Vermont’s abolitionist history

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(Host) During slavery days, Vermont was an active stop on the Underground Railroad. Commentator David Moats reflects on that legacy.

(Moats) Lemuel Varney had a strange cargo hidden under the buffalo robe in his sleigh. When a passenger sleigh passed him on the road, he told the inquiring sleigh driver it was a load of potatoes.

There was a stranger on the passenger sleigh, who sounded like a Southerner. He softened his r’s too much for a Yankee, and he didn’t twist his vowels the way a Yankee would. At the tavern, the Southerner and the Vermonters got into a conversation about whether it was right to help runaway slaves. “The’ ‘s some ‘at ‘s mean ‘nough tu do anythin’ fer pay,” Lemuel Varney said. The stranger expressed a liking for Bourbon whiskey, something not found in the Vermont tavern.

Helping fugitives on the Underground Railroad was not so easy when Southern slave catchers showed up offering rewards for the return of runaways and
buying drinks at the tavern.

Lemuel Varney reached the home of Zebulon Barclay, a Quaker with a secret room upstairs behind a big chimney. First Lemuel hid his cargo in the barn, and when the coast was clear, the Barclays quickly snuck the runaway up to the secret hiding place.

But the Canadian hired man, Jerome, knew something was up. He had heard a cough in the barn, and then he’d heard a cough somewhere behind the chimney. After Jerome voiced his suspicion, the Barclays knew they had to find a better hiding place.

It so happened Ruth, the daughter of the house, had a young suitor, a non-Quaker whom she had rebuffed because he wasn’t strong in the abolitionist cause like her family was. To prove himself he offered to take the runaway up to a sugarhouse to hide in the woods until he was well enough to continue his journey north.

I’m not going to tell you how the story turns out. It’s called “Out of Bondage,” and it’s by Rowland Robinson, the 19th century author whose family had a secret room in the back of their house in
Ferrisburgh where they hid runaways on their way to Canada. The Robinson house is now a museum that opened for the season a few weeks ago.

The Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh is gaining national recognition as an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Historians are still piecing together the story of the clandestine system Northerners used to outwit Southerners chasing down runaways as they fled for the safety of the border.

Rokeby tells an important story about Vermont’s past. There were Vermonters eager to claim the money for turning in runaways, and the abolitionist meetings of the time aroused angry opposition. But Vermont’s role in the abolitionist movement gave our history a unique shape, quite different from the history in other parts of the country.

Vermonters didn’t have to distort their character, ideals or conscience to try to justify what couldn’t be justified. Rowland Robinson’s stories help us remember that past, and so does Rokeby in Ferrisburgh.

But the past is never really past. That’s why it’s good to remind ourselves of those old Vermonters who took special delight in outfoxing people who thought a runaway man to be stolen property, even if he was stealing himself away to freedom.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

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