Irish Immigrants and the Underground Railroad

A Ride for Liberty — The Fugitive Slaves, oil on paperboard, ca. 1862, Brooklyn Museum

The sad history of anti-black violence perpetrated by some Irish immigrants in the United States is well known. This was often the abominable product of racism, political self-interest, craven leadership and labour competition. While these incidents, such as the New York Draft riots (1863) or the Memphis massacre (1866), were committed by a fraction of Irish immigrants who settled in the United States, they have certainly cast a long shadow over the historical relationship between the Irish-American and African-American communities. Some Irish were also active in disrupting the activities of the Underground Railroad e.g. the famous case of the self-emancipated slave Anthony Burns who was arrested under the Fugitive Slave Law in 1854 and held in custody in Boston. When a group of African Americans and white anti-slavery activists attempted to rescue him by force, it was an Irish militia which suppressed their advances. One of their deputised number was stabbed and killed during the altercation. When African Americans held a vigil before Burns was sent back to his owners they were subjected to the “jeers and insults of pro-slavery Irishmen.” Sojourner Truth witnessed how Burns was marched on to the ship, a solitary figure, under the armed guard of two thousand armed white men. Some of those in the crowd, likely to be Irish-Americans, cheered at this pathetic procession. They also pointed at prominent abolitionists in the crowd, shouting “there go [the] murderers” of an Irish labourer. Noel Ignatiev has described the actions of the Boston Irish militia as being evidence that the Irish were sometimes “the Swiss Guards of the Slave Power.”

William Still included an account of a group of Irishmen who attacked fugitive slaves in his seminal work The Underground Railroad, A Record (1872) According to his correspondent, these Irish attackers were either a group of slave-catchers following up on a bounty or “rowdies” looking to attack African Americans as part of their Halloween entertainment. Either way, they got more than they bargained for.

Wilmington, 5 November 1857

Esteemed Friend, William Still : — I have just written a note for the bearer to William Murphy Chester, who will direct him on to thy care; he left his home about a week since. I hear in the lower part of this State, he met with a friend to pilot him some twenty-five miles last night. We learn that one party of those last week were attacked with clubs by several Irish and that one of them was shot in the forehead, the ball entering to the skull bone, and passing under the skin partly round the head. My informant says he is likely to recover, but it will leave an ugly mark it is thought, as long as he lives. We have not been able to learn, whether the party was on the look out for them, or whether they were rowdies out on a Hallow-eve frolic; but be it which it may, I presume they will be more cautious here how they trifle with such. Desiring thee prosperity and happiness, I remain thy friend,

Thomas Garrett

(This correspondent wrote a few days later to inform Still that another of the Irishmen who attack the fugitive group of slaves had his arm broken in two places)

Perhaps it is for these reasons that the role of a number of Irish immigrants in helping slaves escape their bondage has been overlooked. It helps to explain why the cordial relationships and marriages, although the latter were relatively rare, between Irish immigrants and African Americans in the early nineteenth century have been mostly forgotten. This complex relationship is illustrated well by Frederick Douglass’ guarded reaction to two sympathetic Irish labourers in Baltimore.

I went, one day, on the wharf of Mr. Waters; and seeing two Irishmen unloading a large scow of stone, or ballast, I went on board, unasked, and helped them. When we had finished the work, one of the men came to me, aside, and asked me a number of questions, and among them, if I were a slave. I told him “I was a slave, and a slave for life.” The good Irishman gave his shoulders a shrug, and seemed deeply affected by the statement. He said, “it was a pity so fine a little fellow as myself should be a slave for life.” They both had much to say about the matter, and expressed the deepest sympathy with me, and the most decided hatred of slavery. They went so far as to tell me that I ought to run away, and go to the north; that I should find friends there, and that I would be as free as anybody. I, however, pretended not to be interested in what they said, for I feared they might be treacherous. White men have been known to encourage slaves to escape, and then — to get the reward — they have kidnapped them, and returned them to their masters.

What was the Underground Railroad?
It was a network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico or the North. It was not controlled by any single organisation or individual. Eric Foner estimates that the Underground Railroad assisted up to 125,000 fugitive slaves between 1835 and 1860. Some white supporters of the Underground Railroad were quite visible and vocal about their work in the public domain. Prominent black abolitionists levelled criticism at them for being too open; that it was damaging its effectiveness thus making it an “upperground railroad.” Despite having a lower profile in the mass media, the Underground Railroad network was actually dominated by African Americans. It is also important to reiterate that the agency of the enslaved persons in taking the brave decision to escape their bondage, with all its concomitant risk, was the foundation for the entire movement. I repeat this truism as some early histories of the Underground Railroad tend to forget this basic fact by presenting a “white saviour” centred narrative. One effort from 1898 even referred to this activism as being a form of escapism, bordering on narcissism…

“…above all it was an opportunity for the bold and adventurous; it had the excitement of piracy, the secrecy of burglary, the daring of insurrection; to the pleasure of relieving the poor negro’s sufferings it added the triumph of snapping one’s fingers at the slave-catcher…”

Map of the Underground Railroad in the United States.
Image: © National Geographic Society

Who were these Irish born “conductors”?
Because of the nature of this surreptitious activity, attempts to verify what actually happened are often difficult, if not impossible. While it may make the academic historian wince, this history generally relies on oral tradition. From the few names I have found, it seems that the Irish immigrants who supported the Underground Railroad were mostly middle class, some were Presbyterian, others were Catholic, and a majority hailed from Ulster. The class aspect is not a surprise as it mirrors the general make up of the anti-slavery movement in Ireland in the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century. The following list is far from exhaustive, so please get in touch if you know of more individuals from Ireland who were involved.

Name: Abraham Allen (1798–1867)
From: Co. Armagh, Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Clinton County, Ohio
Narrative: Abraham and his wife Cata Howland provided food and shelter for fugitive slaves. They used a specially designed curtained carriage (which they called ‘The Liberator’) to transport fugitives to the next “station.” Abraham was an ardent abolitionist, long time supporter of William Lloyd Garrison and the manager of the American Anti-Slavery Society for nearly ten years, 1843–1852. (Source)

Name: Samuel Allen (1825–1910)
From: Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Mercer County, Pennsylvania
Narrative: Served the Springfield route of the Underground Railroad through Mercer County. (Source)

Name: Dr. Alexander Campbell
From: Ahorey, Portadown, Co. Armagh
Location of UR Activity: Ripley, Ohio
Narrative: Provided rescue services for runaway slaves at his medical practice in Ripley, Ohio. (Source)

Name: James Conlisk
From: Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Toledo, Ohio
Narrative: Mentioned as being one of an eclectic group of people in Toledo who helped fugitive slaves. (Source)

Name: “Dan”
From: Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Narrative: While not a supporter of the Underground Railroad per se, Dan was an Irishman who was paid by abolitionists to deliver Henry Brown (who was hidden in a cargo box) from the central depot in Philadelphia to the Anti-Slavery offices. William Still relates the story as follows.

“Dan, an Irishman, one of Adams’ Express drivers, is just the fellow to go to the depot after the box,” said Davis. “He drinks a little too much whiskey sometimes, but he will do anything I ask him to do, promptly and obligingly. I’ll trust Dan, for I believe he is the very man.” The difficulty which Mr. McKim had been so anxious to overcome was thus pretty well settled. It was agreed that Dan should go after the box next morning before daylight and bring it to the Anti-Slavery office direct, and to make it all the more agreeable for Dan to get up out of his warm bed and go on this errand before day, it was decided that he should have a five dollar gold piece for himself. Thus these preliminaries having been satisfactorily arranged, it only remained for Mr. Davis to see Dan and give him instructions accordingly, etc. (Source)

New York Globe, 23 June 1883 Source: Readex

Name: Edward James Doyle (c. 1828–c.1850s)
From: Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Lexington, Kentucky
Narrative: Contradictory details. Some sources accuse Doyle of encouraging the slaves to escape so that he could later claim a bounty. Others suggest he was going to sell them on in New Orleans. Doyle was arrested for carrying up to 70 armed fugitive slaves from Lexington towards the Ohio river. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. He died in prison.(Source)

The Daily Crescent, New Orleans, 27 October 1848

Name: John Green
From: Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Freeport, Ohio
Narrative: He migrated from Ireland to Freeport in 1817. According to Squire Romans he offered shelter to fugitive slaves. (Source)

Name: Fr. John J. Kelley (1808–1866)
From: Trillick, Co. Tyrone, Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Albany, New York
Narrative: Arranged safe passage for fugitive slaves through the Adirondack Mountains and over Lake Ontario. He was also a member of the Albany Vigilance Committee.(Source)

Name: Rev. William King (1812–1895)
From: Limavady, Co. Derry, Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Scots Presbyterian. His wife inherited slaves in Mississippi. He resettled them on his land in Canada, at the Elgin settlement. All 15 slaves were given 50 acres each. He encouraged fugitive slaves to settle there by offering land at extremely low prices. History of Elgin Settlement here.
Narrative: (Source)

Name: Dr. James McGoffin (1798–1879)
From: Newry, Co. Down
Location of UR Activity: Mercer County, Pennsylvania
Narrative: Presbyterian. Abolitionist. Supporter of the Underground Railroad. Oral tradition claims that his outbuildings were used as a station. His wife, Grace Elizabeth Mitcheltree Magoffin (1803–1873) was from Dublin, and she also supported the UR.(Source)

Name: Jane Clark Mitchell (1805–1890)
From: Coleraine, Co. Derry, Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Indiana County, Pennsylvania
Narrative: Witnessed the horrors of slavery as a young migrant in Baltimore. Jane and her husband Dr. Robert Mitchell defied federal law by harbouring fugitive slaves. They were successfully sued by slave owners and had to sell some of their land to pay the debt. (Source)

Name: “Two Roman Catholics, of Irish birth”
From: Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Wilmington, Delaware
Narrative: Close friends and allies of the famous Quaker, abolitionist and Underground Railroad manager Thomas Garrett. William Still wrote that..

“[Garrett] has, in conversation with the present writer and others, frequently acknowledged the valuable services of two Roman Catholics, of Irish birth, still living in this city, who were ever faithful to him, and will now be amongst those who most earnestly mourn his decease.” (Source)

Name: Mary Weaver
From: Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Richmond, Virginia
Narrative: The remarkable story of Mary Weaver is recounted by William Still. Mary Weaver and John Hall, a slave, fell in love and wished to marry. Hall was the property of a slave owner named John Dunlap but he singled out his prior owner, a man named Burke, as being especially cruel. Both of these men might also have been Irish. Mary then proceeded to save money and make arrangements to pay for his escape via the Underground Railroad to Canada. She later joined him there and the two were soon married.

“[Hall] was also under the influence and advice of a daughter of old Ireland. She was heart and soul with John in all his plans which looked Canada-ward. It is very certain, that this Irish girl was not annoyed by the kinks in John’s hair. Nor was she overly fastidious about the small percentage of colored blood visible in John’s complexion. It was, however, a strange occurrence and very hard to understand. Not a stone was left unturned until John was safely on the Underground Rail Road. Doubtless she helped to earn the money which was paid for his passage. And when he was safe off, it is not too much to say, that John was not a whit more delighted than was his intended Irish lassie, Mary Weaver. John had no sooner reached Canada than Mary’s heart was there too.”

“Circumstances, however, required that she should remain in Richmond a number of months for the purpose of winding up some of her affairs. As soon as the way opened for her, she followed him. It was quite manifest, that she had not let a single opportunity slide, but seized the first chance and arrived partly by means of the Underground Rail Road and partly by the regular train. Many difficulties were surmounted before and after leaving Richmond, by which they earned their merited success. From Canada, where they anticipated entering upon the matrimonial career with mutual satisfaction, it seemed to afford them great pleasure to write back frequently, expressing their heartfelt gratitude for assistance, and their happiness in the prospect of being united under the favorable auspices of freedom!” (Source)

John Hall wrote to William Still to thank him for all that he had done.

Hamilton, 15 September 1856

“To Mr. Still, Dear Sir: — I take this opportunity of addressing these few lines to you hoping to find you in good health…

I am happy to inform you that Miss Weaver arrived here on Tuesday last, and I can assure you it was indeed a happy day.

As for your part that you done I will not attempt to tell you how thankful I am, but I hope that you can imagine what my feelings are to you. I cannot find words sufficient to express my gratitude to you, I think the wedding will take place on Tuesday next, I have seen some of the bread from your house, and she says it is the best bread she has had since she has been in America. Sometimes she has impudence enough to tell me she would rather be where you are in Philadelphia than to be here with me. I hope this will be no admiration to you for no honest hearted person ever saw you that would not desire to be where you are, No flattery, but candidly speaking, you are worthy all the praise of any person who has ever been with you, I am now like a deserted Christian, but yet I have asked so much, and all has been done yet I must ask again, My love to Mrs. Still.”

Interestingly, William Still noted that marriages between Irish immigrants and fugitive slaves were relatively common in Canada at this time. “This class found themselves very acceptable to Irish girls, and frequently legal alliances were the result.“

Name: Samuel Wier
From: Ireland
Location of UR Activity: Fresno, Ohio
Narrative: Abolitionist. Republican. Is claimed to have been a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad. (Source)

Name: Alexander Wright Jr. (1772–1853)
From: His father was an emigrant from Donaghcloney, Co. Down
Location of UR Activity: Mahoning Valley, Ohio
Narrative: Presbyterian. Abolitionist. His farm served as a “way station” on the Underground Railroad for many years. (Source)




Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi

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Liam Hogan

Liam Hogan

Librarian & Historian. Researching and writing about slavery, memory and power. Ko-Fi

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