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The Jackson Homestead & the Underground Railroad

The Jackson Family, 1846. William is seated at
the left table. Ellen is standing, fourth from the right

The "Underground Railroad," which was neither underground nor a railroad, was a phrase used to describe the flight of enslaved people to freedom.  According to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, "while most freedom seekers began their journey unaided and many completed their self-emancipation without assistance, each decade in which slavery was legal in the United States saw an increase in active efforts to assist escape."

Because of the dangerous and illegal activities of the Underground Railroad, many of the freedom seekers and those who assisted them did not record their stories.  Therefore, the written documents and oral tradition supporting the role of the Jackson Homestead on the Underground Railroad serve as precious and important evidence.

In 1894, Ellen Jackson (1825-1902), daughter of William Jackson (1783-1855), wrote Annals from The Old Homestead, which includes an account of her father and his activities.  William Jackson, businessman, railroad promoter, developer, state representative, and U.S. congressman, was an active supporter of the abolition movement.

Two original, hand-written copies of the Annals, one dated 1894 and the other 1895, are preserved in the Newton History Museum's collections. Ellen wrote:

"On reading the Annals Caroline [her sister] thinks I have omitted what had better have been given, a distinct recognition of the Antislavery sentiments with which the inmates of the 'homestead' were thoroughly impregnated, especially father.  He did indeed give his time, money and much of his thoughts to the abolition of slavery.  Thus the Homestead's doors stood ever open with a welcome to any of the workers against slavery for as often and as long as suited their convenience or pleasure.  The Homestead was one of the Stations of the 'Under Ground Rail Road' which was continually helping runaway Slaves from the South to Canada.  One night between twelve and one o'clock, I well remember father was awakened by pebbles thrown against his window.  He rose asked what was wanted? Dr.* Bowditch replied it was he, with a runaway slave whom he wished father to hide till morning, and then help him on his way to Canada, for his master was in Boston looking for him.  Father took him in and next morning carried him fifteen miles to a Station where he could take a car for Canada.  He could not have safely left by any Boston Station."

*Wm. I. Bowditch [sic]

The Jackson Homestead, late nineteenth century

Additional evidence corroborates Ellen's reminiscence.  An 1893 letter from William I. Bowditch (1819-1909), the conductor mentioned in Ellen's account above, to Wilbur H. Siebert, author of The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898), provides this evidence.  Bowditch's letter is preserved in the W. H. Siebert papers at the Ohio Historical Society.  In this letter, Bowditch answered some of Siebert's questions as the author was preparing his book.  Bowditch wrote:

"We had no regular route and no regular station in Massachusetts.  I have had several fugitives in my house.  Generally I passed them on [to] Wm. Jackson at Newton. His house being on the Worcester Railroad, he could easily forward any one."

The letter is referenced in a footnote on page 132 of The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom.  Bowditch, whose Brookline home is on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, is known to have harbored William and Ellen Craft, Henry "Box" Brown, and other freedom seekers.

Additional dates connecting William Jackson to abolition activity are found in The Boston Vigilance Committee Treasurers Accounts book, begun October 21, 1850.  William's brother, Francis Jackson (1789-1861), an associate of William Lloyd Garrison, was treasurer of the Vigilance Committee.  Donations made by William Jackson between December 1850 and June 1851 attest to his financial support of abolition in the early 1850s.  William also held offices in the Massachusetts Abolition Society (1839/1850), was on the executive committee of the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society (1840-41), and ran unsuccessfully for state office on the Liberty Party ticket (1840-1848).

A consistent oral tradition of Underground Railroad activity associated with the Jackson Homestead is recorded in Alice and Bettina Jackson's book, Three Hundred Years American, published by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in 1951.  Record of the oral tradition of fugitives being harbored at the Homestead was based on an interview with William Jackson's granddaughter, Louise Jackson Keith, who was one of the last Jackson descendants to live at the Homestead before it was given to the City of Newton and became a museum.  According to the Jackson family's oral tradition, the dry well or root cellar in the basement of the Jackson Homestead was used for short periods to hide runaway slaves in danger of being found. No tunnels lead to or away from this cellar.

In 2000, the Jackson Homestead became a site on the National Underground Railroad Millennium Trail, and was included in the Library of Congress' Local Legacies Project as an Underground Railroad site.  In May of 2001, the Homestead was formally accepted for inclusion in the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.  This network, implemented by the National Park Service, serves to coordinate nationwide efforts to preserve and interpret the many stories of the Underground Railroad in American history.  The Homestead's Certificate of Acceptance states that "The National Park Service has evaluated this site as making a significant contribution to the understanding of the Underground Railroad in American history."  The Jackson Homestead was one of the first ten sites to be accepted nationwide for inclusion in the Network, and is one of only ten certified sites in Massachusetts.  As a nationally accredited museum, the Newton History Museum at the Jackson Homestead offers interpretive programs and a permanent exhibition on the Underground Railroad and abolition.  Last year, more than 1,500 people came in organized groups to explore Underground Railroad history at the Newton History Museum.