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Franklin County - Page 2

Loon Lake
Willis Augustus Hodges

Willis Augustus Hodges

Willis Augustus Hodges, who was a friend of John Brown, brought black folks up from New York City and started the short lived settlement of Blacksville on land granted them by Peterboro abolitionist Gerrit Smith. Mr. Hodge's son said his father sheltered fugitives at his Loon Lake cabin.

Image: From Free Man of Color: The Autobiography of Willis Augustus Hodges.

Franklin Falls and Bloomingdale

Adirondack pioneer John Thomas accepted a 40-acre Smith land grant located in Franklin Falls in 1846. Mr. Thomas had escaped from Maryland in 1839. In an 1872 letter, he thanked the "Hon Gerrit Smith" for his "noble kindness, and generosity" and shared the journey of his life from slavery to American citizenship:

I was Born in Queen Ann, county, Maryland, in Oct. 1811 where I wore the fetters of Slavery for 29 year. My master, having disposed of my beloved wife and children,--at private sale,--and thus producing in my lonely heart a terrible feeling of despair and desolation. I became dissatisfied with my lot of being marketable property, and a subject of involuntary Servitude; for no crime, but that of the color, which God gave me. I concluded to give them a long farewell. By the aid of Friendly Quakers, and others, I soon found my way to the city of Troy. I remained in Troy for seven years and had the pleasure of seeing you at Brother Henry Garnett's church, where you called on your way to Albany. I received your generous donation of forty acres of Land, in the 9th Township in Franklin Co., N.Y....
Liberty Street Church, Troy, New York

Liberty Street Church, Troy, New York

Rev. Henry Highland Garnet

Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, pastor of the Liberty Street Church

A story was circulated for many years that Mr. Thomas's former master discovered where he was and sent slave catchers for him. In Franklin Falls, the local men warned the agents that Mr. Thomas was armed, would never be taken alive, and they would stand by him. Certain that someone would be killed, the slave catchers turned back.

Even though he had friends in Franklin Falls, Mr. Thomas did not stay there. He had married a woman in Troy, and he stated, "Owing to the inconvenience of Church and School privileges," he sold his parcel and went back to Troy. Later, he returned to Franklin County with his family and purchased 50 acres near Bloomingdale. By 1872, Mr. Thomas owned 200 acres. He told Mr. Smith,

...We enjoy our rural home in peace and quiet: but advancing years notify me, that the toils of life are nearly done. My family now, consists of a wife and two daughters. I have breasted the storm of prejudice and opposition, until I begin to be regarded as an "American Citizen."

Mr. Thomas died at the age of 83 in the Malone home of his daughter Charlotte Morehouse. He is buried next to his wife, Mary, in the Union Cemetery in Vermontville. His long obituary which was published in the Malone Palladium on May 10, 1895, concluded with this tribute: "Mr. Thomas was an honest, upright and fair dealing man, a good citizen and much respected in the community where he lived so long."

John Thomas's final resting place, Union Cemetery, Vermontville

John Thomas's final resting place, Union Cemetery, Vermontville

John Thomas had become a legend. But his story did not end with his death in 1894. For the next 160 years, his descendants continued to live in the Adirondacks. In 2007, our research led us to two of Mr. Thomas's great-great grandsons, Oscar and Victor Morehouse. When we found Oscar, he was living less than two miles from the cemetery where his ancestors, John and Mary Thomas, and their son-in-law, Civil War veteran Stephen Warren Morehouse, are buried. Victor was living in Lake Placid. Neither brother knew the proud history of their family. In July of 2007, the Town of Franklin sponsored a Morehouse family reunion, and Oscar and Victor were reunited with their sisters Joan and Margaret, who they had not seen in 47 years.

The story of John Thomas and his descendants is significant because it tells us that the UGRR is a living history. And the Morehouses are the first Adirondack descendants of a freedom seeker to be positively identified.

For more on this moving story, see the Winter 2006/Spring 2007 and Summer/Fall 2007 issues of our newsletter, The North Country Lantern.

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Frederick Seaver, Historical Sketches of Franklin County (Albany: Lyon, 1918).

John Thomas tombstone photo by Don Papson.

John Thomas to Gerrit Smith, Aug. 26, 1872. Gerrit Smith Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library.

Liberty Street Church and Rev. Henry Highland Garnet images, courtesy Rensselaer County Historical Society.

"THOMAS," Malone Palladium, May 10, 1894.

Willis Augustus Hodges, Free Man of Color: The Autobiography of Willis Augustus Hodges, ed. with an introduction by William B. Gatewood, Jr. (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1982), xlvi.