Underground Railroad through Berne

From Helderberg Hilltowns of Albany County, NY
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Johannes Fisher was an innkeeper and he had a store. Farmers bringing their grain to Weidman's gristmill would buy supplies and spend the night before making the long journey home. 1790 census for Rensselaerville lists Fisher as one of the few local families to own slaves. It was generally the earliest settlers, who had settled on the best valley land, who were prosperous enough to afford them.

~1810 Johannes Fisher or his son Jacob Fisher built a large, one-room brick building to house their three slaves, plus those of travelers staying in his inn. Conveniently located behind it is an outdoor brick beehive oven. There are slaves buried in back of the nearby Wood Family Burying Ground. 1826 slavery was outlawed in New York State. The slave quarters and oven still exist.

Euretha Wolford Stapleton, former Town Historian, said The Johannes Fisher House was a stop on the {{Underground Rail Road through Berne]] that helped run-away slaves reach their freedom farther north or in Canada. Since Berne is in the Helderberg hills of western Albany County, if a branch of the RR passed through Berne, it would be to avoid the dangers, but still parallel, the more direct route through the Mohawk Valley. From Berne the next stop would probably be Cobleskill, Schoharie County to the west. There is a large brick building on farm outside the hamlet of Berne that was built as a slave quarters. After the slaves were set free in NYS in 1827, it is said to have been a stop on the Underground RR. Paul and Mary Stewart, who have studied the UGRR in the Albany area have investigated this legend and have this to say about the possibility: It also has a place in the porch of the main house where the bricks come out and provide a hiding place. The folks there said they found utensils and boots in there which suggest someone hiding in it. We did find out that the owners who lived there at the time were Republicans, which in that day probably meant they were abolitionist in sympathy. But we have never found any document or tracable connection. It's still an open question, though. I would not dismiss it, but there is not any documentation to verify it at this point. It would be safe to say it was possible, but we have seen no documentation to really tie it in specifically.

More from Paul and Mary Swart:

the nature of the Underground Railroad as we have traditionally conceived of it seems wrong. That is to say, we are not talking about a secret organized group that assisted fugitives from slavery. The organization of the Underground Railroad appears to consist of three or four types of components. This idea comes from characterizing the types of things we have read about in first person narratives from fugitives from slavery (like Frederick Douglass, or Harriet Jacobs) or from books that chronicle the UGRR generally and were written in the period, or not long after (like The Underground Railroad in Chester County Pennsylvania, or even Wilber Sieberts The Underground Railroad: FromSlaavery to Freeedom ). One part is people who relied on trusted family networks to refer fugitives from slavery, or freedom seekers, from one area to another; another was church networks; another was the rather public network of vigilance committees; yet a final category is random houses where people simply committed a felony act (broke the federal fugitive slave law) by offering a tired fugitive a meal and a place to sleep in the barn out of Christian charity and opposition to slavery.

Secondly, the number of fugitives and their meanderings across the country side must have been phenomenal. While on the one hand the numbers of those who are believed to have settled in Canada has been variously estimated, you can compare that with the numbers being reported as helped by various organizations. One year the Troy Vigilance Committee reported (an article in a Troy paper of the period) helping 55 in a year, and the Albany Committee reported helping over 250 in the same year. Earlier reports from abolitionist newspapers report some 300 possibly passing through Albany in 1841 or 2. If these numbers repeat every year, and we can assume that not everyone passed through Albany city directly, we can be assured we are talking about a great many people. Many of these people may have avoided the city and followed a more rural route.

What we have tried to do in researching the UGRR is to let the documents from the period speak for themselves about what was happening while having a healthy amount of skepticism regarding what might be abolitionist propaganda or self serving promoting versus more factual reporting. This is in contrast to going about it the opposite way of hearing of a legend and then going to look for evidence to verify it. In the case of the Berne area we did sometimes look at legends and occasionally look at tracable stories. We did not come up with much through documentation. What we have seen does suggest that there were people in the area that were connected with these efforts, but who they were, or where they were is not clear for the most part. A unique exception to this is Lydia and Abigail Mott. These two women appear to be members of John Mott's family. John Mott was a Quaker preacher who was part of the Berne community of Quakers. His two daughters relocated to albany in the late 1820's, and early 1830s and developed a reputation that by the late 1840s was described by one UGRR activist as "well known" to other anti-slavery activists. At one point these two women assisted fugitive George Lewis and arranged hiding for him "outside the city". We do not know where that was, but their connections to the Berne community are clear.

There is also a Quaker tradition that some freedom seekers utilizing a Quaker network followed the Quaker communities up the river valley and somehow entered Albany County at Coeymans. From here the people traveled across the county toward Rensselaerville, and through Berne toward Quaker Street and the Charleton.

Jack Daniels, a Quaker from Schoharie County, had done some research on tracing traditions in Schoharie County. He wrote in a Schoharie County historical journal that he was not able to verify any stories associated with Schoharie County. We also know that the group called Copperheads were active in Schoharie. This was a pro-slavery group.