In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

History Detectives: Sorting the Evidence

The Rev. Joshua Young
Finding a bloody handkerchief next to a murder victim is very different from finding one in the rest room of a travel stop, where someone might have paused to deal with a bloody nose.

In the same way, evidence in the files of Underground Railroad history has to be checked against its surroundings, and against other nearby evidence. A perfect example comes from mentions of the Rev. Joshua Young, who became a minister at the Unitarian church in Burlington, Vermont, in 1852. Noted for his anti-slavery views, he is quoted as having said that "every sea-port was a station" for the Underground Railroad in New England -- a phrase that may reflect some of his experience before coming to Burlington, when he served on the coast, in Boston (ordained there in 1849; the New York Times mentioned this date in Young's 1904 obituary). In Vermont, he had a "troubled ministry, and the controversy over his views on slavery compelled him to resign," says the current history of Burlington's Unitarian Universalist church. But before he did so, he became famous in 1859 as the minister who presided over the funeral of African American rebel John Brown, after Brown was hanged for leading a raid at Harper's Ferry, West Virginia. No wonder people connected him then, and connect him still, with abolitionist groups and the Underground Railroad! He also left behind letters that include his wife's involvement and that of several other Burlington activists.

How often, while in Burlington, Vermont, did this minister shelter fugitives? Recorded numbers of African Americans passing through the area are relatively small. The most quoted source for Vermont Underground Railroad statistics, the work of Joseph Poland and Wilbur Siebert, has been largely discredited. And Jane Williamson, director of Rokeby, Vermont's Underground Railroad museum and former home of the Robinson family, suggests that the politics of Burlington at the time -- heavily dominated by South-favoring "Democrats" (the political parties were different then!) -- would have made the town a less likely area for active assistance to fugitives.

One letter quoted by the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association, written by a Rhode Island Quaker, Elizabeth Buffum Chace, includes her recollections as she looked back in the year 1891, and she mentioned the Rev. Young as being part of the "Vermont road" for fugitives.

How old was she when she wrote that letter?  Could she be thinking of one particular fugitive, rather than a pattern of fugitives? What evidence is there for others working with the minister, such as Salmon P. Wires or Prof. Geo. W. Benedict, also of Burlington?

A good challenge for history detectives: Find out everything possible about Mrs. Chace and about Burlington in the 1850s and weigh the evidence, as Shawna and Thea do for "North Upton" in the book The Secret Room. Do the same for your own town -- I'm especially interested in hearing about any place where Quakers were known to live in the 1800s. Let me know what you find out, would you please?

2 comments:

Kit Minden, katepoet said...

I've got another mystery from the same time period. One history book on Lincoln said that when he was assassinated, he had a letter in his pocket from one of my ancestors. Another book that I just finished reading was about how Lincoln and his wife's family, the Todds, represented so many Civil War families, divided down the middle. The second book gave an inventory of Lincoln's pockets at the time of his death and no letter was included at all. The letter is supposed to be currently housed at the same museum in Philadelphia that houses the Liberty Bell. More to unravel... so much fun!!

Beth Kanell said...

Hi KatePoet. Good mystery! I suspect the solution may lie in moving from the secondary sources -- the two books -- to the primary sources: Where did the authors get their information? Thanks to the Internet, a lot of primary source material is accessible today that, even five years ago, we would have had to drive or fly a long, expensive way to see. Keep me posted if you investigate further? You've sure raised my curiosity!