Oswego County: Honoring the Underground Railroad and Abolitionist Movement


© Courtesy of Oswego County

Oswego County is a leader of Underground Railroad history in the U.S., with more well-documented sites than most other counties in New York State. Come to Oswego County and learn how civic leaders and everyday residents came together to build a better society.

That ideal is significant, as early census records for Oswego County show only a small number of African Americans—fewer than 20 of the 12,000 residents counted in 1820—among its population.

Though their numbers were small, their impact was significant. Minister and formerly enslaved person Samuel R. Ward became the first African American nominee for vice president of the United States, while Edward “Ned” Sherman was elected president of the village of Cleveland—possibly making him the first African American mayor in New York State.

Dr. George Franklin Grant was one of the first two African American graduates of Harvard Dental School. He patented the oblate palate, a prosthetic device that allowed patients with congenital cleft palates to speak more clearly. He was also an avid golfer who invented and patented the wooden golf tee!

For all of these accomplishments, the struggle for freedom remained. New York State had abolished slavery by 1827, but the introduction of the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 caused new uncertainty.

Oswego County Bristol Hill Church
Bristol Hill Church © Courtesy of Oswego County

Many residents wanted to see the end of slavery and supported the Underground Railroad. One of the most influential was tin shop owner Starr Clark who worked with William Seward of Auburn, another steadfast abolitionist who became governor of New York, a U.S. Senator, and U.S. Secretary of State under President Abraham Lincoln.

Gerrit Smith, a prominent abolitionist from Peterboro, donated monies to build a public library in Oswego with the provision that it be open to all men, women, and children regardless of “race, complexion, or condition.” It is now the oldest public library in America, still housed in its original building.

Records of the Bristol Hill Church in Volney show that Black and white residents attended services together, celebrating their unity. One parishioner’s son was kidnapped in New Orleans, and neighbors successfully lobbied for his release.

Local citizens were also instrumental in the success of the famed “Jerry Rescue,” when escaped slave William “Jerry” Henry was arrested in Syracuse under the Fugitive Slave Act. Hundreds of abolitionists arrived at the city jail to break him free, taking him to Mexico, NY, and on to Oswego, where he fled to Canada.

Oswego County Fort Brewerton Blockhouse, Underground Railroad Abolitionist Movement
Fort Brewerton Blockhouse © Courtesy of Oswego County

By challenging the ability of the federal government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, local abolitionists helped make Central New York a haven for freedom-seekers. Visitors can learn more about this significant page in local and American history at the Starr Clark Tin Shop and Underground Railroad Museum in Mexico.

Oswego County’s colorful heritage is reflected in dozens of other museums, historic sites, and societies. Learn about the only U.S. refugee shelter during WWII at the Safe Haven Holocaust Refugee Shelter Museum in Oswego and early Indigenous Americans at the Fort Brewerton/Oliver Stevens Blockhouse Museum in Brewerton.

Get out and explore the county’s great outdoors during your visit. Located between Lake Ontario and the Tug Hill Plateau, Oswego County boasts thousands of acres of forests and hundreds of ponds, streams, and waterways. From world-class fishing to statewide snowmobile trails to spectacular sunsets, you’ll enjoy four seasons of fun and recreation in Oswego County!

To learn more about Oswego County and the Underground Railroad and Abolitionist Movement, go to visitoswegocounty.com

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Oswego County offers year-round fun and recreation for everyone! History, festivals, fishing and outdoor activities highlight each season. 


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