Harriet Tubman & the Sewards: A Friendship Made Along the Underground Railroad in Auburn
February 24, 2021
Last updated on March 24, 2021.
A petite black woman who escaped from a life of slavery and repeatedly risked her life to save others. A wealthy white woman, married to the Governor of New York State and lived a life of luxury. Two very different lives. One incredible, life-changing friendship that changed history. Harriet Tubman and Frances Seward were about as different as you could get. But their fight was the same. Abolish slavery. Together they spearheaded the efforts of the Underground Railroad in Auburn, New York.
Harriet Tubman’s story is widely known and well told – at least when you’re talking about the Underground Railroad. In fact, I’d say that her name is more famous than that of William Still, the chief conductor on the railroad in Philadelphia. Why? Most likely because of her unique story. The fact that she escaped slavery herself and then risked her life countless more times. She traveled north and south again and again and again, saving more fugitive slaves with each journey.
Many fugitives who achieve freedom choose a new name for themselves and their new life. Harriet was no different. She was born on a Maryland plantation in the early 1800s as Araminta “Minty” Ross.
As a young child, Minty suffered damage to her skull, causing side effects for the rest of her life. She claimed to have had ‘visions from God’ and a strong believe that her faith would keep her strong and lead her to safety. Whether her visions were truly from above or a condition from her physical trauma, one thing is certain. She was one of the strongest women ever alive.
Active throughout much of New York and Pennsylvania, Harriet served as a nurse during the Civil War. After which she eventually settled in Auburn, New York. This is where she raised her own family and lived out the rest of her life.
Harriet’s Impact in Auburn
Araminta, Minty, Harriet, Moses, whichever name you choose, her story has been told. Countless books have been written, research has been done. So we’re not here to just share her life story, but to focus on one small piece of it: her life in Auburn, New York and her friendship with the Seward family.
It’s important to note that Harriet was not alone in her progressiveness in the 19th century. Several other famous New Yorkers, many of them women, played significant roles in abolition. Most of them are also tied to the women’s suffrage movement. The more you research, the more you find a significant overlap between activists for the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, education, and other just causes.
For the amount of noteworthy political positions that William Seward held, I find it hard to believe that he is not taught more in schools. Especially locally! Throughout his career, Seward was State Senator, Governor of New York, US Senator, Secretary of State, and even ran a worthy campaign for President. The one thing that Seward is most commonly known for is his arrangement for the purchase of Alaska. (“Seward’s Folly” ring a bell?)
William Sewards fight against slavery goes all the way back to his childhood in Florida. His father did, in fact, own slaves – but they were treated with more respect than most. Samuel Seward sent the children of his slaves to school to get educated alongside his own children. His actions started to set the tone for William’s beliefs.
“I early came to the conclusion that something was wrong with slavery and that determined me to be an abolitionist.”
Truth be told, Seward was not technically an abolitionist. Yes, he was morally against slavery and spoke for the rights of African Americans. He even voted against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. But he was afraid to completely denounce enslavement for fear of losing political support. In fact, it was his wife Frances who was a much more liberal woman.
Because of William’s political duties, much of his time was spent outside his home, either on the road or at his base in Washington DC. That left Frances to maintain the household. Which also means that Frances was the one spearheading the Underground Railroad operations in her house.
Harriet Tubman & William Seward – An Unlikely but Historic Friendship
Harriet Tubman and William Seward were as different as night and day. But that didn’t stop them from developing a close friendship over the years in Auburn. Both fierce abolitionists fighting the good fight in New York, their paths were bond to cross.
The Seward family aided Harriet in her work on the Underground Railroad in Auburn. They even housed Harriet’s favorite niece, Margaret for a while. William Seward sold Harriet her first piece of land, albeit illegal at the time. Harriet’s home was just down the street from the Sewards, where they remained neighbors for the rest of their lives. Members of the Seward family even attended Harriet’s wedding to Nelson Davis in 1869.
The historical prominence of their friendship has not gone unknown. While the citizens of Auburn are well aware of the pair, the city of Schenectady, nearly 3 hours away, has also paid their respects to the Underground Railroad icons. In 2019, a bronze statue of Harriet Tubman and William Seward was erected in downtown Schenectady.
The Underground Railroad in Auburn
You could say that Auburn was the heart of the Underground Railroad in New York. While not only the former home of Harriet Tubman, Auburn served as the home of former presidential candidate William H. Seward. Members of the Seward family, along with much of the city’s population, were fierce abolitionists. Like many other cities in Upstate New York, Auburn was the site of many anti-slavery meetings, political debates, and stops along the railroad.
The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park
Although Harriet lived in Auburn during the late 1800s and contributed to the society at the time, it wasn’t until 2017 that her home became a designated National Park. While currently closed due to the pandemic, Harriet Tubman’s home is one to be sure to put on your bucket list.
The main building is the interpretive center, home to a collection of artifacts, photos, and stories about Harriet. The timeline of significant moments from her life spans the length of one wall. And when you are able to visit again, be sure to listen to the staff speak. They are some of the most passionate I’ve ever met in regards to the history they present to the public.
There are two original buildings on the property. Because of her friendship with William Seward, she bought the first piece of land from him in 1859. The brick house is where she lived with her second husband, Nelson Davis. When the structure suffered a fire in 1886, Nelson rebuilt their home with bricks. The building currently sits in fragile condition and visitors are not allowed inside.
The white house on the left of the main drive is the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged. Harriet purchased the additional property in 1896 to fulfill her dream of having a place to take care of those who could not take care of themselves. That included Harriet for the final years of her life, when her health was failing. Visitors can go inside the restored home and see how Harriet spent her final moments. Her bible still sits on the nightstand next to her bed.
Seward House Museum
The Seward House Museum is easily one of the most incredible historic homes you can visit in New York State. The building stands just as it did in the 1800s. The work that the caretakes do to maintain the property is noteworthy. The 17-room mansion is fully furnished with many of the original belongings. Bookshelves are filled with those read by the Seward family. The gardens are exquisite. Lion statues still protect the front door, which is down the pathway from the original carriage step.
But the most incredible part? The basement kitchen that served as a safe haven for runaways on the Underground Railroad in Auburn.
Yes, the kitchen remains to this day. And visitors can see the room, and others that likely hid fugitives, up close. But why were the Sewards so successful in harboring fugitives? Because of their wealth and power. Their position in society made it so people either never expected them to participate in such illegal activities, or they knew but were afraid to out them. Perhaps both. Oh, and Watchie, the family dog, stood guard throughout the night, ready to protect the family and the runaways who were hiding there.
“It is said that old kitchen was one of the most popular stations of the Underground Railroad, and that many a poor slave who fled by this route to Canada carried to his grave the remembrance of its warmth and cheer.”
Visitors are invited to take a guided tour of the mansion from March through December. The staff also host events throughout the year – my favorite being the haunted tour of Auburn in October!
Tours tell the story of William & Frances Seward and their family. Not only their connection to Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, but his campaign for presidency and relationship with Abraham Lincoln, her fight for women’s rights, and attempted assassinations. I encourage you to visit yourself and indulge in all the details amidst the history and antiques.
New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center
Next door to the Seward house, the NYS Equal Rights Heritage Center is a testament to the incredible people who helped shape history in New York State. The center focuses on three main civil rights movements: abolition, women’s suffrage, and human rights including equality for LGBTQ folks.
The center is FREE to visit, and contains photos, quotes, and stories from significant moments in all of the equal rights movements. There’s a map of the local locations tied to the history, an interactive timeline, and even sound bites to listen to. I particularly enjoyed “Oh, Harriet the Brave” by a local elementary choir.
A beautiful state of Harriet holding her lantern stands at the front of the building.
Howland Stone Store Museum
Just south of Auburn, the Howland family in Sherwood, New York were Quakers who fought for abolishing slavery, providing sufficient education to Blacks, and increasing women’s rights. Emily Howland played a huge role in all of these efforts, along with several other notable women – Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to name a few.
The family-owned mercantile now serves as a museum providing a snapshot into the history of Central New York. Artifacts line the shelves. The most incredible one? An actual ticket from the Underground Railroad. Since the activities of the conductors and supporters of the freedom trail were illegal, documentation was rare. Most messages and stories were passed along orally, for fear of being discovered. The note (shown below) documents the expected of arrival of two runaway slaves. Understandably, the message is written in code, but has been interpreted. It is still unknown whether the hideout was in the store itself or a nearby building in Sherwood.
Since Harriet spent the last years of her life in Auburn, she is buried in Fort Hill Cemetery, along with several other notable people. That includes the Seward family. Harriet’s grave is a common site for visitors to pay their respects to her. If that’s what you’re looking to do, grab a pamphlet at the front entrance – it includes a map of the most notable graves.
It’s important to note that the city of Auburn is proud to say that they were home to Harriet Tubman. Her legacy lives on in the life and the culture of the people. That’s why the heritage center was established there recently. Another prime example is Gretchen’s Confections, a chocolate shop in downtown Auburn. They sell a “Harriet Tubman Truffle” – butterfly shaped chocolate filled with honey caramel and white ganache. Why? Because Harriet referred to Auburn as the land of milk and honey.