(Originally appeared in Bethesda Magazine)
On April 16, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law an act to end slavery in Washington, D.C.—more than eight months before the Emancipation Proclamation. News of the coming abolition in D.C. had spread through nearby Maryland slave communities. Word eventually reached Lewis Swams in his quarters near Sandy Spring. He and six other slaves worked at “Rose Hill,” Deborah Canby’s farm.
That April, Swams planned his escape to Washington, where he would blend in with the free black community awaiting District emancipation. But first he needed to free his wife, Minty, and their two children from their enslavement on the farm of Francis Bowie in Prince George’s County. The journey was treacherous. Slave patrols traversed the countryside, reaping rewards for the capture of runaways.
Under the secrecy of night, with the Patuxent River as his guide, Swams made the 20-mile trip to the Bowie farm. He spirited away his family and headed for Washington. But the Swams’ escape attempt failed. Minty and her children were returned to the Bowie farm; her punishment is unknown.
On April 11, a court found Swams guilty of “assisting slaves to run away,” sentencing him to 12 years in the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore City. His sentence exceeded many of the terms imposed upon first- and second-degree murderers, who received 10 years or less.Swams’ worth was set at $350, which the court delivered to Deborah Canby as compensation for labor lost by her slave’s incarceration.
Swams entered the Maryland Penitentiary on April 23, prisoner number 5682. Poor health exempted him from working in the prison yards. Insanitary conditions and overcrowding at the penitentiary worsened his infirmity. Less than four months into his sentence, Swams died in jail at age 40.
His 12-year sentence reflected Maryland’s harsh attitude toward accomplices of slave flight. But the prospect of imprisonment did not dissuade a determined band of Montgomery County residents who, by the 1830s, had created a secret network that offered safe haven to slaves fleeing northward. That network joined up with others in the state and nation to form one of the most vital legs of what became known as the “Underground Railroad.” Free blacks and white abolitionists suspected or apprehended for aiding fugitive slaves risked losing everything, and jeopardized the safety of their family and neighbors. Courage was needed to guide fugitive slaves to freedom or to offer shelter for even one day.
Historians have estimated that 40,000 to 100,000 slaves escaped to freedom via the Underground Railroad, a complex network that began in the slaveholding states of the Deep South, crossed Virginia, traveled through Washington, D.C., and Maryland, and then headed toward free states such as Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York before finally reaching the Canadian border. Along the way, safe houses, churches, natural landmarks and river routes guided fugitive slaves who were traveling mostly under the cover of night.
Reaching Pennsylvania and the Northern states did not guarantee safety after the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 legalized the pursuit and capture of slaves even in free states. Many escapees headed for Canada, which was out of reach of the slave patrols and bounty hunters. Fleeing slaves who were caught could be returned to their owner for punishment or, the worst fear, put up for auction and sold to the cotton fields of the South, torn from friends and family.
The role of Montgomery County residents in the Underground Railroad is almost purely speculative, with stories passed down through generations. Most members of the railroad operated in silence, and even after emancipation, few gave up their secret. But from all indications, there was one area in Montgomery County that served as a station: the Quaker community of Sandy Spring.
By the middle of the 18th century, Quaker leaders in Philadelphia had rejected the practice of slavery and threatened congregations with excommunication if their members refused to emancipate. After 1781, Quakers in the Sandy Spring community who failed to free their slaves were disowned. Some owners were unrepentant, but most complied, and in the process made the Quakers of Sandy Spring the most cohesive anti-slavery group in Montgomery County.
“Bloomington,” the Bentley family home in Sandy Spring, reportedly served as a stop along the railroad. Long-time resident Rebecca Miller, in the Annals of Sandy Spring, a journal of town goings-on that began publication in the 19th century, recalled the story of how Richard Bentley was reading late one night when he heard a noise at a window. He saw a familiar black face, a man he knew to be a slave on a nearby farm. When Bentley opened the door, the man asked, ‘‘Mr. Bentley, can you please point me out the North Star?” For many slaves, it was a celestial guide to freedom.
According to historian Anthony Cohen, the free black communities north of Sandy Spring, off of Brooke Road, also became important components of the Underground Railroad in the county. Escapees could be concealed effectively by fellow blacks, perhaps more so than by white Quaker landholders who were already suspected of being pro-abolition. The entire neighborhood shared the responsibilities of assisting fleeing slaves on their road to freedom.
At their peak in 1810, enslaved blacks accounted for more than 40 percent of the population of Montgomery County—7,575 slaves out of a total population of 18,000. Slaveholding was spread throughout the county, and while western Montgomery County harbored the most slaves, some of the largest slaveholders in the 18th century had been Quakers living in the Sandy Spring area: Evan Thomas, the head of the Sandy Spring Friends community, owned 200 slaves, while John Thomas had more than 100.
Saturday night was popular for escapes, because slaveholders often exempted slaves from work on Sunday. The missing could remain unnoticed until Monday, giving them a day’s head start. Slaves also often escaped during holidays, when their absence was more likely to go undetected for a longer period of time.
It was on a Saturday in 1856 that Alfred Homer fled from Dr. John Anderson’s farm just northwest of Rockville. Although it was spring, the weather was rough, with drought and unusual cold spells forcing Montgomery County farmers to “replant as many as three times,” noted the Baltimore Sun.
Anderson placed an advertisement in the Montgomery County Sentinel offering a $100 reward for the capture of the runaway slave. He described Homer as “about 22 years of age; 5 feet 7 inches high; dark copper color, and rather good looking.”
Despite facing extreme weather and relentless reward-seekers on the hunt, Homer made his way northward, passing through safe houses in Montgomery and Frederick counties, crossing into Pennsylvania and, after two harrowing weeks, finally reaching Philadelphia. There, he sought the help of noted black abolitionist and businessman William Still and his Vigilance Committee, founded in 1850 to assist runaway slaves. Some have dubbed Still “The Father of the Underground Railroad,” and he worked with agents in Washington, D.C., and Maryland to set up a network to freedom. Famed railroad conductor Harriet Tubman often found sanctuary in Still’s office.
Tubman herself had escaped enslavement in Maryland, fleeing to Philadelphia, but immediately returned to help liberate and lead dozens of slaves to safety—and then help them find work. She was nicknamed “Moses.”
In 1855, slave Adam Brooks escaped from John Phillips’ farm just west of Poolesville in an area known as “Hardtown.” Brooks found his way to Still and the Vigilance Committee in Philadelphia, where, according to committee minutes, he reported it his “duty to break his fetters and seek his freedom in Canada.” Phillips had sold Brooks’ mother, brother and sister only two years before, and constantly threatened to sell Brooks, as well. Brooks declared his master “was not only a hard man, as a driver on the farm, but at heart actually a bad man.”
The Vigilance Committee believed that Brooks, because of his strength and vitality, could endure the arduous and physical requirements of fleeing to Canada. Brooks left the committee with a ticket for the Underground Railroad and a new identity, William Smith.
That same year, Anne Marie Weems became another Montgomery slave who followed the railroad northward to freedom. It was a Sunday in 1855 that, at the age of fifteen Weems ran away from her owner, Charles M. Price. Weems was disguised as a male and traveled under the name “Joe Wright.” She escaped south, to Washington, DC, where she hid among the free blacks for six weeks before starting the daunting journey along the Underground Railroad.
Many Maryland slaves escaping bondage traveled south through Montgomery County, following Rock Creek to Georgetown. There, sheltered by the city’s large free black community, they could either hide or further their escape by boat. In 1856, slave Edward Brannum escaped from Henry Harding’s farm outside Rockville, near Cabin John Creek. Harding believed that abolitionists had assisted Brannum’s escape “in a vessel freighted with coal from Georgetown, D.C.” The Powder Boy was one such smuggling ship that worked with Still in transporting groups of runaway slaves to Pennsylvania.
At age 13, Emily Edmonson, born in Montgomery County, fled to Georgetown with her sister Mary and four brothers and, with 77 other slaves, slipped into the hold of the Pearl, an abolitionist merchant schooner. They hid below deck, covered by the ship’s cargo. The plan was to sail down the Potomac River, then up the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River to New Jersey, a journey of nearly 225 miles.
Sometime after midnight, the vessel set sail, but poor weather hindered the journey. Two days later, an armed posse traveling by steamboat caught up with the Pearl as it lay at anchor on the Chesapeake Bay near Point Lookout in Maryland. The fugitive slaves were transported back to Washington, where they were paraded in chains. As punishment, the owners sold most of the recaptured slaves to traders who sent them to auction in the Deep South.
Emily, Mary and their brothers were transferred to a prison in Alexandria, Virginia, called the Georgia Pen. They remained there for four weeks before being transferred to Baltimore, where they were placed in a slave pen for three weeks. The six siblings then were boarded onto a steamboat bound for New Orleans, where they were marched to a showroom filled with potential slaveholders.
An epidemic of yellow fever sent the girls back to Baltimore, then to Washington, where they were employed in washing and ironing during the day, and imprisoned by the slave traders at night. The girls’ free black father, Paul Edmonson, negotiated with the traders for the gradual purchase of Emily and Mary for a total of $2,250. It was stipulated that they would be returned to the South if the amount was not paid. Their father traveled to New York, where he was advised to see the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher—brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin—about raising the necessary funds for his daughters’ purchase. The money was raised, and, after seven months of imprisonment, the girls were freed on Nov. 4, 1848.
On Nov. 1, 1864, following the passage of a new state constitution, all Maryland slaves were finally freed. No longer needed, the Underground Railroad in Montgomery County slipped silently into history.