Mormon Immigrants and Fugitive Slaves on the (Underground) Railroad

By December 7, 2017

The July 19, 1856 issue of the Provincial Freeman and Weekly Advertiser, an abolitionist newspaper published in Chatham, Canada West (modern-day Ontario) carried the following notice from Albany, New York:

“Some nine fugitive slaves were forwarded on one of the trains carrying out the Mormon emigrants this noon. They reached this city by the ‘Underground Railroad.'”[1]

The Mormon emigrants in question were likely a group of 864 English Latter-day Saints led by Edward Martin, who set sail from Liverpool on May 25, 1856 and arrived in Boston on June 28. On July 2, the group “took the cars at Boston for Iowa City,” passing “through Albany, Buffallo, Cleveland, Toledo, Chicago, [and] Rock Island” along the way.[2]

Whether the two groups of migrants — one a small group of enslaved men and women closer to freedom in British Canada than ever before, the other several hundred English-born individuals en route to their Zion — interacted is not clear. Nor is any suggestion of what each might have thought of the other. It’s not clear, in fact, whether the Mormons might even have known who the African American individuals aboard the train car were or what they were doing. Thomas Durham, one of the Latter-day Saints aboard, made no note in his diary of their presence or any interaction between the two groups.

I would like to think that the two might have sympathized with the other’s plight and their respective pilgrimages to their own promised land, but as a historian, I’m also skeptical of such romanticized imaginations about the past. Thomas Durham’s diary does, however, provide just the faintest hint of what he and his fellow Mormons might have thought. Three years before he set sail for America, Durham attended “a tea party” held “for the benefit of the Sunday School” in Stalybridge, a small town just outside of Manchester. There, on April 3, 1853, “tea recitations were given and the choir sung some favourite glees,” as well as “a selection from uncle tom’s cabin,” the famed American antislavery novel published the year before.[3]



[1] Provincial Freeman and Weekly Advertiser, 19 July 1856. I discovered this reference while recently reading Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, where he notes that Stephen Myers, the noted black abolitionist based in Albany, boldly “dispatched most [fugitive slaves] by rail, headed for Syracuse and Canada West (one one occasion on a train carrying Mormon migrants bound for Utah), or north to Montreal.” See Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 178.

[2] Thomas Durham, “Autobiography and Diary,” Typescript, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. An excerpt of Durham’s diary is available online at the Mormon Migration Database and can be accessed here. For more on the migration of European Mormons to Utah “by sail and rail,” see Fred E. Woods, “Iowa City Bound: Mormon Migration by Sail and Rail, 1856-1857,” Annals of Iowa 65:2 (Spring 2006): 162-189. Available online here.

[3] Durham, Autobiography and Diary. We should be careful of reading too much into the Stalybrook Sunday School’s singing of songs from Uncle Tom’s Cabin without more information. While Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a decidedly antislavery work, it also reinforced popular (and often unflattering) stereotypes about black women and men. Moreover, its stage adaptations, from which the songs are taken, were “cultural curiosities with endless adaptive potential on both sides of the Atlantic,” with portrayals ranging from those sympathetic to Stowe’s antislavery message to more overtly proslavery portrayals. In England, the book and play’s popularity was based not only on antislavery zeal but also antipathy for America. See Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780-1865 (New York: Routledge, 2000), 143-214. The quote in the previous sentence comes from Marcus Wood, “Curious and Curiouser: Uncle Tom?s Cabin, Anna Leonowens, and The King and I,” Common-Place 4:2 (January 2004), available online here.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Cultural History Race


  1. This is a great archival find, Christopher. Thanks for posting!

    Comment by J Stuart — December 7, 2017 @ 11:04 am

  2. Thanks Christopher. This is a great find. My sense is that the British converts would have been keyed into the issues of these people. There is quite a bit of anti – slavery sentiment in the diaries of emigrants arriving through New Orleans. E.g.:

    Comment by J. Stapley — December 7, 2017 @ 11:17 am

  3. Thanks, Joey.

    And Stapley – how could I forget about that post? Thanks for reminding me of it here!

    Comment by Christopher — December 7, 2017 @ 11:43 am


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