One Central New York man has his name woven through much of the history of the abolitionist movement…though many might not know him, or much about him. In this installment of our Black History Month series C-N-Y: Unknown Underground we’ll visit Peterboro to learn a little more about Gerrit Smith. Many of the anti-slavery activities and prominent figures in local history benefited greatly from his support.
If you drive into Peterboro, New York, you must have been coming here, or you’re lost. The small Madison County hamlet 7 or 8 miles east of Cazenovia, north or Route 20. It’s surrounded by farms and gently rolling hills…and not much else. Once here, driving along the Village Green, it's not hard to find the Gerrit Smith estate. Norman Dann knows the place pretty well…he lives a short stone’s throw from the visitor center.
“(touring the property) To our left is the stable barn, which was never a dairy bar. That’s an important distinction to make because Gerrit Smith’s grandson imported the first holstein cattle into the united states from Holland in 1869. And people get confused that this is where the farm was.”
Dann is pretty well versed in the life of Gerrit Smith and the connections he has to the abolitionist movement from writing a biography and giving speeches and tours of the property.
“This stable barn was very important in the Underground Railroad as the home of the transportation that took the runaway slaves north,. Hundreds of them came through here.”
And more than offering safe haven and assistance on his property, Smith was an active participant in Underground Railroad missions.
“Sometimes he actually went with them from here to Oswego. He had an agent in Oswego that was employed by him because of his business up there and he was also an abolitionist. He took them from here to there and if it was dangerous times with slave owners or bounty hunters on their trail, he would go with them to protect.”
But his most significant contribution to the history of freeing slaves was through sharing – or more accurately giving away – much of his vast fortune to the cause. Smith, following from his father, owned and sold land all over the state, amassing great wealth and prominence. Peter Smith…is where the name Peterboro comes from … he found the hamlet. Norman Dann says Peter was anything but a philanthropist…but son Gerrit was drawn to helping those on the front lines of fighting slavery.
“He funded Frederick Douglass and his Journalistic efforts. Douglass ran probably the most influential abolitionist newspaper within especially the black community. He would not have been able to do what he did without Smith’s money. Smith gave him $100 a month. Doesn’t sound like a heck of a lot of money today; you could spend that much at dinner. But it was equivalent to about $7000 a month in today’s money that he was giving Douglass to publish a newspaper.”
And that kind of help was more than monetary
“He funded Harriet Tubman and her efforts to take people North. She came through Peterboro, we know, several times. There’s documentation of her sitting here in the Land office with 7 former slaves with her that she had just gone to get and was bringing through.”
Dann – through his research, writing and speaking -- has never really landed on an explanation why Smith became so altruistic after inheriting the extensive estate.
“He didn’t want the money. He wouldn’t even let his family have the money. He said, ‘the money is here for me to do what it is that I do want to do, and that is help people who are in some way oppressed’ And of course slaves, women, poor people, sick people…whoever needed the money got it. And he gave away during his lifetime over a billion dollars in our terms of dollars.”
Dann notes Smith saw slaves growing up – they worked on some of the buildings of the estate. But he reasons some people are just hard-wired to help others. The help to the underground railroad activities, financing so many abolitionist activities, and speaking and hosting meetings was only part of it. Smith went even further. At the time in the 1840s a white man needed 100 dollars worth of property to vote…a black man? Needed 250 dollars worth…of course women wouldn’t get the right to vote for more than 70 years. A constitutional convention in the 1840s took on the property clause…and Dann says Smith did his best to bridge the gap.
“One of the efforts of the abolitionists was to eliminate that property qualification or at least make it equitable. Well they didn’t. And he said, ‘alright, if that’s the way you want to be, I’ll give them the land.’ And that was his effort. Although it never resulted in a huge number of new voters, the noble piece of philanthropy is worth noting that there was someone who really thought that black lives matter.”
SYRACUSE SLAVE ESCAPE & RESCUE DREW NATIONAL ATTENTION
One story with a Syracuse connection spoke to Smith’s connections and maybe his guile. Harriet Powell, a slave, was visiting Syracuse with the family of John Davenport from Mississippi. She was only a quarter black, so very light skinned, described as very beautiful. She became known as the Fair Fugitive after she escaped from the family with the help of people in a Syracuse Hotel. Onondaga Historical Association Executive Director Gregg Tripoli picks up the story after Harriet was taken to numerous safe houses, pursuers hot on her trail.
“She was moved to Gerrit Smith’s mansion in Peterboro. He has arranged for her to be taken to Kingston, Ontario. And for her to be met there and taken care of.”
Tripoli notes two very interesting things happened at Smith’s house
Gregg Tripoli Story. While she was being hidden, Harriet made a very interesting intersecting with another major part of history.
“One is that she met Gerrit’s cousin, who was named Elizabeth Cady, soon to become Elizabeth Cady-Stanton, one of the most famous women’s rights activists and civil rights activists in history. Two women from very different backgrounds. Gerrit Smith’s instructions to Harriet was to make a good abolitionist out of his cousin Elizabeth Cady and to tell her story of slavery. Elizabeth Cady, for the rest of her life, marked that discussion with Harriet as the moment she became an abolitionist.”
Tripoli says Elizabeth Cady-Stanton and others might have actually put women’s rights on hold a bit while abolition was being pursued. On the very day Harriet left the Smith estate to be smuggled toward freedom, Tripoli says her owner and federal Marshalls showed up.
“Gerrit, of course, knowing the longer he could keep all of them there, the greater chance Harriet had to be able to put some distance between her and her pursuers. And so he was very hospitable, at which pint they laid out this feast that would take literally hours to consume. (Davenport) was very impressed with the grandeur of the house and the hospitality of this man, so he stayed and had dinner.”
And not only did Harriet Powell successfully escape to Canada, but Gerrit Smith subsequently penned an open letter to Davenport informing him of the welfare of Powell – who, he noted, was gaining her freedom as the two of them dined.
SMITH HELD TRUE TO HIS VIEWS AND ACTIONS DEMANDING LITTLE CREDIT
Smith would go on to serve in Congress and even run for president – espousing his abolitionist views. His Biographer Norman Dann says those views did not always make him friends.
“He wasn’t liked by everybody. He had his enemies. He was a temperance man and of course people who weren’t interested in that may not have liked him. It was not popular to be an abolitionist in the North in the 1830s, ‘40s, ‘50s. The North was very dependent on the economy of slavery.”
New York had only voted to end slavery here in 1827.
Despite Smith’s contributions to abolition, both monetarily and otherwise, Dann finds at least one reason his role isn’t more well-known.
“Many people don’t know about Gerrit Smith because that’s the way he wanted it. He wanted to be in the background. He didn’t want accolades and praise for what he was doing with his money and his power. He wanted it to happen and he wanted slavery to end, and he was very influential in that, but he wasn’t looking for praise for it.”
Peterboro is home to Gerrit Smith’s estate as well as the National Abolitionist Hall of Fame and Museum right down the road…but that might someday change.
“The Smith residence, the mansion house, stood right here beside the land office. It was a very large 2 ½ to 3 story building that burned in 1936. One of our big dreams here is to rebuild that mansion and put the National Abolition Hall of Fame in it.”
Dann says people visit Peterboro to do research at the Smith estate and the hall of fame…there are also tourist trips during summers that draw bigger crowds. This August will once again be Emancipation Day…fitting because it was Gerrit Smith who bought the emancipation proclamation and donated it to the state for display.