Harriet Powell's Escape from Slavery
"Public sentiment was at white heat on the question." So said feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in her autobiography, discussing the events of October 1839. The question was slavery, as only a few weeks had passed since the capture in New England of the slave ship Amistad.
Madison County hosted a month-long series of anti-slavery conventions that October, where Elizabeth Cady met her husband to be, abolitionist Henry Stanton. There she also met Harriet Powell, whose escape from slavery in downtown Syracuse helped to establish this area's reputation as a national center of anti-slavery action.
Harriet Powell came to Syracuse around October 1, 1839, as a servant to a wealthy couple visiting from Mississippi. Originally from Onondaga County, the Davenport's were the toast of the town in Syracuse high society. They were also the subject of intense discussion as it became known their young companion was not a member of the family, as many had first assumed.
As word spread that the beautiful young woman was held in slavery by the couple, plans were quickly made to offer her liberty. She was approached by African American employees of the Syracuse House, the downtown hotel (now the site of OnBank) where the family was staying. Harriet made up her mind to risk escape, knowing she'd never again see her mother and sister, who were also held in slavery by the Davenports.
On October 7, Harriet placed the Davenports' child in the arms of its mother and walked out the back door of the home where their farewell celebration was being held. There she was met by one of the several African American citizens of Syracuse who aided in her escape. Others had made arrangements to remove her possessions from the Syracuse House, and to have a carriage at the ready, willingly supplied by a DeWitt farmer named Nottingham.
All was in order at the time of her escape, and Harriet was spirited off to the Shepard home, a few miles south of Marcellus, where she remained for about a week. Harriet's escape created a furor, and parties were sent out in all directions to find her. The Davenports offered a $200 reward for her recovery (a copy of the reward poster is on display at the Onondaga Historical Association museum on Montgomery Street).
Just ahead of her pursuers, Harriet was taken to the home of Madison County physician John Clarke, in the town of Lebanon. From there she was taken to the home of Gerrit Smith, the famous abolitionist whose Peterboro mansion was a station on the underground Railroad. It was there that Harriet Powell met Smith's 24 year old cousin, Elizabeth Cady (Stanton).
In her autobiography, Stanton describes the two hours that she and her young cousins spent with Harriet, learning of her life in slavery. Harriet was of one quarter African heritage, and had been sold at auction in New Orleans at the age of 14. Stanton described the effects of the discussion: "We all wept together as we talked, and, when Cousin Gerrit returned to summon us away, we needed no further education to make us earnest abolitionists."
Harriet left the Smith estate in a carriage driven by Federal Dana,one of Smith's employees, and subsequently left Cape Vincent for Canada. Only eighteen hours after her departure, Davenport arrived with the marshals at Smith's door. Smith offered to allow a search of his premises, and invited Davenport to remain for dinner, where they politely discussed the vexing problem of slavery. When word was received that Harriet was safely in Canada, Smith published an open letter to Davenport in the New York Tribune, telling the full story of his aid to Harriet, and ridiculing Davenport for his professed concern for Harriet's well being.
Davenport was reportedly so infuriated that he spent the next decade lobbying the Congress for a stronger fugitive slave law. It was the passage of that law that once again moved the people of Syracuse to action, when another refugee from slavery was rescued from the custody of US Marshals on October 1, 1851.