When it comes to America’s Civil War era, it is assumed by many that the northern states largely opposed slavery, while the south supported the practice. In Maine, there is plentiful evidence of Underground Railroad safe houses scattered through the state up to Canada and, of course, the legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe, famed writer of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” But according to author Mark Alan Leslie, the Pine Tree State’s history isn’t entirely as pearly as those facts may suggest.

“Here in Maine we like to think that our ancestors were all against slavery,” Leslie said. “Well, that’s not the case, because so much of the slave trade affected Maine … Some say that the majority were pro-slavery in this state.”

Leslie penned the novel “True North: Tice’s Story” that follows a 19-year-old’s escape from a Kentucky plantation to Canada along a route that includes stops in Maine. Through his research for the story, Leslie immersed himself deeply in Maine’s historical records to accurately represent the state’s role in the Underground Railroad and conflicts that existed around it at the time. He presented some of his findings at a well-attended talk at the Winslow Public Library on Thursday, Oct. 18.

According to Leslie, slave labor supported some of Maine’s most essential industries in the mid-1800s. Textile mills used cotton harvested by slaves in the southern United States, and rum distilleries in Portland — then the world’s largest producer of the alcohol — relied on sugar cane harvested by slaves in the Caribbean.

“Without (those materials), a lot of people would have been out of business,” Leslie said. “At the same time, we made ships that carried all these products around the world, so Maine was greatly affected financially by slaves.”

Knowing this context, Leslie added, the Mainers who assisted slaves in their escape to freedom faced great danger. If caught, individuals could be fined substantially or jailed.

“If you were part of the Underground Railroad or helping slaves escape, you had to really watch your back and watch your neighbors to make sure that no one saw what you were doing,” Leslie said.

To secretly convey that runaway slaves could safely stay at a location, individuals used a variety of tactics. Some incorporated African or masonic symbols they had learned into quilt patterns. As was common at the time, families would then hang the quilts outside to dry, where they were visible to passersby, including fleeing slaves in the area. Chimneys painted white with black rims around the top also indicated a safe house. Lawn jockeys — now widely considered racist objects — were used as markers on the Underground Railroad as well. Leslie noted that most people are unaware of this connection.

Word traveled fast along the Underground Railroad, effectively turning these symbols into a successful language. “The slave grapevine was very potent,” Leslie said.

In the greater Waterville area, Leslie said that there was “a lot of activity.” Noted safe houses included the First Baptist Church on Park Street (Waterville College’s chapel at the time), the Episcopal Parish House on Dresden Avenue in Gardiner, and several residences in China, Vassalboro, Belgrade, Palmyra, Gardiner and Augusta. Often, runaways would arrive in Portland or Bath by boat and journey northward.

The state’s current capital housed two key nodes of Underground Railroad routes in Maine, the Nason and Reuel Williams houses, according to Charles Blockson’s 1994 edition of “Hippocrene Guide to The Underground Railroad.”

The Williams House has since been demolished, but the Nason House remains standing at 12 Sumner St. in Augusta.

“Behind a large bookcase in the Nason House is a removable panel that opens to a hidden room large enough to hide two slaves,” Blockson writes. “This room led to the cellar, through which the fugitives could exit.”

Leslie added that “slaves are said to have been guided from here to the Reuel Williams House across the river and then to the Farwell Mansion just over the Vassalboro line and the Abel Chadwick House here in China.”

The Farwell Mansion on Riverside Drive — now a private residence — was named for its original owner, Ebenezer Farwell, who was, ironically, a slave trader in the mid-1800s. After Israel Weeks bought the property, he opened up a tunnel into the cellar to house runaways along their journey north.

China’s Abel and Elizabeth Chadwick lived somewhere on State Route 3, at an address unknown to historians, according to an “Underground Railroad in New England” publication by the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration. In a letter to a researcher dated March 1897, one of the Chadwick sons wrote: “(China) was a town quite largely occupied by Quakers, who early entered heartily into the movement against slavery. There were several Quakers who were conspicuous in the movement, the most prominent being Eli Jones and Sybil his wife. The town adjoining — Vassalboro — was also prominent in the movement against slavery, Oliver Webber being the most conspicuous of its citizens.”

Despite these records, documentation of the state’s ties to the Underground Railroad is fairly sparse, and most knowledge stems from anecdotal tales or accidental discoveries.

“There isn’t a lot of information because it was kept secret,” said Michelle Brann, a reference librarian at the Maine State Library.

Leslie echoed this sentiment.

“It’s funny because wherever I go to speak, people come up and say, ‘Did you know that there is a safe house down in Camden?’ or ‘We have a safe house in Wiscasset, Castle Tucker.'”

Leslie most recently learned of a safe house in Benton, the Eames House, after chatting to people who attended his talk at the Winslow Public Library.

Other notable sites in Maine connected to this history include Friends Church in Maple Grove, one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad before Canada; the Abyssinian Meeting House in Portland, a haven for black communities since 1828; and the Holyoke House in Brewer. The Holyoke House gained notoriety in 1995 after the Maine Department of Transportation tore it down to build a bridge from Brewer to Bangor despite local efforts to protect the building.

In central Maine, Leslie noted that Somerset, Kennebec and Waldo counties, as well as Waterville College, each had anti-slavery societies. Several prominent abolitionists hailed from the state, including Paris and Bangor’s Hannibal Hamlin, a vice president to Abraham Lincoln; Albion’s Elijah Lovejoy; Hallowell’s Austin Willey; and Portland’s Samuel Fessenden.

“The folks of central Maine were very much involved in conducting the slaves northward and out of the States,” Leslie said. “It’s a great history, and one that not a lot of people know about or are taught about in school.”

He added that the legacy of slavery will always be relevant, citing human trafficking as a modern iteration of the practice.

“It’s never left us,” he said. “The whole slave story has not left us.”

Meg Robbins — 861-9239

[email protected]

@megrobbins

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