Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Thomas Garrett (b. August 21, 1789 - d. January 24, 1871)
MSA SC 5496-8849
Accomplice to slave fight, Queen Anne's County, Maryland, 1845


Quaker abolitionist Thomas Garrett, raised on a farm in Upper Darby, Delaware County, Pennsylvania, regularly hid runaway slaves and assisted as many as 3,000 fugitives in their escape.  A significant portion of the thousands of fugitives who gained their liberty with Garrett's help were Marylanders, and it is said that he "concealed their flight so skillfully that slave owners usually gave up the chase when they learned that their runaways had fallen into his hands."1  The Maryland-Delaware border was the threshold of the "Eastern Line" of the Underground Railroad (the eastern most region of the Underground Railroad, encompassing Northern Delaware and the Southeastern Pennsylvania region).  Garrett, along with the help of local Underground Railroad "conductors" such as Maryland-born Harriet Tubman, William Still, and John Hunn, took full advantage of this geographic positioning.  The Choptank River, which originates at the Maryland-Delaware border, provided fugitives from Maryland's Eastern Shore with a route north through Delaware. The Nanticoke River, which also flows south from Delaware, could be followed from a number of Eastern Shore counties.2

Garrett grew up around the farm that his Quaker family owned.  Around 1813, Garrett returned to his home to find his family upset at the kidnapping of a free black woman who worked at the Garrett home.  Garrett pursued the kidnappers, and at this point it is believed that he encountered one of the many terrible evils of slavery.  He retrieved the woman, and from then on, he dedicated his life to the abolitionist cause.  After moving to Wilmington, Delaware with his first wife, Mary Sharpless (later, she died and Garrett remarried Rachel Mendenhall), in 1820, Garrett joined the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery. He attended their meetings, which were not far from his Wilmington home.  Over time, Garrett would come to help Harriet Tubman on her many journeys, giving her food, clothing, shelter, and money, "which she never spent for her own use, but laid up for the help of her people, and especially for her journeys back to the 'land of Egypt' as she called her home [in Maryland]."3  Garrett wrote of his friend Tubman in his letters of correspondence regarding the Underground Railroad, detailing her many trips through the streams and cold weather and her long distance treks in wet clothes.  One letter recounted: "Harriet, and one of the men had worn their shoes off their feet, and I gave them two dollars to help fit them out, and directed a carriage to be hired at my expense."Garrett had a large shoe business, from which he supplied runaway slaves with a new pair of shoes on every trip.  Tubman herself is known to have passed through his office at least eight times on her journeys.5

His most renowned case of providing aid through the Underground Railroad came in 1845, when he helped the Hawkins family -- from Queen Anne's County, Maryland -- to freedom. Garrett paid a high price for this act, but the tribulations he endured ultimately elevated his reputation as a successful conductor on the Underground Railroad.  Samuel Hawkins was a free black man who worked and owned his own home in Queen Anne's County. His wife, Emeline Hawkins, remained a slave of her long-time master Mr. James Glanding, but lived with her husband.  During Emeline's enslavement by Mr. Glanding, she and Samuel had two sons, Chester and Samuel.  Later, the couple had four more children, while Emeline was enslaved by Elizabeth N. Turner, her owner at the time of her flight.  For a period while Emeline was enslaved, the slave owners allowed close contact between all of the family members, even though they were spread out at separate times between various residences as the children worked on separate farms throughout the Beaver Dam's section of Queen Anne's County.  When James Glanding died in 1839, the couple's oldest sons were given to Glanding's son, Charles Wesley.  In the 1840 Census, the entire family is listed as a free black family, although the oldest sons were unquestionably the property of Charles Wesley Glanding at that point.  At the time of flight, the couple's six children, Chester, age sixteen, Samuel, age fourteen, Sally Ann, Washington, and two others (one age eight and the youngest age eighteen months) were all living in Samuel's house, although some remained enslaved.  It is clear that Samuel had attempted to purchase his wife's freedom for years, but to no avail.  After his offer to purchase his family was rejected in 1845, Samuel had had enough, and decided to solicit the help of Thomas Garrett to help his family escape bondage in Maryland. They did this by going through a free black Underground Railroad conductor, Samuel D. Burris, of Delaware.

Prior to 1845, Thomas Garrett successfully smuggled hundreds of slaves from Maryland up to and through Pennsylvania.  In November of 1845, with the help of Burris, Samuel Hawkins and his family fled the Eastern Shore with hopes of reaching Garrett on the other side of the Delaware border.  Burris first got the Hawkins family to the home of a black friend of his in Camden, Delaware, where four black male slaves met up with the group.  A Quaker named Ezekiel Jenkins gave the group, now totaling thirteen, a letter to present to Daniel Corbit, John Alston, or his cousin, John Hunn, at the next town.  Traveling through a snowstorm, the men walked the twenty-seven miles, while Emeline and the children rode in the wagon as Samuel drove it.  On a December morning in 1845, after battling the weather, the wagon and the men walking beside it finally arrived in six inches of snow at the Middletown, Delaware, residence of John Hunn, a Quaker who partnered with Garrett and the Underground Railroad in Delaware. There they handed Hunn the letter from his cousin.  They were asked if they had they stopped by either Corbit or Alston's house, and they responded that they had not.  From traveling through the snow, they all had frostbite, and according to Hunn, "One man, in trying to pull his boots off, found they were frozen to his feet...Most of them were badly frost-bitten from walking through the six inches of snow."6  At Hunn's home the slaves were fed and cared for, and some of them rested in the barn.  Underground Railroad helper William T. Kelley wrote about Hunn, "In my day it has been more to John Hunn’s labors and preaching that the Underground Railroad was kept running through Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland than to any other person."7

As they made their way, a neighbor watching the group became suspicious and approached John Hunn's house, looking all the while for the slaves, but not telling Hunn of his notions.  This neighbor reported the group to the Constable of Middletown, Richard C. Hays, who arrived shortly afterward, along with assumed slave hunters William Hardcastle of Queen Anne's County, William Chesney, Thomas Merritt, Robert A. Cochoran and his son, Robert T. Cochran.  Simultaneously, a search party from Maryland moved closer in the pursuit of the family, who lay settled in the barn of an Underground Railroad helper, awaiting Hunn, who was preparing breakfast.  The men presented a runaway advertisement valuing the slaves at $1,000, and demanded they be handed over.  The story, as follows, was related in the Underground Railroad website, "Whispers of Angels": "Samuel, concealed in the barn but guessing that he had been found out, attempted to run from the barn and was observed by the search party. Doubling back again, perhaps to gather his family to flee, Samuel was cornered. Brandishing a knife, Samuel stood threatened by the Constable (who had a rifle) until John Hunn insisted that each give up his weapon in order to spare Samuel. Samuel produced his legal papers from Queen Anne's County declaring his freedom, whereupon the party determined them to be fakes. After one of the men in the party attested to the fact that Samuel was free, but that he was being accused of absconding with several slaves in his family, it was decided that everyone must appear before a magistrate in Middletown, Delaware to settle the matter.  At the magistrate's offices, one of the men from the Maryland search party drew Samuel aside and promised him that, if he gave up his two older sons, he would be allowed to proceed north with his wife and family without them. Samuel agreed and Hunn, in spite of serious misgivings, wrote to his wife to bring forth the rest of the family. When the family arrived, they were all taken into custody and brought to New Castle. The man had lied to Hawkins."8 The family broke down into tears when Samuel and his two oldest sons were put in handcuffs.  The captors took the entire family.

The four men who had originally met up with the Hawkins family remained at John Hunn's home while the others were taken in.  They continued on the trail to freedom, leaving at about nine o'clock at night along with Burris, on their day-long journey to Garrett's hardware and iron store in Wilmington.  With them, they took a letter from John Hunn written to his friend Thomas Garrett, detailing the events that had taken place.  Garrett accepted the men into his store on that 18th day of December, added four tally marks to his count of fugitives aided( as he always recorded to present at antislavery meetings) and sent them on their way.  After midnight, Thomas Garrett was asked by the Sheriff of New Castle and his daughter, both of whom were opposed to slavery, to meet at the jail to help resolve the situation.  Garrett contended that in New Castle, Hawkins and his wife assured him "that themselves and four small children were entitled to freedom; that himself and wife had been keeping house and living together as free persons previous to the birth of the eldest of the four children."9  By this point, the slave hunters had been forced to retrieve a legal document, which caused them to leave town, during which time the Sheriff released the Hawkins family into Garrett's custody.  Garrett, along with U. S. Senator John Wales, had the party taken before the Chief Justice of Delaware, Judge Booth, and the result of this meeting was the release of the slaves on a writ of habeas corpus.  Although Garrett's lawyer advised him to refrain from seeing the Hawkins family to avoid punishment himself, "he refused and was ready and dared to encounter any risk for himself, so that he could insure the safety of those fleeing from bondage."10  Garrett paid a hack, or an unlicensed taxi,  $1.50 to take the entire Hawkins family to the front of his iron, steel and coal store in Wilmington.  After a brief stop at Garrett's home, the Marylanders were taken to Wilmington by a wagon Garrett had prepared. They eventually escaped to freedom.  Long after the Hawkins family had been sent on their way, Constable Richard D. Hays returned with the new documents, only to learn that the slaves had been sent off.  Samuel Burris returned on that Tuesday with a letter to John Hunn from Thomas Garrett that read, "My joy on this occasion was great, and I returned thanks to God for this wonderful escape of so many human beings from the charnel house of slavery."11

Six weeks later a suit, incited by James A. Bayard, was filed against Garrett and John Hunn, claiming that the entire Hawkins family was enslaved, that Garrett had violated the Fugitive Slave Acts, and that they assisted four other adults from Maryland who ran away from their owners.  The proceedings were held at the United States District Court in New Castle, Delaware before Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (who eight years later presided over the Dred Scott Case in the United States Supreme Court) and Judge Willard Hall during May Term, 1848.  Bayard, who would go on to become the U.S. District Attorney for President Martin Van Buren and a state Senator, represented the prosecutors, while U.S. Senator John Wales represented the defense.  There were six cases in all, the hearings beginning Wednesday, May 24 to Monday, May 29.  According to William Still, the proceedings were not public prosecutions or indictments, but civil suits instituted by the owners of the runaway slaves, who employed and paid counsel to conduct them.12  Thomas Garrett and John Hunn were convicted by a jury of slave-owning farmers.  The jury awarded even heavier damages than the plaintiffs claimed.  According to Underground Railroad helper William T. Kelley, the judgment "fined them to the extent of every dollar they possessed in the world."13  Charles Glanding sued Garrett for debt, and won a judgment for $1,000.  Elizabeth Turner sued Garrett for debt, and won a judgment for $2,500.  Glanding also sued Garrett for trespassing for $2,000, but damages awarded $1,000.  Elizabeth Turner also sued him for trespassing for $5,000, but assessed damages of $900.  In the end, Garrett was assessed a total of $5,400, while Hunn was assessed a total of $2,500.  At the close of the trial, Thomas Garrett made an hour long speech, during which he professed in the very room where he was convicted that he would continue his efforts to help fugitive slaves gain liberty, even more so from that point forward.  He stated, "Friend, I haven't a dollar in the world, but if thee knows a fugitive who needs a breakfast, send him to me."14  Garrett's words were so effective that "at the conclusion of his speech one of the jurors who had convicted him strode across the benches, grasped his hand, and begged his forgiveness."15  William Still wrote, "Mr. Garrett kept his pledge and redoubled his exertions.  The trial advertised him, and such was the demand on him for shelter, that he was compelled to put another story on his back buildings.  His friends helped him to start again in business, and commencing anew in his sixteenth year with nothing, he again amassed a handsome competence, generously contributing all the while to every work in behalf of the down trodden Blacks or his suffering fellowmen of any color."16 Of the Hawkins family, John Hunn said that they "went from Wilmington to Byberry (Pennsylvania), and settled near the farm of Robert Purvis," a member of the Pennsylvania Antislavery society.  The next generation went on to live in that same neighborhood, under the name of Hackett.17

Thomas Garrett remained very active in the smuggling of fugitive slaves out of Maryland, as the publicity from this trial made the location of his and John Hunn's houses even more well known for Marylanders on the run.  On October 3, 1847, Garrett wrote a letter to his "respectable friend", David H. Hall, in correspondence regarding an attempt to purchase the children of a Prince George's County, Maryland, slave Garrett had helped escape from bondage.   However, the owner, "Pumphrey" refused to sell the children unless the mother was to return to work for him, even as a free woman.18  In a December 26, 1855 letter to William Still, Garrett referenced George Wilmer, a Maryland slave who assisted him in forwarding runaway slaves across the Maryland border into Garrett's care.  Within a four month span, Wilmer was responsible for passing some twenty-five slaves from Maryland toward freedom through Garrett.19   By 1860, Garrett had been so effective in luring away the human property of Maryland slave owners that on January 17 of that year, Maryland Delegate C.W. Jacobs, of Worcester County, proposed a resolution in the Maryland House of Delegates to encourage the imprisonment of Thomas Garrett if he returned to Maryland.  Jacobs presented to the House information about the twenty-fourth anniversary of the American Abolition Society meeting held in New York in May of 1857, in which Garrett was in attendance.  He reported that various abolition societies in and outside of the United States had raised $196, 912, which was used as a bounty on runaway slaves, "to decoy them from their owners, and induce them to run away."20  Jacobs continued, "The said sum of $196, 912, bestowed upon said Garrett in May, 1857, and his large annual receipts per capita, for every slave he can so steal, has made him rich in wealth, and marked him as a wicked base traitor to man and God.  And whereas, most of the slaves so stolen by said Garrett, belong to the citizens of this State, whose rights of property the State is sacredly pledged to secure inviolate; therefore, Be it resolved, by the General Assembly of Maryland, that the Treasurer pay, upon the order of the Comptroller, the sum of ----- dollars to any person or persons who may secure said Thomas Garrett in one of the public jails of this State, and that the Governor of this State, on information of such fact, is hereby requested to employ the best legal ability of the State to prosecute said Garrett to conviction and punishment."21  Jacobs stated that at the anniversary in New York in May, Garrett showed by his record that he had assisted 2,059 slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad.  Later, at a meeting of abolitionists in Philadelphia in December of 1859, Garrett confirmed he had assisted another 386 slaves since the 1857 anniversary, altogether totaling 2,445 slaves.  On the day following Jacobs announcements in the House of Delegates proceedings, a resolution was read for a second time.  Jacobs proposed the sum of $2,000 to cover the undecided amount of compensation for Garrett's capture.   Alexander Chaplain of Talbot County proposed $5,000.  David W. McCleary of Allegany County proposed $500.22  The Maryland Senate heard the resolution on the following day, January 19, and referred to the Committee on Judicial Proceedings.

Whenever Thomas Garrett went a period of time without hearing from or seeing his friend, Harriet Tubman, he would send a letter to William Still to ask Tubman to stop by his store the next time she was in Wilmington.  In October of 1856, after Harriet had been gone for a while, likely on one of her freedom trips, she came into Garrett's store and went to the back counting house to see him on her way back south.  Tubman told Garrett, "God has sent me to you for money," to which he replied, "Thee know I have a great many calls for money from the coloured people, and thee cannot expect much money from me."  Harriet said, "You can give me what I need now...God never fools me."23  Garrett later reported that Harriet asked for the exact amount of money they had just sent him for the antislavery cause.  Garrett asked, "Has anyone told thee I had money for thee? She replied, "Nobody but God".24  Amazed by this, Garrett gave her the money and she went on her way.  In November, Tubman returned to South Wilmington with four slaves from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Josiah "Joe" Bailey, William "Bill" Bailey, Peter Pennington, and Eliza Nokley, each running towards their dream of freedom in Canada.  After they received help in Maryland from Samuel Green, -- a man who was later put in prison for possessing Uncle Tom's Cabin after advertisements for his capture claiming as much as $14,600 surfaced all around the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware -- Harriet reached out to Garrett to help them get across the Market Street Bridge and into Wilmington.  Garrett was very much concerned that everyone would be watching the bridge, as it was a frequent crossing point for fugitive slaves on their way north.  Garrett thought up a plan, likely turning to an Irish worker and stable owner near the bridge, not far from Garrett's home and store.  Garrett and the Irish man arranged for two wagons of bricklayers to leave town the next morning, singing and shouting as was normal.  After dark, they came back signing and acting drunk, this time with six slaves under the straw in their wagon as they arrived at the checkpoint.  The police did not bother to check, and a day or so later, on November 18, William Still made an entry in his account book: Josiah and William Bailey, cash, $3.25, Harriet Tubman, $2.50.25  A letter came to Oliver Johnson at the Anti-Slavery office in New York saying that the Maryland slaves had made it to freedom in Canada.  On March 27, 1857, Garrett wrote William Still of his concern for Harriet Tubman after her passage with Joe Bailey and the rest of the group, "I have been very anxious for some time past, to hear what has become of Harriet Tubman.  The last I heard of her, she was in the State of New York, on her way to Canada with some friends, last fall.  Has thee seen or heard anything of her lately?  It would be a sorrowful fact, if such a hero as she, should be lost from the Underground Railroad."26

Over the years, Garrett would continue to write letters detailing escapees that he assisted in flight.  On February 5, 1858, Garrett wrote a letter to William Still announcing the successful quest for freedom of six more slaves from Maryland.  Garrett paid one man three dollars to transport the fugitives fifteen miles, and paid another man two dollars to feed them on the way.  The six slaves were Plymouth Cannon, a forty-two year old, "withal possessed of shrewdness enough to lead double the number that accompanied him", one of six slaves of postmaster Nat Horsey of Horsey Cross Roads, who left his wife, Jane, and his children Dorsey, William Francis, Mary Ellen and baby; Horatio Wilkinson, age forty-four, one of twelve slaves of Thomas J. Hodgson, who cautioned his slaves that "Canada is the meanest part of the globe that I ever heard of" in an unsuccessful attempt to deter any consideration of flight; George Henry Ballard, age twenty-six, owned by the deceased William Jackson, who left his mother, sister and one other family member in bondage because he felt his owner's death would mean his sale; and the brothers Lemuel Mitchell, age thirty-five, who had "a head indicative of determination of purpose, just suited to an Underground Railroad passenger, owned by James R. Lewis, John Mitchell, age twenty-four, owned by Mrs. Catherine Cornwell of Viana, and Josiah Mitchell, age twenty-three, also owned by Thomas J. Hodgson.

After years of Underground Railroad activity, at the age of eighty-one, Thomas Garrett died on January 24, 1871 of a bladder disease.  William Lloyd Garrison, among other prominent abolitionists, reached out to Garrett's family in sympathy after Garrett's death.  His funeral was described as a phenomenal interracial event.  There was reportedly a 1/2 mile long line of blacks and whites trying to get into the meeting house where it was held.  Thomas Garrett was carried to his grave by black men.  Over the years, Garrett's friends often advised him to go into hiding outside of the country so that he would not be put into prison for his actions.  In response, Garrett joked that he had not yet been kidnapped by the Marylanders.  Celebrations took place around the country after slavery was abolished, and when the Fifteenth Amendment, giving blacks the right to vote, was later passed.  Wilmington was no different.  A newspaper reported, "It seemed as if the wholed colored population of the state was turned loose in Wilmington to celebrate."27  The procession of black Wilmingtonians made its way to Garrett's house, where he was roused and placed in an open carriage with a wreath of natural flowers thrown over his shoulders.  "No man in the country has done more for the poor and oppressed, both black and white, than Thomas Garrett,"28 the newspaper account concluded.  Garrett reflected, "No labor during a long life has given me so much real happiness as what I have done for the slave."29

Footnotes -

1. "Thomas Garrett",
2. Whispers of Angels: A Story of the Underground Railroad:
3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries: Documenting the American South.  Bradford, Sarah H. "Harriet, the Moses of Her People", 113.
4. Judith Bentley, Dear Friend: Thomas Garrett and William Still, Collaborators on the Underground Railroad. (New York: Cobblehill Books, 1997), 41.
5.  Ibid.
6. William Still, The Underground Railroad. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc., 1970), 742.
7. William T. Kelley: The Underground Railroad in the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware:
8. Whispers of Angels: A Story of the Underground Railroad:
9. James A. McGowan, Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett. (Moylan, PA: The Whimsie Press, 1977), 56.
10. William Still, The Underground Railroad. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc., 1970), 654.
11. James A. McGowan, Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett. (Moylan, PA: The Whimsie Press, 1977), 58.
12. William Still, The Underground Railroad. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc., 1970), 654.
13. William T. Kelley: The Underground Railroad in the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware:
14. Judith Bentley, Dear Friend: Thomas Garrett and William Still, Collaborators on the Underground Railroad. (New York: Cobblehill Books, 1997), 21.
15. William Still, The Underground Railroad. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc., 1970), 654.
16. Ibid.
17. James A. McGowan, Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett. (Moylan, PA: The Whimsie Press, 1977), 59.
18. Prince George's County Court (Court Papers, Blacks) MSA C1187, Thomas Garrett letter to David H. Hall, Oct 3, 1847, MSA C 1187-1, MdHR 50,199-1/63.
19. William Still, The Underground Railroad. (Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company Inc., 1970), 638.

20. GENERAL ASSEMBLY, HOUSE OF DELEGATES (Journals) Thomas Garrett, p 93-94, 107-108 & 242, 1860, MdHR 82-01075/01077, 53.
21. Ibid.
22. Ibid., 107.
23. Judith Bentley, Dear Friend: Thomas Garrett and William Still, Collaborators on the Underground Railroad. (New York: Cobblehill Books, 1997), 42.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid., 44.
26. James A. McGowan, Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett. (Moylan, PA: The Whimsie Press, 1977), 59.
27. Judith Bentley, Dear Friend: Thomas Garrett and William Still, Collaborators on the Underground Railroad. (New York: Cobblehill Books, 1997), 100.
28. Ibid.
29. Ibid.

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