JAMESTOWN – A notable “snatch and grab” of an escaped slave in Chautauqua County is on display at the Fenton History Center in Jamestown, part of an exhibit on display during Black History Month.
The center’s Executive Director Noah Goodling says, the county has a strong history of supporting the Underground Railroad, however, that was not always the case.
The punishment for helping escaped slaves in the 1850s was hefty, with a $1,000 fine and time behind bars. At first Goodling says the Jamestown area was not welcoming to those on the run, but that view quickly changed following a notable abduction in the Town of Busti.
“There was an escaped slave named Harrison Williams, who had been living in Chautauqua County at that point for about nine months, he had been working as a farm hand, he had established a good reputation here, he was well liked, well respected,” explained Goodling “Two wagons pulled up to the farm he was working on, and three men dressed as women jumped out, grabbed him, bound him with chains, threw him into the wagon and sped away with him.”
The “snatch and grab”, Goodling says, ignited extreme outrage throughout the community.
“People started a riot basically,” furthered Goodling. “If they hadn’t gone directly to Buffalo and immediately sailed out, odds are the slave catchers would have been jumped especially, Harrison would have been taken back.”
The man was returned to his ‘owner’ in Virginia; however the story didn’t end there. Twelve years later, James Broadhead, of Busti, reported meeting Williams in a Union Army camp in the Confederate state.
“He found his way into the Union Army, he fought for his freedom,” said Goodling. “We are not sure what happened to him after the war, but he found his way to freedom again and fought for his right to exist as a free man.”
The exhibit also features the area’s first black resident Catherine Harris who housed escaped slaves inside her Jamestown home.
In the end, Goodling hopes visitors walk away with a sense of hope and activism.
“People that helped on the Underground Railroad, they were all put themselves at great personal risk, they could have been ruined for helping people out, for being empathetic at a time when the law told them not to be, but they believed so strongly that it was the right thing to do that they got invested, that they went for it and they made sure they stuck to their values no matter what the law told them,” said Goodling.
The artifacts are part of a greater collection of historic pieces on display at the home of former U.S. Congressman and the 22nd governor of New York Reuben Fenton.
Residents can learn more about the area’s connection to the Underground Railroad by visiting the center Monday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.