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View of 1st Erie Canal Aqueduct in 1823

Views on the Genesee in Rochester, 1838 Rochester from the West, 1853

What was Rochester like between 1830 and 1860? Rochester was settled in 1812 and incorporated as the Village of Rochesterville in 1817. The completion of the Erie Canal in the 1820s had led to a boomtown atmosphere in the village, which would become incorporated as a full-fledged city in 1834. The canal and the power supplied to the mills by waterfalls gave city planners and workers alike a sense of prosperity. The new city offered opportunities to laborers, merchants and others, who moved here from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States and also from foreign countries such as Ireland and Germany.

However, not all the people who lived here were truly free to pursue their lives in peace and equal opportunity. Slavery in New York State had only recently been abolished (1827), African American slaves who had fled the southern states could still be captured and sent back to their masters, public schools were not yet integrated, the city directories had a separate section for the "Colored Population", and women did not have the right to vote. The causes of abolitionism, temperance and suffrage were just beginning to attract strong advocates in the region.

Early local abolitionists such as Austin Steward, Myron Holley, Isaac and Amy Post and William Bloss laid the groundwork by such varied methods as printing abolitionist newspapers, giving speeches, becoming involved in politics and coordinating the Underground Railroad for fugitive slaves. The women's suffrage movement contained many abolitionists as well. Although it cannot be said that most of the population supported abolitionism and suffrage for all, there is no denying that Rochester had become a major center for both ideas and actions relating to the most pressing concerns of the country. Abolitionists, temperance advocates and suffragists worked together to advance their causes.

In this period Rochester became home to two towering giants of the era, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Frederick Douglass moved to Rochester in 1847 and began his publication, the North Star. Susan B. Anthony moved to Rochester with her family in 1845. Before Anthony became well known as a fighter for woman suffrage, she was involved in the abolition and temperance movements. The appearance in Rochester of two such forceful speakers, organizers and writers also brought connections to other national figures such as John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips.

Rochester was important to the Underground Railroad not only because of the presence of dedicated supporters, but also because of its geographical position so close to the Canadian border. Slaves could be whisked aboard boats that crossed Lake Ontario and on to freedom in Canada. These boats left from landing spots on the Genesee River or at the lake itself at Charlotte. Other paths could lead to Buffalo and freedom across the Niagara River. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which levied penalties for those assisting escaped slaves and limited the rights of suspected slaves in court, made traveling and working on the Underground Railroad even more hazardous. Between 1850 and the onset of the Civil War, Frederick Douglass and other abolitionist Rochesterians gained a new sense of urgency as they continued to organize, write, publish and speak against injustice.

Early African American History in Rochester

Lights and Shadows in Local Negro History
by McKelvey, Blake
Rochester History, Vol. 21 No(s) 4 (October 1959)

Rochester: A Transnational Community for Blacks Prior to the Civil War
by Broyld, dann j
Rochester History, Vol 72 No(s) 2 (Fall 2010)