dangerous, still we regret there are to be found men willing to embark in any cause, however corrupt and wicked, even at the expense and hazard of the public peace and tranquility....."
    "This village, which has been noted for its good order and decorum, has been, during the past and present week, shaken and convulsed by one of these disturbers of the peace [Mr. Hunington Lyman], who arrived in town on Thursday of last week, and appointed a lecture on Abolitionism for the afternoon of that day. The hour arrived and we are credibly informed that only nine persons were in attendance, the more respectable portion of the community attesting their disapprobation by their absence. Not satisfied with this manifestation of the public will, the disturber appointed the next day for another lecture; and again found about the same number of men, and probably an equal number of women, present."
    Those events occurred on the 21st of April. On Saturday, the 23d, another meeting was held at the school-house, amid great excitement, and at its close, as the audience was retiring, Mr. D.I. Huntley gave out notice that Mr. Lyman would deliver an abolition lecture the next evening (Sunday). A large majority of the citizens of the village, - including all the well-disposed and influential, - considering it a popular political lecture, were firmly opposed to any such profanation, and accordingly resolved to resist any such encroachment on the Sabbath. In behalf of those persons opposed to such lectures, the following letter was addressed to Mr. Lyman:

"April 24, 1836."
    "Mr. H. Lyman. -Sir, - We have understood that a lecture is to be given by you this evening in the school-house, on the subject of abolition, and we take the liberty of addressing you on the subject. In the first place, as we consider it a political subject, we do not deem it a fit subject for the Sabbath, tending to the profanation of the day set apart for more serious purposes. We, therefore, as friends of good order in community and moral example, request that you desist from such a proceeding. We assure you that we shall not submit tamely to an insult of such magnitude.
            "Yours in haste,   

 "Eleazer Harmon,
             "Anson Gibbs,
             "Robert H. Shankland"        

  "No answer was received to the above note, but at the appointed hour, he appeared, and commenced by reading a chapter in the Bible. After that having been gone through with, Mr. Harmon interposed, and respectfully inquired whether the lecture was to be a political or a religious lecture, stating that it was not his desire to interfere with or disturb a religious discourse. The agitator utterly refused to give any explanation to the citizens assembled, and finding they were determined to hear no such lecture, the friends of the cause repaired to the tavern of the Messrs. Huntley. In short, the friends of good order were requested to tarry, but upon consultation, it was resolved to repair also to the tavern, and meet again on Monday evening at the school-house. All repaired in good order to the tavern, and obtained admission without any considerable  difficulty, and as they did not undertake to adopt a constitution which they had in readiness, they were not interrupted."

    A very strong public excitement appears to have resulted from this attempt to organize an anti-slavery society in Cattaraugus County. On the following evening (Monday, April 25), a meeting, "for the purpose of taking into consideration the exciting subject of slavery," was held in the school-house in Ellicottville, of which Dr. A. Crary was made chairman, and Anson Gibbs secretary, and which after its object had been stated, and a committee appointed to draft resolutions, was adjourned, toreassemble at the court-house on the following evening.
    Upon reassembling at the court-house, pursuant to adjournment, the committee reported a preamble and resolutions as follows:

    "Whereas, An excitement has been produced in our community by a certain agitator and a chosen few, upon the much-agitated question of Abolition, and whereas, the Sabbath was violated by an attempt to promulgate this pestiferous doctrine, in violation of the sacred rule to keep holy the Sabbath day, and attempts were made to palm off upon the public as a lecturer on morality, a certain individual whose private character will not bear examination, but when weighted in his own balances, is found wanting. We, the committee, to prevent the recurrence of such outrages, do report the following resolutions:
    "Resolved, That it was with no ordinary feeling of indignation that we witnessed the coming of Mr. Lyman to disturb the universal amity of social intercourse and moral devotion of the inhabitants of this village, by introducing his wild and fanatical lectures upon the principles of abolitionism, and that we consider it an essay by him and his colleagues, to poison the fountain from which has flowed all our social and domestic happiness; to demolish the barriers that have heretofore existed between the pure aspirations of religious devotion and the discordant ebullition of political frenzy......"
    "Resolved, That the exhortation of Mr. Lyman to press forward in the cause of abolition, regardless of the consequences, and if it caused the dissolution of the Union as preferable to the present state of emissaries of the monarchial powers to subvert the liberties of our country, and verify the royal prediction of the ephemeral existence of republics, and it is the opinion of this committee that the infected author of  such treasonous principles requires the medicinal properties of the tar, and lulling magic of the feathers, to induce a state of mental convalescence."

    Other resolutions of less importance were adopted by the meeting, which thereupon adjourned.
    "P.S. - Last evening [Wednesday, April 27, 1836] the disturbers again commenced assembling at the tavern of the Messrs. Huntley, and it was soon rumored that the purpose was to form a society and adopt a constitution. A large number of the friends of free discussion and good order immediately repaired to the tavern, and claimed the right to discuss the principles of the constitution which they were about adopting without its even being read. Mr. Harmon insisted upon the right to be heard, but was refused. The vote, however, was taken, and decided against its adoption. The friends of abolition were then requested to retire into an adjoining room, - the friends of free discussion repaired there also; from there they repaired up-stairs, and the friends of discussion followed; and from up-stairs down-stairs again, - and then they were respectfully requested to put the adoption of the constitution to vote again, several persons having come in since the rejection who wished to vote; which they utterly refused to do. The secretary wrote down several names as signers to the constitution; among the number several little girls and beardless boys. The citizens outnumbered the agitators three to one, and still were told they should not discuss freely. The disturbers cannot complain now if they have the chalice returned to their own lips. The meeting, after rather a desultory discussion, was declared, by the landlord, adjourned. Next week we shall give the particulars of last night's outrage upon the rights of the community, and the successful manner in which the citizens put down the formation of such a society in a public manner." The society, however, was formed at that time; the Rev. Sylvester Cowles and Pliny L. Fox, Esq., being amount the principal of its leaders.

Resources for this article:                                                          All three websites were accessed in July 2014                                                                                      Everts, L. H.  History of Cattaraugus Co., New York.  Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1879.

Sue M. Cross, Town of Mansfield Historian

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