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Genesee Valley Underground Railroad History

Insider Tips & Inspiration

New York State has a rich history, and the Genesee Valley region is no exception to that. The Underground Railroad played a vital role in getting enslaved peoples to freedom, and important pieces of that story are scattered throughout the region.

What is the Underground Railroad?

The Underground Railroad (UGRR) was a network of secret safe houses and routes used for passage during the 18th century for enslaved African-Americans seeking freedom. The most well-known routes lead from the South up to Ohio, New York, and New England helping enslaved individuals get a new chance at life in the N, whether in the United States or Canada. Since helping enslaved people find freedom was illegal at the time, there is little in the way of documentation on the UGRR. Still, we can take a look at a few confirmed points as well as the trails they likely took from Pennsylvania up to Rochester along our beloved Genesee River.

While the earliest mention of the Underground Railroad was in 1831 when a slave escaped into Ohio and his owner blamed the UGRR, the system had been in place since the late 1700s. Freedom seekers would travel from the southern states into New York at night, by following etched markings in chimneys and using the North Star for guidance. Citizens of border states like Kentucky, Virginia, and Maryland provided the most assistance to freedom seekers, helping some enslaved people get as far as Canada.

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How the Genesee Valley Played a Role:

Outside a couple of very prominent spots and individuals, most presumed stops on the Underground Railroad in the Genesee Valley are just educated guesses. People were unlikely to write down or share anything about the UGRR since participating in it was illegal However, when you look at the routes from Pennsylvania and New York City, it seems more than likely that there are many points that could effectively be used as part of the UGRR

The above map depicts the confirmed and suspected points and routes of the UGRR, but it’s unknown and hard to confirm if pathways along the Genesee Riverwould have been followed. Since the Genesee River is unique in running South to North, the water moves violently and is hard to follow. There are several sites known to be confirmed within Henrietta and Brighton that are all on the pathway from the Genesee Valley into Rochester, like the David H. Richardson Farm in Henrietta, Warrant Farm in Brighton, old Fredrick Douglass farm home near Highland Park. There is also Kelsey’s Landing on the Genesee River at Lower Falls in Rochester, the point where freedom seekers would board Canadian Vessels for escape. Still, to many historians, these points are moot without documentation.

The site that we know to be a confirmed location is the Seth M. Gates House in Warsaw. in fact, Warsaw as a community was a huge player in the Anti-Slavery movement. In 1833 Warsaw formed one of the first Anti-Slavery Units in the United States and in 1841 confirmed 15 “station-masters” in Wyoming County serving the Underground Railroad.

That was the second highest number in New York State, second to Monroe County.

The Honorary Seth M. Gates of Leroy was an anti-slavery congressman who, after suffering two paralyzing strokes, retired and purchased his Warsaw home in 1844. In Congress he made himself known as an anti-slavery advocate (as well as an advocate of the temperance movement), so much so, that southern governors petitioned for a $500 reward for his body to be delivered to the city of Savannah.

Gates is also known for working with John Quincy Adams to secure the passage of the bill for the right to petition. His home is believed to be one of the many stations of the Underground Railroad within the region. You can visit his home and the museum, which is now owned by the Warsaw Historical Society.

Taking a quick jaunt east on 20A to Perry you can learn about five more significant abolitionists.

Image via: National Geographic

Samuel Phoenix, born in Dansville, was a tanner, merchant, landowner, preacher, orator, temperance activist, abolitionist, and operator in the Underground Railroad. Relocating to Perry in 1816, Samuel and his brother Henry opened a tanning business. After marrying and having a son, Samuel joined the Perry Baptist Church, became a preacher, and soon after became active in the temperance movement. In 1832 after visiting the Baptist General Tract Society and seeing the wealthy plantation owners, he saw firsthand the treatment of slaves. With that knowledge, he became active in the abolitionist community and began to give anti-slavery lectures. The records of the New York State Anti-Slavery Convention list him as a delegate, and he subsequently became president of the First Annual Meeting of the Genesee County Anti-Slavery Society in 1836.

Many local historians have tried to track down the numerous homes and land that Samuel and Harry possessed, but they were serial landowners at the time. Records do show, however, that much of the land was sold to individuals from Perry who moved to the land owned by the Phoenix brothers.
“Where if a poor, despised colored man chance to set his food, he might do so in safety.” -Samuel Phoenix in speaking of the land he and his brother sold.

Other impactful Perry natives were also members of the Perry Baptist Church: Willard Chapin, Josiah Andrews, and Elon Galusha all were prominent members of the temperance and anti-slavery movements. They lectured throughout the region within the Baptist Church circuit on the rights of those enslaved. You can visit the original Perry Baptist church as it’s still in use and connects to a newer structure built in 1900.

Although there is no hard evidence of harboring freedom seekers, it is likely that the passion of these Perry men to deliver lectures, educate, and inspire others to join the anti-slavery movement was influential.

Source for Perry History: Ernest Lawrence & the Office of the Wyoming County Historian