Virtual Field Trip of Underground Railroad in New Bedford, MA

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Fugitive Slaves Came to New Bedford

New Bedford was attractive to fugitive slaves for four main reasons. First, whaling, the third most profitable industry in Massachusetts at mid-century, had made the city both wealthy and in constant need of labor at a time when the higher wages and steadier work that factories offered - exclusively to white men and women- had begun to draw workers away from whaling ships and wharves. The maritime trades had historically been more welcoming to black participation than other industries, and whaling may have been the most open of all. Ernestina Second, the city was an active part of an extensive coastal trading system. New Bedford merchant vessels carried oil, whalebone, apples, hats, shoes, and other food and factory products to Southern ports and the West Indies and returned with cotton, naval stores (lumber, turpentine, pitch, and tar), flour, rice, beef, and pork. Fugitive slave narratives document that runaways took advantage of this commercial network. Often aided by crew members and dock workers of both races, they stowed away amid ships' cargoes; sometimes sympathetic vessel captains brought them North. Many, like Frederick Douglass, traveled over both land and water to New Bedford, while others, like Joseph M. Smith, traveled entirely by vessel to the port. Third was New Bedford's "liberal spirit," as U.S. Senator Charles Sumner called it. Quakers, who controlled the city's political and economic life into the 1820s, had taken an early stand against oppression and any form of forcible resistance, an inclination that remained among a significant group of the city's antislavery leaders until the Civil War. Though some early Quakers had held slaves, individual Quakers, and many Unitarians, who had once been Quakers, were among the city's staunchest abolitionists.

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