Underground Railroad: Tar and Feather Incident

A sad part of our American and New York State history includes years of bondage. People were transported to our shores to be sold and used as slaves. It was not just the southern plantations that uitlized slaves in working  the farm land. "Early Dutch settlers brought slaves from Angola and Brazil to work their new farms in the Hudson Valley." Slavery continued through the next two centuries in New York State.  By the end of the eighteenth century, New York State had the largest number of slaves of any northern state.

In 1793 in Ontario Canada the parliment had passed an " Act to prevent the further introduction of slaves and to limit the term of forced servitude with this providence." It confirmed the slaves that were currently held, but provided that the children upon reaching the age of twenty-five years, would be set free. The legislation remained in force until 1834 when slavery was abolished in all parts of the British Empire.  Therefore, slaves had a place to flee to. The promise of freedom was across the US border into Canada.

In 1793 the US passed a law regarding slavery-not setting them free, but titled the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 it provided for the return of escaped  slaves. They were to be sent back to their owners from where they were found regardless of what state they were in. The law was very loosely enforced which was a great irritation to the South.  An abolishtonist sentiment developed. There was an effort to assist those in flight to freedom and the Underground Railroad found its beginning. 

New York state abolished slavery in 1827, but, only slaves born before1799 were free Those born between 1799 and 1827 were required to work a few more years.

By 1850 Congress passed The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It was favorably looked upon by US President Millard Fillmore, a Buffalo, NY native.  Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 into law. It was a much stronger law than the 1793 law enforcing the capture of escaped slaves.  Now a  US Marshall who did not arrest and return to the owner a runaway slave would pay a penalty of a $1000.  Officers capturing fugitive slaves were entiled to a fee.  Some free negroes were captured and sold to slave owners and the officer recieved a fee  A suspected black slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her behalf.  Any person aiding a runaway slave by giving any assistance including giving food, shelter, etc was liable to six months in prison and a $500 fine.  This was a dangerous time for anyone to help a runaway slave, yet the Underground Railroad appears to have continued its assistance. 

 More information on  the above can be found at the website: http://www.buffalo.edu/~sww/0history/1770-1830.html

An account of some very resourceful folks who assisted four runaway slaves follows:  The following tale is from: History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter, Pennsylvania with Biographical Seletions. Vol. I, Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., Publishers, 1890, p. 101.

 During the years when the abolition movement first gathered sympathizers the King settlement above Ceres became an important Underground Railroad depot. As long ago as 1827 or 1828, Smethport was a way-station on the Underground Railroad leading from the South to the North, wheron runaway slaves used to travel in making their escape into Canada, then a land of freedom to the black man. In other words, runaway slaves striking the Allegheny River at Warren would take a short cut, the one used by lumbermen in this region returning from Pittsburg, and reaching what was then known as the “Four Corners” pass through Smethport, Eldred and Olean, and so on by way of Buffalo to Canada.

 It was the above mentioned, that four forlorn looking slaves, foot-sore and weary, and terribly hungry withal, arrived in the little village of Smethport, and stopped at a hotel kept by David Young. They acknowledged that they were runaway slaves, fleeing from hard-hearted masters, and were also out of money. Through the kindness of several of the people of Smethport, the Negroes were provided with a good meal at a hotel, a small amount of money furnished them, and were sent on their way. The next stopping place was in Olean, at a hotel kept by Backus. Fearing pursuit from their masters, the slaves were directed to a lumber camp about one mile from the village, which shelter they used for a hiding place and also intended to make it their resting place for the night.

Hardly had these four Negroes left Smethport when two men on horseback arrived in pursuit, they being the owners of the runaways. Getting no information from the Smethport people, the horsemen hastened to Olean, at which place they arrived just as the slaves had entered their hiding place, though unseen by their masters--and here comes the gist of our tale.

 The citizens of Olean, who were aware of the pursuit, and fearing that the Negroes might be captured, employed a little strategy for the occasion. Sending messengers to the camp with information about the state of matters, the slaves speedily sought their safety. In the meantime the slave owners were informed that the objects of their pursuit might be found in a certain camp near Olean and kind hands directed their course to the desired point,

 But upon their arrival a sad fate awaited them. A bucket of tar and a quantity of feathers were in readiness, and masked men spread the unsightly covering without stint upon the persons of the slave owners and then left them to their own musings. The next seen of the pursuers, who by this time had become sadder, but wiser men, was in a hotel kept by John Lee nearby where the bridge crosses the Allegheny at Eldred. Through grease, soap, water and other appliances and a sojourn of a week, the unfortunate slave owners presented a somewhat better appearance and departed for their Southern homes, and their poor slaves reached the Mecca of their hopes in Canada. 

Submitted by Sue M. Cross, Town of Mansfield Historian 

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