Settlers in their Sunday Best, Archives of Ontario

This primary source packet includes letters written on behalf of fugitives in Vermont as well as a Canadian census record and photograph to provide students with the understanding that many eventually built new lives in the North.

Historical Background

The Underground Railroad was active in Vermont, sheltering people who escaped from slavery and helping many of them relocate to Canada. But there are many myths about it and it is important for students to distinguish the reality from the myths. Vermont was far away from Southern slaveowners and fugitives were safer from pursuit and harm. Letters from Rokeby Museum, the best-documented Underground Railroad site in Vermont, and others reveal that enslaved people who had escaped lived and worked in the open. Many Vermonters, including women from Norwich, provided material assistance like money and clothing to these refugees. It is also important for students to understand that enslaved people who had escaped acted with agency to free themselves, and most eventually made new lives for themselves in the North or in Canada.

Enduring Understandings

  • Enslaved people were human beings with inspirations, dreams, fears, and families. They resisted their enslavement in small and large ways
  • Slavery was an institution designed to create profit for enslavers. Enslaved people were viewed as property and provided their masters with great wealth.
  • Systemic racism is a foundation of American society. Throughout history Black Vermonters have faced bias and discrimination, and this is still true today.
  • After slavery, freed people worked to maintain their cultural traditions and create new futures for their families. Stories of enslaved people live on through their descendants.

Ask students what comes to mind when they think about the Underground Railroad. Creating a KWL chart could be a good place to begin.

Then have them examine two documents that describe the experience of enslaved people who had escaped to Vermont. The letters from Oliver Johnson and Chauncey Knapp will probably contradict their prior knowledge. These worksheets (Johnson; Knapp) can help your students analyze the letters, and you could create a brief writing task around them. This brief and accessible article (from the Vermont Historical Society) provides good background information: “The Road to Freedom”

The story of Jesse, who escaped from North Carolina and lived at Rokeby in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, shows that he was “out of reach” of his former master. It also reveals Jesse to be a strong-willed person who not only escaped but was willing to confront and challenge his former owner. You might find other documents in the Rokeby packet useful that highlight additional aspects of the Underground Railroad in Vermont. 

The Norwich Female Abolition Society formed in the 1840s to discuss antislavery and provide material support to refugees from slavery. An excerpt from the NFAS record book (and worksheet) demonstrates how these women took a stand and acted on their beliefs.

An 1861 census page from Chatham, Ontario (transcribed with worksheet), and accompanying photograph, help students see how those who had escaped made new lives for themselves as free people in Canada. Philip Younger is listed on the census page. His slave narrative describes his life while enslaved, his path to freedom (which included living in the free states and later moving to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act), and his feelings about his new life.   In examining and analyzing these sources, students can describe what this community of free people was like.

Rokeby Museum, in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, is the best-documented Underground Railroad site in the state. In addition to hosting exhibits and events, Rokeby’s website offers various educational resources: This Rokeby and the Underground Railroad educational packet contains many good primary sources with context and activities (it is not currently available on the website).

The teaching packet from the Vermont Historical Society called “Yours in the Cause of the Slave” contains a few items from Rokeby but additional materials. 

Friends of Freedom is a comprehensive study of purported Underground Railroad sites throughout Vermont. Deeply researched, it remains the go-to source when you want to know the myths and realities of the UGRR in your town, and around Vermont.

The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center offers lesson plans and activities for all grade levels, and visually impressive online exhibits.

Network to Freedom, a project of the National Park Service, has identified over 600 verifiable Underground Railroad sites around the US. This website contains state-by-state links to the websites of many of these places throughout the country.

Flight, Freedom, and Foundation is an online exhibit by the Archives of Ontario telling the stories of fugitives who settled in Ontario. It’s an important part of the Underground Railroad story.


Download Primary Source Packet