Underground Railroad quest

xGizmo D. Robot stops to interacts with Montgomery County Historian/Records Management Officer Kelly Farquhar during her lecture on the history of the Underground Railroad in Montgomery County at the Fonda Fair on Friday. (The Leader-Herald/Kerry Minor)

FONDA — Montgomery County has a proud history of standing against slavery during the period before, and during, the Civil War.

Montgomery County Historian Kelly Farquhar presented the second in a four-part lecture series at the Fonda Fair on Friday on the history of the Underground Railroad in Montgomery County.

From Ames to Amsterdam, historical records show many in Montgomery County who were active in the abolitionist movement. There are a number of possible sites in Montgomery County that were home to safehouses along the Underground Railroad.

The county has been trying to document either people who were involved in anti-slavery societies or who signed anti-slavery petitions.

“We are trying to give them, a level of criteria to see if this is very probable, this is definite that this was a site, or maybe not so likely,” Farquhar said. “Anytime someone has a site where they think they have an underground railroad site, we try to examine it through all of the evidence that we have.”

The county does not have a lot of documentation about the Underground Railroad because the Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed in 1850, gave penalties to those who assisted those fleeing slavery.

“People didn’t advertise the fact that they were participating in this secret network,” she said.

Since there is not a lot of written evidence on African American families that lived in Montgomery County, Farquhar said the county historical office uses census records to get the information. The 1850 census is one of the first available Federal census to list place of birth.

She said Judith Wellman of SUNY Oswego, who did research with Farquhar, showed an examination of place of birth records listed for African American may change between the earlier and the later census, indicating that individual was a “runaway slave.”

“After the Civil War, that individual may list their place of birth as Alabama, or Maryland, so we know they came from the south,” Farquhar said.

Canajoharie residents sent an anti-slavery petition to Congress in 1850. St. Johnsville residents also sent ones along in 1841 and 1845.

Farquhar has been researching the petitions to find out if these people where involved in other anti-slavery initiative.

Canajoharie was once home to an African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, or A.M.E. Zion Church, at one point. There is no record as to how long the church lasted.

There was another A.M.E. Zion Church that formed in Amsterdam after the Canajoharie Congregation. It was constructed in 1893 on Cedar Street and stood for decades until be became what Farquhar called a “victim of urban renewal” and was torn down in the 1960s. She said records from the church were moved to the Second Presbyterian Church, but were likely lost in the 2000 fire that destroyed the building.

In Amsterdam, Ellis Clizbe is the most well documented abolitionist in Montgomery County. A letter written to a paper even mentions that Clizbe’s house was a shelter for runaway slaves and became a station on the Underground Railroad. The letter went on to say that those coming went by boat to New York before landing in Albany and Amsterdam before stopping at the Clizbe homestead a mile and a half from the village. They would then be sent to Canada via rail.

“Clizbe and some of his neighbors, many of whom were most likely African Americans, were so successful in aiding people escaping from slavery from Amsterdam, that Amsterdam gained a widespread reputation for its abolitionist sentiments,” she said.

A number of other Montgomery County residents were known abolitionist including Main Street shoe store owner Chandler Bartlett in Amsterdam, whose daughter’s obituary mentions his proud abolitionist history and taking part in helping a man escaping slavery. In the village of Ames, a doctor was listed among a group hosting anti-slavery meetings, and was said to have taken in those who needed to be moved along the Railroad.

Still others were involved in the movement through a variety of means.

“There is a lot of participation in Montgomery County that we are still trying to document. It’s painstaking. I have volumes of paper records and visual records. Someday I will write a book,” she said.

Farquhar said those who wish to learn more about Montgomery County’s part in the abolitionist movement can read a compilation of a survey titled “The Underground Railroad: Abolitionism and African American Life in Montgomery County from 1820 to 1890.” It is available at the county’s Department of History at the Old Courthouse Building on Park Street in the village.

The lecture series will continue today with a presentation by Helen Martin on the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage at 2 p.m. On Sunday, David Brooks of the Schoharie Crossing will be presenting a talk on the 200th Anniversary of the construction of the Erie Canal at 2 p.m.

The first was held on Thursday by Ann Piccione, director of the Walter Elwood Museum.

The presentations are being held at the Scott Hall Vegetable and Antiques Exhibits building.

The fair will run through Monday.

Kerry Minor can be reached at [email protected]

By Patricia Older

Leave a Reply