Underground Railroad Project: Debate

Funded by the Vermont Humanities Council. The following materials were compiled in 1997. 

Historians disagree about many aspects of the Underground Railroad. This is because there is very little evidence that tells us who might have escaped from the south, who helped care for the fugitives, how the fugitives were helped, where (or if) they were hidden, or what their routes were.

The most common form of evidence about the Underground Railroad comes in the form of oral history--tales that have been handed down through the generations. Many stories about fugitives fleeing through Vermont have been passed down through the generations. Sometimes these stories are true and sometimes they are not. It is the historian’s job to figure out which stories are true and which ones are not and to verify the stories with historical evidence.

Read the following newspaper articles from 1996 and see if you can figure out what it is that the historians are disagreeing about. List the evidence that they use to form their conclusions.

First read “A New Light on Slavery’s Past” by Jane Williamson. She is the Director of Rokeby Museum, former home of Rowland T. Robinson an abolitionist. She has an interpretation of the Underground Railroad that differs from Paul Dumais.

  • What is the primary evidence that was found at Rokeby Museum?
  • Who was Rowland T. Robinson?
  • What did the fugitives do while they were at Rokeby?
  • What does this evidence suggest about the safety of fugitives in Vermont?
  • What did the Robinsons offer the fugitives?

In his article "Underground Railroad, Out from the Time Tunnel," Paul Dumais disagrees with Jane Williamson.

  • What is Paul Dumais disagreeing about?
  • What evidence does Mr. Dumais use to form his conclusions about the safety of fugitives?
  • Why does Paul Dumais feel that the date of the three letters is important?

Finally, see Thomas Bassett's letter to the Burlington Free Press.

  • Why did he write this letter and which historian does he support?· What are your conclusions?
  • What does "out of context" mean?
  • What was the letter by the Rev. Prindle really about?
  • What does Thomas Bassett think about the safety of the fugitive slaves in Vermont?
  • What are your conclusions about the safety of fugitive slaves in Vermont?  Do you think they needed to be hidden in dark cellars and secret rooms?  What circumstances might make the fugitives more or less safe?

Find us on Instagram