You are correct!† This site is not in or near Detroit.† There is a link, but it is a pretty darn thin one.† Detroit was a major point on the Underground Railroad.† Harriet Beecher Stowe was a conductor on that railroad.† More importantly, she wrote the book that hastened the Civil War and President Lincolnís emancipation of the nationís slaves.† There have been a few times in this nationís history when a book focused the attention of many upon a key social issue and then led to policies that produced real social change.† One thinks about Rachel Carsonís Silent Spring book that brought environmental issues to the nationís attention in the 1970s.† Or Gunnar Myrdalís 1945, An American Dilemma, that helped lay the foundation for the post-World War II civil rights movement.† Or, Night Comes to the Cumberlands, by Henry Caudill that pointed out the persistence of poverty in the post-World War II era of rapid economic growth, a time when economists believed poverty was disappearing.† Or Betty Freidanís, The Feminine Mystique, that encouraged changes in the status of women.
The most consequential of such books was Uncle Tomís Cabin written by Harriet Beecher Stowe while she lived in the home pictured above.† Harriett Beecher was born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1811 and attended a school that her sister established in Hartford, the Hartford Female Academy.† She came from a highly-educated family, so her interest in writing was encouraged.† She moved with her family to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1832 when her father, a distinguished Congregationalist minister, accepted an appointment as president of the Lane Theological Seminary.† Cincinnati was the largest and most prosperous Midwestern city at that time.† It was emerging as a meat packing and manufacturing metropolis. †Much of the commerce from the East to the South passed through the city then nicknamed Porkopolis. †However, it was also an important point on the Underground Railroad.† Slaves who reached the Ohio shore—and Kentucky law enforcement officials tried to prevent whenever possible—could expect to be welcomed by free blacks in Ohio and by the many whites who devoted themselves to protecting fugitive slaves in Ohio, or in spiriting them to Ontario by way of Detroit.† Thornton Blackburn was the fugitive slave whose incarceration in Detroit and eventual escape to Canada led to Secretary of War Lewis Cass to send troops to the cityís streets.† Thornton and his wife were slaves held in Louisville.† Using falsified papers showing them to be free blacks, the Thorntons boarded a steamboat in Jeffersonville, Indiana—across the Ohio from Louisville—and disembarked in Cincinnati on July 4, 1831.† They bought one stage coach ticket for a trip from Cincinnati to Sandusky and another for the stage coach ride from Sandusky to Detroit where they lived as free individuals until Kentucky slave catchers found them in 1833.† Fortunately for them, they escaped to Canada.
Although her father was an abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe apparently had not thought much about slavery before she moved to Cincinnati.† Quickly, she learned about the extremely harsh treatment of many slaves just across the river in Kentucky.† She found out that her own domestic servant, Zillah, was a fugitive slave.† Then she became active in the Underground Railroad.† It was illegal for people in the North to abet the escape of slaves and federal prosecutors tried a few northerners for helping slaves escape.† However, it proved to be all but impossible to empanel a jury that would convict someone for the offense of helping a slave to reach freedom, so prosecutions were rare.† In 1850, Congress passed a much stronger Fugitive Slave Law that made it easier for slave catchers to forcefully return slaves to bondage from Cincinnati, Detroit and other cities.† This new law apparently motivated many activists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe to work more diligently in the Underground Railroad.† While in Cincinnati, Stowe heard from her friend, Mr. Rankin, about a slave woman who reached freedom in Ohio by walking across ice floes in the Ohio River while clutching her infant.
In Cincinnati, Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a professor at Lane Theological. In 1850, he accepted a job to teach theology at the college he attended, Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.† The Stowes—with their six children—rented the attractive and substantial white house that you see pictured above.† Ms. Stowe began writing Uncle Tomís Cabin. †Drawing upon her travels to observe slavery in Kentucky and her interviews with fugitive slaves in Ohio, this book described the cruelty of slavery, but also vividly portrayed slaves as having the same values as the rest of the population: †a very strong interest in preserving their families and in freedom. †The image of a slave mother gaining freedom for herself and her baby by crossing ice floes in the Ohio River was pictured again and again. †Indeed, it is now an image recognized by almost all American school children. †Uncle Tomís Cabin was published in 1852.† Southern defenders of slavery portray it as a humane system that uplifted and civilized blacks.† They contended that Stowe had painted a most unfair picture of bondage.† To refute their arguments, she published Notes on Uncle Tomís Cabin in 1854, emphasizing her views of the cruelty of slavery.
†The Abolition movement in the North, at this time, was not successful.† Political leaders who opposed slavery seldom called for emancipation.† Rather, they sought to confine slavery to the South with hopes that it would gradually disappear.† Stoweís book was extremely popular in the United States and England and helped build a consensus in the North that slavery should be terminated rather than contained. †Her book hastened the Civil War.† There were, of course, several other major issues that explain the 1861 beginning of that conflict, including the Supreme Courtís Dred Scott decision, the incompetence of the Buchanan administration and the election of President Lincoln.† In 1862, President Lincoln met Harriett Beecher Stowe for the first time.† He said to her: ďSo youíre the little woman that wrote the book that started this Great War.Ē
Stowe took a teaching job in Boston in 1853 and the Stowes moved away from this house to Andover, Massachusetts where he taught at the theological seminary.† Harriet Beecher Stowe continued to write extensively and is one of the nationís major literary figures, but none of her later publications had the impact of Uncle Tomís Cabin.† In 1864, the Stowes retired in Hartford Connecticut.† In 1874, they moved into an impressive Victorian Gothic cottage that now serves as a museum in her memory.† For the last 23 years of her life, her next door neighbor in Hartford, Connecticut was Samuel Clemens.
Date of Construction: Either
1804 or 1807.† I believe that it was originally an inn.
Architect: Unknown to me
National Register of Historic Places:† Listed October 15, 1966
National Historic Landmark:† #66000091. Listed December 19, 1962.
Use in 2009:† Empty home owned and maintained by Bowdoin College.
Website of the Harriet Beecher Stowe house and library: †††http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/index_home.shtml
Photograph:† Ren Farley, February 6, 2009
Description prepared: February 7, 2009
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