Historians don’t know much about who participated in the Underground Railroad in Vermont. It was a secret, often illegal system which means that there is little evidence surviving to tell their stories.
The activists who participated in the Underground Railroad were Quakers, other ministers, reformists, and members of all the political parties. By trade they were printers, farmers, lawyers, teamsters and businessmen--there was even a Vermont Secretary of State. Free blacks, such as steamboat cook Tony Anthony, were also involved in the Underground Railroad.
Often, entire families helped. There is a story that fugitives slept on the floor of the Higley House, now the Castleton Historical Society, while the Higley women prepared food for them. Young Henry Hicks of Bennington grumbled at his father’s order to take a fugitive family by wagon to Shaftsbury because he had already made the trip once that week.
It seems that the fugitives escaping through Vermont were most often male and between the ages of fifteen and thirty. There is evidence of a few women traveling alone and a few families traveling together. Most of the fugitives escaped from the upper slave states. Some traveled by water from the deep south to ports such as Boston. Most came nearly destitute “like the Terrapin (turtle),” as one fugitive said, “with only what they had on their backs.”
Delia Webster, born in 1818, was a school teacher from Vergennes. She began teaching by taking charge of younger pupils at her school when she was twelve years old. She attended Oberlin College in Ohio--a college with many abolitionists. In 1842, Delia moved to Lexington, Kentucky (a slave state), where she ran a ladies’ seminary. On September 28, 1844 she helped fugitives Lewis Hayden and his family escape slavery by taking them by carriage to Ohio. While on her return to Lexington, she was mobbed and arrested. She received a pardon and returned to Vermont, where she continued to be active in abolition activities. Lewis Hayden and his family visited Webster at her fmaily home in Vergennes and settled in Boston. Hayden became an important leader in the abolition movement: he helped to free Shadrach from the Boston Courthouse and worked with John Brown on his plan to attack Harper’s Ferry.
Loudon S. Langley was a free black Vermonter who lived in Hinesburg in the 1850s. He was passionately engaged in abolition and sheltered at least one fugitive in 1855. With the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Langley joined the 54th Massachusetts (black) infantry and served until the Confederate surrender.
Joe, a North Carolina fugitive, was about twenty-three years old when he stowed away on a ship north-bound out of Wilmington in 1858. He hid for six days before the ship sailed, living on a little cracker and cheese. He was discovered as the ship neared the New England coast. The captain beat Joe and then went ashore to contact customs authorities. Joe jumped overboard and swam ashore, only to be captured. Local abolitionists arrived and asked Joe if he wanted to be freed. A crowd faced down the customs oficials and Joe passed along the Underground Railroad from Worcester, Massachusetts, to Montpelier, Vermont, and finally to Canada.
Colonel Jonathan P. Miller sheltered fugitive slaves at his house in Montpelier. He was a legislator and lawyer. His daughter, Mrs. Abijiah Keith recalled that stage coach drivers frequently brought fugitives to the house. Colonel Miller was also involved in the mobbing of abolition lecturer Reverend Samuel May in 1836. He faced down an angry pro-slavery crowd at the Montpelier State House, protecting May and helping to escort him to safety.