Geography of New York State

A Geographer’s Perspective
Timothy McDonnell
New York Geographic Alliance
Route Map of the UGRR
What about New York State? It couldn’t be that simple!
• This map by A.C. Flick
shows more escape
routes to Canada;
• Hudson-MohawkNiagara
• Susquehanna RiverFinger Lakes
• Lake Erie-Niagara
• Hudson-Champlain
• What other possibilities
are there?
Comparing the
Physical Landscapes
New York
• Ohio (and other Mid-Western
States) have a low-relief
• New York State has several
mountain ranges, with narrow
valleys in between.
• This forces escape routes along
a few distinct pathways, with a
limited number of deviations
• Another challenge was crossing
through Pennsylvania’s
Appalachian Mts.
New York’s Glacial Landscape
• Like everywhere on
Earth, New York’s
landscape was carved
by plate tectonics and
millions of years of
• In the last million years,
New York was invaded
several times by
massive ice sheets.
• This created a
landscape “fit” for an
Empire State.
The New Landscape!
There are probably thirty N-S
troughs in New York State.
If you travel eastward
along US Route 20
(or 20A) between
Albany and Buffalo,
you cross many of
them, as you go up
and down steep hills.
Some are filled with
…the Finger Lakes!
The Great Lakes
The Great Lakes form a natural boundary between the
United States and British Canada.
Spillover Channels:
Draining lakes formed by the
melting glaciers
Natural Corridors
• The flood waters from
the melting glaciers
carved an escape route
to the sea.
• At one point most of the
drainage went to New
York City.
• This helped create
three natural corridors:
Hudson Fjord,
Champlain Valley, and
the Mohawk River.
Routes that make sense…
From a Physical Geographic point of view!
The Susquehanna Corridor
• The Susquehanna River
(and its tributaries) have
carved another break
through the Appalachian
• This was a third escape
route that led into NY’s
Southern Tier and
• Glacial troughs in the
Finger Lakes Region
extend this pathway
north and west toward
Two More Routes…
Tug Hill
Underground Railroad Map 1
How is the fit?
The Human Factor
• Where is New York
in relationship to
other “free” states
and to the “slave”
• Does this separation
have an impact on
the UGRR in New
York State?
• What groups of
people were
involved in this very
illegal activity?
• What means of
were used?
• Did all routes lead
to Canada? Was it a
two-way door?
The Quakers
• The Society of Friends was the first organized
religious group to ban slave-holding.
• They soon aided Freedom Seekers in their escape
from slavery.
• The Quakers were especially active on Long Island
and in eastern New York State.
Quaker Communities in NYS
The Comeouter Churches
• Charles G. Finney led the
Second Great Awakening
in New York State.
• These evangelicals
considered slavery to be a
sin, and they were
committed abolitionists.
• They separated from
traditional churches to form
their own comeouter
places of worship.
Where were these churches?
Source: Strong, Perfectionist Politics
Can we assume that comeouters were UGRR people, too?
African-Americans in NYS
• Slavery was introduced
into New Netherlands in
the mid-1600s.
• It remained an entrenched
institution until after the
• Slavery was finally
abolished in NYS in 1827.
• New York had a
substantial free-black
population before the Civil
War, especially in the
downstate region.
The Distribution of AfricanAmerican Communities
Even tiny communities could be safe havens!
African-American Churches
Michigan St., Buffalo
Park Street,
St. James, Ithaca
Zion Church,
Favor St. AME,
UGRR Map #2- Combined
How is the fit?
Transportation Used on UGRR
• Freedom Seekers
certainly walked
hundreds of miles on
the quest for liberty.
• By the 1800s, New
York had a system of
roads that led across
the state.
• There were those who
assisted them
(wagons, carriages).
Escape by Water
• Another legacy of the Ice
Age are the numerous
waterways throughout
New York State.
• Freedom Seekers would
follow streams to the
next stations.
• In 1807, Robert Fulton
launched his steamboat,
and soon there were
many “stowaways.”
Crossing the Great Lakes
• Lake Ontario and Lake
Erie form a long border
with Canada.
• In the mid-1800s many
steamboats carried
passengers and “freight”
over to “Canaan.”
• The celebrated Jerry
Rescue ended with his
boarding a steamer in
The Grand Erie Canal
• The construction of the Erie Canal revolutionized travel
in New York.
• It provided easy transportation for fugitives, and many
people willing to help them. Many UGRR stations were
close to the canal routes.
• The canal brought “subversive” ideas - like abolition
and equal rights for all citizens.
The Above-Ground Railroad
The Fugitive Slave Law 1850
• With the passage of the
Fugitive Slave Law, no
African-American was
safe south of Canada.
• The law mandated that
everyone help in the
recapture of runaways.
• Many free blacks fled
north of the border.
• But not everyone! How
can this be explained?
What Does Census Data Tell Us?
A Hypothetical Escape
• Freedom Seeker is
sent to New York City
by William Still in
• He is sent to Brooklyn
(Lafayette Church) and
to Queens with the
• A boat takes him across
the Sound to
Westchester County.
The Hudson Valley
• The Quakers decide it
is safest to send the
Freedom Seeker to
Tarrytown’s black
• They direct him north to
Peekskill. A tunnel
leads him to the river
and he stows away on
a steamer to Albany.
Into the Mohawk Valley…
• Stephen and Harriet Myers home was a few blocks
from the harbor.
• They put him on a train bound west along the
Mohawk. He gets off at Rome.
• A conductor there takes him by wagon to Peterboro,
home of famed abolitionist Gerrit Smith.
Central New York Trail
Canal Country
• The escape route
lead north to the
Erie Canal in
Wayne County.
• Palmyra was an
crossroads with
several safe
• This Freedom
Seeker was sent
north toward Lake
The Last Leg of the Journey
• Using drumlins as compasses, the Freedom Seeker walks
• He receives shelter in Marion, and then is sent by wagon
to Griffith Cooper’s home near Williamson.
• Then he follows Salmon Creek to Pultneyville, where he is
hidden by the Cuylers. Horatio Throop’s ship takes him
to Kingston, Canada.
But did it end there?
• Many Freedom Seekers
embraced Canada as their
new home.
• But census records show
that many returned to the
free states near Canada,
such as New York.
• Our “fugitive” could have
married a free-born
woman, and then had
children born in New York.
Any Other Routes?
“Was my house on the
• There is no substitute for
doing the research from
primary sources.
• But also consider this:
Does it make geographic
• Does the Abel Post
Home meet this criteria?
Does it fit in with any
patterns discussed in this
session today?
Thank You for Attending this
For more information visit my website at: and for lessons on the
UGRR in New York State (and this power point) at
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