Was Nantucket a stop on the Underground Railroad?

There is only one piece of documentary evidence. In 1917 Deborah Coffin Hussey Adams wrote her memoir. Born in 1848, she had grown up a Quaker child in a Nantucket household where the use of goods produced with slave labor was forbidden. Her father, Christopher Hussey, was active in Nantucket’s Friends Meeting and was a relative of Nantucket abolitionists Nathaniel and Elizabeth Barney. Deborah wrote:

Nantucket was one of the stations of the “under-ground railroad.” The fugitive slaves sometimes came there under the protection of the Quakers. There was a negro colony called Guinea which we passed on our way to ’Sconset. Pro-slavery feeling, too, ran high. Cousin Eliza Barney and others were pelted with rotten eggs at an anti-slavery meeting.

The egging of abolitionists in the Nantucket Atheneum had happened in 1842, six years before Deborah’s birth. During her childhood the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. The federal law mandated the return of all persons who had managed to flee to freedom and also mandated punishment of anyone assisting them. People helping fugitives were careful not to write about it. Deborah waited nearly her whole life, until everyone who had been directly engaged in it was long dead, before she committed to paper her recollection of Nantucket’s involvement with the Underground Railroad.

The best-known case of Nantucketers providing safety to fugitives from slavery is that of the Cooper family. In 1820 Arthur Cooper, his wife Mary, and their children arrived in Nantucket. Two years later an agent for his former master together with a deputy came to the island to recover Arthur and take his family into slavery. The people of Nantucket’s New Guinea community and Nantucket Quakers created a diversion while the Coopers were whisked away into hiding. One of the families that concealed them was the Gardner family, and the experience made a life-long dedicated abolitionist of their daughter Anna, who later served as teacher in Nantucket’s African School.

When Mary Cooper died just a few years after the family had been protected, Arthur Cooper married again. His second wife, Lucinda Gordon, had been born in Africa, taken into slavery as a child, and put to work on a South Carolina rice plantation. She made her way to Nantucket via Newport, Rhode Island.

James Ross, father of Eunice Ross, whose exclusion from Nantucket High School in 1838 led to the racial integration of the Nantucket Public Schools in the 1840s, was also born in Africa, as was Thomas Pierce, a student in the African School several years before Eunice.

In 1826 Joseph Mason placed a letter in a Nantucket newspaper stating that eighteen months previously, he had come to Nantucket from Maryland “with a skin of that hue which there subjugated him to perpetual bondage.” He had been living under an assumed name for fear of being taken back into slavery, but now that “gentlemen of this place” had made it possible for him to purchase his freedom, he wanted to make his real name known to everyone.

The Rev. James Crawford, who served for four decades as pastor of Nantucket’s African Baptist Church, had also come out of slavery, and operating from Nantucket he brought family members to freedom, once traveling South posing as a white slave purchaser, in order to rescue his niece.

Elizabeth Ray Nahar of Nantucket was the sister of the Reverend Charles Bennett Ray, who was active in moving people from slavery to safety through New Bedford. In his memoir, he wrote of sometimes placing people temporarily on Long Island. He may have also placed some on Nantucket.

One way or another, by 1850 seventeen people born in slave states were living on Nantucket. Most of them were illiterate, one indicator of previous enslavement.

To learn more about African Nantucketers, see Frances Karttunen’s book, The Other Islanders: People Who Pulled Nantucket’s Oars, available from the NHA Museum Shop and from Spinner Publications of New Bedford.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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