Courageous Women of Maxwell Settlement

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The Unsung Courage of Upstate New York Women


Most of us have heard of the heroic nineteenth century exploits of Harriet Tubman as she led dozens of enslaved Americans out of the South to safety. Far fewer of us have learned about the quiet courage of other African-American women who braved incessant danger in Upstate New York to assist freedom seeking fugitives as they attempted to escape slavery on the underground railroad. Of, note are the African-American women of a small community in Sodus that is informally referred to as the Maxwell Settlement. The settlement was situated just south of Lake Road about two miles west of Sodus Point and its physical location made it a natural safe-haven or temporary resting place for freedom seekers.


Terrorized, pursued by bounty hunters and often cold and hungry, the freedom seekers needed support for the final run to the Canadian border. Rarely mentioned and often lost in obscurity, the African-American women of the Maxwell Settlement were critical to the success of the “rail line to freedom”. Take, for the example, Polly Ann and Chloe Jane Newport, daughters of William and Sarah J. Newport among the earliest residents of the Maxwell Settlement. Both daughters were listed in the 1850 census working in the household of Dr. William D. Cook, a well-documented stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. It is fairly certain that Dr. Cook and in turn the sisters protected fugitives. At that time, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had just made it a federal crime to assist former slaves escaping freedom. In fact, the act denied suspected slaves a jury trial and the right to testify on their own behalf. If caught, valiant freedom activists like Cook and the Newport sisters were subject to a $1,000 fine (worth $30,000 today) and imprisonment for up to six months. Further, most bounty hunters were adept at not only returning former slaves to their owners but capturing free persons of color and selling them into slavery. Polly Ann and Chloe married freedom seekers – Richard McKinney and Charles Oakley, respectively. By 1857, the sisters had moved to Oxford Co., Ontario Canada, with their husbands. Chloe Jane and Polly Ann deserve credit for their efforts to bring freedom to others.


Such valor was not an isolated event in the Maxwell Settlement. Another example is Mary Lee, who had inherited property in the Settlement upon the death of her father, Abraham Bradington, in 1848. Aged 60 in 1850, she was the matriarch of a household that included freedom seeker, Charles Dorsey (35), his two children, William Dorsey (8) and Madeline Dorsey (6), as well as Charles Baker (73) and Milla Baker (10). By the 1860 census, Charles and Milla Baker as well as Charles Dorsey were no longer listed in the household, but Charles’ children were. In fact, three years later William Dorsey joined fourteen other young men with ties to the community in the United States Colored Troops. William never returned after his July 1863 enlistment. He died at Camp William Penn on December 23, 1863. A former slave herself, Mary Lee and her family had been freed after the death of slaveholder, Col. Peregrine Fitzhugh of Troupville, NY (aka Sodus Pt.). We can only assume Mary Lee’s strength as she and her family gained freedom in an often-hostile environment, while protecting and harboring others during extremely trying times. There is no doubt that she used her property as a safe-haven at the risk of fine and imprisonment. (Critical information for this article was derived from Final Stop, FREEDOM by Marjory Allen Perez, 2017)


Jim Wood (March 15, 2019)