Were the Underhills of Yorktown unacknowledged abolitionists?

The Underhill Farm property in Yorktown. The city’s Heritage Preservation Commission continues to explore whether the property may have been a site where people were helped to escape slavery.
Photo by Yorktown Heritage Preservation Commission
By Sherrie Dulworth

Is there a new light on the ancient history of Yorktown? Lynn Briggs had heard recurring speculation: had Yorktown’s Underhill Farm site been associated with the Underground Railroad, the movement that helped many people escape slavery before the Civil War?

“The issue has been raised with me by several people over the past few years,” Briggs said.

This is one of many questions that Briggs, chairman of the Yorktown Heritage Preservation Commission (YHPC), explores regarding the historical significance of the property.

The substantial nearly 14-acre Underhill Farm was originally owned by Abraham I. Underhill and is now owned by Unicorn Contracting, with a proposed development for a multi-family mixed-use complex. Over the decades, the property has been known by many names: Floral Villa, Beaver Conference Center, and most recently, Soundview Preparatory School.

“In verifying the historical significance of a site, we look at many criteria, including the roles of figures – or notable people – associated with the property, as well as the social, cultural and political context at the time,” said Briggs said.

The YHPC is part of the municipal government and its members are appointed by the municipal council. Part of the commission’s mission is to identify potential buildings, structures, sites and neighborhoods of historic distinction.

Without direct documentation, it can be difficult to assess whether physical locations, buildings and/or land were used to assist those seeking freedom. Peter Bunten, president of the Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project, said that as a general rule he would like to see less emphasis on architecture — such as secret rooms, attics and tunnels — and more on people.

Relevant aspects of former residents include whether they participated in or supported abolitionist groups, their family ties, or belonged to a religious community that took a stand against slavery, such as the Quakers and others.

In this context, were the Underhills unacknowledged abolitionists?

Three brothers

At one time the name Underhill was synonymous with much of the land in Westchester and beyond. Much has been written about the historic family, from the founder, Captain John Underhill, an early settler, as well as his descendants.

His great-grandson, Isaac, moved to Yorktown with his wife Sarah around 1774. This Quaker family raised their 11 children on the property where Revolutionary War spy Major John Andre stopped to breakfast on the way to his date with Benedict Arnold. André was captured that day and later hanged.

Isaac Underhill sold the farm to three of his sons, Robert, Abraham I. and Joshua, before he died.

The three brothers worked in tandem for years, and in 1792 they partnered to run a mill business on leased land at the mouth of the Croton River. Joshua, the youngest of the three, became a merchant who bought and sold wheat and flour for the mill.

When he was around 30, Joshua moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side around the time of the First Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, which authorized local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their escape .

Susan McMahon, assistant genealogist at the Underhill Society of America, said New York Historical Society records confirm that Joshua was a member of the New York Manumission Society, an organization that promoted the progressive abolition of slavery. A document signed by Joshua S. Underhill, Treasurer, was probably that of his son, Joshua Sutton Underhill.

More importantly, Joshua housed fugitive slaves in his Cherry Street home on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

In articles currently at the Friends of Swarthmore College Historical Library, Joshua’s daughter Mary Sutton (Underhill) Wood, wrote: “My father was an active anti-slavery and rescued runaway slaves. Once two men stayed up all night – tall and strong – and they were taken to the kitchen and fed, then to the attic which was large – the stairs connecting the rooms on the 3rd floor. After we went to bed, I got up to make sure the door at the bottom of the stairs was locked. The next day they were shipped to Canada.

Joshua’s granddaughter, Mary S. Trimble, described her grandparents’ home in the Underhill Genealogy records.

“There was also a painful mystery about the garret, for there were several low beds in the open space, where we were told that colored men and women who fled from the cruel masters of the South sometimes slept, and were fed and sent on their way.”

McMahon said the house at the Manhattan address appears to no longer exist.

Although he lived in Manhattan, records show that Joshua continued to acquire properties in Westchester County, some in and around the homestead.

Robert, the eldest of three brothers, was a licensed minister of the Society of Friends (Quakers), a religious organization known for its anti-slavery stances. After about 12 years, he sold his share in the factory to Abraham and Joshua, who worked together for over a decade.

Robert’s daughter, Rebecca T. Underhill, married into the Talcott family, another abolitionist family. Her stepfather, Joseph Talcott, was among the founders of the Nine Partners School, which, as previously reported in the February 18, 2022 Examiner Plus article “Hudson Valley Abolitionists,” was a school founded by Quakers who taught students. on the evils of slavery.

Talcott was also a confidant of famous Queens abolitionist Samuel Parsons. Parsons wrote to Talcott about funds raised to help relocate free Southern blacks who faced recapture further north. Letters written between Talcott with Robert and Abraham reflect that they were also friends.

The Clinton Historical Society has noted that the Dutchess County farm of Alfred A. Underhill, Robert’s grandson, may have been used for Underground Railroad activities.

When in his forties, Abraham Underhill married Rebecca Field, who was then almost 18 years old. Rebecca may have attended the Nine Partners School at the same time as Hannah Sutton, a girl of the same age who later became her niece by marriage with strong abolitionist ties.

According to McMahon, Abraham built the initial portion of the main house on the Underhill Farm property in 1828. Prior to this, he and his family are believed to have lived on or near the farm where he grew up, which was located nearby. The couple’s only child, Edward Burroughs Underhill, became a businessman who later invested in the Yorktown community but died unmarried and childless.

Other Ties

Rebecca Haight Underhill was an older sister of the trio. She and Joshua married another pair of Westchester siblings, Mary and Moses Sutton, respectively. While Joshua and Mary Underhill moved to New York, Moses and Rebecca Sutton remained in Westchester. Their daughter, Hannah Sutton, was born in 1787. Hannah attended the progressive Nine Partners School and later married staunch abolitionist Joseph Pierce, raising their family in the Pleasantville area. The home of their son and daughter-in-law, Moses and Esther Pierce, was documented as an Underground Railroad station.

The roles of the Sutton and Pierce families of Westchester were revealed through research by Pace University professor Dorothee von Huene Greenberg and were published in the Winter 2012 issue of “The Westchester Historian.

“I was thrilled to see members of the Underhill family assisting freedom seekers and playing a part in promoting the eventual abolition of slavery,” McMahon said.

It remains unclear whether Abraham I. Underhill and his immediate family, or others among the siblings and their offspring, played a role in helping freedom seekers.

The siblings appear to have remained close into their later years. Mary Trimble, Joshua Underhill’s granddaughter, wrote that she had seen: “…our Uncle Abram and pretty Aunt Rebecca; the widow of Uncle Robert, Aunt Mary au Point; and Uncle Moses and Aunt Rebecca Sutton, seated side by side in their chairs at their home in Croton Lake.

Relevant clues

Those assisting freedom seekers kept few records, and it is through the records of future generations that their actions were and still are discovered. While much has been lost to history, relevant clues to people and their actions are sometimes found among long-forgotten documents such as personal letters, family journals, deeds, mortgages, wills, maps, photographs, obituaries, newspaper clippings and some oral histories.

Briggs said a critical part of assessing historical significance is working with landowners and others who have knowledge and can help authenticate.

“We invite the public to share any additional knowledge or documentation they may have associated with the Underhill families – people or properties,” Briggs said, particularly their potential links to abolitionists.

The public can share this information by emailing [email protected]

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