Seeking The Northern Star — To Freedom

A view from a Busti hilltop on the road to freedom.

Editor’s Note: This is the first of several columns on the Underground Railroad in Chautauqua County. Those interested in contacting me with facts, photos and/or narratives on this topic, please write to me at upstatemuse@gmail.com. Special thanks to Norman Carlson of the Busti Historical Society for information contained in this column.

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

~ James Baldwin

On a March afternoon, the sky streaked with light and shrouded in fast moving gray stratocumulus clouds, we drove through the little town of Busti headed south and turned right on the Lawson Road in search of history. The fields and farms stretched out in the distance vast and white.

I turned to my sister and remarked, “My God, people in Yonkers wouldn’t believe this empty land stretching as far as the eye can see!”

The site of the original Storum Farm in Busti, New York.

Shortly up the road, we turned left and just at the top of a hill, we found the historical marker rising in the snow: It celebrated an important spot in the history of America’s Underground Railroad, where once a farm had stood as a station that helped fugitive slaves find their way to freedom. It was the site of the old Storum farm. In my brief and recent research, I had found just a few lines identifying the place. It was the site of one of perhaps five fugitive slave sanctuaries or “stations” in the Busti area that offered relief, rest and assistance as former slaves sought freedom in Canada, due north.

Mr. Storum’s farm offered such sanctuary as did the homes of some of his neighbors, including the Reverend John Broadhead–whose son’s farm sat directly adjacent to the Storum farm — a man identified as Squire Plumb whose farm was called Pine Ridge, and two named Levi Jones and Humphrey Pratt.

According to Norman Carlson of the Busti Historical Society, “The Theron Plumb home was on the southeast corner of current Burton and Pine Ridge roads and shows on the 1854 map. It is long gone. Shepard and Straight’s map is a little off. The District 10 schoolhouse where the slave children sang is a little farther out Pine Ridge Road on the west side. That original schoolhouse burned, but the replacement is now a residence. The Levi Jones house also burned and was replaced in the early 1930’s. The location is the current Shawn Cotter home on Shadyside.”

Farther south, a few miles away, the Catlin and Carter families helped fugitive slaves on their arduous journeys. Many other critical refuge places and stations existed throughout Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Erie Counties during those years in mid-19th century America prior to the Civil War.

At the rise of the hill on the spot of the historical marker, where the trees tower eight stories high, I got out and stood in the icy wind, staring over the long white fields of southern Chautauqua County towards Pennsylvania. To me, the isolation and beauty of that spot seemed to call up emotions “runaway” slaves must have felt. And more, looking out over that lovely and still wild land, I was heart-struck by the courage of those people, risking injury and death to leave their chains behind in order to live free.

The historical marker on Sanbury Road, Busti.

Busti. A little town most people have never heard of, yet here dozens of previously enslaved persons found kindness and help from strangers whose only remuneration was a fellowship of souls, whose only impetus was an ethical concern for all human beings to be free and have a chance at a good life. As is the case for many worthy causes, some people did nothing or felt antagonistic towards abolitionists. In 1827, on July 4th, New York State law freed all formerly held slaves. Still, violence regarding the “slave issue” was recorded in the Jamestown Journal during February and March, 1837, and again in 1845 and the early 1850s. A Reverend Mr. Blakesley, in one account, spoke against slavery at a Baptist Meeting house in Jamestown in 1837. A crowd gathered outside then attacked those inside with snowballs and “brickbats.” When the police came, they arrested the minister for “disturbing the peace.” He spoke at the Fluvanna Schoolhouse next and was again stopped by unruly rioters. But ministers throughout the county, particularly Methodists and Baptists, as well as people of the Quaker faith, continued to speak out fervently against slavery and to aid fugitive slaves whenever possible. Jamestown’s Reuben Fenton spoke against the spread of slavery. The Fenton Museum today has a special room in the basement area of the mansion dedicated to the cause and memory of the Underground Railroad in Chautauqua County.

On what historian and author Eber Pettitt calls “the line from slavery to freedom,” abolitionists and fugitives developed two primary routes, one from the Warren area through Sugar Grove and on to Busti or Ellington and routes north. The other, according to the Pettitt account, ran from the west near Painesville Ohio through Westfield and up to Buffalo along the lake shore. Pettitt’s father was a doctor who offered refuge for those in need at his own home in Fredonia. Despite the fact that there was a one thousand dollar fine for getting caught helping a slave, Dr. Pettitt and other local doctors gave their hearts to the cause of freedom for fugitive slaves.

Ultimately, those on the run from perpetual slavery in the South called their route “following the North Star.” I can imagine that was literal as well as figurative. I can see the fugitives lone or in pairs or families, traveling through the night alone and hungry, desperate for a new life. One can imagine them traveling through Warren and Chautauqua Counties, closing in on freedom that waited across Lake Erie and in Canada.

In Busti, in 1850-51, seven fugitives worked on Storum’s farm. One day, a group of men showed up and roughly took down a 17-year-old boy named Harrison Williams. They chained him and, following a brief trial in Mayville, ultimately took him back to Virginia. An interesting update on this narrative is that, during the Civil War, James Broadhead — whose farm sat next to the Storum’s in Busti — encountered Confederates who had been captured by the Union. Among them was Harrison Williams, who had joined the Rebels in service to his new “master.” His former Virginia master had “sold him” to an Alabama farmer. Broadhead confirmed it was the same boy, now grown, and asked how he fared. The young man said he was doing all right, despite the war and his present condition, and thanked the Storum’s for their kindness to him once in Chautauqua County.

As we travel the roads of our county, we travel through history. Those who went before us have their own narratives to tell about living and dying, about slavery and freedom, about joy and grief. Everyday people perform heroic acts of kindness, of courage, to others. They are creating a history of an area and its people. There have always been only two sides to any issue, it seems to me — the bad side and the good one. Good people dare to do good, to stand up against common meanness, to say, no, in thunder to indecencies and inhumanity. And so a few good people of Busti, N.Y., for no reward but that it was the right thing to do, offered refuge to people once in chains and helped them towards freedom as they followed the North Star to freedom.