The Rescue of Harriet Powell
In September of 1839, a Mr. and Mrs. J. Davenport of Mississippi arrived in Syracuse for a visit accompanied by a domestic servant named Harriet Powell. Harriet was a strikingly beautiful woman who was certainly attracting attention in the city. The party had taken up residence in the Syracuse House, the most luxurious of the hotels in the city, and this is where it was learned that Harriet was actually a slave owned by the Davenports. The abolitionists William M. Clarke and John Owen conveyed a message to her at the hotel that they could arrange transportation for her to freedom in Canada if she desired it. Harriet seemed to hesitate, but, upon hearing rumors that she was soon to be sold to a man for the sum of twenty-five hundred dollars and after assurances that the escape could not fail, she agreed to the plan for her deliverance. Clarke and Owen devised a daring rescue involving two coaches, one of whom belonged to Abraham Nottingham of Dewitt. Harriet was transported to the home of a Mr. Sheppard of Marcellus, and then had to be quickly transferred again after the first place of refuge became known. Clarke conveyed her to Gerrit Smith in Peterboro, New York, and then Harriet settled in Kingston, Ontario, residing for a time with Charles and Charlotte Hales. As a footnote to the story of Harriet Powell, it should be mentioned that Mr. Davenport went bankrupt within one year of the escape of Harriet, and Harriet would doubtless have been sold by Davenport in an attempt to salvage his finances had she remained in his household.
Letter from William M. Clarke to Gerrit Smith, 25 October 1839. With this document, William M. Clarke formally transfers Harriet Powell to Smiths care after having planned and been instrumental in her escape:
Seal with the inscription Am I Not a Man and a Brother? incorporating the image of a kneeling slave in chains. It was originally designed by English antislavery Quakers in the late eighteenth century. They invoked the assistance of Josiah Wedgwood, the pottery manufacturer, in its creation. In the nineteenth century, it became adopted as one of the symbols of the American antislavery movement, and William M. Clarke chose stationery with this evocative emblem upon it.
View of Salina Street showing the Syracuse House on the corner of Genesee Street and taken from the banks of the Erie Canal. The Syracuse House is the hotel where the Davenports and Harriet Powell were staying in the fall of 1839 before Harriets escape to Kingston, Ontario, with the assistance of local abolitionists. The reward poster for Harriet Powell also stipulates that Harriet should be returned to the proprietor of the Syracuse House. One Philo N. Rust was the owner, and his death, the effects of an overnight debauch in New York, was mentioned in the letter of Charles B. Sedgwick to his wife on 11 April 1851 in this exhibition. Sedgwick, of course, would not have had any respect for a publican who cooperated with a slaveowner.
Letter from James C. Fuller to Gerrit Smith, 3 December 1839. Fuller explains in this communication in considerable detail the differences he has with Smiths positions on various political strategies: I meant to give a few hard thumps because I thought what thou wrote on the subject of paying Debts was rotten. I think so still and as I believe thou wrote under a thick cloud hope ere this the mist is dispelled. At the conclusion of the letter, though, he finally refers to the escape of the slave Harriet Powell from Syracuse in September of that year:
Fuller might well have been interested in this celebrated rescue because of his own Underground Railroad activities and the fact that Harriet was sheltered in Marcellus, the town adjacent to his own (Skaneateles). In fact, Fullers residence was probably not chosen as a refuge for Harriet precisely because Fuller was notoriously outspoken in his antislavery sentiments. The reference Fuller makes to an advertisement of John Bulls probably pertains to an English newspaper advertisement for the return of Harriet, probably very similar in nature to the reward poster for Harriet in this same case. John and Lydia Fuller were English Quakers who had settled in Skaneateles.
Reward poster for the return of the slave Harriet Powell, 9 October 1839. This is the only known copy of this, and it is on loan from the Onondaga Historical Association Museum and Research Center in Syracuse, N.Y. She was described as a Bright Quadroon Servant-girl, about twenty four years of age, named HARRIET. Said girl was about 5 feet high, of a full and well proportioned form, straight light brown hair, dark eyes, approaching to black, of fresh complexion, and so fair that she would generally be taken for white. The argument for her return made by Davenport is a fascinatingly perverse one because it was rumored that he was, indeed, planning to sell Harriet for twenty-five hundred dollars, the very sum that he concedes he was offered for her:
In leaving the service of the subscriber [Davenport], she leaves her aged mother and a younger sister, who are devotedly attached to her, and to whom she has ever appeared much attached. It may be proper also to state, that her conduct as a servant, and her moral deportment so far as the same have come to the knowledge of the subscriber, have hitherto been irreproachable. It is believed that she [Harriet] has been spirited away from the service of the undersigned, by the officious and persevering efforts of certain malicious and designing persons, operating through the agency of the colored people of Syracuse, at which place he had been induced to spend a few days. The subscriber would further add, that he has refused several importunate offers of $2,500 for said girl, for the sole reason that he would never consent to part her from the other members of her family, and that it is chiefly with [t]he hope of restoring her to her aged mother and sister, who will be plunged in sorrow at the separation, that this notice is [pu]blished. The above reward of Two Hundred Dollars will be paid to any person who will deliver said girl to the proprietor [of the] Syracuse House, in Syracuse, or one hundred D[ollars to] any one who will give such information as shall lead to her [arrest.]
Letter from James C. Fuller to Gerrit Smith, 4 March 1842, with an antislavery stamp used to seal it. Several of the letters from James Fuller to Gerrit Smith have such stamps affixed to them that carry antislavery mottoes such as the one copied here. Just as stationery with the seal of the supplicating slave in chains was available for sale to support the cause, so too were these diminutive stamps with their succinct but intense messages.
Letter of Charlotte Hales to Gerrit Smith, 3 January 1841. After the successful relocation of Harriet Powell to Kingston, Ontario, Hales writes to Smith to report on Harriets well-being and to inquire about any news of Harriets mother or sister:
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