The family that lived in the Jackson Homestead was among the minority of Massachusetts residents who were anti-slavery and pro-abolition. Yet even within this one Newton family, not all members agreed on how the institution of slavery should be abolished. Brothers William and Francis Jackson differed over whether slavery could ever be ended by political means, and with their children and their spouses held a variety of opinions and positions in organizations opposed to slavery.
In 1894, Ellen Jackson, who grew up in the house in the years before the Civil War, wrote Annals from the Old Homestead. Towards the end of the manuscript, she recorded a night when her father, William Jackson, was asked to hide a freedom-seeker. Jackson was awakened one night by Dr. William Bowditch of Brookline, who had brought a runaway slave to the Homestead:
"On reading the 'Annals' Caroline [Ellen's sister] thinks I have omitted what had better have been given, a distinct recognition of the Antislavery sentiments with which the inmates of the "Homestead" were thoroughly impregnated, especially father. He did indeed give his time, money and much of his thoughts to the abolition of slavery. Thus the Homestead's doors stood ever open with a welcome to any of the workers against slavery for as often and as long as suited their convenience or pleasure. The Homestead was one of the Stations of the "Under Ground Rail Road" which was continually helping runaway Slaves from the South to Canada. One night between twelve and one o'clock, I well remember father was awakened by pebbles thrown against his window. He rose and asked what was wanted? Dr. Bowditch replied it was he, with a runaway slave whom he wished father to hide till morning, and then help him on his way to Canada, for his master was in Boston looking for him. Father took him in and next morning carried him fifteen miles to a Station where he could take a car for Canada. He could not have safely left by any Boston Station."
Annals from the Old Homestead, Ellen Dorinda Jackson, 1894.
Gift of Stanley M. Kingsbury and Eleanor F. Kingsbury
While William Jackson left little written evidence that he was against slavery, we know he was an abolitionist from the writings of his children and his civic activities. Also, he donated money to the Boston Vigilance Committee, which supported antislavery activities and assisted freedom seekers.
Jackson grew up in Newton, but at 17 moved to Boston to work in a family business. He brought his own family back to Newton and the Homestead in the 1820s, and continued to be heavily involved in both business ventures and civic affairs.
In 1840, Jackson was one of several abolitionists who founded the Liberty Party, hopeful that politics could further their antislavery goals. Jackson ran unsuccessfully for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts on the Liberty Party ticket. The same year, the party nominated James G. Birney, a former slaveholder, for president of the United States. The party hoped to raise antislavery issues and prevent the spread of slavery into western territories. But after failing win attention for its goals the party dissolved in 1848.
Unlike his older brother William, Francis Jackson did not believe that political action could end slavery. An ardent Boston abolitionist, he was a close friend and financial supporter of William Lloyd Garrison.
Like Garrison, Francis objected to parts of the United States Constitution. In 1844, Francis resigned his commission as a justice of the peace. He wrote that he could no longer support a document that "contains provisions calculated and intended to foster, cherish, uphold and perpetuate slavery. . . . While I retain my own liberty, I will be a party to no compact which helps to rob any other man of his."
Francis and William had three other brothers and a sister, and anti-slavery beliefs seem to have been common to most of the family and its offspring. Two of William's daughters, Hannah and Sarah, married men active in abolitionist causes. Francis Jackson Merriam, the grandson of Francis Jackson, joined John Brown in his raid on Harper's Ferry. Merriam escaped and later fought in the Civil War. After the war William's daughter Ellen was president of the Freedmen's Aid Society until just before her death in 1902.
William Jackson's grandson, William Fuller, was a 17-year-old student at Newton High School in 1859. In an entry in his school journal dated December 5th Fuller laments the hanging of John Brown for treason and wishes that President James Buchanan had never been born. The entry reads:
"Monday Dec. 5th 1859
"Today is the beginning of my last term of school days. We have just had a vacation of two weeks and not a bit of snow have we had during that time except on yesterday it began to snow and hail and do that very thing so as to make hard walking for us on the first day of school. If this snow only lasts we shall have excellent sleighing but no skating for some time I reckon.
"We recited in Algebra + History. Least [sic] Friday Dec 2 1859 that ever memorable and notorious day poor Capt John Brown was hung! And what was he hung for, we hear asked on all sides? Hung for nothing but trying to liberate some slaves from bondage! Is that anything worthy of death! No! by St. Bride of Bothwell No!
"John Brown, live forever!
"Old Buchanan live never!"
Not all abolitionists felt the same as Fuller. Some believed that Brown's violent actions would hurt anti-slavery causes.
Sarah and Hannah were two of William Jackson's daughters who shared the family's fervent anti-slavery feelings and activities as members of sewing circles, they made clothes for Union soldiers and escaping slaves. Hannah lived in Newton and was the mother of William Jackson Fuller (see below). By the time of the Civil War, Sarah was living in Brooklyn, New York, the second wife of Lewis Tappan, a businessman and abolitionist who had helped found the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833.
In an 1862 letter Sarah wrote to Hannah about her hopes for an end to slavery. In the letter, Sarah wrote about the work she was doing for "ex-slaves," including a man named John Parker to whom she gave hand-knitted socks. When Sarah wrote this letter, early in the war, it was not clear to her, or to others, that a Union victory in the Civil War would mean an end to slavery. She told her sister, "Our national affairs look more encouraging. Now my greatest fear is, that they will hurry up a peace, without putting an end to slavery. Such a victory would be defeat. Our labor is all lost, if we do that. I feel like praying that the war may not end till slavery does."
Sarah's obituary, published in 1884 reveals the different opinions Jackson family members, and American abolitionists in general, had over the best way to end slavery. Learn more.
According to Jackson family tradition, the well in the basement of the Jackson Homestead was used for short periods to hide runaway slaves in danger of being found. No tunnels connect to the cellar.
To see this well and learn more about the Underground Railroad, visit the family-friendly Abolition Room in the Newton History Museum's lower level.
When I read the carefully written words on these pages, I hear echoed in my head the hopes and fears of one abolitionist family, part of a larger, although never large, group of people black and white, women and men struggling to end legal slavery in America. That they succeeded within a few decades, in spite of all their disagreements, I find amazing.
Sheila Sibley, Curator