By Gordon Harris

The Fugitive Slave Acts

By the time of the United States Constitutional Convention in 1787, many Northern states including Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut had already abolished slavery, but 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 first 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

The Missouri Compromise of 1820 preserved the balance of power in Congress, admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. It forbid the practice of slavery in all U.S. territory north of 36°30′ latitude and west of the Mississippi River, except in the state of Missouri.

After the Mexican–American War ended in 1848, 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 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 sent back to Virginia under massive federal and state escort. He was eventually purchased 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

William Lloyd Garrison

From 1831-1865, William Lloyd Garrison, a native of Newburyport published the Liberator, which was dedicated to immediate abolition of slavery.

William Lloyd Garrison, a native of Newburyport, founded the influential American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833. Among its officers were three Ipswich natives:

Frederick Douglass plaque in Lynn
Frederick Douglass Park
  • 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.

After escaping from slavery in Maryland to New Bedford, 21-year-old Frederick Douglass read a copy of Garrison’s periodical “The Liberator,” which he said “took a place in my heart second only to the Bible.” He relocated to Lynn in 1841, where he was thrown off an Eastern Railroad train on his way to speak in Portland, because he refused to sit in the segregated railroad coach. Railway officials declared that they didn’t have to abolish segregated cars until the churches abolished “Negro pews.” In 1845, before moving to Rochester, Douglass wrote an autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” which became an immediate bestseller. A new park with a mural and statue of Frederick Douglass commemorates the event in Lynn.

The Underground Railroad

As far back as 1786, George Washington had complained about Quakers helping some of the 300 slaves on his Mount Vernon plantation escape. 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. Danvers, a hotbed of anti-slavery enthusiasm, formed an anti-slavery society in 1838 with 48 active male members.

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 Lyceum

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. Lyceum lectures were free of control and orthodoxy, and were a popular forum for matters of public interest. The first Lyceum was established in Milbury in 1828, and within 6 years there were 3000 Lyceums scattered across America. It is said that the short era of the lyceum killed slavery, broke the stranglehold of superstitious theology, made women free, and gave birth to the Civil War. The Lyceum Hall on Church St. in Salem is still standing. In Topsfield, the Lyceum met at the Topsfield Hotel, a favorite stagecoach stop on the Newburyport Turnpike.


In Ipswich, Dr. Abraham Hammatt, a native of Plymouth, married Lucy (Farley) Dodge, widow of William Dodge, and granddaughter of General Michael Farley. Their residence was the John Appleton house at the foot of North Main St. where he constructed a small Lyceum building between his house and the Taverner Sparks house next door.

Sarah and Angelina Grimké were the first female agents of the American Anti−Slavery Society. The sisters grew up in South Carolina in a prominent family of slave-holders, but began speaking and writing against slave-holding. Their books were burned and they were threatened with imprisonment if they returned to the state. In 1837 when they spoke at the Ipswich Lyceum, one of the attendees was 17-year-old Mary Sophia Kimball (the Rev. David Kimball’s daughter) who wrote in her diary, “Thursday the Miss Grimkes … lectured….Not that I by any means approve of ladies coming this public & forward, for I do not, but I thought what I heard was likely to do much good.”

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 Congregational Church

Rev. David Kimball

The leaders of the Congregational churches in Massachusetts responded to the lecture tour by Sarah and Angelina Grimké by circulating a “Pastoral Letter” to all their congregations in August of 1837, urging churches not to permit “strangers to preach on subjects that ministers do not agree with” and warning against “the dangers which at present seem to threaten the female character.” At the old First Church, the Rev. David Kimball who served as pastor for half a century, was described by William Lloyd Garrison as “zealously affected in our cause,” but the slavery issue divided his congregation into opposing camps. A group of influential members refused to allow people of color to worship, and 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 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 Methodist Church

The greatest sympathy for the abolition 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. 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 Dr. Hammatt’s Lyceum, but eventually returned when their position became widely accepted.

Ipswich Anti-Slavery Society

The Ipswich Anti-Slavery society was organized Dec 3, 1838 with 100 members, and held its meetings in the Methodist vestry. The founding President was Josiah Caldwell, 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.

The Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society

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 1834 as an offshoot of the Anti-Slavery Society of Salem and Vicinity. Its constitution stated that slavery should be immediately abolished and that all African Americans have a right to a home in the country without fear of intimidation (in direct opposition to the American Colonization Society, which had been founded in 1817 to transport emancipated slaves and other free Black people to a new “homeland” in Liberia.)

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 (wife of Josiah 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.

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.

Josiah and Lucy Caldwell

In addition to being a teacher and principal of the Ipswich Grammar Schools, Josiah Caldwell served as Representative to the General Court and as an Ipswich selectman. When the Total Abstinence Society was formed in Ipswich, he was elected President. The Caldwell’s adopted daughter Margaret was a graduate of the Ipswich Female Seminary under Professor and Mrs. Cowles. After her marriage to Luther P. Whipple, the couple resided in Lynn. She wrote in her remembrances, “I would say that he (Josiah) was one of the strongest friends of the Anti-Slavery cause. His house was always open to the many lecturers who came to Ipswich. I well remember (Jonathan) Walker, with the hand branded S. S. (Slave Stealer) for his efforts in freeing slaves; and (Charles) Torrey, who died a martyr to the cause in a southern prison, spending nights at his hospitable Ipswich home.”

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

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.

The Ipswich Female Seminary

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.

Dr. Thomas Manning

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 Underground Railroad

The greatest Underground Railroad activity was between 1850 after passage of the Runaway Slave Law, and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Betsy and Simeon Dodge of Marblehead provided shelter for fugitives who were sent from Boston. Their house is said to have a secret trap-door for the slaves to use in escaping, in case a raid was made by slave hunters. In these secret locations, runaway slaves waited for dories that would row out to ships bound for Halifax. In the middle of the night Mr. Dodge is known to have transported fugitives to Salem, where they continued by boat or cart, eventually arriving in Canada.

There is an old Ipswich tradition that a tunnel led from the Dr. Thomas 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. Many houses on the Massachusetts coast have secret rooms that were created earlier to hide untaxed smuggled goods. Only a few of these have been verified as later hiding places for human contraband.

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 often met by Richard Plumer of Newburyport. Stowing the fugitives among sacks of grain in his wagon. Plumer alternated between five destinations, or hid 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 Quaker 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.

Quakers had opposed slavery as far back as the 17th Century, but in the 1830s, the national organization adopted a stance opposing abolitionism because it might revolutionize the public, which indeed eventually happened with the Civil War. The fear that anti-slavery activists were on a politically destructive course prevailed among clergy throughout even the northern states. Many abolitionists, after being ostracized in their own churches, withdrew and formed “comeouter” anti-slavery congregations that espoused “immediatism.”

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.

The Nation divides

The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 established the process for creating new states from the remaining territory of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. On May 19 and 20, 1856, Senator Charles Sumner, a Massachusetts antislavery Republican, delivered a long speech denouncing the power that slave owners held over their elected representatives.

On May 21, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina, approached Summer and yelled,, “I have read your speech, a libel on South Carolina.” and began slamming his metal-topped cane onto Sumner’s head, knocking him unconscious. Graphic descriptions in the newspapers portrayed the two men as heroes in their respective states. Sumner was among the first members of Congress to argue in favor of the Civil War to end slavery and save the Union.

On November 6, 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president by a strictly northern vote which brought the newly formed Republican Party into power. By June, 1861, eleven Southern states had seceded to join the Confederacy.

Ipswich recruits in the Civil War
Recruits leaving for the war at the Ipswich train station

The Civil War

The anti-slavery issue took on a new meaning with the Civil War. On Jan. 1, 1863, after three years of hesitating, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The struggle almost immediately transformed from restoring the Union to ending slavery, and became a “total war” in which both the Confederacy and the Union were forced to turn to conscription. Women took over farms and businesses when their husbands left, and organized ladies’ aid societies to sew uniforms and raise money to purchase supplies for the troops. Race riots broke out in cities as far north as New York.

As the Union armies captured areas of the Confederacy, nearly four million slaves were freed, with an estimated total of 750,000 Confederate and Union deaths by April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate troops at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. Fifty-two Ipswich men died during the war, and the town expended over $52,000 to aid in suppressing the Rebellion, including $15,950 in bounties to soldiers.

Neither compromise nor unbending radicalism had altered the Nation’s tragic fate. A wearied North celebrated its victory, and turned its eyes to the causes of women’s rights and prohibition. The brief Reconstruction era saw gains in equality for African Americans in the South, followed by the century-long Jim Crow era with lynchings, segregation and extreme poverty for black people and many whites.

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