The history of the Underground Railroad, as it is now known, was significantly shaped by the work of Wilbur Siebert, whose 1898 book of the same name has been frequently cited as the defining work on the subject. Though frank in assessing the reliability of his sources, Siebert also lionized the mostly Caucasian abolitionists whose recollections were major sources for his work. Siebert did make use of material published by and about African Americans, and corresponded directly with Frederick Douglass, among many others. Nonetheless, his work clearly reflects the limitations of his sources and his personal viewpoint. In part because of the sources used, and in part because much of the story telling has been done by European Americans, tales of the Underground Railroad often have the same "White Heroes of the Black Revolution" quality that is common in contemporary filmmaking.
There is no doubt that many European Americans played a significant role in bringing an end to slavery in America, and in aiding its victims. Their stories deserve to be told, side by side, and in context with those of the African Americans who liberated themselves, and others from slavery. There are two reasons to believe that future histories of the Underground Railroad may achieve greater balance in this regard than has been previously achieved: better sources, and better scholarship.
Sources are getting better. What was destroyed before Siebert's time cannot be undestroyed. However, many primary source materials that were still in private hands in 1898 are now available for study, or may yet be. As examples, the massive collection of Gerrit Smith's papers was not placed in the care of Syracuse University until 1928. Siebert was therefore able to reference only the results of Frothingham's biography of Smith. The papers of Frederick Douglass, who was alive during most of Siebert's period of research, are only now being published for widespread use. Other primary sources are yet to be made available. For example, diaries of James Caleb Jackson, going back to the 1830s, are still in the hands of descendants, and not yet available for study.
Scholarship is getting better. The biases of a sympathetic historian like Siebert may be less offensive than those evidenced in many books on the abolitionists (such as Harlow's biography of Gerrit Smith), but they still reflect a distinctly Caucasian-centered view. More recent works, such as Hunter's book on Jermain Wesley Loguen, have given focus to the central role of African Americans in the organized operations of the Underground Railroad, and in the larger struggle for freedom in America. With the trend toward more balanced analysis, the quality of the history telling appears to be improving.
As one enters into learning about the Underground Railroad and the struggle against slavery, it is striking that New York State's role in the UGRR is not more widely known. The under-telling of New York's story may be due, in part, to the fact that Siebert lived in Ohio and Massachusetts, and that many more prominent white abolitionists lived there, and in Philadelphia, where William Still worked. It may be in part because the backbone of the UGRR in New York, more so than elsewhere, was so significantly in the hands of African American leaders, whose efforts were given less attention in post-Civil War story telling. It may be in part because the major academic and public libraries in the state are in New York City, while UGRR activity was spread across the state. For whatever reason, it appears that the full story of the UGRR in NYS has yet to be told.
The purpose of this site is not to tell the complete story of the UGRR in NYS. It is intended primarily to serve as a repository for persons who wish to explore, or share available information. Wherever possible, sources of information placed on this site will be identified. Persons with information, documents, photographic images or research papers that may be legally digitized and posted on this site are invited to contact the site editor.