Henry David Thoreau
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Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, and the Underground Railroad continued

A Calliope Fact Sheet
Copyright 2001 Calliope Film Resources, Inc.
Student Permission

Part II: Defiance and Resistance

1850-1854: Active defiance of the Fugitive Slave Law; politicized resistance.









A Gallery of Boston Abolitionist Leaders

Concord, Thoreau and the Underground Railroad.

The town of Concord, 16 miles outside Boston, was one of the ways that the Underground Railroad led north to freedom in Canada.

In small towns like Concord, the small number of free black residents were in a poor position to give the Underground Railroad much active help. (In fact, at least one black resident, Jack Garrison, was an escaped slave himself - having settled here 33 years earlier, married, and raised a family. Established and respected as he was, Garrison knew enough to make himself scarce when a Southern visitor appeared in town.) Note 11.

As a result, escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad "had to look mostly to local whites" for assistance in Concord. Note 12.

Throughout the 1850s, the homes of the Thoreau family and various neighbors on Concord's Main Street served as safe houses. A handful of refugees passed though Concord every year as a stop on their journey to freedom - an odyssey personalized by the historian Gary Collison in his history of "the most famous of all Concord's clandestine visitors," Shadrach Minkins.

Arrested in Boston in 1851, Shadrach Minkins of Norfolk, Virginia, became a test case between progovernment and antislavery forces, now that the Fugitive Slave Act was a law. In a bold abolitionist move, Minkins was triumphantly carried outside, away from federal custody, and spirited into concealment by a well organized crowd of mostly black activists led by the fearless Lewis Hayden.

Under cover of night, Hayden drove Minkins to an address in Concord, where Ann Bigelow, founder of the Women's Anti-Slavery Society, risked arrest and substantial penalties under the new federal law to conceal Minkins and assist his escape, with the aid of her husband and a neighbor.

Thoreau too was often a conductor. "Henry Thoreau more often than any other man in Concord" looked after the Underground Railroad's night passengers, Ann Bigelow recalled. In the same year (1851), Thoreau's family gave refuge to Henry Williams, who had fled Virginia for Boston and now escaped the city police by reaching Concord on foot. The Thoreaus raised money for his journey, and Henry Thoreau escorted Williams to the railroad station, steered him clear of a plainclothesman, and put him safely aboard the evening train to Canada. (Journal, Oct. 1, 1851. Note 13.)

Responding to the rising pressures in Boston, Thoreau wrote with bitterness, "I do not believe that the North will soon come to blows with the South on this question. It would be too bright a page to be written in the history of the race at present." Note 14. His sarcasm was plain -- a civil war looked almost inevitable.

Students! You have our permission to quote from (not copy from) these pages about Thoreau, abolitionism, and the Underground Railroad -- provided that you acknowledge it in your bibliography as follows. And don't forget the references in the footnotes.

Calliope Film Resources. "Thoreau, Civil Disobedience and the Underground Railroad." Copyright 2001 CFR. http://www.calliope.org/thoreau/thurro/thurro2.html
[And add the date on which you visited this web page.]

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Updated Feb. 20, 2010