Saturday, January 16, 2010


Submitted by Susan Peterson Gately

Gately writes and sails on Lake Ontario and has a Masters degree in fisheries science. Her first book Ariel's World dealt with the recent environmental history of Lake Ontario and was used as a supplemental text in an undergraduate course at Oswego State University. Susan sails with her husband aboard their 32 foot sloop Titania on Fair Haven Bay and she also offers boat rides and sailing instruction to the public through her seasonal business Silver Waters Sailing.

Susan’s current book is “Twinkle Toes and the Riddle of the Lake”, an experiment, a blend of fact and fiction. In it a crabby cat, a lousy navigator and an old wooden boat set out across Lake Ontario in a quest for knowledge. The main character is Twinkle Toes, a.k.a. Twink, the crabby cat, who isn’t impressed by the first half of that old ‘saw’ about Curiosty. It May have killed the cat but, “Satisfaction brought it back.”


As Twink realizes, one person's actions can change history. Especially if they write a really good book. Some historians have credited Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin as being an important factor in stirring up emotions and support for the Civil War. There is a tale, perhaps not true, that when she met with President Lincoln he said “So this is the little lady that started the big war.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe was a teacher living in Maine with her preacher husband when she wrote her book Uncle Tom's Cabin, Life Among The Lowly. Her story about brave black people and cruel slave owners was the best selling 19th century novel in the world and was translated into many languages according to Wikipedia. The only book then selling more copies in America was the Bible.

Stowe wrote her story after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act was passed. This was the law that required people in the north to aid in the capture and return of runaway slaves. It stirred up the passions of many southerners and northerners alike as each region tried to assert its rights and impose its laws upon the other's citizens. Stowe was partly inspired by a memoir by Josiah Henson, a runaway slave who traveled to Canada crossing the Niagara River to freedom. Here he “shook the lion's paw” as contemporary accounts put it, referring to the protection slaves received on the north shore of Lake Ontario and Erie under British law. Henson's home is still standing near a town called Dresden in Ontario. One of his descendants traveled with Peary to the pole.

We have no idea how many slaves passed through Great Lakes ports enroute to freedom. Few written records of the underground railroad exist and accounts are difficult to verify. It seems likely that thousands crossed Lake Ontario on their way to Canada. Oswego, where Gerrit Smith, a prominent and wealthy abolitionist from the town of Peterboro near Utica, had interests in shipping and harbor front properties, was a gateway to freedom for many slaves. Port Ontario and Pultneyville were also ports with known sympathetic ship captains and ship owners who helped many runaways. My own current home port of Fair Haven also apparently saw some activity. There are letters and hints in oral tradition of local runaways being smuggled aboard vessels from Little Sodus Bay and one trader from here variously identified as either a sloop or schooner was named the Wide Awake ( also the name of the then active radical abolitionist wing of the Republican Party).

Another point of departure was Sodus Point. A settlement of several dozen free blacks lived on the banks of Maxwell Creek, a few miles west of this small lake port. Undoubtedly, they sheltered runaways and helped them on their way as did the family of whites living in the cobblestone house that still stands here beside Lake Road. Local legend has it that the drumlin hill just west of Maxwell Creek (now known as Freedom Hill) was a landmark used by mariners who picked up runaways off the beach there. The Niagara Falls area was also a major crossing for runaways, with lesser numbers coming up through Ohio and crossing Lake Erie.

Harriet Tubman is one of the most famous “conductors” of the underground railroad. Some say she helped three hundred or more people to reach freedom. She lived in St. Catharines, a Canadian port at the west end of Lake Ontario where many runaways first landed for some time. She eventually settled for good in Auburn about thirty miles south of Lake Ontario, and her house there today is a museum with displays on her life and work. Besides being a guide on the underground railroad, she later served as an armed scout, a spy, and a nurse during the Civil War and was eventually awarded a tiny pension for her service to the Union. As a black woman in a time when all women's rights and freedoms were so limited, her exploits and courage seem little short of incredible.

She is probably the best known of the black conductors, but other free blacks, some of them sailors or canal boatmen also helped runaways get to Canada. In the 1830s and 1840s central New York's “burned over district” so-called because of the red hot fever of religion and reform that swept the area made the region fertile ground for abolitionists. Harriet Beecher Stowe's brother Thomas came to Elmira to serve as pastor to a church sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. Some of the most active whites in the effort to help runaways were those of the Quaker faith.

A number of runaways settled in St. Catharines Ontario, then as now, an important shipbuilding center and port on Lake Ontario. St. Catharines was the terminal for the east end of the Welland Canal and a considerable concentration of marine service businesses built up there providing work for some of the escaped slaves. Others went on to inland locations. Some settled and became successful Canadian citizens. Some eventually returned to the U.S. Life in Canada was not particularly easy for many of the runaways. An interesting account of an escaped slave's experiences in New York and in Canada is the book Twenty-two Years a Slave Forty Years a Freeman by Austin Steward 1793 to 1860. The entire text has been placed on line by the University of North Carolina.

Steward lived briefly on the shore of Sodus Bay when his white owner tried to carve a southern plantation style farm there from the virgin forest. He escaped around 1813 but lived in New York State for some time before going to Canada around 1830 where he stayed about 6 years before coming back to Rochester.

During Captain [Horatio Nelson] Throop's time on the lake, blacks worked aboard ships in various tasks and underground railroad history sug gests that more than one black sailor or steamer crew might have quietly served as a “conductor”. The character operating a canal boat in the Throop story is imaginary, but based on a historical black canal boat owner. And there is solid evidence to support the story that Throop and his neighbor Cuyler were active parts of the underground railroad.

We shall probably never know of the countless acts of heroism and altruism by both black and white people that were performed in the face of an evil institution that prevails to this day in various places around the world. They believed in a cause and they acted defying what they considered to be an unjust law.”

"Riddle" a 235 page illustrated paperback that sells for retail price of 15.95
Riddle is on sale at the Lighthouse gift shops in Rochester and Sodus Point, at H.Lee White Marine Museum and at other local historical Society gift shops. It can also be purchased on line from or at Village Book Mart in Palmyra, Yesterday's Muse in Webster, Old Church Mall books in Webster, Rivers End in Oswego, and at Yankee Peddler in Rochester. It can be special ordered thru Barnes and Noble.

We'll travel with Twink at another time - David

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