The History of the Underground Railroad through Newburyport

Broad tracks for the Underground RailroadSince Newburyport was an integral part of the Triangle Trade, merchants felt their livelihood threatened by the anti-slavery movement.      The ‘Trade’ involved purchasing slaves in West Africa often from other black tribes.   The slaves would be brought to the American South, sold and the ships would load up with molasses and cotton; the molasses for the rum refineries in Newburyport and the cotton for the mills.  Any action that would endanger this trade was deeply frowned upon.  John Greenleaf Whittier was unwelcome in the City and William Lloyd Garrison had to flee or face imprisonment. The Slave Extradition Act of 1850 increased the danger.   According to the Constitution of the United States, any runaway slave regardless of where captured was required to be returned to his owner.  Anyone caught aiding and abetting a runaway slave could be imprisoned.   Before 1850, even though the Constitution made it clear that any runaway slave must be returned to his master, Massachusetts at large had a growing population of slaves numbering as much as 6,000 who ended up feeling secure enough to dwell here.     But after 1850, a huge population fled to Canada ending up in St. Catherine’s where support groups would clothe, feed and educate and in some cases train in an occupation.

Map of Railroad route through RegionTo get there, Newburyport was a major stopping point for the Underground Railroad.    It had a growing number of abolitionists that matched an equal number in Amesbury.     It was a major port for intercostal traffic in particular, transport to Canada usually via Prince Edward Island though for some reason rarely used.     There was also great danger at this particular location due to the aforementioned Triangle Trade and the presence of bounty hunters.     Because the Merrimack River was in affect a bottleneck on the railroad and they had general sympathy for their efforts; these professional hunters used Newburyport as a major headquarters north of Boston.

Tension further increased as the U.S. banned the importation of new slaves.     The Coast Guard found a new role in slave trading interdiction which caused increased tension since some ship captains from Newburyport were still smuggling from Africa.    William Lloyd Garrison was imprisoned when he accused a prominent captain of doing just such a thing.      The Captain protested and accused Mr. Garrison of slander.     The Abolitionist was imprisoned due to lack of evidence against the Captain.     Only later facts came out that the accusations were actually true!

Capt. Alexander Graves, a Mr. William Jackman and Richard Plumer were all active on the Underground Railroad in Newburyport. The Plumer house had a barn in the rear (no longer in existence) where fugitives were hidden. Richard Plumer HousePlumer’s young son Wendell Phillips Plumer would ride in the wagon at night when his father drove to the south end of town to meet escapees brought from Ipswich by the bridge over the Parker River. Fugitives were hidden among the grain and driven though the town to Mr. Jackman’s house near the Chain Bridge, and Jackman took them to Amesbury or as far as Lee, New Hampshire. Sometimes, Mr. Plumer would cross the Merrimack and take the fugitives directly to Amesbury, delivering them to John Greenleaf Whittier or his agent.

Coffin HouseMr. Plumer also owned the Coffin House just over the border in Newbury.    Sometimes if he felt the house was being watched, he would drop off his ‘cargo’ at the Coffin House until he felt it was safe enough to hand them off to Mr. Jackman.    Since using regular paths was a sure way to be caught, often the passengers after being loaded at the Parker Bridge would be transported to the Turkey Hill Farm homestead overlooking the Artichoke.     At one junction, he had a carriage full of runaways while traveling to the farm.      Bounty hunters were bearing down on the carriage and he instructed all the passengers to flea into a corn field and then to make their way to Turkey Hill.      Fortunately, not one was captured and all made it to the farm safely.Turkey Hill Farm - Underground Railroad Station

Capt. Alexander Graves was a mariner and commanded during his career, ships “Castilian”, “Kenmore”, and “Tennyson”. He was admitted to the Marine Society of Newburyport 25 Nov. 1847.     Tracy’s and Bartlett’s Wharves were often the disembarking point for slaves.      A few runs would be made to remote Prince Edward Island but there was not an elaborate support network like the inland route.     More often, Captain Graves would smuggle slaves in on his north-bound journeys from southern ports.

Rumors were made that Newburyport’s smuggler tunnels were used in the Underground Railroad but there is no anecdotal history that supports this statement.  There are three main tunnels that we know of today: one under Market Street, One near State Street and one on Federal Street.

Sea Captains and merchants, angered by high taxes, often smuggled goods through these secret tunnels. The exact origin is unknown but their expansion hastened after the Embargo Act of 1807 when trade with England was banned and during the War of 1812 when most of Newburyport’s merchants were against the War effort.   The tunnels would run up to businesses that were often unsympathetic to the abolitionist movement and so their usage for slave fugitives was discouraged.

The Underground Railroad was actually quite a complex human undertaking; it’s need and it’s developing infrastructure is quite a fascinating subject in itself.      The homegrown cottage industry of bounty hunters, seeking runaway slaves across the Northern States is, in itself, a strange but horrible reality before the Civil War and alien to our understanding.       Listed below, with more local references; are some excellent books to consult on the entire story of the Underground Railroad.     It is well-worth the read.

-P. Preservationist


The Underground Railroad in Massachusetts, By Wilbur Henry Siebert, American Antiquarian Society, 1936, The Davis Press, Inc. Worcester, MA (Available via Googlebooks)

The Newburyport Black Heritage Trail, Rosemarie Greene & Jane M. Uscilka, 2002. Only available through the Newburyport Public Library Archive Room.

Abolitionists and the Underground Railroad in Essex County (Poets, Shoemakers, and Freedom Seekers),

Newburyport and the Civil War, William Hallet, The History Press, Newburyport, MA   2012

A Reference Guide: The Underground Railroad, by Kerry Walters, ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2012 (Available as an ebook)

The Underground Railroad: A record of facts, authentic narratives, letters, and correspondence, narrating the hardships, hair-breath escapes and death struggles of the slaves in their efforts for freedom as related by themselves and others, or witnessed by the author.   By William Still, The Library of Alexandria, reprint 2013. (Available through Google Books)

Separate references to slavery itself:

Slavery in us, a descendant of Early Settlers and the connection with Newburyport, by Susan M. Harvey, June 2011.

The Economics of Slavery, by Dyke Hendrickson, The Newburyport 250th Anniversary Book, Page 5.

Slavery.   It’s Origins, Influence & Destiny, by Theophilus Parsons, Boston, 1863.

Slaves and their Slave Owners in Newburyport, Newburyport Public Library Archive Room.


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4 Responses to The History of the Underground Railroad through Newburyport

  1. Nice story. Richard plume is my relative.  Kathy 

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

    From:”Brick and Tree” Date:Sun, Aug 23, 2015 at 8:04 AM Subject:[New post] The History of the Underground Railroad through Newburyport

    indyjerry77 posted: “Since Newburyport was an integral part of the Triangle Trade, merchants felt their livelihood threatened by the anti-slavery movement.      The ‘Trade’ involved purchasing slaves in West Africa often from other black tribes.   The slaves would be brought “

  2. indyjerry77 says:

    I forgot to add the particular danger that Captain Graves was under in his illicit trade in slaves. There was no real profit in transporting them; and the danger to his own well-being was extreme. Some Captains were caught by the South transporting runaway slaves and the punishment was severe. They would be imprisoned for a period, heavily fined; and the backs of their hands would be branded with “S.S.” (Slave Stealer). They would, in all likelihood, cease to be captains as the message would be sent out that that mariner would be no longer welcome in any southern ports – guaranteeing loss of income for the owners of the ships. He and others like him should be honored for the risks they took in this most worthy of endeavor.

  3. YEAT-boy says:

    One correction, PP. the case against Garrison was much more nuanced. The captain of the ship, Newburyport’s Nicholas Brown, testified under oath at the trial that he transported slaves, contradicting the owner (Newburyport’s Francis Todd). But under Maryland law ( which I suspect was stretched in favor of slave owners), you could get convicted of Libel, even if the facts you used are true! And so Garrison was….. The court documents are here:

    BTW. 100 State (next to the library lot) was Mr. Todd’s mansion I believe…

    • indyjerry77 says:

      Thanks for that great correction. I was intrigued when I saw the Garrison play at the Central Congregation and they indicated that clear evidence of slave transport had been provided.

      That explains a lot. Recently they cited an obscure law in Mass that you can be arrested for dishonoring a politician!

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