Happy Saturday everyone! Great summer weather continues today, and the week has been sunny and very warm. The cool nights sure make sleeping an easy task. It is July however, and soon those three “H’s” of summer - hazy, hot, humid, will make their appearance.
Our Open House last week was a huge success! Ed Hands led a great tour to some of the landscapes done by Frederick Law Olmsted, and visitors to the Museum looked at a selection of photos from Olmsted’s work in and around North Easton. Many thanks to Ed for his informative tour, and to the Ames family for allowing us over the bridge to see the wonderful vistas at “Langwater.”
In our look back in time today we journey over dirt roads to that village of South Easton. From the Museum, a ride down Center Street to Short Street to Central Street down to the old Turnpike (now Washington Street) brings us down to the former Morse Thread Factory site. A turn northerly on Washington Street finds us in the immediate vicinity of the site once occupied by several generations of the Swan family. Dr. Caleb Swan’s house (razed in the very early 1960’s) once stood very near the site of the current Easton Marketplace, and he owned a second home just up the road past what is now Belmont Street. That home also no longer stands, torn down in the 1980’s. Dr. Swan also owned a third home, still standing at 579 Washington Street, and it is there that we will focus our attention.
Dr. Caleb Swan (1793-1870) was a well-connected country doctor. Over the years he built up a faithful following as he treated people with homeopathic medicines. He also was active politically, serving on the Easton School Committee for fourteen years beginning in 1827. He also supported temperance movements, and often spoke about the need for good public education. He was a strong supporter of the Free Soil Party, and even though he ran unsuccessfully for the offices of Congress and Governor, the party did well, becoming the dominant political party in town by 1852. However, the rise of a new party, the Know-Nothing Party in 1854, soon erased any gains. An abolitionist before this, Swan became an even more passionate abolitionist following the wins by the Know-Nothings. He attended and spoke at anti-slavery rallies in Taunton and other places. He made no secret of his feelings on slavery, and he followed that up by taking an active part in an all-important part of history. He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad.
There has always been a feeling that Easton had a number of people involved in helping escaped slaves. In North Easton, Oakes Ames and his brother Oliver 2nd may have helped slaves who were “following the North Star” by providing temporary shelter, food, and clothing. Stops on the Underground Railroad were supposedly located along Bay Road, Poquanticut Avenue, and undoubtedly other places in town, where a network of people quietly provided safe harbor and hope to those who needed it most. In South Easton, the Morse family made trips south to purchase cotton for their thread business, observing first-hand the institution of slavery. It is thought that they helped to secure freedom for some slaves by hiding them in loads of cotton that were being shipped north. Unfortunately for us, we have no hard evidence to educate us on the activities of these abolitionists. Except for one small mention, and that involved our Dr. Swan.
Daniel C. Lillie (1829-1911) lived in Center Street. History loves a good writer, and he was one who took time to record his observations in diaries. He also contributed his skills to the old Easton Journal, where in 1886, he wrote a column simply titled “Easton Twenty years Ago” (he also wrote about “Easton Forty Years Ago.”) One of his columns specifically mentions that Dr. Swan did indeed harbor fugitive slaves in his house, providing a safe place to rest, food, clothing, and some money to help runaway slaves on their way to Canada! Finally, we have a first-hand account, albeit brief, of people in Easton actively participating in the Underground Railroad. However, Dr. Swan had three houses! One sticks in my mind as a possible site for this activity, and that house is still standing.
579 Washington Street features two buildings on the lot. Built circa 1850, one was a boot shop owned by members of the Randall family. The other building was a home for Dr. Swan. Both buildings stood next to the Morse Thread Mill building, and at one time they were used as storage for the mill. If one looks at the stories of who may have been involved in helping escaped slaves, these two buildings bring it together: a collaboration between the Swan and Morse families, both of whom had the financial and physical means to provide help to those seeking freedom. Below is a photo taken just after the Civil War, with the Randall Boot Factory on the left, and the Swan House on the right. I have included a photo of the site today. The buildings are in good condition, having been renovated to living quarters in the early 1980’s. Here, at long last, we have our Underground Railroad in Easton.
Until next week, stay well.
Anne Wooster Drury