Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Jacob Leverton (b. 1774 - d. 1847)
MSA SC 5496-51528
Accomplice to Slave Flight, Caroline County

Biography:

    Jacob Leverton and his wife Hannah were considered some of the earliest underground railroad conductors in Maryland. As members of the Society of Friends, the Levertons felt a moral obligation to help downtrodden African-Americans in their pursuit of freedom. Most Quakers had formally condemned slavery by the late 18th century, even expelling members who refused to abandon the institution. They had been members of the Nicholite or "New Quakers" sect, a radical offshoot that emphasized modesty and espoused the evils of slavery throughout the 1760's.1 Ultimately, most of the Nicholites joined existing Quaker congregations, which were very similar ideologically. The Levertons were part of the insular, and geographically isolated community of Eastern Shore Friends, located around the southern border of Caroline County near Preston.The settlement also happened to be along the path of many enslaved blacks, who were hoping to reach freedom in the North. 

    Jacob's ancestors had resided in the area since at least 1771, before Caroline had been carved out from portions of Dorchester and Queen Anne's counties. Jacob Leverton would purchase the bulk of his property in 1814, accumulating 219 acres for nearly $2,200. He had already lost two young wives prematurely, before marrying Hannah Wilson Wright in 1823. Jacob was 49 years old when he wed the 22 year old Hannah.2 Though religious restrictions effectively banned them from owning slaves, Leverton did have one male slave listed under his household in the 1820 Census.3 It is possible that he had hired the bondsman from a local slaveholder, or the census taker may have misrepresented a free black worker on the family's property. Either way, this is the only documentation that might belie the Levertons dedicated activism against the institution. 

    There were two free colored males in Leverton's household for the 1840 Census. The area was also home to numerous free African-American families, whose numbers in Caroline County were more than twice as large as enslaved blacks. In fact, there were only 752 slaves recorded for the entire county in 1840.4,5 This was probably a contributing factor to the relatively tolerant attitude that local whites had toward the Quaker settlement. Other nearby counties, with their prosperous and well-connected slaveholding elites, would be much less inclined to accept such behavior. The Levertons lived in this unique environment, and chose to engage in this risky business over many years.  

    It is difficult to determine exactly when the couple began assisting freedom seekers, or if the tradition had begun with Jacob's parents. The primary documentation comes from a newspaper account, written in 1898 by William T. Kelley, son of their former neighbor Jonah Kelley. Writing in the Quaker publication,  Friends Intelligencer, Kelley recounted a story about the "noted Abolitionists." In the midst of harvesting their crops one morning, the Levertons were visited by a young African-American on the run from her master. He claimed that "she had blood stains on her garments caused by punishment." Jacob agreed to take in the girl and later that night they took his carriage northward in the darkness. The slaveholder, having tracked her movements the next day, confronted Leverton about the girl. He essentially admitted to helping her along the way, and that "he had carried out the Scriptural injunction" with his actions. Still, the owner took Jacob to court. 

    Kelley contended that Leverton was forced to give up one or two of his farms in order to settle the lawsuit. He also claimed that Jacob died soon after those proceedings, which would have placed the events in or just before 1847.6 There is scattered evidence of Leverton's lengthy involvement in a court case around that time, though all of the specific details are not revealed in the documents. The Circuit Court docket, starting in October 1843, identifies Jacob Leverton as the defendant in a trial, where William Charles and William E. Hooper are suing him.7 These same two men posted a runaway advertisement in July 1842, for the escape of eighteen year old Jane Hughes.8 It seems that Leverton owed $2,000 to the men as a result of the dispute. That amount might logically lead to him having to sell some of his property, as Kelley recalled in 1898. The young man, born in 1828, would have been old enough to understand the serious nature of the case against his fellow Quaker.  

    While there is no record of the sale during the trial period, proceeds from lands sales after Jacob's death may have contributed to this debt. William T. Kelley ended his account on a positive note, claiming that the trial had changed some community members' attitudes toward the issue. "The appearance of the plain old Friend in court ... pleading for the cause of humanity, was an object lesson."9 His widow Hannah would remain in the area throughout the 1850's, possibly continuing the tradition of supporting fugitives. Since the family property was very close to the home of Dr. Anthony C. Thompson, Rit and Ben Ross would have also lived hearby. The Rosses were Harriet Tubman's parents, and they were most likely familiar with the Levertons and their feelings toward slavery. Therefore, it has been speculated that the home of Jacob's surviving wife may have acted as the first safehouse on Tubman's 1849 escape to Philadelphia.10      

    Much of the Eastern Shore Friends community, including members of the Leverton's extended family, had moved to Indiana at least partially in protest of Maryland slavery. While Jacob Leverton's trial may have temporarily won over some Shore slaveholders, the backlash against abolitionism was quite severe in the following decade. Jacob's son Arthur W. would escape from Caroline County under threat of violence, after being involved in a similar escape in 1857. He and his family would ultimately settle in Milton, Indiana, far from the political strife of their home state.11 Hannah Leverton also migrated to the midwestern state at some point in the 1850's.12 The rest of the family's Caroline County property was finally sold off in 1866. Jacob Leverton's role in the burgeoning abolitionist movement was further memorialized in an 1898 anthology by Wilbur Siebert, which listed him, his wife, Daniel Hubbard, and Jonah Kelley among the few Marylanders known to have participated.13 


Footnotes - 

1. Nabb Research Center. Wroten Jr, William H. "Joseph Nichols and the Movement of Nicholites" Salisbury Times, 11 October, 1963.

2. Patricia C. Guida. Arthur W. Leverton, Underground Railroad Agent, and His Family: The Levertons, Whiteleys and Wrights. Caroline County Historical Society Inc. 2007.

3. Ancestry.com. 1820 United States Federal Census, Caroline County, Maryland, District 3, p. 8.

4. Ancestry.com. 1840 United States Federal Census, Caroline County, Maryland, p. 66.

5. University of Virginia Library, Historical Census Browser, Geospatial and Statistical Data Center, 2004, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu.

6. William T. Kelley "Underground R.R. Reminiscences." Friends' Intelligencer and Journal, Volume 55, p. 264-265 (1898).

7. CAROLINE COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Docket), 1837-1933.

8.  American and Commercial Daily Advertiser. 7 July, 1842.

9. Kelley, p. 265.

10. Kate Clifford Larson. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004, pp. 80-84. 

11. Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census, Marion County, Indiana, p. 20.

12. Ancestry.com. 1860 United States Federal Census, Washington Twp., Wayne County, Indiana, p. 1.

13. William Henry Siebert. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. McMillan Company: London, 1898.


Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2012.

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