PoliticsThe Northern Westchester Examiner

Were the Underhills of Yorktown Unrecognized Abolitionists?

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The Underhill Farm property in Yorktown. The town’s Heritage Preservation Commission continues to explore whether the property may have been a site where people were helped to escape slavery.
Yorktown Heritage Preservation Commission photo
By Sherrie Dulworth

Is there new light on old history in Yorktown?  Lynn Briggs had heard recurring speculation: Had Yorktown’s Underhill Farm site been associated with the Underground Railroad, the movement that helped numerous people escape slavery in the pre-Civil War era? 

“The issue was raised with me by multiple people over the past several years,” Briggs said.

That is one of many questions that Briggs, chair of the Yorktown Heritage Preservation Commission (YHPC), is exploring related to the property’s historic significance.

The prominent, nearly 14-acre Underhill Farm was originally owned by Abraham I. Underhill and is now owned by Unicorn Contracting, with proposed development for a multifamily, mixed-use complex. Through the decades, the property has been known by several names: Floral Villa, Beaver Conference Center, and more recently, Soundview Preparatory School.

“In vetting a site’s historic significance, we look at many criteria, including the roles of the personages – or notable people – associated with the property, as well the social, cultural and political context of the time,” Briggs said.

The YHPC is part of the municipal government and its members are appointed by the Town Board. Part of the commission’s mission is to identify potential buildings, structures, sites and districts of historic distinction.

Without direct documentation, it can be challenging to assess whether physical places, buildings and/or grounds, were used to aid freedom-seekers. Peter Bunten, chair of the Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project, said that as a general rule he would like to see less emphasis on the architecture – like secret rooms, attics and tunnels – and greater emphasis on the people.

Relevant aspects about the past residents include whether they participated in or supported abolitionist groups, their family ties or belonged to a religious community that took a stand against slavery, such as the Quakers and others.

In that context, were the Underhills unrecognized abolitionists?

Three Brothers

At one time, the name Underhill was synonymous with much of the land in Westchester and beyond. Much has been written about the historic family, from the founder Capt. John Underhill, an early colonial settler, as well as his descendants.

His great-grandson, Isaac, moved to Yorktown with his wife Sarah around 1774. This Quaker family raised their 11 children on the property where Revolutionary War spy Major John Andre stopped for breakfast en route to his rendezvous with Benedict Arnold. Andre was captured that day and later hanged.

Isaac Underhill sold the homestead to three of his sons, Robert, Abraham I. and Joshua, before he died.

The three brothers worked in tandem for years, and in 1792, they teamed up to run a mill business located on land leased at the mouth of the Croton River. Joshua, the youngest of the three, became a merchant who bought and sold wheat and flour for the mill. 

When he was about 30 years old, Joshua moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, about the time of the First Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, which authorized local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight. 

Susan McMahon, assistant genealogist with the Underhill Society of America, said New York Historical Society records support that Joshua was a member of the New York Manumission Society, an organization that promoted the gradual abolition of slavery. A document signed by Joshua S. Underhill, treasurer, was likely that of his son, Joshua Sutton Underhill.

More significantly, Joshua harbored runaway slaves at his Cherry Street home on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

In papers now at the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, Joshua’s daughter, Mary Sutton (Underhill) Wood, wrote, “My father was an active antislavery man and helpful of runaway slaves. Once two men stayed all night – tall & strong – and they were taken to the kitchen & fed & then to the garret which was large – the stairs running between the 3rd story rooms. After we went to bed, I rose to assure myself that the door at the foot of the stairs was bolted. Next day, they were forwarded to Canada.”

Joshua’s granddaughter, Mary S. Trimble, described her grandparents’ home in Underhill Genealogy records.

“There was also a painful mysteriousness about the garret, because there were several low beds in the open space, where we were told colored men and women who were running away from cruel masters in the South sometimes slept, and were fed and sent on their way.”

McMahon said that the house at the Manhattan address appears to no longer exist.

Although he lived in Manhattan, records show that Joshua continued acquiring property in Westchester County, some in and around the family homestead.

Robert, the eldest of the three brothers, was an approved minister of the Society of Friends (Quakers), a religious organization known for its anti-slavery positions. After about 12 years, he sold his share in the mill to Abraham and Joshua, who worked together for more than another decade.

Robert’s daughter, Rebecca T. Underhill, married into the Talcott family, another abolitionist family. Her father-in-law, Joseph Talcott, was among the founders of the Nine Partners School, which as previously reported in the Feb. 18, 2022, Examiner Plus article “Hudson Valley Abolitionists,” was a Quaker-founded school that taught students about the evils of slavery.

Talcott was also a confidant of renown Queens abolitionist Samuel Parsons. Parsons wrote Talcott about funds raised to help move free Southern blacks who were in danger of recapture further north. Letters written between Talcott with Robert and Abraham reflect that they were also friends.

The Clinton Historical Society noted that the Dutchess County farm of Alfred A. Underhill, Robert’s grandson, may have been used for Underground Railroad activities.

When in his 40s, Abraham Underhill married Rebecca Field, who was then almost 18 years old. Rebecca may have attended Nine Partners School at the same time as Hannah Sutton, a girl of her same age who later became her niece by marriage with strong abolitionist ties.

According to McMahon, Abraham built the initial part of the main house on the Underhill Farm property in 1828. Before then, it is believed that he and his family lived on or near the farm where he grew up, which was located nearby. The couple’s one child, Edward Burroughs Underhill, became a businessman who later invested in the Yorktown community but died single and without children.

Other Ties

Rebecca Haight Underhill was an older sister to the trio. She and Joshua respectively married another pair of Westchester siblings, Mary and Moses Sutton. While Joshua and Mary Underhill moved to New York City, Moses and Rebecca Sutton remained in Westchester. Their daughter, Hannah Sutton, was born in 1787. Hannah attended the progressive Nine Partners School and later married the staunch abolitionist, Joseph Pierce, raising their family in the Pleasantville area. The home of their son and daughter-in-law, Moses and Esther Pierce, has been documented as an Underground Railroad station.

The roles of Westchester’s Sutton and Pierce families came to light through the research of Pace University Professor Dorothee von Huene Greenberg and was published in the winter 2012 issue of “The Westchester Historian.”  

“I was pleased to find that members of the Underhill Family assisted freedom seekers and had roles in promoting the eventual abolition of slavery,” McMahon said.

Whether Abraham I. Underhill and his immediate family, or others among the siblings and their offspring, had any role in aiding freedom seekers is still unknown.

The siblings appear to have remained close into their later years. Mary Trimble, Joshua Underhill’s granddaughter, wrote of seeing, “…our Uncle Abram and pretty Aunt Rebecca; Uncle Robert’s widow, Aunt Mary at the Point; and Uncle Moses and Aunt Rebecca Sutton, sitting side by side in their armchairs at their home at Croton Lake.”

Relevant Clues

People aiding freedom-seekers kept few records, and it is through the records of future generations that their actions have been, and are still being, discovered. While much has been lost to history, relevant clues to people and their actions are sometimes found among long-forgotten documents such as personal letters, family diaries, deeds, mortgages, wills, maps, photographs, obituaries, newspaper clippings and some oral histories.

Briggs said that an essential part of assessing historical significance is collaborating with property owners and others who have knowledge and who can help to authenticate.

“We welcome the public to share any additional knowledge or documentation they may have associated with the Underhill families – people or properties,” Briggs said, in particular to their potential abolitionist connections.

The public can share such information via e-mail at preservation@yorktownny.org

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