FONDA - Census records from before the Civil War are shedding light on the anti-slavery and Underground Railroad movements in 19th-century Montgomery County.
According to a presentation Saturday by Montgomery County Historian Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar at the Old Court House, the 1850 census was the first to identify every member of a household, including race and place of birth. This information is allowing researchers for the Underground Railroad Project to piece together the puzzle of who was involved in Underground Railroad activity.
The 1850 census revealed that 131 black people were living in Canajoharie, 60 of them younger than the age of 18. The men were employed as laborers, barbers, coopers, musicians, farmers and boatmen. The women tended the homes. Many of the youth attended school, Yacobucci Farquhar said, but the researchers haven't determined whether they went to school with white students or attended all black schools.
A state historical marker, which will be erected in Canajoharie, is shown in the Old Court House in Fonda on Saturday.
The Leader-Herald/Barbara Cook
The 1855 census records indicate there were mixed race families living among all white families. Ellis Clizbe, an abolitionist in Amsterdam, lived between two black families.
Chester Bromley Hoke, whose grandparents were slaves, was a native of Canajoharie. At 16-years-old, he joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first black units formed during the Civil War. The 1989 film "Glory" tells the story of the regiment from the point-of-view of its white commander, Robert Gould Shaw.
In 1893, Hoke married Elizabeth Phillips, whose father was given land in the Adirondacks by Gerrit Smith. Smith gave land to several black people in Montgomery County, according to Yacobucci Farquhar, because as landowners they had the right to vote.
The Underground Railroad Project is funded by Preserve New York, a grant program of the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Council on the Arts. Collaborating with Yacobucci Farquhar are Alessa Wylie and Scott Haefner, both of Old Fort Johnson. Consultant on the project is Judy Wellman, director of the Historical New York Research Association and history professor at the State University of New York at Oswego.
One of the goals of the project is to identify every black family from Montgomery County during the years 1820 to 1880. According to Yacobucci Farquhar, the project will be very long and will probably exceed the time frame of the grant.
The public is invited to share stories, photographs and other information about anti-slavery activity in Montgomery County for the project. These will then be collaborated with documentation from historical sources such as newspapers, property deeds and diaries, as well as the census records.
Wylie said the team keeps finding "tantalizing little bits" of information about Freedom Seekers and those who helped them.
Wellman said the amount of work and research the team has already done is "absolutely incredible." She said the research is site-based, meaning they are looking for locations that were associated with the Underground Railroad. When a homeowner discovers an "odd little room" in his house, it's possible it was used as an Underground Railroad stop. She said they're also trying to identify churches where blacks could be members or the congregations were involved in the anti-slavery movement so they can be added to the National Register of Historic Places, or have markers erected, or be included in the National Parks Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.
About 20 people attended the presentation, one of whom said when he bought his house the realtor mentioned a tunnel from the house to a nearby schoolhouse. He said the house had been remodeled so if there really was a tunnel it had been concealed. He was asked to fill out a form with this information along with his address so the researchers could look into it further.
Forms are available through the Montgomery County Department of History and Archives or online at www.co.montgomery.ny.us/historian, then clicking on Underground Railroad Project.
Barbara Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org