Safe at Last in Cavendish was written in honor of Black History Month and drew its inspiration from information obtained during the Cavendish Historical Society’s (CHS) recording of oral histories. As the story goes, a female slave became pregnant after coming to Cavendish via the “underground railroad.” Consequently, she was given a woodlot for a homestead. It’s not clear if she ever married, but she did end up with more than one child, making her living by cleaning, cooking, sewing, doing laundry and other chores.
How factual the story is unknown. However, there is good documentation of Cavendish Civil War soldiers bringing former slaves to the community after the war. Early pictures of students in the various schoolhouses of Cavendish show black students. One such picture is from the 1921 Wheeler (Twenty Mile Stream) school that identifies a black student as James or “Sunny.” No last name was provided. We have learned that his mother was a cook at Bates Mansion. If you have other information about James, please e-mail email@example.com or call 802-226-7807.
Safe at Last in Cavendish is a fictionalized account of how a female slave could have ended up here and contains a number of facts about the town’s role in the abolitionist movement. Following the story is more Cavendish history.
Safe at Last in Cavendish
Dedicated to Marsha, a descendant of one of the first free black families in Vermont.
Bathed in spring sunshine, this was the first time in six months that Marsha felt she could relax. While the steady clop of the horses, and the fresh country air, could just as easily lull her to sleep, Marsha instead found herself thinking back to all that had transpired for her, a runaway slave, to be traveling through Vermont.
Born on a plantation in Virginia, Marsha’s first memory took place when she was quite young. Holding her mother’s hand, and standing with the other slaves, she was required to watch the whipping of a woman that had tried to escape.
Quite large with her unborn child, the woman’s hands were tried to a tree and her dress pulled down to her waist exposing her back to the whip. With each slice, the women’s body twisted as she screamed in agonizing pain. Marsha’s mother tried to protect her from watching, but the overseer insisted, “all must watch.” With each blow, she squeezed her mother’s hand as hard as she could.
Before the required lashes had been administered, a neighbor happened to drive by and witnessed the beating. “What you doing that for?” He called out.
Without missing a beat, the overseer replied, “She’s a runaway.”
“You keep on beating her like that and she’s going to die and you’ll be out her and the slave she’s carrying.”
Pausing briefly, the overseer turned and waving the whip said, “Mind your own affairs before I turn this on you.”
With the next blow, the woman didn’t scream as she had fainted. Her body was sagging from the tree but still the overseer continued to beat her.
Marsha never forgot that day. While the slaves showed no outward expression of what they were watching, their bodies wrecked of fear and anger. It was a smell she would remember the rest of her life.
Normally beatings and torturing of slaves were confined to the Sugar House, but because this was a “runaway” and a pregnant woman, the slave owner wanted to make her an example to the others of what happens if you tried to leave his plantation. Later her mother would tell Marsha “fore we could bring Moll back to the cabin, the Angel of Death spared she and that baby any more whippin’s.”
In time, Marsha’s mom told her more about Moll. “She was in love with the baby’s Papa, but he had been sold a few weeks before to a neighbor to settle a gambling debt. If she’d couldn’t be with her man, Moll said she’d rather die trying for hers and the baby’s freedom.”
If there was such a thing as an easy job on a plantation, Marsha was lucky enough to have it, as she worked in the house caring for the master’s daughter. Though only separated by a few years in age, Marsha had started taking care of Miss Ellie when she was probably no more than five. In time she did everything Miss Ellie required, sewing, cleaning, cooking and interestingly, her homework.
Miss Ellie hated schoolwork and did everything she could to avoid the tutors her father hired. One day infuriated by a homework assignment she turned to Marsha, as she did with most other things in her life and said, “You do it.” While Miss Ellie thought of school as a burden, Marsha took every opportunity to learn from the books her mistress lay scattered around. The tutor was quite impressed with the homework assignments but couldn’t understand why the daily schoolwork wasn’t of the same quality.
Fortunately for Marsha she was able to remain on the same plantation with her mother, who ran the kitchen. However, many of her younger siblings, particularly the boys, were sold off. Those were horrible days seeing her mother begging the master not to sell her baby, only to feel the whip for her pleadings.
When Miss Ellie married, Marsha was part of the wedding dowry and became the property of Miss Ellie’s husband. Permanently separated her mother, she thought that at least she would continue to serve Miss Ellie as she had done for the last 15 years. That was not to be. While she could be called on to help with the sewing, cooking, cleaning, or other household chores, she was used primarily as a “field hand,” for planting and harvesting. It was hard work that she was ill prepared for and the overseer was mean and heavy with the whip.
There was a silver lining to her new situation though. Marsha taught herself to make baskets, mats and other items, which she could sell and in this way start saving to buy her freedom. She also fell in love with another slave, Tom, and it wasn’t long before they “jumped the broom.”
Since marriages between slaves were not legal, a couple would jump across a broom to symbolize their union. Instead of promising “until death do us part,” they were realistic in saying, “until distance us do part” or “until the white man do us part.”
Many slave “marriages” were not love matches, but rather were used as a means to keep slaves in line and to increase profits. Because Marsha and Tom were young, their owner viewed this as a desirable match as such a union would produce more slaves. However, they only had less than a year together, when Tom was tortured and then sold when the slave owner believed he had stolen a watermelon.
Alone and newly pregnant, Marsha understood why Moll had tried to escape. The thought of remaining as the property of a man that tortured her husband when he was innocent, and destroyed her marriage was unthinkable. She had some money saved from her basket making. It certainly wasn’t enough to buy her freedom but it could be helpful in escaping. But where should she go? How could she make this happen?
The answer came quicker than she anticipated. A “conductor,” a former slave, was at a neighboring farm offering to take slaves north via the “Underground Railroad.” Modeled on the railroads that were being built in 1831, the homes and businesses where runway slaves would be temporarily housed were called "stations" and "depots" and were run by "stationmasters." Those who contributed money or goods were "stockholders," while the "conductor" was responsible for moving escaping slaves from one station to the next.
Marsha had to leave immediately with only the money she had saved and the clothes on her back. The first stop to freedom was about ten miles away. Here she remained in hiding while a message was sent to the next stationmaster. Awaiting word for when it was safe to move, she remained in a confined space. More than once she heard the patarollers’s (slave catchers) dogs as they searched for her and other missing slaves. The smell of her own fear brought back memories of what happened to Moll after her capture.
Because she had been able to bring some money with her, it was possible to purchase clothes and even a train ticket. However, the daily stress of being on the run was further added to when Marsha had a miscarriage. Loosing her last link with Tom made Marsha wonder if life was even worth living. However, her journey north connected her with people who had shared similar circumstances, and in some cases even worse. She took comfort at night, as she’d scan the night sky for the “drinking gourd” (Big Dipper) and thought of it as her personal guide to freedom.
It took many stops, hundreds of miles of walking and more than one fearful moment before Marsha reached the Vermont border.
While slaves were trying to reach Canada, Vermont became home to many either permanently or for extended periods of time. Not only the first state to prohibit slavery when it was formed in 1777, in 1806 Vermont passed a law “Act to Prevent Kidnapping,” which made it difficult for former slaves to be returned to their owners.
The town where Marsha was going sounded ideal. It was sufficient distance from the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain making it difficult for the patarollers to try and make a capture. It wasn’t worth their risk to go to far from the shoreline as Vermont prosecuted slave catchers. Cavendish was also home to Rev. Warren Skinner, Fletcher Wright, and Gov. Ryland Fletcher all part of a very strong abolitionist (anti slavery) movement. The famous abolitionist John Brown had even spent a week there in 1857.
Barely able to keep her eyes open, it was well after dark when they arrived at the Rev Skinner’s home in Proctorsville. Here Marsha spent her first night of what she considered freedom.
In the morning, she was told there was a family that needed help with household chores. Did she want to stay for a while and work? Not having to move, let alone walk for miles ever week or so, was a welcome relief to Marsha. She set to work immediately and it wasn’t long before the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months.
After about a year of living in Cavendish, Marsha became pregnant and so it was arranged for her to have a homestead. She planted large gardens each spring and at harvest time she shared her bounty with neighbors as well as with other former slaves, some of whom were brought back to Cavendish by the returning Civil War soldiers.
Life was not easy for Marsha. She wasn’t use to heavy snow and long winters. While slavery wasn’t allowed in the state, it didn’t mean that people would accept or want to be friends with a Negro. However, she was able to find work using the many skills she had learned on the plantations back in Virginia. Whether it was cooking, sewing, cleaning or weaving, what ever needed to be done, she could and would do it.
During the warmer months, Marsha would often sit outside staring at the night sky for long stretches of time. While she wondered what happened to her mother and Tom, she was also grateful for the fact her children could not be taken from her and they’d never know the whip of the overseer.
On starry nights, she would make a point of taking her children outside and pointing out the “drinking gourd.” “Ya see the two stars on the cup’s edge, they always point to the North Star. That star never changes and it always points north to freedom.” Then she would sing, “Follow the drinking gourd. For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom, if you follow the drinking gourd.”
Cavendish History: Rev. Warren Skinner was a well-known abolitionist and he did provide a place for former slaves to stay at his home, which is today the Golden Stage Inn. Ryland Fletcher, who became Governor of Vermont, was such a well-known abolitionist that John Brown spent a week or so in Cavendish. You can read the letter about Brown’s visit at the CHS blog.May 7, 1869 Rutland Herald, his visit was described as follows:
"... Hair closely cut, beard neatly shaven, tight, stiff stock around his neck, no collar, or dickey, closely fitting swallow-tailed coat ..." the newspaper described. "As soon as it was known that 'John Brown' was stopping in our village, all manifested a desire to see and hear the man ... Notice was given that he would meet the people at the school house, and at the appointed hour an audience assembled.
"We introduced the modest and unassuming old man ... He went on and told the tale of his struggles with the despotism of slavery ... We little thought then how soon 'John Brown's body' would be mouldering in the ground, but his soul was even at that hour 'marching on.'"
Contrary to rumor, Cavendish wasn’t a part of the underground railroad, since the state had outlawed slavery as part of its constitution in 1777 and passed additional legislation, which made it difficult for slave catchers (patarolles) in come this far into Vermont without being caught and prosecuted. So all those “hiding places” where people thought slaves would have hidden most likely served other purposes, such as “rum running” during the depression era, smuggling gold, or a place to cure meats, store large pots and pans etc.