Hearts Felt, Tongues Spoke, Hands Acted
By JIM KEVLIN•allotsego.com
Edition of Thursday-Friday, Nov. 20-21
COOPERSTOWN – Who around here has heard of Isaac Newton Arnold?
Yet, elected to Congress from Illinois in 1860, the Hartwick native served as the “eyes and ears” on Capitol Hill for the new president, Abraham Lincoln.
As a congressman, Arnold introduced the bill that freed the slaves in Washington, D.C., and the Florida territory. Later, he introduced the bill that in 1865 became the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, freeing the slaves.
Arnold’s story was one of many about Otsego County’s role in the Underground Railroad and abolition detailed by Harry Bradshaw Matthews, director of Hartwick College’s U.S. Colored Troops Institute (USCT), to an SRO crowd – an estimated 75 – in the Village Board meeting room at 22 Main Sunday, Nov. 16.
An 1838 article in a newspaper, The Colored American, captured the local mood, Matthews said. It reported “there are hearts that feel in Otsego County” – anti-slavery sentiment. “There are tongues that speak” – abolitionists. “And hands that act” – the Underground Railroad, he told the gathering, hosted by the Friends of the Village Library.
When Matthews, himself the grandson of a slave, arrived at Hartwick College in 1993, scholarship had traced the Underground Railroad – not a railroad, per se, but a surreptitious network that transported slaves to freedom – from Havre de Grace, Md., up the Susquehanna to Binghamton, where the escapees scattered to Elmira, Syracuse and Utica.
Given the Susquehanna continues on to Oneonta and Cooperstown, it just made sense to him that the trail would pass through here as well. And how, he discovered. “This was a major part of the anti-slavery story, this area, right here,” said Matthews, tapping his forefinger audibly on the Mission table in the front of the room.
He went on to quote from the Rev. William Queal’s 1885 poem, “The Overthrow of American Slavery,” which named Unadilla, Otego, Schenevus and Otsego as stops on the Underground Railroad. Queal was born in Worcester.
Matthews said Eliakim Ford, one of Oneonta’s founding fathers, was purported to harbor fugitive slaves at his substantial stone home on the site of today’s Community Bank at Main and Ford.
But the clincher was Matthews’ discovery of an article in the Aug. 1, 1860, edition of The Oneonta Herald: “A family of eight fugitive slaves, a mother and six children, and a half-sister, were passed from this place on the Underground Railroad toward Canada … on Thursday night last, by some of our philanthropist citizens.” They had arrived “completely destitute and weary.”
The article concluded, “What an idea! Persons escaping from a country, which boasts of freedom and free institutions, to a land ruled by a monarch, in order that they may enjoy their freedom. Shame to America!”
The research of Matthews and his students in Hartwick’s Harriet Tubman Mentoring Project has made such headway that the National Park Service has identified the USCT Institute as a “facility” where authoritative information on the Underground Railroad can be found.
Matthews expressed satisfaction at Sunday’s turnout, but attendance is increasingly strong at Underground Railroad lectures, he said. His last one, at the state Military Museum in Saratoga last February, drew a record crowd.
Some of the interest is economic-development related, he said: Underground Railroad sites draw tourists. There’s also a renewed interest in family research, with people trying to put their ancestors in historical context, and the anti-slavery movement generally.
To Matthews, Isaac Newton Arnold and the Hartwick Seminary & Academy – it moved to Oneonta in 1927 and became Hartwick College – exemplified Otsego County’s anti-slavery ferment.
A few years after Arnold’s 1831 graduation from the Academy, an academy trustee, John Lawyer, was one of four men who in 1836 formed the Franckean Synod, the anti-slavery arm of the Evangelical Lutherans. By that time, Arnold had been instructed in the law by Cooperstown lawyers, moved to Illinois and met another young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln.
In 1866, on the 50th anniversary, “The Semi-Centennial of the Hartwick Seminary & Academy” was published, and several local fans – the academy’s Principal Miller among them – sent Arnold a copy. Then, in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, Arnold’s property and his extensive library were destroyed.
His daughter, however, had borrowed a copy, and Matthews, who has a collection of 2,500 items related to his research, acquired it a few years ago. (It was on eBay, and Village Historian Hugh MacDougall tipped him off.) In the margins are Arnold’s handwritten notations on his alma mater’s story.