The Myth of the Quaker Church in Fort Fairfield, Maine, Being Part of the Underground Railroad,

And the Little Platform that Started the Myth

By Dena L. Winslow, Ph.D.

Copyright 2022



Friend Church

There is often a grain of truth in any story, no matter how far-fetched it may be – or how far from the original truth the story morphs. In the case of the popular myth of the Underground Railroad having a “last stop” at the little Quaker church in Fort Fairfield, it all began with a small platform at the front of the church. Here’s the story of how this myth has developed over the years and become part of popular culture and belief today – even without any basis in fact.

About forty years ago I received an interesting telephone call from a Fort Fairfield minister who asked me about the Underground Railroad having been in Fort Fairfield. Because I have been researching and writing about Aroostook County history for most of my adult life, this was one of many interesting telephone calls I so often receive. 

I had a long conversation with the minister and asked him why he thought that the parishioners of the Maple Grove Friends Church, located on the West side of Route 1A in Fort Fairfield might have been involved with the Underground Railroad. Of course, being a Quaker church originally, and with Quakers being well-known to provide assistance to Black’s fleeing slavery during the period of the Underground Railroad (from approximately 1840 to 1860[1]), just as they are well-known still for providing assistance to others in need, made it potentially possible.

But the thing that really convinced this minister that the church building was used as part of the Underground Railroad, according to what he told me, was the platform at the front of the church where the pastor stood behind the podium. It was a relatively small area, but he told me that it had a trap door, and if need be, a full-grown man could squeeze into the area below the platform through the trap door and hide there.

I asked the minister if there was anything else that caused him to think this building was once used to hide slaves on their way to freedom in New Brunswick, Canada. He told me that the children and grandchildren of the Haines family (who were early Quakers in Fort Fairfield) said that there was a secret place to hide in the church (presumably referring to the trap door in the platform that allowed access under the platform).

I explained to the caller that there is no evidence that slaves ever came so far north as to reach Fort Fairfield, and it didn’t make much sense that they would do that when they could easily cross the border and into New Brunswick, Canada, several hundred miles south of Fort Fairfield and not have to make the dangerous and arduous trek this far north. Once they had crossed the border from Fort Fairfield, they would have then had to travel south again to reach the Black settlements of other former slaves who has escaped the bonds of slavery and were establishing themselves in St. John, New Brunswick, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia. All that extra travel to reach Fort Fairfield, and ultimately freedom in New Brunswick simply made no sense, and would have continued to leave them in danger until they did cross the border.

A few years later, a prominent couple in Fort Fairfield had taken up the cause and were giving a presentation at the little church in Maple Grove claiming that it WAS indeed the last stop on the Underground Railroad. My curiosity was piqued, so I went to the presentation. 

The church is very tiny, even today, in spite of additions expanding the size of the building in 1906. It was originally built in 1863, having been completed by a Quaker named Miles Hilton when he arrived in the area, according to the National Register of Historic Places registration on the building from 2000. The property was purchased in 1995 and subsequently donated to the Frontier Heritage Society in Fort Fairfield.

The presenters giving the talk about the church being part of the Underground Railroad claimed that the platform at the front of the church was the REASON they knew that the church had been part of the Underground Railroad. They said it was here, under this platform – accessed by a small trap door, that slaves were believed to have been hidden until they could escape across the border and into New Brunswick. A tiny scrap of fabric was also shown during the presentation which had been recovered from under the platform. This fabric scrap was claimed by the presenter to have been from clothing worn by a slave who had been hidden under the platform.

In addition, the presenter said that the descendants of the Joseph Wingate Haines family children used to tell other neighborhood children that they knew of a “secret hiding place” in the church. 

[1] Siebert, Wilbur Henry, The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom, 1898, pg. 37.

 

The platform claimed by the presenter to have been where slaves were hidden was raised slightly above the level of the floor. There was a small trap door providing access to the area under the platform – which I believe was probably used to create space for storage given the very small size of the building and the need for additional storage space. No explanation was provided as to how or why the scrap of cloth had been determined to have come from a slave escaping to freedom.

A newspaper article by Julia Bayly published in the Bangor Daily News on June 23, 2013 described the excitement when the trap door in the podium was re-discovered by workers doing renovations to the building after it was donated to the Frontier Heritage Society in Fort Fairfield in 1995. In an interview with Art Mraz, Art said, “During the renovations [Ruth and I] stopped by to visit, and the carpenter [Kirby Doughty] was grinning ear to ear and shouting, ‘I found it. I found it,’ Mraz said. ‘He told us he had found the hiding place [for the slaves escaping to freedom].’”

The article goes on to say, “In ripping up the old carpets covering the raised platform at the front of the church, Mraz said, Doughty had discovered boards from the old 1906 packing crate used to ship the stained-glass window had been used to cover over what appeared to be an old trap door leading to what could be a place for escaped slaves to hide.”

According to the National Register of Historic Places registration from 2000, the platform itself was added, along with other features, including the stained-glass window, during some substantial remodeling of the building in 1906. Thus, the platform claimed to be the hiding place for slaves heading for freedom in New Brunswick – didn’t exist until many years after any slaves would have needed such a hiding place.

Of note, the National Register of Historic Places registration makes no claim that this building was ever part of the Underground Railroad. However, it does refer to “local tradition” claiming that Joseph Wingate Haines family were, “actively involved with other Maple Grove Friends in Underground Railroad activity.” No evidence is provided in the application to support this claim.

In spite of a lack of any sort of evidence beyond locating the trap door to the platform (which was built well after the Underground Railroad in 1906), the Genie was out of the bottle and the mythic “last stop on the Underground Railroad” had been created and is now part and parcel of the “story” of Aroostook County. The myth has spawned such things as the “Hike to Freedom” annual event, during which participants can pay a fee to walk the trail from Tomlinson Lake in New Brunswick, “where the slaves escaped to freedom from the Quaker church in Fort Fairfield.” There are even maps of the supposed route that the escaping slaves took! 

It is also important that not only was the infamous platform not built prior to the need to hide slaves escaping to freedom on the Underground Railroad, but according to the application for the National Register of Historic Places, the church building itself was not built until some time in 1863 – AFTER the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 which freed the slaves. It would be very hard to hide escaping slaves in a building that did not exist yet, under a platform that wasn’t built until 43 years AFTER the slaves were freed!

There is not a shred of actual evidence that would link the Quaker church in Fort Fairfield with the Underground Railroad, and, the fact is that it is incredibly unlikely that any slave would travel hundreds of miles north to escape to freedom in New Brunswick, and then have to travel hundreds of miles south again to get to other Black refugee settlements, when it could so easily be done far south of here. However, this story HAS created interest in the story of slavery and the Underground Railroad, and this, in and of itself, is a very positive thing. We should never forget what was done in those times. However, we also need to be aware that this part of the story is simply a myth, and that Fort Fairfield’s Maple Grove Friends Church was never involved in the Underground Railroad.

 

That said, the history of the Quaker Church in Fort Fairfield is still an interesting story. On January 23, 1901, W. T. Ashby in his “A Complete History of Aroostook County, and its Early and Late Settlers” published in the Mars Hill View, said about the church, “…in 1859, four families from Kennebec County organized themselves as the Society of Friends or Quaker church….”

Any records that may have been kept by the members of the Quaker Church in Fort Fairfield during their approximately 30 years in existence, are now lost to history. However, there are mentions about who the original four families may have been in some early area histories. Caleb H. Ellis, writing his History of Fort Fairfield in 1894 provides some insights. Mr. Ellis was active in civic affairs, and also served as a chaplain in a regiment during the Civil war. He came to live in Fort Fairfield with his family in March of 1843, and he lived in the Maple Grove area of town nearby the Joseph Wingate Haines family. He also started a newspaper in town called the Northern Leader in 1892, while the Quaker Church nearby his home was still active. In addition, Mr. Ellis married Lydia Haines, the oldest daughter of Joseph Wingate Haines.

According to Ellis, the church was still active in 1894 when he wrote his book, and there were 35 members at that time. He indicated that some of the ministers there had been William P. Sampson, Sarah Partridge, and William Penn Varney. An article in Ellis’s newspaper, the Northern Leader, from August 4, 1898 talks about a tent meeting held at the Quaker church in Maple Grove with a good turn-out. It is clear from this article that Ellis attended this church because he wrote: “As our mind led back to the solemn and impressive meetings with Cyrus, Valenta, and Jonathan Estes in the front seats and Aunt Sarah Partridge in words of prayer and exhortation we were compelled to note the change…”

Ellis also tells his readers that William Sampson held the Quaker meetings in his home the first year the church was organized before the church building was built in 1863. He also reports that Sarah Partridge was the first preacher. He says that Joseph Wingate Haines, who came to the Maple Grove area of Fort Fairfield, arrived in 1847 with his wife, Mary Briggs Haines and their family of 12 children. 

Mr. Haines was a man of unusual wealth for his time, and he built a successful lumber mill and imported some of the first pure-breed Devon cattle into Aroostook County. His is also credited with being one of the primary movers and shakers getting the Northern Maine Fair started. Given that Caleb Ellis, a newspaperman and historian of Fort Fairfield, married Joseph and Mary Haines oldest daughter, and given Ellis’s outspokenness opposing slavery, one would expect that if the Haines family had been involved with secreting slaves across the border, even prior to the church being built, that Mr. Ellis would have mentioned that in his history – but there is not even a hint to indicate that might have been the case.

After the Haines family arrived, other Quaker families from their original home in Kennebec County began arriving about 1858 or ’59. Among these families was William Sampson, who seems to have been very active in organizing the Quaker Church in Fort Fairfield. Also, Thomas Partridge and his wife, Sarah, who was a Quaker preacher throughout her life, carrying on after her husband’s death. Other Quaker families that came to the Maple Grove area included those by the name of Estes, Nichols, and included William Penn Varney, who was also a Quaker minister.

As mentioned above, the first year the church was organized, and prior to building the actual church building, services were held in the home of William Sampson. The following year the services were held in the home of Valentine Estes, with the church building being built the following year in 1863.

The building today was significantly modified in 1906 according to the application for the National Register of Historic Places, with the addition of the infamous platform which was partially built from the wooden packing crate that housed the stained-glass window, which was also added at that time. In addition, the bell tower and vestry were added, along with the oak pews that can be seen today. The stained-glass window was dedicated as a memorial to William Penn Varney and his wife Lydia Cook Varney who were the ministers of the Quaker church for 30 years. While it is certain that those who installed and dedicated the stained-glass window had the very best of intentions, they failed to realize that Quakers would most definitely NOT have wanted something like that given their intentions to lead plain and simple lives.

church platform

According to an article in the Bangor Daily News from February 17, 2006, as taken from a pamphlet written about the Quaker Church in Fort Fairfield, “In 1858-1859, an assembly of Quakers, led by Mary Briggs and Joseph Wingate Haines, built the Friends Church in Fort Fairfield, Maine. (The original establishment of the Quaker settlement was in 1844). The Friends Church was the last stop on the Underground Railroad for many escaped slaves. Before slavery was abolished, slaves often stopped and hid in this church before going on to Canada. Quakers lived a simple life and believed that the slaves should be free. So the church was built on the Canadian border to help slaves escape to freedom. There is a platform at the front of the church that was built from the wooden box that a stained-glass window was shipped in. Slaves hid beneath the platform. Church members would put a carpet over the platform to hide the trap door that led to the space where the slaves were hidden. When it was dark and safe for slaves to travel, the possible route the slaves would take to Canada was to follow the Boundary Line Road, which led to the Sam Everett Road. They would arrive in the Munson Pond area and then cross Tomlinson Lake into New Brunswick…”

According to the authors of this article, the Quaker Church in Fort Fairfield was built for the PURPOSE of helping slaves escape to Canada. And, they were hidden beneath the platform in the church which was built from the wooden shipping crate of the stained-glass window.

As mentioned above, the church building wasn’t built until AFTER the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863; and the infamous platform where runaway slaves were supposedly hidden was not actually built until 1906 - well after the Emancipation Proclamation put an end to the Underground Railroad on January 1, 1863. Also, the material to build the platform was the wooden crate used to protect a stained-glass window that was also purchased and installed in the church in 1906, according to the application for the National Register of Historic Places for the church. This is also a good clue that the Quakers were no longer involved with the church in 1906 because, being people who believed in a simple and plain life, they would not have installed a stained-glass window.

Even though it is clear that the Quaker Church in Maple Grove in Fort Fairfield, Maine was not actually ever involved with the Underground Railroad; there is no doubt that there WERE places in Maine that were involved with the Underground Railroad, and in addition to other groups and individuals, there WAS Quaker involvement. And, there were Quakers who most likely attended the Quaker Church in Fort Fairfield, Francis and Algeline Winslow, for example [my Great-great grandparents], who DID have family ties to individuals who DID help with the Underground Railroad in the Portland and Windham, Maine area, as will be described below.

phebe pope

phebe pope's grave
old brick house located in the Popeville area

Although there are no other known first-hand accounts of particular slaves being assisted to freedom as part of the Underground Railroad in Maine, there is one. It’s a wonderful story about Phebe Pope, a Quaker minister, that was published in the Portland Evening Express on July 30, 1928. The author, Perdita Huston, described “Aunt Phebe” this way: “She is like a weather beaten tree, this Quaker preacher, whom every one loves as a symbol of goodness. Storms, hardships, poverty have only found her bending in the wind, never breaking from her upright position of a sincerely cheerful, understanding person who believes that a Christian’s life is the best life.”

Huston tells us: “Then came the dark days of the Civil War. Aunt Phebe tells us her grandfather’s (Nathan Oliver Pope) house was a station in the ‘Underground Railroad’ through which slaves escaped to Canada…. She (Aunt Phebe) remembers the last ‘passenger’ who came to the house, a boy about 16 years old, and frightened almost to death. He heard that his master was following him and had reached Portland. The kind Friends in Popeville [part of Windham] urged him to lie down and rest. He was reluctant but when they finally persuaded him, he insisted upon putting his ear to the bare floor that he might hear horse’s hoofs more quickly…. Plans were made that if his master came and found him, the factory bell would ring, the Windham Hill Church would take up the message and men for miles around would gather to confront the slave holder… The next night, under cover of darkness, Dr. Addison Parsons, carried the boy in his covered carriage to the next station. Where that was and who brought the boy to Popeville, and from what place, Aunt Phebe never knew.”

“Aunt Phebe” grew up in an area of Windham known as “Popeville” near the Friends Meeting house where my [Dena Winslow’s] ancestors gathered and worshiped. “Aunt Phebe’s” great-grandmother was Phebe Winslow, granddaughter of James Winslow who came to the Falmouth area in 1728. He built a mill and became active in community affairs. As a Quaker, he donated land for the first Quaker Church in Maine to be built, which no longer exists today but was located near today’s 29 Blackstrap Road. Along with the church, he also donated land for a burying ground, where it is believed he is interred, today located on privately held land. (From research done by Wayne Cobb for his 2019 book, Quakers in Early Falmouth and Portland, Maine 1740-1850, James Winslow and the Origins of the Portland Society of Friends).

“Aunt Phebe’s” great uncle was a direct ancestor of mine (Dena Winslow), making her a third cousin to my great-great grandfather, Francis Winslow, a Quaker from Windham who settled in Mapleton in the 1850’s. In the Friends Burial Ground in Windham, Phebe Pope is buried only a few places away from my great-great-great grandfather James Winslow. Phebe Pope’s grandfather’s house where the 16 year old young man was cared for as he made his escape to freedom, was just up the road from my ancestor James Winslow’s house. I feel certain that my family must have known this remarkable woman (Phebe Pope), and most probably knew about and even participated in helping slaves escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad that was going on in their neighborhood of Popeville in Windham.

That the Winslow family was involved in assisting individuals to freedom during the Underground Railroad days in the Falmouth area is also indicated by Siebert in his 1898 book, The Underground Railroad From Slavery to Freedom. He described Nathan Winslow’s involvement (Nathan was a first-cousin to my great-great grandfather Francis Winslow who came to Mapleton to settle from Windham in the 1850’s). Siebert explains: “Slaves sometimes reached Portland, Maine, traveling as stowaways on vessels from Southern ports. Consequently Portland became the center of several hidden routes to Canada (note: none of the routes described in the book by Siebert after his years of thorough research came north to Fort Fairfield). Mrs. S. T. Pickard, who lived in the family of Mrs. Oliver Dennett of Portland, says that Mrs. Dennett harbored runaway slaves, as did Nathan Winslow and General Samuel Fessenden.” 

Siebert goes on to explain, “…routes (Underground Railroad) extended from Portland to the Provinces (Canadian Provinces), by water to St. John, New Brunswick, and by rail to Montreal, Canada.” This statement is further evidence that most slaves going to New Brunswick went on board boats from the Portland area.

Nathan Winslow, referred to by Siebert, was born March 27, 1785 in Falmouth, now Westbrook, Maine. He was the owner of a stove factory and invented and manufactured a “Franklin-style” of stove that could be inserted into a fireplace. He was also a strong supporter of abolition, and he and his wife were the original financial backers for “ The Liberator,” an abolition newspaper. According to Holton in his 1888 books, Winslow Memorial: “His (Nathan’s) powers of invention were considered remarkable. He was also noted for both moral and physical courage. He was one of the earliest abolitionists in Portland, and for many years the most prominent abolition lecturers were entertained by him whenever they came to the city. His house was once surrounded by a mob on this account, when Stephen Foster took refuge there.”

There is one other slave narrative from Maine of a slave who escaped to freedom and settled in Lewiston, Maine. His story is worth sharing, although the Underground Railroad is not described in this case. However, it does show clearly that runaway slaves were taking themselves away from slavery without the aid of the “Conductors” so often described in the many present-day stories about the Underground Railroad. This particular story was told to Luther C. Bateman in 1921 and reported in an article he wrote titled, “Escape from Slavery Through the Dismal Swamp – the Experience of John Nichols, A Lewiston Citizen,” and was published on April 16, 1921 in the Lewiston Journal Illustrated Magazine.”

Luther Bateman has ties to Aroostook County due to being in the business of giving lectures on Phrenology, or the study of bumps on heads, and head shape, which was the beginning of our modern-day intelligence testing. In the mid-to late 1800’s Phrenology was believed to be a real science. Luther toured the country giving lectures on Phrenology and doing “head readings” for people. When he came to Presque Isle in the fall of 1873 on his lecture tour, he learned about the lynching of Jim Cullen, the only lynching in New England, and procured Jim Cullen’s skull for his lecture tours. He kept the skull in a glass case on his desk at the newspaper office long after Phrenology was debunked and he had given up his lecturing tours.[2]

In 1921 Luther interviewed former slave John Nichols about his escape to freedom, and published this story:

“How many of our people know that a former North Carolina slave is now living in Lewiston as one of its highly respected citizens? This is John H. Nichols of Central Avenue. Mr. Nichols made a wonderful escape in the early months of 1862 and crossed the entire Dismal Swamp without chart or compass, reaching the lines of the Union armies when but fourteen years of age. Born and reared a slave, he had an instinctive love of freedom and when yet but a child made his way through the horrors of the famous swamp immortalized by the genius of Tom Moore and reached a freedom of which he had hardly dared to hope.”

“The great body of southern slaves were made free by the Emancipation Proclamation of Abraham Lincoln and remained on the old plantation, but here was a young lad taking the most dangerous chances in a vast swamp of which he knew but little beyond the fact that it was as pathless as the sea, reeking with poisonous vipers and inhabited only by wild animals and venomous snakes. For nearly three days and nights he worked his way through the tangled underbrush, much of the time crawling on his hands and knees and listening to the hissing vipers that he disturbed. It is difficult at this distance of time to fully recognize what this meant. No wonder that he values the liberty that he gained by such a desperate adventure.”

“But what are we to think of the causes that led to such a condition of affairs? A so-called Christian nation dealing with human beings as with cattle and swine! And yet there are those around us today who believed and supported such an infamous system, and who are still obdurate in opposing every God given movement to benefit mankind! Thank God for such men as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips who dared to brave the storms of hatred in breaking down a system so vile and inhuman.”

“Mr. Nichols was born in Paspatance County, North Carolina, at the foot of the Dismal Swamp. His parents were slaves but his mother died while he was yet a child, while his father had been sold to another man and owned a plantation but a short distance away, and this was but another infamous feature of the system of slavery. Parents were separated from their children and from each other and sent where they could never again meet in fraternal and parental clasp. It was a terrible system and one upon which the curse of God was bound to descend.”

[2] Winslow, Dena L., They Lynched Jim Cullen, New England’s Only Lynching, 2000.

 

“It was a short time since that the writer visited Mr. Nichols in his home and heard, from his own lips, of his early life as a slave, a story that no romance could surpass.”

“’The Name of my master was Dempsey Richardson, and as a slave I took his name while I was on his plantation. That was the custom among the slaves. I had formerly been the property of his father, Ivory Richardson, but when he died all the slaves went to the son with the other property. I can remember back a few years before the war, but when father was sold I began to realize that slavery was the greatest curse on God’s earth. And yet my cause was not one of the hardest by any means as my master was really a kind man.’”

‘”Father was on a plantation but a mile or two away and I could see him now and then on Sunday or during the evening. Mother was dead and all the relatives I had were two uncles who were owned several miles away.’”

‘”I want to do my master full justice and I will say that he was reasonably kind to his slaves of whom he owned about thirty in all. The slave owners were much like the cattle owners here. Some were kind and others were cruel. The man who took care of his slaves got the most work out of them. You know there are men here who lick their cattle and horses but the horses do not do as much work and the cows do not give as much milk when they are beaten.’”

“’We did not raise cotton on our plantation. It was wheat, corn, and potatoes. I was too young to do the hardest work but was compelled to learn all kinds of work on the plantation. I was an active and willing boy and for that reason got but few whippings.’”

“’I was never whipped but once severely, and I have still got a scar on my side where the lash fell. The boss of the farm did it and used a hickory stick. They also used rawhide whips and these were even worse when laid on the bare flesh.’”

“’The slaves all lived in little cabins of two rooms each and were huddled closely together. We were compelled to work from sun to sun but had our evenings for amusement when not too tired. I used to hire out now and then to work evenings and got a little money in that way. Some of the older ones earned enough money in this way to buy their freedom when they grew older but these cases were rare. The average price of a slave was nearly $1,000, but this depended upon his strength and ability to work.’”

“’It was said that I was worth $600, as I was young. My master was offered that amount for me but refused to sell as I was a promising boy. It was something terrible to always be expecting to be sold and go farther south.’”

‘”In those days a slave had no way to learn what was going on as they could neither read nor write and only knew what was told them. About 1862 we found out that a war was going on between the North and the South but we did not know what it meant. We were told by the whites that the Yankees were coming to take us to Cuba to work on sugar plantations but we did not want to go there. Some of the white men did not believe this but they did not dare to tell us. A few of these whites did not believe in slavery but they had to keep still if they valued their lives.’”

“’After a time the war was known to everyone, but my master said they would whip the Yankees in a few weeks. Six months was the very longest it would take to do this. Of course we didn’t know but that he was telling us the truth.’”

“As it came to be understood that Northern armies were on the other side of the Dismal Swamp it was whispered around among the slaves that there was a chance to escape. The father of young Nichols was one of the men who planned the scheme to cross the big swamp. Of course all the plantations for miles around had slaves. Says Mr. Nichols:

“’I lived in a cabin just back of my master’s home and there were twelve or fifteen of these cabins in all. Father lived only a short distance away and he made it his way to see all the slaves in that vicinity. All were so anxious to escape that they kept the secret very closely. News came to us now and then of the great armies less than 50 miles away and that only gave us courage to make the attempt.’”

“’A colored man in the vicinity was familiar with the Dismal Swamp and he agreed to guide the party through for $300. This amount was raised among the Negroes who were in the scheme and paid over to the Negro guide. All kept quite until all the plans were made and the time had come to make the attempt.’”

“’It was a dark night, and we were assembled on the edge of the swamp. We were to start at midnight and follow a lumberman’s trail until the following morning. One by one the slaves silently left their cabins and by twelve o’clock nearly 300 men and women were ready for the plunge into the swamp but our guide was not there according to promise.’”

“’A hurried council was held among the men and it was decided that the guide had played us false. As father had planned the whole scheme and knew something about the swamp he was chosen the leader and he at once advised making the start without the guide to whom the money had been paid. If the colored guide had merely played false but kept his mouth shut we would have made the escape a success but at the last moment he had told my master and the alarm was at once sounded. All the white men in the vicinity gathered and arming themselves started on our track.’”

“’By the time the whites reached our starting point we had a start of several hours and were a long distance on our way. We were following an old canal that had been used to bring lumber out of the swamp and the first night was easy traveling. By morning the whites were up with us and then all was confusion. We were unarmed and the trail was growing worse. A parley was held and the slaves decided to return rather than be shot. A few of the boldest refused and plunged into the thicket. I was among them, and never did I run faster in my life.’”

“’As the whites had captured the greatest number they had no relish to follow us into the deep forest. In all, there were seven of us, and these were soon separated and I found myself alone. It was a terrible experience for a boy my age. All trace of a road was lost and I was compelled to crawl on my hands and knees in order to get through the tangled jungle.’”

‘”It was 30 miles across the Dismal Swamp but I had a little hoe cake that I had brought with me and this kept up my strength. At night I laid down to sleep and so exhausted was I that I actually did sleep a little. I could hear the hissing of snakes and the scream of the panther and perhaps you can judge of my feelings. Moccasin snakes and vipers were around me and I could hear them although it was too dark to see them. I saw a few wild cats but these kept shy of me.’”

“’Perhaps what terrified me more than all else was the fear of ghosts. The Negro slaves had been kept in ignorance and were very superstitious. They all believed in ghosts, good and bad, and I as a boy had been taught to believe in them. The first night in the darkness of that terrible swamp was something that I remember only with a shudder but cannot describe. In the morning I started on again as best I could.’”

“’I always had a keen sense of location and a knowledge of the sun and stars. I knew that the settlement of Deep Creek was ahead of me and if I could make the so-called shingle bridge on the way the rest would be easy. This was a bridge over which shingles were taken across a stream by the lumbermen. I had heard that Yankee soldiers were at Deep Creek and I had faith to believe that I could reach there before my strength failed.’”

“’It was an awful journey and if I had to live it over again I doubt if the trip would be made. I knew, however, that if caught I would be sent to Georgia to wear my life away, as the song goes. My father’s name was Jim Hinton, and being the name of his master, and I knew that he must be somewhere near me and that only added to my agony. As a matter of fact I never heard from him again and supposed that he must have perished in the Dismal Swamp. He was one of the seven who broke away from the whites after being captured in the swamp.’”

“’We were told that we would be taken to Georgia in great hay racks each drawn by four to six mules, and we made up our minds that we had rather die and it seemed like death to cross that Dismal Swamp. Father was a strongman and I was a child but God smiled on me! Our masters thought if they could get us to Georgia that we would be safe until after the Yankees were whipped.’”

“’I have always felt more bitter against that colored traitor than against our masters. They were after us the same as you would go after cattle if they broke out of the pasture, while this Negro guide was a slave himself, and yet didn’t want to see us escape after taking $300 to guide us to the foot of the shingle bridge. He promised faithfully to guide us to safety and then notified the whites when we started.’”

“’Well, I fear that I may tire you with this story, as I am tiring myself. I had slept a little, but the next night got no sleep at all. I was sort of delirious. I was constantly expecting bloodhounds on my track but fortunately these did not come.’”

“’The whites seemed to have no hounds with them and probably thought that as they had captured most of their property it was not worthwhile following the few who fled into the jungle.’”

“’I had got so accustomed to snakes that I had little fear of them. The moccasins were more dangerous than the rattlers but I was not attacked by any of them. The rattler never chases a person, and only strikes when you come near to him when coiled up. I would like to see all the snakes in the Dismal Swamp gathered in one spot big enough to hold them. It would be a wonderful sight, but I saw enough on that journey to last me through my life.’”

“’To make a long story short, much of my trip was traced by the old canal, and I knew that would bring me out somewhere in time. After nearly three days in the wilderness I came out near a settlement called Portsmouth [Virginia], and there found some Union pickets on guard.’”

“’One by one the other slaves came struggling in until there were six of us who had started on that fearful journey. The soldiers told us to go into the woods and build a fire and they would give us something to cook. After that we must report to the Provost Marshall. This we did and he gave us a permit to go on a boat to Harrison Landing. There we entered government service driving mules and doing other service work like handling ammunition.’”

“’That gave us two great advantages. It first gave us security from our former masters and it also gave us plenty to eat and better than we ever had in our old slave cabins. I remained in the service until the close of the war working between Portsmouth, Virginia, and Deep Creek, North Carolina. We were virtually right on the line of the two states and at times went as far as Culpepper Courthouse.’”

“’I told you that I thought father died in the swamp but there is some doubt about that. One of my uncles afterwards told me that father was in Norfolk and wanted to have me come to him, but I refused as I felt safer with the army.’”

“’I came to Maine at the close of the war with a party of colored men brought by Dr. Garcelon. He was in Lewiston at the time and was anxious to get a colored man and woman to work on his farm. Some of his friends also wanted to get colored men. These were Dr. Kilbourne and Dr. Oakes of Auburn, Dr. Martin and Dr. Bradford of Lewiston and Dr. Garcelon undertook to bring on several ex-slaves from the South.’”

“’This he did as he had the power to get them a free pass North. Garcelon was very kind to us when we reached Lewiston. He picked Bill Davis and his wife himself while I went to Colonel Ham and later Dr. Martin. It was a good thing for all of us to come to Lewiston, although I should like to go back to the old plantation once more before I die. I have an idea that I should see some of my old slave friends and it would be a wonderful meeting.’”

“’Yes! I should like to visit my old home once more. My master is now dead but no doubt other members of the family are still living and I should have a pride in showing myself to them as a man and not a slave. I do not know how they now feel about the system of slavery but I have no hard feelings towards them. They were brought up and educated to the system as something sacred and very sincere in their belief and willing to defend it with their blood. I would like to see the old plantation where I worked as a child, and would even like to go once more in the Dismal Swamp.’”

“’Here are two hickory canes from the very road that we started in when escaping. Ex-Mayor Frank Morey owns a farm near the spot and when he was last down there he went into the swamp and cut these canes for me. He brought them back home and presented them to me in person. You cannot realize how much I value them and how grateful I feel to Mr. Morey. There are but few men who would have been thoughtful enough to do such a thing. To me they are dearer than the finest ebony gold headed cane. Mr. Morey owns a fine plantation there and has been on the same place where I lived as a slave. His place is nearer to Norfolk than where I lived.’”

“Mr. Nichols married Miss Marguerite Brooks of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and to the couple thirteen children have been born. Of these but three are now living. Some died in early childhood and never realized the hardships of their father in slavery. There are six grandchildren and one of these, Elmer Russell, has been brought up by his grandparents. He is now eleven years of age, a student at Lewiston schools and a very bright boy.”

“For many years Mr. Nichols has earned a living doing housecleaning and other odd jobs for people, and has won the good opinion and friendship of all he has served. He is a man of strong religious feeling and a constant attendant of the United Baptist Church where he and his family are highly regarded members.”

“In speaking to the Journal he said: ‘I thank God that my children were all born in freedom. Of all the horrors of slavery the selling of children from their parents was the worst. My usage as a slave was heaven in comparison to what others endured. I have witnessed scenes so pathetic that they would move the heart of a stone. And yet when a child is torn away from its mother she never dared to show her grief. Do you wonder that I love the North with its glorious air of freedom? I can never be too thankful that I was brought to Lewiston by Dr. Garcelon. He was a noble man and I revere his memory.’”

“And who could believe that but a half century ago there were men here in Maine who would have consigned John H. Nichols to perpetual slavery? Truly, truth is stranger than fiction!”

 

While there are the few and very rare references to actual individuals assisting with the Underground Railroad, a lot of mythology has grown up about the phenomenon. That seems to be a natural human trait when there is very little known about something, to “fill in the blanks” with speculation… and over time, that speculation becomes “reality” and part of the story that is told. One Quaker author, Christopher Densmore, Curator of the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College has written an article titled, “Quakers and the Underground Railroad: Myths and Realities.” In this very thoroughly researched article, Densmore identifies a number of myths pertaining to the Underground Railroad. He points out that although there was strong opposition to slavery among Quaker people, they also accepted that “Harboring a ‘fugitive from labor’ [slave] was a violation of both the United States Constitution and the Federal law. It wasn’t just illegal; it was subversive, even treasonous.” For this reason, many Quakers did not get involved. However, they also did not turn away from their homes anyone who was asking for assistance.

Another important thing that Densmore points out is that although Quakers of the 18th and 19th century were opposed to slavery, they were also aware that some Quakers had also been slaveholders in the past. However, the larger mythical narrative of the Underground Railroad has become centered upon the myth that every Quaker house “must have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.” This was simply not true.

Densmore also points out, “Somehow the emphasis shifted from the story of the enslaved seeking their own freedom, largely and often exclusively without assistance from an Underground Railroad, to stories of how white people, often Quakers, aided fugitive slaves. By the mid twentieth century, the Underground Railroad story was often told as if the only actors were white, and the freedom seekers themselves were passed from safe house to safe house like so much cargo.” He goes on to say, “One must be suspicious of ‘feel good history.” 

Other authors have also referred to this as a “white savior narrative, using the past to make themselves feel better.” [Dr. Mary T. Freeman, author of “Abolition and the Underground Railroad in Maine: Memory, Myth, and History,” February 24, 2021 presentation to the Pembroke Historical Society]. Dr. Freeman also pointed out that it is a myth that the Underground Railroad was well-organized and wide-spread in Maine. However, there was some scarce support from the Free Black community, as well as a handful of abolitionists in Maine. She also talked about the myth of the tunnel in Brewer, Maine and said that, although there was a tunnel found in Brewer, it was not actually an Underground Railroad tunnel. She added, “This is more about our creation of the useable past we want to believe in. This provides a somewhat positive side of what we want to portray – and it provides admiration for white people who helped the unidentified Blacks.”

Densmore provides insights into other popular myths connected with the Underground Railroad, “The popular mythology of the Underground Railroad is filled with stories of tunnels, secret hiding places, quilts, and lawn jockeys. Let me be clear on this – there is virtually no evidence for any of these elements in the historical record. We have numerous narratives of the self-emancipated and their helpers, and no one actually connected with the Underground Railroad ever mentioned tunnels, quilts (as signals) or cast iron statues. Specifically built secret hiding places were so rare as to be almost non-existent. It was much easier to hide people if secrecy was necessary, in the attic, spring house, the barn or the field than build a secret hidey hole.”

 

As many authors have pointed out, SOME Quakers did participate in the loosely organized Underground Railroad involving Black slaves who were taking themselves to freedom; and some Quakers did make important contributions to this cause. And, if an escaping slave, or anyone else for that matter, did happen to come to a Quaker door for assistance, it would have been provided, or the person would have been told where they could go to get that assistance. However, the myth that all Quakers, and every Quaker household was a stop on the Underground Railroad does not reflect the reality of the situation. Research by Dr. Freeman indicates that most Black people were freeing themselves from slavery – IF they made it as far north as Maine – which many did not, (and large numbers also went south to freedom), the sea was the major escape route. In southern Maine, Black people could find passage on ships to freedom in Saint John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. They were also given passage on railroads going to Montreal, Quebec from Portland.

Our creation of these myths about the Underground Railroad, and in particular the Quaker church in Fort Fairfield being the “last stop on the Underground Railroad,” are more about creating a past we want to believe in, than they are about the reality of what actually happened.