Fitch and Cutler
Tracking the Underground Railroad in the North Country
by Tom Calarco
FOR YEARS the legend of the Underground Railroad in the Adirondacks has lingered despite the reluctance of many regional historians to give it credence. Two of the most remarkable stories concern African-Americans—known as “Mr. Fitch” and “Mr. Cutler”—who became mountain men, guiding fugitive slaves on their journey through the wilderness to freedom in Canada.
When Fitch and Cutler arrived and how long they stayed is uncertain. The best evidence we have of their North Country travels—besides oral tradition—is the crumbling foundations of the reputed Underground Railroad “stations” on the mountain outposts where Fitch and Cutler lived in primitive cabins.
Fitch is mentioned in a one-page typewritten document attributed to “Mrs. Ellsworth’s Scrap-book” in the archives of the Saratoga County Historian’s office: “In Civil War times West Mountain was on route of the underground railway [not the West Mountain in Queensbury but another mountain south of Corinth]…. It is said there was a station about one mile from Ballston Center, near High Bridge. From there, slaves were taken over back road, near the Smith farm … a short distance west of M.G. [Middle Grove] up through Daniel’s School District (past Frink House) through Chatfield Corners and on to Lake Desolation. From this point the route continued down Honse Creek and thru the wilderness to Black Pond, west of Corinth, thence along a blazed trail for about two miles to a little cottage owned by a Negro named Fitch.
“His house was an oft frequented station. For a day or two the slaves would rest at the Fitch home and then be guided by their host past Lake Efnor, down the outlet to the Sacandaga River. From here they went through a section known as Alien-town, thence to Newton Farm, Hadley Hill, continuing easterly for about five miles to Stony Creek and thence to a cottage near Thurman Station and on to the border.” Mrs. Ellsworth adds that thereafter the fugitives also may have “traveled through the mountains, and up through Keene, past Cascade Lakes to a station known still as ‘Freeman’s Station,’ which is near the Olympic Bobsled Run on Mt. Van Hoevenburg.
The story seems quite possible, considering that the end point of these directions is close to the Timbuktu colony and the homes of John Brown and Wendell Lansing. Lansing was a documented Underground Railroad conductor, publisher of the Essex County Republican and later the Northern Standard, and one of the organizers in 1834 of the region’s first anti-slavery society, in Washington County.
Other fragments of support for Fitch’s existence are scrawled notes that date from the Works Project Administration survey in the 1930s, which were probably taken from an earlier source, found by Corinth historian Rachel Clothier. Not only do the notes report that Fitch had a wife or “wench,” but they also supply additional details about the same route described in Mrs. Ellsworth’s scrapbook.
“From Ballston they were hauled by wagon at night, each wagon covered with straw, up to Lake Desolation in the Mooleyville district. Here they were kept until the next night or possibly moved on the same night across through the woods to Black Pond and down toward the Lake where … Fitch would feed and lodge the Negroes until the following night. Fitch then would lead his charges down between Efnor and Jenny Lake down to the banks of the Sacandaga river. Here they were rowed across and started on their way toward Thurman where another overnight stop was located.”
Though we can’t be certain, a white-washer named Henry Fitch who lived in Troy in the 1840s may have been the Mr. Fitch. Census records also show a Henry Fitch in Saratoga County between 1830 and 1840. Further support for his existence was a “Mr. Fitch” who spoke at the meeting of the “black people of the city of Troy” in May 1842. (Henry was the only black Fitch listed that year in the Troy City Directory, which included race at least through 1850.)
The meeting was called to address the recent decision by the Supreme Court in the Prigg case. It involved the conviction of attorney Edward Prigg on the charge of kidnapping in Pennsylvania; he had entered that state and forcibly returned a fugitive slave to her owner in 1837. The court had overturned the state’s conviction, citing that situations involving fugitive slaves were under federal jurisdiction and that states had no right to interfere with the actions of slave owners or their representatives in the apprehension of fugitive slaves. Naturally, this panicked blacks, for even free blacks were prey to slave catchers. The group resolved that the decision was “contrary to the laws of humanity and justice,” and that they had “a right to resist the devil—that a kidnapper is a devil—ergo, they may resist or run from him.”
Fitch was probably not cut off from the outside world. He likely found support and friendship in Corinth, where Liberty Party meetings were held during the 1840s and featured such prominent abolitionists as Reverend Abel Brown and “General” William L. Chaplin. But he would have had a long walk to Corinth—if the remnants of a structure on the lonely mountain past the end of Mesacosa Road south of Efnor Lake were once his home.
Corroborating the Fitch story is an 1849 diary entry of Lydia Frances Sherman of Hadley. She describes in detail a route used by fugitive slaves from Greenfield to Corinth to Hadley and Lake Luzerne—one that they could have used to reach Fitch’s cabin.
Sherman also wrote, “At one time we kept a fugitive slave about the house several days before we dared pass him along, as a reward for his capture was posted in every village and at every post-office, and plenty of pro-slavery men were eager for the reward. Fortunately it happened that my married sister came home on a visit, bringing with her a young infant. They dressed the slave in woman’s clothes, with a heavy veil, put in his arms a large doll, well wrapped up to look like a baby, and my mother drove with him to Grandfather Wilcox’s who lived near Uncle Henry Beach.” Sherman added that the man later wrote them that he reached Canada safely.
THERE’S NO PROOF that Fitch and Cutler knew each other, but it is possible—possible even that Fitch brought fugitive slaves directly to Cutler’s cabin. The route that Fitch supposedly took led in the direction of Stony Creek and Johnsburg, both of which are on the way to Chestertown, which was the headquarters of Warren County’s Liberty Party and a Quaker stronghold. Joseph Leggett, a documented Underground Railroad conductor, lived in Chestertown, and Reverend Thomas Baker of the Darrowsville Wesleyan-Methodist Church is said to have harbored fugitive slaves and worked for a time with John Brown. Fitch could have continued west through Chestertown to Igerna, then a thriving farm community. Just outside Igerna on lonely Ethan Mountain, Cutler had a homestead.
In Igerna today is the abandoned Perry house—one of Warren County’s oldest existing buildings—a former stagecoach stop and Underground Railroad haven, according to local resident Martin Fish. In recent years a space was found in the cellar with artifacts such as a porcelain water pitcher. Ethan Perry, born in 1900, told Fish of Cutler’s tale when Fish was a child. The story was verified by Fish’s father, Howard, born in 1891. They also claimed that Cutlet built a barn and cabin on Ethan Mountain, only a couple of miles away. The African-American, they said, was joined by fugitive slaves who sometimes stayed in the area for a couple of days.
Ethan Mountain provides a picturesque view from behind the Perry house. The trail to the remains of Cutler’s cabin passes other ruins overgrown with shrubs and trees. There is nothing about Cutler’s cabin that distinguishes it from the others; only Fish’s identification certifies it. On close inspection, the carefully stacked foundation rocks are evident, as is the location of the cabin’s door.
As for Mr. Cutler, he could have been Benjamin Cutler, a black laborer from Albany, who in 1845 was a member of the vigilance committee—the euphemism for a group that aided fugitive slaves—of the Albany Liberty Party. He first appeared in the Albany City Directory in 1825, listed as a man of color.
A possible relation is John Cutler, a man of color who first appeared in the Album City Directory in 1852. A barber, he listed the same residence as Benjamin Cutler in 1854, but was no longer designated as a man of color and had changed his name from Cutler to Cutter. At first glance, it might appear that John Cutler and John Cutter were different men. But considering the unusualness of the name Cutter, the fact that both were barbers, and that Cutter moved into the residence of Benjamin Cutler, it seems likely that Cutler and Cutter were one and the same.
In any case, both men disappeared from the Albany City Directory after 1855, and according to Fish’s legend, Cutler came to Igerna in the years just prior to the Civil War.
Another vital piece of evidence supporting the reality of Mr. Cutler is the “Military Road” that led from Igerna northwest through the Adirondacks to Ogdensburg. The use of this route by fugitive slaves is implied in a case involving an attempt by a slave catcher to apprehend a fugitive slave in Glens Falls in 1851. According to Samuel Boyd’s memoir, In the Days of Old Glens Falls, published in 1927, the incident involved a black barber named John Van Pelt who lived on School Street with his fugitive slave wife and three children.
“One morning,” Boyd wrote of that day when he was eight years old, “Add Stoddard … and I were skating on the sidewalk. A man with a heavy fur coat got off the stage at the corner of Park Street and came up to me.”
The man asked where Van Pelt lived, but as Boyd was about to tell him, Stoddard, who was a year older and whose father was an Underground Railroad agent, silenced him and gave the man the wrong directions. Stoddard then went to his father, and Boyd recounted, “In less
than an hour, Van Pelt, mother and children were … on the way to safety.” Van Pelt’s family went to Prescott, Ontario, which is just across the St. Lawrence River from Ogdensburg. He later joined them after selling his barbershop.
The story also was reported in the September 17, 1851, issue of the Glens Falls Free Press. “Here was one of our neighbors, colored, to be sure, but none the less a man for that, who had lived in this village some two years, and by his industry and good behavior, merited what he was receiving, the cordial support of our citizens. He was upright and inoffensive in all his transactions . . . and to all appearances, was as much entitled to a residence here with his wife, as any one of us. But by the law of the Union, in the face of the idea that ‘all men are created free and equal,’ he had been compelled to flee to the Queen’s dominions….”
Perhaps Cutler set up his cabin in the mountains near Igerna to be near the road that led to Canada. As to what became of him, we don’t know, but Clothier’s notes reveal the fate of Fitch: He and his wife had raised a lamb as a pet that Fitch used to play with by butting heads. As the lamb grew into a ram, Fitch would duck his head during this play. Unfortunately, during one of these exchanges, the ram butted Fitch in the face and broke his neck.
WHILE THE Adirondacks of yesterday conjure up an impenetrable wilderness, in reality the region was already accessible by the time of the Underground Railroad. The need to link the burgeoning market of Montreal with Albany and New York had given rise during the first decade of the nineteenth century to turnpikes that skirted the mountains. This was followed in the mid-1820s by the completion of the Champlain Canal, which opened up the rich resources of the Adirondacks to Troy and Albany. In 1850, the year of the passage of the second Fugitive Slave Law, two very real railroads opened, the Burlington-Champlain, which ran from Vermont to Ogdensburg, and the Albany & Rutland Railroad that led through Washington County into Vermont. This accessibility, coupled with the region’s strong abolitionist sentiment—by 1839 there were at least twenty-eight anti-slavery societies in the North Country—provided the fugitive slave with many allies and many routes to freedom.
Furthermore, the area was strongly influenced by its churches, and it boasted a large number that embraced abolitionism. There were two staunch “come-outer” abolitionist churches: the Orthodox Congregational Church of Union Village (now Greenwich), in Washington County, and the First Congregational Church of Malone, in Franklin County. Two formidable abolitionist church associations covered the North Country: the Washington Union Baptist Association, with more than twenty churches (mostly in Washington County, but also reaching into Warren County and Vermont), and the Wesleyan-Methodist Church, which set up churches throughout the Adirondacks. At least three activist Quaker meetings supported the anti-slavery cause: Quaker Springs in Saratoga County; Easton in Washington County; and the Union in Peru, Clinton County—the latter connected to the Ferrisburg meeting in Vermont, which boasted the largest anti-slavery society in that state.
The North Country also was a stronghold of the radical abolitionist Liberty Party, whose influence could be gauged by the results of the 1846 state referendum on negro suffrage. This measure, which asked voters to consider giving free male African-Americans full voting rights, failed by a margin of three to one. However, of the state’s fifty-nine counties, five of the ten that voted in favor of the measure were in the Adirondacks. Clinton, Essex and Washington counties ranked one-two-three in New York, registering whopping pluralities of 72.8, 71, and 59.9 percent. Not far behind were Franklin and Warren counties with pluralities of 57.1 and 53.9 percent. It would be hard to find a more-compelling piece of evidence for support of the Underground Railroad.
To conclude that thousands of Adirondackers became members of abolitionist societies, political parties and churches is not unreasonable. The countless legends that have emerged from villages and hamlets in every corner of the North Country should be taken seriously.
Like many of these Adirondack tales, those of Mr. Fitch and Mr. Cutler have substance. They sustain our faith in the fairness of the people in the Adirondack region and add another chapter to the mystery that was the Underground Railroad.