When Vermont’s Constitution was ratified in 1777, the state became the first to prohibit slavery, stating, “all subjects of the commonwealth, of whatever color, are equally entitled to the inestimable blessings of freedom...” However, from the 1770s to the 1800s instances of slavery can be found in Vermont’s records. In 1802 the town of Windsor refused to support an elderly black woman named Dinah. The town officials felt that her original owner, Stephen Jacob, should have provided for her in her old age. Jacob’s lawyer argued that people in town had enticed Dinah away from him years earlier “by siren songs of liberty and equality.” In 1806 Middlebury Judge Theosophilus Harrington refused to return a slave to the owner without “a bill of sale from God Almighty.”
Fugitives from nearby states took advantage of Vermont’s anti-slavery laws. In 1816, Pompey Vanderburgh escaped from New York to Vermont. Separated from his parents at an early age, he was sold many times. He finally ran away after hearing that he was to be traded for a “mouse colored horse.” He was helped by a stage driver and hidden in the Old Weeks tavern near Bennington. Vanderburgh settled in Bennington, married, and raised nine sons.
In 1834 slavery was abolished in Great Britain. As a result, Canada became a place of refuge for fugitive slaves. There, they could find safety and security. In increasing numbers, fugitives from the upper South traveled north. Some, passing north from Boston, New York City and Albany, traveled through Vermont on their way to safety in Canada. But not all of these fugitives ended up in Canada. Many fugitives settled in Vermont or stayed in Vermont for long periods of time as they gathered their strength, money, and other resources for beginning a new life.
Vermonters helped these fugitives by passing them from household to household. Some of the household members knew each other because they were from the same family. Some belonged to the same church, and others knew each other through their political activities.
Among the activists (those who helped the fugitives) were Oliver Johnson of Peacham, Rowland T. Robinson of Ferrisburgh, Charles Hicks of Shaftsbury, and Stephen F. Stevens of East Montpelier. These men, and their families, did not simply pass the fugitives along after one night’s lodging. Often they had the fugitives stay on their farms to work for wages. These wages were important for the fugitives--they would need money to begin their new lives. Some fugitives also needed to learn a trade or go to school so that they would be able to find work. In 1838 Secretary of State Chauncy L. Knapp drove from Montpelier to Ferrisburgh to pick up a fugitive named Charles. He wanted to help Charles finish his schooling and learn the printing trade. All of this evidence suggests that activists sheltered, rather than hid, fugitives.
By the 1840s, more fugitives traveled through Vermont. Historians know this because they have found newspaper articles describing stories of escape. During this time there were several abolitionist newspapers in Vermont. They told stories of fugitives as part of their “propaganda war” against slavery. By telling such stories, the newspapers were able to demonstrate that slaves wished to be free and they they were smart enough to choose how they wanted to live. The stories also showed that southern slave owners were guilty of violence.
In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act. This act increased the penalties for helping fugitives. Vermont abolitionists, many of whom were newspapermen or ministers, condemned the Act. Reverends Cyrus Prindle of Shelburne and Kiah Bailey of Hardwick preached against it. Even Vermont’s legislature was against the Act. They passed laws that made it very difficult for anyone to capture a fugitive and return him or her to a slave master. Others broke the law by capturing fugitives from slave catchers. In 1851, a fugitive named Shadrach was arrested in Boston by U.S. Marshals. Louis Hayden, a fugitive himself, and about 100 other black men freed Shadrach from jail. He was taken, hidden in a wagon, through Cambridge, Concord and Leominster, Massachusetts. He was then passed north to Vermont and finally to Montreal.
Throughout the 1850s and through the Civil War, Vermonters continued to help fugitives begin new lives both in Vermont and on the battlefield. It is said that Thorton Jackson Kenny, born a slave in Virginia, made friends with Vermont soldier John Powers. He stayed in the camp with Powers and met many other Vermonters. Eventually Kenney moved to Vermont where he settled, married, and farmed. After the war, as many as twenty thousand fugitives returned from Canada. Some went far south, searching for loved ones.