Thursday, February 2, 2012

Civil War History: Was Cavendish Part of the Underground Railroad?

If you ask many in Cavendish about whether the Underground Railroad (UGRR) went through Cavendish, you will hear stories of various houses on Tarbell Hill Rd., and Twenty Mile Stream, as well as the Golden Stage Inn, that had special hiding places for fugitive slaves. However, there is no documented proof of UGRR activities in this part of Vermont and in fact, according to “The Vermont Underground Railroad Survey Report,” by Ray zirblis, because Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery, 50% of the documented escaped slaves spent a great deal of time in VT. They could safely live openly and many were brought here to work on farms.

So what about those rooms, secret tunnels and odd spaces in chimneys? Interestingly, Vermont has a very long history of smuggling, as early as 1812. Whether it was sneaking food to Canada or “rum running,” Vermonters had a variety of reasons for secret rooms. In Cavendish, there is documented proof that Glimmerstone was used in rum running during prohibition. Other spaces, such as the hidden chambers within hearths, had a specific purpose-smoking meats. A tunnel from a stream to a cellar, was very possible for operating a still, since VT had prohibition long before the rest of the country.

Cavendish has a very strong history of being anti slavery. While maybe not part of the UGRR, Cavendish and Vermont were definitely part of the “above ground” railroad. Many prominent Cavendish citizens, including Governor Ryland Fletcher, were staunch abolitionists. In fact the support was so strong for the abolitionist movement that the leading abolitionist of the day, John Brown, stayed in Proctorsville as he tried to raise money for his efforts in Kansas. Henry Bridge Atherton, a lawyer from Cavendish wrote to John Redparth, a biographer of John Brown of that visit, which appears on-line at

There were former slaves that lived in Cavendish. According to Linda Welch, CHS genealogist and author of “Families of Cavendish,” who has the letters and correspondence of both Captains French and Atherton, these men brought slaves back to Cavendish as a result of the Civil War. A probate guardianship paper dated at Cavendish, 19 July, 1864, signed by Gilbert A. Davis, Register gives George B. French guardianship of “Arthur Lewis, a colored boy, apparently about fifteen years of age now residing in said Cavendish.” Lewis was rescued by George French in Virginia during the early years of the Civil War, and stayed with him at different headquarter stations as George’s Regiment fought the war. Lewis lived with the French family for many years, where he was taught to read and write. Excelling in the raising of thoroughbreds, he was a valued member of the family, paid for his work with wages, board and room. He married in Woodstock and had at least two children. Lewis did not join the French family when they moved to Nebraska, instead he remained in Woodstock.

Additional reading
The Underground Railroad in Vermont: Separating Legend from Reality

The Underground Railroad in Vermont: Tall Tale or True Adventure by Tom Calarco