Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award: Multicultural, Silver Medal
In Abandoned Tracks, W. Thomas Mainwaring bridges the gap between scholarly and popular perceptions of the Underground Railroad. Historians have long recognized that many aspects of the Underground Railroad have been mythologized by emotion, memory, time, and wishful thinking. Mainwaring’s book is a rich, in-depth attempt to separate fact from fiction in one local area, while also contributing to a scholarly discussion of the Underground Railroad by placing Washington County, Pennsylvania, in the national context. Just as the North was not consistent in its perspective on the Civil War and the slavery issue, the Underground Railroad had distinct regional variations. Washington County had a well-organized abolition movement, even though its members helped a comparatively small number of fugitive slaves escape, largely because of the small nearby slave population in what was then western Virginia. Its origins as a slave county make it an interesting case study of the transition from slavery to freedom and of the origins of black and white abolitionism. Abandoned Tracks lends much to the ongoing scholarly debate about the extent, scope, and nature of the Underground Railroad. This book is written both for scholars of abolitionism and the Underground Railroad and for an audience interested in local history.
1. The Twilight of Slavery
2. Radical Abolitionism and the Arrival of the Underground Railroad
3. The Legendary Underground Railroad in Washington County
4. The Underground Railroad Network in Washington County
Conclusion: The End of the Line
Appendix: Underground Railroad Sites in Washington County
W. Thomas Mainwaring is a professor of history at Washington & Jefferson College.
“This is a fine and unique study of the history of the Underground Railroad in a largely rural county. It is original with the added advantage of having something to say about the ways the movement developed and operated, the relationships forged between its black and white operatives, and, possibly most important of all, its avoidance of the 'romantic lore’ that has surrounded what in effect was a movement to undermine one of the foundational institutions of the country. Mainwaring’s book is well written and deeply researched, and engages with major historiographical issues.” —Richard J. M. Blackett, Vanderbilt University
“Abandoned Tracks separates the myths of the Underground Railroad in Western Pennsylvania from the facts. The author has dissected and discredited long-believed legends while uncovering verifiable evidence of exactly how escaped slaves traveled through the region and who assisted them on their way. The book reveals the often overlooked heroics of the fleeing slaves and the free African Americans who aided their escape." —A. Parker Burroughs, author of Washington County Murder and Mayhem: Historic Crimes of Southwestern Pennsylvania
"In recent years, there has been an outpouring of important new scholarship on the Underground Railroad. W. Thomas Mainwaring's Abandoned Tracks will stand with the best of these efforts as a shining example of a carefully researched local history that deftly puts the story of Washington County, Pennsylvania in the full context of the coming of the Civil War." —Matthew Pinsker, Dickinson College
“Sorting fact from fiction is the mission of Washington & Jefferson College history professor Tom Mainwaring, in his book, Abandoned Tracks. . . . He compiled, analyzed and evaluated sources for credibility’s sake to an Abandoned Tracks appendix in which he assigns from zero to five ‘North Stars’ in ranking to claims to Underground Railroad association, with zero being spurious to five, impeccably documented.” —Observer-Reporter
"Mainwaring breaks new ground by documenting the actions of black Underground Railroad facilitators, noting that only a pamphlet by Howard Wallace, published in 1903, 'has survived to tell the story of the Underground Railroad in Washington County from a black perspective, and it is not mentioned in any of the local histories.'" —U.S. News and World Report
The most famous case of a fugitive slave escape along the National Road in Washington County occurred in 1828. Christian “Kit” Sharp had fled from his Kentucky master, Robert Carlyle, but Carlyle tracked Sharp down and captured him somewhere on the National Road between Washington and West Brownsville in southeastern Washington County. Carlyle brought Sharp back to Washington and spent the night of January 31 there. The next morning, he set off on foot for Wheeling before daylight with his handcuffed slave in tow. Carlyle was murdered on the outskirts of Washington later that morning, his skull crushed by a blunt object. Sharp reported the crime and claimed that three unknown assailants had attacked his master. He was immediately suspected of the murder, however, because of the bloodstains on his clothing. Although Samuel McFarland, a prominent local attorney who later became a leader in the local Underground Railroad, defended Sharp, the jury convicted him of the murder. Sharp was executed on November 21, 1828.
At least some residents of the county believed Sharp’s story even after he had been convicted and hanged. They suspected that "Tar" Adams, the first identifiable figure in the local Underground Railroad, had in fact been one of the three assailants who attempted to help Sharp gain his freedom. Regardless of his involvement in the Carlyle affair, Adams is the first individual to emerge from the local Underground Railroad. According to local historian Earle Forrest, Adams had helped fugitives escape "even before the Underground was established." Forrest dates the organization of "the Underground" – by which he means the white Underground Railroad – to 1824. Perhaps it is merely a coincidence, but Jean Fritz in Brady, her novel for young adults about the Underground Railroad, named one of the black conductors Tar Adams. The setting for her novel is southwestern Pennsylvania.
Tar or Tower Adams’ life spanned the entirety of Washington County’s Underground Railroad history. Born a free person in Maryland in 1788, Adams had moved to Washington when he was a young man and begun practicing his trade as a gunsmith and running slaves to freedom. Adams emerges as a larger than life figure in the stories told about him. According to Forrest, Adams was a wonderful runner, but often went around on crutches "as a blind to slave hunters." He was apparently fleet of foot even in his advancing years. One story related by Forrest has it that Adams was at a blacksmith shop on West Chestnut Street in Washington when a group of slave catchers passed by. Feigning lameness and hobbling on crutches, he overheard their inquiries about some fugitive slaves whom they were pursuing. Once out of sight of these pursuers, Adams dropped his crutches and took off like a bolt for West Middletown, where he knew the fugitives were staying. (Jean Fritz likewise has her fictional Tar Adams drop his crutches when the need arose.) The sheriff, upon seeing Adams take off out of the corner of his eye, informed the slave hunters that further pursuit was totally useless, because "the old darky leaning on crutches would reach West Middletown before they could." They laughed the sheriff's comment off as a joke, only to discover to their chagrin upon reaching West Middletown that the fugitives had escaped. The story in all likelihood is apocryphal – it seems difficult to believe that men on horseback could not catch up to a man on foot with a lead of several hundred yards over the twelve miles to West Middletown – but nonetheless wonderful. One suspects that Forrest has indulged in a bit of hyperbole in relating this story, but it certainly testifies to Adams’ speed and to his involvement in the Underground Railroad.
Another major player in the early days of the local Underground Railroad is William or Bill Asbury. A powerfully built, light-skinned former slave from Virginia, Asbury had arrived in western Washington County by 1830. (He appears in the census for that year as “William Ashbury.”) According to the family legend, Asbury was so unruly that his master eventually let him go free. Shortly after settling in Cross Creek Township, he became involved in the Underground Railroad. According to the historian of the Cross Creek Cemetery, Asbury “was, from 1837 until his death, head engineer on the ‘Underground Railroad’ from his residence to Pittsburgh.” Reputedly Asbury and another free black led scores of slaves to freedom. He became so infamous among Virginia slaveholders that $1000 was offered for his head in Wheeling. Asbury died of natural causes in Cross Creek on March 12, 1846, at the age of 47.
Doubtless other African Americans in Washington County besides Tar Adams and William Asbury hid runaways and assisted them on the road to freedom in the early days of the Underground Railroad, but their names are lost to history. As Larry Gara commented in 1961, previous historians of the Liberty Line regarded it as primarily a white organization and often ignored the participation of black Americans. The involvement of blacks has similarly been slighted in local treatments of the Underground Railroad. Although Forrest does mention Tar Adams, the local historian devotes far more space to the exploits of white abolitionists. Adams is one of the few African American operatives whom Forrest identifies by name. Other historians of the county similarly had very little to say about black involvement in the Underground Railroad. There are probably several reasons for this neglect of black Underground Railroad agents. First, white historians simply may not have known about the activities of African American operatives. Second, blacks were probably less likely to have left behind written records of their activities, and they were not often sought out by earlier historians of the county. White participants also emphasized their own role in helping fugitive slaves escape, downplaying or ignoring the role of African Americans. The role of racial prejudice cannot be discounted either. As Gara has commented, whites were the heroes of the Underground Railroad legends, while blacks were often reduced to the role of passive passengers.