Following the Freedom Trail
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Everybody knows Harriet Tubman. She is a world renowned icon of the Underground Railroad. Born in slavery in Maryland, she made so many trips back into slave country—thirteen in all—to bring so many of her relatives and friends—more than seventy—to freedom that people called her the “Moses of her People.” In 1859, she purchased a farm just south of Auburn, New York, from Senator William Henry Seward and Frances Seward, where she lived until her death in 1913, surrounded by family and friends from her old Maryland neighborhood.

When Harriet Tubman came to Cayuga County, she found a well-established Underground Railroad network that had been operating for more than thirty years. It had three roots: a key geographic location, a cohesive African American community, and supportive European American allies (many of them of Quaker background).

Cayuga County pointed like an arrow directly north through the heart of New York State, linking Pennsylvania with Lake Ontario and Canada. Along Cayuga and Owasco lakes, steamboats, lake schooners, stagecoaches, and farm wagons carried people as well as grain, wool, and pork from the small cities and rich farm country of the southern tier and the Finger Lakes to ports along the Erie Canal, railroad, and Seneca Turnpike. Key communities related to the Underground Railroad and African American life in Cayuga County included Auburn, Moravia, Northville, Sherwood, Aurora, Levanna, Cayuga Village, Sennett, Port Byron, Meridian, and Sterling.

The Auburn African American community acted like a magnet for people escaping from slavery. The AME Zion Church (with caretaker Deborah Depuy), school, and barbershop (operated by Luke Freeman and his wife Catherine Freeman) were key institutions. Nicholas and Harriet Bogart, born in slavery, worked in the Seward household and acted as a link between freedom seekers and the rest of the community.

European American supporters in Auburn included William Henry Seward, former governor of New York and senator during the 1850s; students and professors of the Auburn Theological Seminary; and editor William Hosmer. A core group of women, all of Quaker background--Frances Seward, wife of William Henry Seward; Lazette Worden, Frances Seward’s sister; and Martha Wright, sister of Quaker minister Lucretia Mott—maintained continuity. In Cayuga County, Slocum Howland, his daughter Emily Howland, and Josiah Letchworth—Quakers from Sherwood, New York—and William Duval of Port Byron, were especially noteworthy.

This biracial network operated effectively through links to other Underground Railroad nodes throughout Maryland, Pennsylvania, central and western New York, and Canada. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of African Americans, both men and women, escaped from slavery to freedom through Auburn and Cayuga County in the thirty-five years before the Thirteenth Amendment, officially proclaimed by Secretary of State William Henry Seward on December 18, 1865, ended slavery in the United States.

For more detailed information about the Underground Railroad, abolitionism, and African American life in Auburn and Cayuga County, see Uncovering the Freedom Trail in Auburn and Cayuga County, New York, a cultural resources survey sponsored by the City of Auburn Historic Resources Review Board and the Cayuga County Historian’s Office, funded by Preserve New York, 2004-05; Judith Wellman, Project Coordinator; Bernard Corcoran, Webmaster,


This material is based upon work assisted by grants from the Department of the Interior; the National Park Service's Underground Railroad Network to Freedom; Preserve New York, a grant program of the Preservation League of New York State and the New York State Council on the Arts; the New York State Council on the Arts; the City of Auburn Historic Resources Review Board; and the Cayuga County Historian's Office. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of these funding agencies.

Photo credits: Thanks to the Cayuga Museum of History and Art; Seward House; Harriet Tubman Home; Hazard Library; Howland Stone Store Museum; Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College. 

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