Underground railroad in MassachusettsEvents

Abolition and the Underground Railroad in Ipswich

By the time of the United States Constitutional in 1787, many Northern states including Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut had already abolished slavery. Nonetheless, Article 4 of the Constitution included a clause that, “no person held to service or labor” would be released from bondage in the event they escaped to a free state. Bowing to further pressure from Southern lawmakers, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which decreed that owners of enslaved people and their “agents” had the right to search for escapees within the borders of free states. Slave hunters were required to bring their captives before a judge and provide evidence proving the person was their property. At about this time, Northern abolitionists began organizing networks to help enslaved people escape from the Slave states.

Fugitive slave poster in Boston

After the Mexican–American War, Southerners sought to expand slavery to the newly-formed states, which Northerners opposed. The so-called Compromise of 1850 established the states of Texas, Utah and California, banned slavery in the District of Columbia, and appeased the Southerners with Section 5, “An Act respecting Fugitives from Justice, and Persons escaping from the Service of their Masters.” known as the Fugitive Slave Act. Under the new law, anyone who acted to prevent the recapture of a runaway slave, or a marshal refusing to pursue a runaway slave could be fined $1000.00.

Several fugitive slave seizures followed in Boston, including Shadrach Minkins, Thomas Sims, Joshua Glover, and Anthony Burns in 1854. Burns, a fugitive slave from Virginia was tried in Boston by a judge who maintained that his job was to uphold the law. The Boston Vigilance Committee assembled a crowd to surround the courthouse and prevent Burns from being removed, but a mob appeared armed with weapons and axes, and began breaking down the doors. Police arrived, resulting in the arrest of many abolitionists. President Franklin Pierce ordered the Marines to Boston to aid the police in upholding the law, and Burns was sen back to Virginia under massive federal and state escort. He was eventually bought by a Boston abolitionist and returned to the city in a secret arrangement with Burns’ owner. A year later, in 1855, the Massachusetts legislature passed “An Act to Protect the Rights and Liberties of the People of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” which provided for the removal of any state official who aided in the return of runaway slaves.

Map of the Underground Railroad in Eastern Massachusetts
Map of the Underground Railroad in Eastern Massachusetts

The Underground Railroad forms

As far back as 1786, George Washington had complained about Quakers helping some of the 300 slaves on his Mount Vernon plantation escape. From 1831-1865, William Lloyd Garrison, a native of Newburyport published the Liberator, which was dedicated to immediate abolition of slavery. He was the founder of the influential American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Among its officers were three Ipswich natives:

  • William Oakes, botanist, who served as Manager from 1834-1837 and vice president of the Massachusetts chapter from 1835-1838
  • Rev. David Kimball, pastor of First Church; Manager, 1833-1837, and founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
  • Col. James Appleton, abolitionist and temperance crusader who became vice-president of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1839.

Well over a hundred anti-slavery societies and a network of safe houses were formed throughout Massachusetts by the year 1837. Coinciding with the invention of steam locomotives, this network soon began to be called the “Underground Railroad.” People who worked on the Underground Railroad even named safe houses “stations,” and called the individuals who guided escaped slaves “conductors.”

The Underground system ran north along the coast from Boston through Lynn and Marblehead to Salem, where it split into three trails: One through Danvers, Andover, Lawrence, and across the New Hampshire line, another by way of Danvers, Georgetown, and Haverhill. The third route went through Beverly, where Dr. Ingalls Kittredge tirelessly managed the transportation of fugitives. His home was at the corner of Cabot and Federal Streets, and was always open to the refugees. From Beverly the escaped slaves were transported to the zealous anti-slavery workers in Ipswich, continuing to Newbury, Newburyport, West Newbury and Amesbury, where escaped slaves were escorted into New Hampshire.

The home of Rev. David Kimball still stands on Meeting House Green.
Ipswich original Methodist Church
The Ipswich Anti-Slavery Society met at the original Methodist Church meeting house on East Street at the present day location of the Ipswich Inn.


The first half of the 19th Century saw the expansive growth of progressivism, including the American Temperance Society in 1826, women’s suffrage and the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, and especially the focus on abolition with publication of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator in 1831. Agitation for reform was strong, but most of the churches continued to focus on religious indoctrination. This era saw the birth of lyceums, where such issues were presented, discussed and debated, especially abolition. It is said that the short era of the lyceum killed slavery, broke the stranglehold of superstitious theology, and made women free, and indeed gave birth to the Civil War. Lyceum lectures were free of control and orthodoxy, and were a popular forum for matters of public interest.

1832 map of Ipswich
The Methodists, the Lyceum, the Female Seminary and Rev. David Kimball’s house were hotbeds of abolitionism. Mrs. Joseph Waite was the president of the Female Anti-slavery Society, and Dr. Manning’s house is said to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad.

The Rev. David Kimball was a staunch abolitionist at First Church, but the slavery issue divided his congregation into opposing camps. Indeed, At the First Church, a group of influential citizens refused to allow people of color to worship. In 1825 several new pews were erected in the gallery, and as was the custom, use of the pews was sold to specific families. A bill of sale that year to Michael Farley reads, “It is agreed between the said Parish and the said Michael Farley his heirs and assigns, that if he or they shall ever hereafter sell or let said Pew to any Negro or colored person or persons, the same shall revert back to said Parish, and the title become void according to the Conditions of the sale.”

The greatest sympathy for the movement was in the Methodist Church, where Rev. Daniel Wise assailed one of the prominent members for saying that he believed it was right for men and women to be held in bondage under some circumstances. Even so, twenty-five members seceded, declaring that they could no longer hold fellowship with slave holders or their defenders. They met for worship for several years in the Lyceum hall owned at that time by Abraham Hammatt, which then stood next to the John Appleton house at the foot of N. Main St, but eventually returned when their position was accepted.

The Elm St. home of Josiah and Lucy Caldwell was moved to the Smithsonian Museum.

The Ipswich Anti-Slavery society was organized Dec 3, 1838 with 100 members, and held its meetings in the Methodist vestry. The founding officers were: President, Josiah Caldwell, a selectman, and principal of the Grammar School; Vice Presidents were Rev. Joel Knight pastor of the Methodist Church from 1838 – 1839, William George, and Amos Dunnels, an employee of the Ipswich Customs Office. The Corresponding Secretary was Asabel Wildes, surveyor of the port of Ipswich. whose home was at the corner of Central St. and Wilde’s Court. The Recording Secretary was D. Wood, and Treasurer, David Andrews.

Market St. houses in 1909
Mrs. Jabez Farley hosted the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society at her home on Market St.
Amos Dunnels house
A late 19th Century photo of South Main St. Left to right are the Ross Tavern (moved to Strawberry Hill) the Shoreborne Wilson-Samuel Appleton house (still standing), and the Amos Dunnels house on the right, which was moved to 45 County St. Mrs. Amos Dunnels was a founding member and “manager” in the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society. On the far left are the Ipswich Female Seminary and the Dr. Thomas Manning house on N. Main St.

 Women were excluded from the American Anti-Slavery Society when it was founded, but were eventually welcomed by William Lloyd Garrison. The first female anti-slavery organization was established in Salem in 1832, and in late December of 1838, thirty Ipswich women founded the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society. The President was Rebecca Dodge Waite, wife of Joseph Waite. Their home, no longer standing was at 21 N. Main St. The Vice President was Elva Cogswell; Secretary, Mary E. Wade; Managers were Mrs. Lucy Lord Caldwell, Mrs. Amos Dunnels, Mary Wardwell, and Mary W. Philbrook. They met in the homes of its members, including Mrs. Jabez Farley’s house on Market St., and the Caldwell’s house at 16 Elm Street, where anti-slavery lecturers frequently visited. In 1961 the Caldwell’s house was moved to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and is the centerpiece of Within These Walls. The exhibit includes an announcement in the June 28, 1839 Ipswich Register that, “The Ipswich Female Anti -Slavery Society will meet at Mrs. Josiah Caldwell’s on Monday next at 2 o’-clock P.M.

Pictorial Ipswich tribute to Eunice Caldwell Cowles and Rev. John P. Cowles
Rev. John P. Cowles and Mrs. Eunice Caldwell Cowles, from “Pictorial Ipswich

In 1844, John Phelps Cowles and Eunice Caldwell Cowles reopened the Ipswich Female Seminary on N. Main St. five years after its founders closed the school. Both were active abolitionists and circulated anti-slavery pamphlets to the public. Thomas Franklin Waters wrote, “Mr. Cowles took no pains to hide his abolition sentiments, for he was a born radical and advocated advanced and even extreme positions in theology and politics to the very end of his long life.” Mary Abigail Dodge who graduated from the school and became one of its teachers, published her poetry in the National Era, an anti-slavery magazine. The adopted daughter of Josiah and Lucy Caldwell, Margaret, also attended the Ipswich Female Seminary. The school closed in 1876, fifty years after it first opened.

Ipswich Female Seminary
Ipswich Female Seminary. Dr. Manning’s house is on the left.

The next building north of the Seminary was the home of Dr. Thomas Manning, who married Margaret Heard, daughter of John Heard, May 24, 1807. Dr. Manning was a pioneer in the use of the smallpox vaccine in America, and distributed the vaccine without payment to other practitioners, purposefully breaking the monopoly held by Professor Benjamin Waterhouse of Harvard. Dr. Manning built and operated the mill and dam at Willowdale, and played a prominent role in town events. When Dr. Manning, died on February 3, 1854, he bequeathed the greater part of his estate to the Town of Ipswich for the purpose of establishing the Manning High School. Still known as “Manning’s Mill,” the factory continued to operate, employing seventy people, producing 55,000 pairs of army socks and woolen goods for Union troops during the Civil War.

The will of Dr. Thomas Manning gave the property in trust to several Manning relatives, some of whom lived in the house until 1858, when Augustine Heard purchased the house for use as the First Church parsonage. One of the trustees was Manning’s nephew, Richard Henry Manning, born 1809, who became a successful industrialist, residing from 1840 for the rest of his life in Brooklyn. He was a trustee of the fund left by his uncle Dr. Thomas Manning to found the Ipswich High School, identified publicly with the anti-slavery movement from the beginning of the debate, and contributed generously to alleviate the suffering of the Civil War.

This small basement chamber is accessed from a trap door in the floor of the Dr. Thomas Manning house at 19 N. Main St.

The greatest Underground Railroad activity was between 1850 after passage of the Runaway Slave Law, and 1860, the beginning of the Civil War. There is an old local tradition that a tunnel led from the Manning house to the River, by which escaped slaves were taken after dark on their journey to Canada. In a rear room of the Manning house is a trap door in the floor which leads to a small hidden brick chamber in the basement, with a small window which more probably facilitated escape of the fugitives. Secret staircases and hidden rooms in the attics and basements of several other Ipswich houses may have served a similar purpose, but because of the need for secrecy, records were rarely kept about conductors, stations or escaped slaves.

Fugitive slaves were transported from Ipswich to the Parker River bridge in Newbury, where Richard Plummer met them with his wagon to take them to the next location on the Underground Railroad. Image by Wilbur H. Siebert.
Fugitive slaves were transported from Ipswich to the Parker River bridge in Newbury, where Richard Plummer met them with his wagon to take them to the next location on the Underground Railroad. Image by Wilbur H. Siebert.

At the Parker River bridge in Newbury, the escaped slaves were met by Richard Plumer of Newburyport. Stowing the fugitives among sacks of grain, Plumer would drive the wagon, alternating between five destinations, or hide the fugitives in his barn under hay until the way was clear. At the Merrimack River, Mr. Jackman would transport them 27 miles to Lee, NH. Plumer sometimes crossed the chain bridge to Amesbury, a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment, and delivered his charges to associates of John Greenleaf Whittier. Occasionally Plumer took his wagon to Turkey Hill in West Newbury and delivered the slaves to Robert Brown, a Quaker, who transported them to his father’s farm in Kingston NH. Another refuge station in Newbury was the house of Joshua Coffin, a founder and first recording secretary of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. From 1834 to 1837, Coffin was the manager of the American Anti-Slavery Society. The eventual destination for most of the escaped slaves was Canada.

Sources and further reading:

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6 replies »

  1. The “Read more of this post” link is broken. It brings you to a 404 Not Found page on historicipswich.org.

    Deb Jacobson


  2. Brilliant recitation of our history. I can imagine it took you hundreds of hours, and remarkable talent and fidelity . Thank You…you are a precious treasure to the Town

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