The Road to Freedom | Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine | December 2020 | www.scene4.com

The Road to Freedom
The Underground Railroad in Brunswick, Maine

Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold

Federal Street stands at the heart of the small New England hamlet of Brunswick, Maine.  Its five blocks run north from Bowdoin College to the banks of the Androscoggin River. Lined with elegant 19th century homes, it has a quiet, stately air that seems to shroud its long history and the secrets of that history in respectful silence.  Midway up the street stands the home of Harriet Beecher Stowe – a landmark to literary and Abolitionist history.  But beneath the now paved street there remain vestiges of another, less visible story – tunnels in the Underground Railroad.


Stowe House

Brunswick formed an important link in this clandestine escape route, secreting and transporting enslaved men and women fleeing their southern masters to freedom in Canada. Arriving by foot or by sea with the help of sympathetic sea captains, the slaves found refuge in Portland, notably at the Abyssinian Church, and worked their way north to Brunswick and Topsham before traveling up the coast and into Canada's Maritimes or heading inland toward Quebec. Several notable houses on the route remain marked and preserved today, as do the ruins of the subterranean tunnels, built wide enough to allow the passage of horse and buggy, which ran between several of the safehouses in Brunswick and across the Androscoggin River in Topsham. "Conductors" and their charges could identify a safehouse by the quilts hung from the porches of these homes.

Among the most prominent and documented of these Brunswick safehouses are the home of Harriet Beecher and Calvin Stowe at 63 Federal Street and the house that is now designated the John Brown Russwurm African American Center at 255 Maine Street. Both these properties belong to Bowdoin College, which, together with First Parish Congregational Church that stands just outside the campus gates, provided staunch support to the Abolitionist cause. The church regularly invited preachers like Henry Ward Beecher and Calvin Stowe to speak, and its minister from 1859-1870, John Calvin Kimball, was an outspoken Abolitionist.  Across the river in Topsham the route continued with 4 Green Street and the Veazie House at 41 Main Street< also connected by tunnels to the river.


Russwurm House

Other markers commemorating the Midcoast's antislavery history can be found in the small burying grounds that dot the landscape. Among these gravestones were those of Francis & Mahitable Heuston, who used their home as a safehouse and who conducted runaway slaves by ship toward freedom.  Founders of the Bath Vigilance Society.  Both Heustons were free African-Americans – Mahitable born free in Maine and Francis likely into slavery in Nantucket, though his journey to freedman status is unknown.

The Stowes figure prominently in Brunswick's Abolitionist history.  There is a well-documented story of Harriet Beecher Stowe opening their Federal Street home  in 1850, shortly after the passage of The Fugitive Act, to John Andrew Jackson in his flight from South Carolina.  Jackson described the encounter in his 1862 memoir:

    Just as I was beginning to be settled at Salem, that most atrocious of all laws, the "Fugitive Slave Law," was passed, and I was compelled to flee in disguise from a comfortable home, a comfortable situation, and good wages, to take refuge in Canada. I may mention, that during my flight from Salem to Canada, I met with a very sincere friend and helper, who gave me a refuge during the night, and set me on my way. Her name was Mrs. Beecher Stowe. She took me in and fed me, and gave me some clothes and five dollars. She also inspected my back, which is covered with scars which I shall carry with me to the grave. She listened with great interest to my story, and sympathized with me when I told her how long I had been parted from my wife Louisa and my daughter Jenny, and perhaps, forever. I was obliged to proceed, however, and finally arrived in safety at St. John's, where I met my present wife.

Not long after in 1850 as Harriet Beecher Stowe sat in her family pew at First Parish Church one Sunday morning, she experienced what she later described as a vision of a black man dying after being brutally beaten by his Southern master.  The epiphany, as Stowe later recounted,  took place during a communion service not long after John Andrew Jackson passed through her home.


John Brown Russwurm, the namesake of another Brunswick safehouse, was the first black graduate of Bowdoin College, earning a degree in 1826. The son of a white planter from Jamaica and a black slave, he was orphaned and raised by his father's second wife, who sent him to be educated in Quebec, later at Hebron Academy, and finally at Bowdoin.  After graduation he became the junior editor of The Freedom Journal, the first newspaper in the United States owned, operated, published, and edited by African- Americans. Russwurm emigrated to Liberia. The house itself  was sold to Professor William Smyth in 1836; Smyth was an avid Abolitionist who used the home to shelter numerous runaway slaves in the 1850s.

Over the years, Brunswick possessed a notable free black community, among whom besides Russwurm, names such as Oliver Otis Howard, class of 1850, a Civil War general, founder of the Freedman's Bureau and later of Howard University, John Van S. de Grasse, Thomas J. White, and Benjamin Boseman, among the first African-Americans graduated from medical school who went on to serve in key roles in the Civil War.


1st Parish

How this small New England town came to figure so prominently in the anti-slavery movement is  explained a bit by a look at Brunswick's geography and the context of its history.  The town lies on the Maine coast 26  miles north of Portland, 427 miles from New Brunswick, Canada, or heading west 209  miles from Quebec Province. In the 19th century, much of this distance was rural, sparsely populated, making travel and detection less hazardous.  Moreover the sea often proved an avenue of escape when sympathetic captains lent their vessels directly from Portland or from Brunswick, Bath, and other seafaring towns along the coast.

Then, in addition to a friendly geography, there was an intellectual and spiritual climate of independence, free-thinking, and humanitarian concern, particular to New England.  Part of this spirit is simply indigenous to the region and to Mainers, in general, but the strong roots of liberal Congregationalism and some other Protestant sectors – Quakers, Presbyterians, and Methodists, among them – gave an ideological framework to the antislavery movement.  And finally, in Brunswick, in particular, there was the influence of Bowdoin College, founded in pre-Revolutionary times, and one of the most advanced, liberal-leaning institutions of higher learning in the new nation.

Maine's antislavery  history is a strong one, though by no means unblemished.  As early as 1700 Justice Samuel Sewall published a tract, The Selling of Joseph, arguing that New England should abolish slavery entirely.  In the same era, though, contrasts are apparent.  One of Brunswick's wealthiest landowners, Andrew Dunning, owns slaves from 1717-1735, while freedman William Black and his family settle peaceably on Bailey Island. By 1765 the district of Maine counted 322  African-Americans. In 1781 as a result of a suit brought by African-American Quock Walker, Massachusetts, of which Maine was a part, abolished slavery, though it would be another 9 years before there were no slaves to be found in the state.  In 1783 Topsham delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Samuel Thompson,  took George Washington publicly to task for still holding slaves.


Abyssinian Meeting House

In 1820 the Missouri compromise established Maine as a free State and forbid slavery north of the Mason-Dixon line.  However, in 1821, the new Maine legislature outlawed interracial marriage.  In 1828 free blacks in Portland established the Abyssinian Meeting House on Munjoy Hill with its first minister, Amos Noe Freedman, a passionate antislavery advocate.  The church became a lynchpin in the Underground Railroad.

1831 in Brunswick saw the founding of the first Maine newspaper espousing the Abolitionist cause, The Juvenile Key, while shortly after in 1834 the Maine Antislavery Society was founded in Augusta. Other Abolitionist publications gained widespread readership in the 1830s.  In 1844 the first African-American lawyer, Macon B. Allen, was admitted to the bar in Maine. 

The Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 heated up tensions between North and South, allowing as it did for Southern slaveholders to pursue and reclaim their runaway "property" even into the northern states.  Strongholds of Abolitionism like Brunswick mobilized more ardently, and this decade before the Civil War saw the Underground Railroad as a lifeline to freedom for fleeing slaves. John Russwurm returned to Maine in 1850 bringing his two sons, whom he enrolled in North Yarmouth Academy.  Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin and, as President Lincoln famously said, sparked the Civil War.  James Augustine Healy became the first African-American Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland. Horace Greely, Henry Ward Beecher, and Frederick Douglas visited Maine to speak.  And by 1856 Portland integrated its public schools, outlawing segregation by race.


Erie slave ship

But perhaps the story of the slave ship Erie, captained by Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, caught sea-going Mainers more powerfully than any other headline in 1860.  The USS Mohican captured the Erie with a cargo of 897 slaves, half of whom were children. The Mohican forced Gordon to unload his cargo in Liberia, and Gordon was brought back to New York for trial. Though his first trial ended in a hung jury, a second found him guilty and he was hanged in 1862. Abraham Lincoln refused to pardon Gordon, saying: Any man who, for a paltry sum and stimulated only by avarice can rob Africa of her children to sell into interminable bondage, I will never pardon.

The end of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation ended the need for the Underground Railroad, but the Maine commemorates proudly to this day the nearly 75 homes from Biddeford and Portland to Brunswick, Topsham, Eastport, Brewer, Fort Kent that served as way stations to Canada and the countless numbers of brave individuals who risked their lives to help fellow human beings.  Throughout the state the markers and monuments remain…quiet beacons to principle, courage, and an abiding belief in compassion and human dignity.


Federal Street

On a walk up Federal Street in Brunswick past the Stowe House on a foggy morning, one can almost imagine the muffled clatter of hooves beneath the cobblestone street, hear the rustle of garments escaping into a hastily opened doorway, the soft whisper of ghosts whose lives and stories have inextricably shaped this little New England town.

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Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold's new book is Round Trip Ten Stories (Weiala Press). Her reviews and features have appeared in numerous international publications. She is a Senior Writer for Scene 4. For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.

©2020 Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold
 ©2020 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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