Vineyard Woman with Nerves of Steel

Today’s heroine for Women’s History Month is Beulah Vanderhoop of Martha’s Vineyard, a maritime conductor on the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. She had the courage it took to assist as many as eight ex-slaves to safety and in my novel, profoundly affected Annie Osborn of Edgartown.
Though Vanderhoop is firmly grounded in history, the details about her are many and somewhat conflicting. Depending on which account you believe, she was either full or half Wampanoag, a member of the Native American tribe who populated the Island long before white settlers. In a custom not uncommon on the Vineyard, she was married to an African-American from Surinam.

Vanderhoop is the woman elsewhere identified by The Vineyard Gazette’s September 29, 1854 account of two women coaxing Randall Burton out of a swamp near Holmes Hole (now Vineyard Haven) and taking him to her home on Gay Head (now Aquinnah)—a distance of some 15 miles; another account says that he was brought to her home on the Wampanoag settlement at the furthest reach of the island. One version has her sailing him six miles across Vineyard Sound to New Bedford, while another suggests that another tribal member did it.

Beulah welcomed Burton into her home and fed him. One can imagine his appetite after being nearly starved hiding for months in a Florida swamp, stowing away on board a north-bound ship for at least five days, and then hiding in the Vineyard’s swamp for three days. All accounts agree that his enjoyment of his meal was short-lived, however, for the pro-slavery sheriff did his best to gather a posse, paying $1 to every man who would help him hunt and recapture the fugitive.

Though the sheriff wanted to search the Wampanoag homes, he had to leave the settlement empty-handed and come back six hours later with a warrant. That delay was enough for some of the Natives to arm themselves with guns, pitchforks, and clubs against the sheriff’s return and for others to undertake the arduous crossing of Vineyard Sound and Buzzard’s Bay, which can involve difficult headwinds and dangerous shoals. For a modern account of such a crossing, as well as some beautiful photos, click here.

True to form, some accounts say that Burton moved on to Canada, while others say that he remained for seven years gainfully employed in New Bedford, just across the Sound from the Vineyard. Personally, I like the one that says that every year he visited Beulah to thank her.

Photo by Jeanne Gehret

When Free Speech isn’t Free

It almost cost Frederick Douglass his home to publish his newspaper in the Talman Building in Rochester, pictured here; and Harriet Jacobs, who operated a reading room with her brother one floor up, couldn’t make her rent, either. Continue reading

A Time of Confluence

In 1847 (two years after the Anthonys moved to Rochester) Frederick Douglass settled nearby and began publishing his abolitionist paper The North Star (later called Frederick Douglass’ Paper).

Although he had established his writing and speaking career in New Bedford (near Boston), his rising fame threatened or inspired jealousy in some of the luminaries of the movement—most notably William Lloyd Garrison—so he set out in search of a new home. Continue reading

Black History Month: Another Rochester Hero

I’m still processing, both mentally and photographically, what I saw this week at the Talman Building. But here’s one tidbit I brought back for you: my heroine Harriet Jacobs, who self-published this book before the Civil War, had a reading room one floor above Frederick Douglass’s office in the Talman Building. What an amazing, brave woman she was!

If you want to experience for yourself how small a space Harriet hid in for seven years, visit the very worthwhile Underground Railroad exhibit at the Rochester Museum & Science Center. If you can spare the time, plan to spend at least an hour there.

We have much to consider this month! More on Harriet–and Douglass and the Talman Building– later, I promise.

 

Black History Month: Harriet Tubman

History books used to state that the African-American slaves gained their liberty through the intervention of various whites, from President Lincoln with his Emancipation Proclamation to John Brown with his fiery sword. Now we are beginning to realize that those enslaved people were anything but inanimate “parcels” on a carefully laid-out railroad, but were highly involved in achieving their own freedom. The next few posts will explore this theme because  the Underground Railroad plays a prominent role in The Truth About Daniel, just released this month. First, let’s begin with that giant of freedom, Harriet Tubman, whose image will soon be featured on the $20 bill.

Tubman was most active during a ten-year period starting in 1849, when she made her own escape from bondage. By 1856, her face was plastered on a “Wanted” poster offering a $40,000 reward to stop her forays that led hundreds of other blacks to a new life in the North. All told, she made the perilous journey back into slave country at least 19 times by 1860, a year before the Civil War began; before and during the war she freed about 1,000 slaves. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery himself, said that except for John Brown, no one had endured more perils and hardships to help others in bondage than Harriet Tubman.

Here’s a photo I took in 2013 at the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged in Auburn, NY, which has since become a national historic landmark. Here she housed numerous impoverished black people and raised pigs to feed them. She called this charitable enterprise her “last work” and died at the age of 93.