Sunday, June 13, 2010

Don't Take the 'R' out of the NHPRC

In the efforts to reduce the Federal budget to meet the economic crisis facing the nation, one of the programs in jeopardy is a small grant program that has gone a long way towards helping preserve some of the most precious documentary treasures in our culture.  What follows is the story of one of the key documents that convinced Congress to place the 'R' in the National Historical Publications and Records Commission.  It is a a morality play in itself, as it was one of those treasures that did not benefit from the grant  program that it helped create.  In whatever we do to reduce the cost of government we should be wary of further endangering the cultural heritage upon which our democracy is based.  In establishing priorities for the spending of tax dollars at all levels of government, we cannot afford to neglect the very means by which we learn about past accomplishments and failures.  They are our guideposts to helping us move forward and overcoming the severe economic limitations of the present.  The grant program of the NHPRC for the preservation of state and local records must continue to be one of those key means of guiding the way to a better future for all of us.

The First Volume of the
Town Records of Macedon, New York (1823-1851)
and its Maryland Connections


All meaningful history is local in nature.  It is through local connections and local examples that the fabric of American Society is best explained and understood as long as they are connected and placed in the context of the collective history of the nation.  Macedon New York did not exist in isolation. Those who lived and worked there, and those who passed through, left trails of connectivity to the major and minor issues of the day.  In the period covered by this first volume of the Macedon Town Records, there are are ties to model philosophies of local government, general education, and the ultimately successful efforts to remove the stain of slavery from the nation that deserve further exploration and accurate story telling.

This mold-stained, water damaged  volume of the first records of the town of Macedon is a survivor,  symbolic of the resilience of the local body politic to changing times.  Most of it is nearly legible, despite its neglect over the years. Salvaged once in the1970s and used to convince a local congressman to sponsor legislation designed to save it and other precious public records from further decay, the legislation passed to great fanfare, only to see this volume relegated to a bottom drawer in a file cabinet where it was later inundated by water from a nearby bathroom.  Sally Millick, working with Judy Gravino, the Macedon town clerk, and others who realized the importance of the history it contained, were determined that this time the volume would get proper attention and a permanent archival home.  A conservator cleaned and stabilized the contents.  Kirtas Technologies, Inc., with support from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints,  scanned the pages for the bound volume reprint edition of which this introduction is a part. The Maryland State Archives, scanned the conserved pages for an on-line ebook, and rebound the original in protective polyester for the Town of Macedon as a permanent memorial to a former Macedon Town Attorney, Supervisor, and Wayne County District Attorney, John M. Wilson, and his aunt Sara E. Wilson, who, in the 1960s, saved it from being lost altogether.

The journey to save this priceless volume documenting the first decades of town government in Macedon New York began for me in 1962 with the sudden death of my uncle John M. Wilson who had just been elected district attorney for Wayne County.  He had given Sara E. Wilson the volume along with a 1904 atlas and an 1877 history of Wayne County for safekeeping, which she in turn passed on to me to see to their preservation and use. 


In 1973 my career path led to becoming the Assistant State Archivist for Maryland, after having worked in the offices of Congresswoman Jessica McCullough Weis and Frank Horton (both of whom represented Macedon in Congress), and at the American Historical Association (AHA).  While at the AHA, I served as liaison and staff to a committee headed by Charles Lee, Archivist of South Carolina, that was determined to expand the the role of the National Historical Publications Commission (NHPC) to include the preservation of  records, particularly state and local records.  I convinced my former employer, Frank Horton, the then ranking minority member on the Government Operations Committee of the House of Representatives, to co-sponsor the legislation in the House along with his chairman.  I was able to do so in part by showing him this volume and suggesting that once I had it properly boxed at my own expense, he might want to give it back to the town in a special ceremony at the dedication of the then new canal park on July 3, 1973.  He liked the idea and combined the presentation back to the town with a press release explaining the importance of the new legislation placing the 'R' in the NHPC.  Unfortunately the recipients, the Macedon Historical Society, did not have the resources at the time to care for it properly, and eventually it was relegated to a bottom drawer of a file cabinet at their headquarters that became rusted shut after a plumbing accident.

While not all the pages of the volume are legible here, the recent advances in technology raise hopes that even more will be readable in the future once the techniques of imaging have been refined by Roger Easton, Bill Christens-Barry, Fennella France, and their colleagues.  Fortunately the ink used in the writing of the volume has left a residue that may be possible to extract  in greater detail, although the process at the moment needs further testing and is currently very expensive. 

The journey of the town records from Macedon to Maryland and back, is the story of the quest to preserve permanently the rich local history of the past and to place it in the context of  the struggle to establish a government responsive to the needs and dreams of all its citizens.

The volume itself is but a bare outline of the concerns and actions of local town government in Macedon from 1823, when it was part of Ontario County, until the prosperous pre-civil war years of the 1850s, by which time it had been incorporated into Wayne County. It records the outcome of local elections and provides insight into who was charged with administering local affairs including the assessment of property and the collection of taxes.  Cattle and sheep marks are recorded to help recognize who owned wandering animals and  to help prevent theft.  It concerns itself with roads, schools and the outline of who was elected to conduct the town's business from 1823 to 1851.  Clearly the emphasis in this volume is keeping the roads in good order, resolving disputes over where roads ran, and meeting the educational requirements of the State which called for uniform school districts with overseers, supervisors, standard text books and an accounting of the students served.  Indeed periodically the text books to be found in the school district libraries were listed in this volume.  My grandmother Pearl Wilson (sister-in-law of Sara E. Wilson) was the last teacher at Macedon District #4 school house. She salvaged a couple of the original texts from the trash which she passed on to me, including a well worn copy of one of arithmetic primers listed in the earliest accounting of texts (Nathan Daboll's Schoolmaster's Assistant owned by Orran Green of Macedon), and book no. 67, District No. 4, which is an 1840 history of Spain and Portugal featuring a glowing chapter on the period of African rule over Spain.

The traditions of  education and local government found here are largely New England in origin with the town meeting at the center of local affairs, the town clerk charged with recording all actions of the meeting, and the justices of the peace left to keep the peace among neighbors. Yet no matter how bare the outline,  the stories this volume helps tell of family and place, and their geographical reach is far greater than it first might seem.

Macedon and its residents in the period covered by this volume were active players in the movement to abolish slavery and promote citizenry among all Americans regardless of color.  The Erie Canal brought farmers and nurserymen to the town with its fulfilled promise of affordable transportation of goods and services.  Crops, fruits, and manufactured goods made their way to Albany and beyond.  It was a time of growth and optimism in which religion played a major role.  Macedon was in what came to be known as the 'burnt over region' for the large number of proselytizing religious groups that lived there.  Among them were the Quakers who allied themselves with the increasingly activist and vocal anti-slavery movement.

The Quaker emphasis was on education, improving responsive and responsible local government, and a political end to slavery.  Their chief supporter in all these efforts in Macedon was Gerrit Smith who brought his Liberty Party Convention to Macedon in June of 1847, and Frederick Douglass, the former slave from Maryland who moved  to Rochester the following December.  In Macedon, Gerrit Smith was allied with Asa Smith and his son William R. Smith, who lived across from each other on what is now the Victor road . The house has been identified as still standing by local historians Charles Lenhart and Marjorie Perez. It clearly deserves recognition on the National Register of Historic places, as well as an explanation on the New York web site devoted to the underground railroad.  Judy Wellman, Sally Millick, Charles Lenhart, Wayne County historian Peter Evans, former Wayne County Historian Marjorie Perez and Sue Jane Evans of the Pultneyville Historical Society in fact deserve enormous credit and praise for their efforts to rediscover the Abolitionists, UGRR agents and Afro-American history in Wayne County.  Without their aid and careful research the importance of the connections between Macedon and Maryland would remain broken and forgotten.

With backing from Gerrit Smith and personal visits from Douglass, William R. Smith opened a school in his home for runaway slaves and former slaves to aid them on their way to freedom in Canada and to prepare some who remained for the Abolitionist lecture circuit, part of the 7,000 sought by the Liberty Party as teachers and civil activists.  Willliam R. Smith would later be the unsuccessful Liberty Party candidate for governor of New York, and would fall victim to the stringent Fugitive Slave Law that came in 1850 as a Southern reaction to the increasing success of the underground railroad movement in arousing the ire and fear of slave owners with regard to the loss of their labor force.


Gerrit Smith's allies took a different tact from the abolitionists led by William Lloyd Garrison (himself a former Marylander whose mother continued to live in Baltimore until her death).  Garrison  believed the Constitution created slavery and ought to be ignored, instructing his supporters to not participate in the political process, but to work to overthrow it.  Gerrit Smith believed in working within the system to a degree, mounting a political party of his own, and ultimately serving a term in Congress as an independent.  As he did not recognize human beings as property, he conscienced aiding and abetting their escape from slavery, working at the same time to change the laws that legitimized the institution in some states, and to mount a campaign of education that would unlock the minds and promote the citizenry of  the enslaved.

For four days in June, 1847, the town of Macedon was the the center of  the political universe, at least for those abolitionists who had formed their own political movement which they called the Liberty Party.  There they nominated Gerrit Smith for President of the United States.  Their proposed reforms extended to the abolition of the post office monopoly opening it up to competition, a measure that would not be enacted for over another century, but their main issue was slavery.  "We hold slavery to be illegal and unconstitutional, and that the Federal Government is bound to secure its abolition by the guaranty, to every State in this Union, of a republican form of government.  If the South demurs, let her, peacefully, withdraw from the Union."   "Give us seven thousand men in this great nation who will hold up by their votes and their teachings, the great fundamental principles and objects of civil government, as God and nature have established them, and we are fully persuaded that it will be the most powerful political party in the nation or the world.  It will be a great teacher of the long neglected but vitally important sciences of civil government, of political morality, of political economy."

William R. Smith was inspired by the principles set forth by the Liberty Party, and would stand as its candidate for Governor, but he was also a man of action who believed that education was the key to good citizenship.  Throughout this first volume of Macedon town records there is a constant refrain that there were no colored students attending Macedon schools,  yet they were taught at William R. Smith's home on the Victor road. Because the Macedon school for free and runaway Negroes founded by William R. Smith, and funded by the Presidential candidate of the Liberal Party, Gerrit Smith, was, in the eyes of Federal law, illegal when it  aided runaway slaves, little has survived of the actual records of the school.  It is known that  in 1848 Smith taught the two recently freed Edmon[d]son sisters, seen below in plaid wraps and bonnets, at a Liberal Party/Abolitionist rally attended by Frederick Douglass.

From the J. Paul Getty Collections, originally owned by Jackie Napoleon Wilson


William R. Smith also welcomed Myrtilla Minor to his home and school as possibly a teacher or at least to be inspired by her association with him and his friends. From correspondence on line from the Clements Library written from Macedon, Minor outlined her future plans as a teacher.  She went on, with support from abolitionist friends, to found the first school for Free Blacks in the District of  Columbia, where she was joined for a time by Emily Edmon[d]son.

It is also known that William R. Smith had a close working relationship with Frederick Douglass, and probably played a role with the Gerrit Smith and Amy Post families in weaning him away from the radical abolitionist policies of  William Lloyd Garrison to the ideals of  Smith and the Liberty Party.  It is not known when Frederick Douglass first met William R. Smith, but by September 11, 1849, he was writing from Macedon  on his way to attend the funeral of Hannah Sexton, wife of a prominent Quaker Banker who held mortgages on many of the farms and nurseries in Macedon and Palmyra.  At least one letter survives from William R. Smith to Douglass in the fall of 1851 which was published in the Frederick Douglass' Paper, when Smith was deeply immersed in the William Chaplin case. In July 1852, Douglass probably went to Smith's house in Macedon to "spend a day ...with a view to aid him in drawing up a statement of the facts in the case [of William Chaplin's default in raising repayment of the bond for his release from prison]."

The story of  the Macedon Abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, the Edmon[d]son sisters and Willliam Chaplin are very much a part of the fabric of the history encompassed by these town minutes.  William R. Smith serves as Inspector of the Common Schools in 1833, 1837, and 1838, and at times an overseer of the roads. William R. Smith's father, Asa, appears in the records as one of the first Assessors as well as often as an overseer of the roads, and as a Commissioner and Inspector of Common Schools. To obtain a fuller account  of Macedon's participation in the effort to abolish slavery, the record needs to be expanded to encompass the lives of those that Gerrit and William  R. Smith took under their wings, sheltering and seeking to teach them to read, write, and be well informed citizens.  The road to freedom leads back to Maryland,  where the citizens of Macedon came face to face with the evils of slavery and engaged their enemy. The records they left behind not only document the road to freedom, they provide an expanded insight into the operations of the legal system in Maryland and the charitable giving of Marylanders in a State where slavery was legal until 1864, and supporters of slavery controlled most aspects of the political world.

Two good books have been written about the ship Pearl, one by Josephine F. Pacheco and the other by Mary Kay Ricks. Abolitionists chartered it with the intent of aiding slaves working in Washington D. C. to escape to freedom.  In the Spring of 1848 seventy-six slaves fled on Pearl, but were caught on the Potomac by a chasing steamship when the wind failed.  On board were the Edmon[d]son sisters, Mary and Emily, children of a free black Maryland farmer and his slave wife (slavery descended through the mother).  As punishment for attempting to escape, the sisters were about to be sold into prostitution at New Orleans, when they were purchased with funds raised by the Abolitionists who had encouraged them to flee in the first place.  Further fund raising efforts by such as Henry Ward Beecher, brother to the future author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, to assist in their education, floundered until a benefactor, possibly General William Chaplin, came to their aid, sending them in 1849 to attend William R. Smith's school in Macedon. It may even be that the mulato woman with the last name of Chaplin in the William R. Smith household on the 1850 census was related to General Chaplin, or perhaps was a false name given the census taker for an escaped slave who happened to be there when the census was taken. For whatever reason, Chaplin became increasingly aggressive in his efforts to free Washington slaves, aiding Garland and Allen, the body servants of Congressman Robert Augustus Toombs and Senator Alexander H. Stephens to escape by coach one night in the summer of 1850, probably on their way to William R. Smith's farm.  They were caught on the edge of the District of Columbia, and shots were fired. Ultimately it was determined that they had passed into Maryland (the penalties were harsher there) and jurisdiction over the case was transferred to Maryland courts.  William R. Smith wrote a a spirited defense of his erstwhile friend Chaplin, attacking the Maryland court system and complaining that excessive bail was used as an unconstitutional deterrent.  When Chaplin refused to raise funds to help pay back the bond that set him free (nearly $2,000 in a day when a normal bond for allegedly attempting to steal property would not have exceeded $250), Smith and Frederick Douglass pondered what they should do next. It was to no avail.  In the meantime, Congress had passed the fugitive slave law which meant that those aiding and abetting escaped slaves faced harsh punishment and the effective use of the courts to suppress those who aided escaping slaves.  It is perhaps no coincidence that when William R. Smith's daughter ran off with a farm hand, and he forcibly brought her back, that he was charged with kidnapping and pursued vigorously in the courts to the point where he was forced to leave Macedon.  In 1854 he left and put his Macedon farm, Hillside, up for sale in the Country Gentleman.
The Country Gentleman, Volume 3
Edited by Luther Tucker and John J. Thomas
Published by Luther Tucker, No. 395 Broadway, Corner of Hudson Street, Albany , N.Y.
January to July 1854, p. 130

Smith ultimately ended up in California, after first relocating to Delaware and the Midwest.  The farm hand certainly did not have the resources to pursue the kidnapping charge against Smith.  Funding may well have come from pro-slavery elements intent on suppressing the educational efforts of Smith and his friends.

The tradition of protecting and advancing the rights of others continued in Macedon, long after William R. Smith found it necessary to leave.  As migrant labor from the South became increasingly important to the planting and harvesting of crops throughout Wayne County in the 20th century, relations between migrants and farmers at time became strained.  John M. Wilson , Macedon Town Attorney and Supervisor before he was elected Wayne County District Attorney, was assigned the defense of a migrant worker accused of murdering his employer.  My earliest memories of  the court house in Lyons are attending the trial in which  my uncle defended Moses Tunstill.  He lost the case at trial, but believed so strongly that justice had not been served that he appealed as Moses's pro-bono lawyer.  He won  the appeal, Moses was freed, and the case  today stands as a precedent  in  N.Y. for the administration of justice to the accused.

All meaningful history is local in nature, but to ensure that meaning is extracted, local records must be preserved and accessible for persistent consultation, review, and extrapolation to stories that engage, intrigue, and educate an ever-growing audience of readers. 

This volume is a survivor. With its restoration to the town, comes a lesson hopefully learned.  We need to better preserve and care for the fragmentary evidence of the past, if we are to chart a better course for the future.  Both the original of this volume and its images need to be placed in a safe and secure environment in which its pages can be transcribed, edited, and annotated in a manner that engages as many interested parties as possible and saves the results in a permanent, update-able, readily accessible, and search-able format. 

As a tribute to the Maryland connections, I have placed the electronic images in an ebook that can be edited, annotated, and improved over time as part of the permanent electronic archives of the State of Maryland at:
http://mdhistory.net/macedon_ny/macedon_ny_town_records/html/index.html. When better images become available, they will be added, and as pages are transcribed and edited they will be accessible through the universally available search engines of Google, Bing, and their successors.

NOTE: First posted June 13, 2010; corrections August 18, 2010, and November 27, 2010, with particular appreciation to Charles Lenhart without whose detailed notes and erudite observations this essay introduction to the first Volume of Macedon Town Records would not have been possible.  Much of the research on the W.R. Smith site and Smith is documented and derived from Judith Wellman and Marjory Allen Perez, with Charles Lenhart and others, Survey of Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Wayne County, New York, 1820-1880 (Lyons, New York: Wayne County Historian's Office, 2009), which is excerpted here with permission of the authors. Judith Wellman also recommends Stanley Harrold's Subversives: The Anti-Slavery Community in Washington, D.C., 1828-1865 (2003) on the Edmonson sisters.  The records were returned to the Town of Macedon in a special ceremony before the town board on September 23, 2010. My comments included a charge to the Board reported in the Wayne Post:

“These volumes don’t just simply represent the essence of democracy here, the way in which you all attempt to give the services to the people of this town that they deserve. They also are very much connected with the fabric of the whole of American history. I charge you with the responsibility of seeing to their permanent and long term care and preservation and of making them accessible, but also to help use them in such a way that they teach each generation the importance of local government.”
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For the ebook version of this essay and access to the on line version of the first volume of the Macedon Town Records where any one interested can assist in transcription, go here.

2 comments:

Devorah Tarrow said...

Thank you, thank you, for your research. You do all UGRR researchers a great favor. Devorah Tarrow

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