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Local history connected to Underground Railroad

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“. . . when the Savior left his abode with the Father, to dwell a season upon our earthly ball . . . he shed his precious blood for the whole human family, irrespective of nation or color. We believe all are alike objects of redeeming love.” Laura Smith Haviland, American abolitionist, suffragette, and social reformer.

By Linda Hass

Several Jacksonians participated in the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800’s, risking their lives to feed, lodge and transport enslaved Americans passing through Jackson County to Canada, where slavery was outlawed.

For many agents like Laura Haviland, a station master in Adrian, and Roswell Rexford, a wealthy farm in Napoleon Township, Christianity was a guiding light directing their actions. The two coordinated not only in funding the secret enterprise, but in providing lodging and transportation.

Their motives were best expressed by Haviland, who wrote about a higher moral law in her autobiography, A Woman’s Life Work: Labors and Experiences. She said:

“God created man in his own image . . . from a single pair sprang all the inhabitants of the whole earth. God created of one blood all the nations that dwell upon the whole earth, and when the Savior left his abode with the Father, to dwell a season upon our earthly ball . . . he shed his precious blood for the whole human family, irrespective of nation or color. We believe all are alike objects of redeeming love.”

Rexford1

Roswell Rexford’s Napoleon Township home was a stop on Jackson County’s Underground Railroad (author photograph of sketch provided by the Ella Sharp Museum Collection).

Acting on this higher moral law brought many trials and tribulations for Underground Railroad agents. Legally, the Fugitive Slave Act made it a crime to assist runaway slaves, subjecting violators to heavy fines. On a practical level, slave owners often targeted suspected agents for retribution.

These were among risks Rexford faced when he considered Haviland’s July 1860 letter asking for funds to help an escaped slave from Louisiana start a blacksmith business. Rexford, a founding deacon of the First Baptist Church of Napoleon, owned hundreds of acres and a stately home that was located on Brooklyn Road south of Napoleon Village. The red brick home, the talk of the town, had nine rooms, 10-foot-tall ceilings and walls of double thick bricks that came from Stoney Lake.

Rexford2

Although Rexford’s Napoleon Township home no longer stands, this is the approximate location of his property, according to a GPS locator.

In short, the wealthy farmer and business man had much to lose if he were found guilty of violating the Fugitive Slave Act. It’s not known how long he pondered Haviland’s request. What is known, however, is his passionate response. According to Haviland’s autobiography and MICHIGAN’S CROSSROADS TO FREEDOM: The Underground Railroad in Jackson County, Rexford responded with the following letter:

 I read your letter . . . and we are glad to learn that another has escaped from the land of bondage, whips and chains . . . I would rather . . . spend every hour of this brief existence in all the bitterness that the hand of tyrants could inflict than live in all the pomp and splendor that the unpaid toil of slaves could lavish upon man.

July 27th, 1860

R.B. Rexford

Haviland’s autobiography added that Rexford did, indeed, provide the funds and, in return, the blacksmith “proved to be an honest and industrious” recipient.

According to a local historian of the era, Nellie Blair Greene, not only was Rexford generous, he also was a very devoted agent. In fact, Rexford revolved the placement of his barns around the secret enterprise. Greene wrote: “During the days of the Underground Railroad, one of the stations on this humanitarian line was situated on the Rexford farm, the barns being planned especially for the reception of fugitive slaves from southern states.”

Slaves didn’t always stay in Rexford’s barn, however. Sometimes they slept in the first floor bedroom of the estate. An exchange between Rexford’s granddaughter and fugitive slaves was preserved for posterity in a Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper article in which Lewis Palmer describes the exchange, as told by his mother. The article states:

 Lewis Palmer . . . tells of his mother, when a little girl, coming down from the upstairs in the morning to see in the first floor bedroom slaves that were smuggled by the underground railroad from the south to freedom in Canada.

Rexford3

Rexford was a founding deacon of the First Baptist Church of Napoleon, which today stands at 108 East Ave., Napoleon.

It was a moment frozen in time for the young girl, who relayed the incident to her own family years later. This encounter, as reported in the newspaper article, is among evidence documenting that Jackson residents did, indeed, participate in the Underground Railroad.

Roswell Burrows Rexford, abolitionist and founder of the First Baptist Church of Napoleon, died April 12, 1863 at the age of 58. He lived long enough to see his dream of freedom come true in the form of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln Jan. 1, 1863. Rexford was buried in Oak Grove Cemetery, Napoleon.

This is one of many stories told in MICHIGAN’S CROSSROADS TO FREEDOM: The Underground Railroad in Jackson County. The book is available online via Amazon and Barnes & Noble; and locally at the Ella Sharp Museum Gift Shop and Anna’s Gifts & Home Décor, Jackson.

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