ASHAWAY — Built in 1778 and still standing today, the Jacob D. Babcock house on High Street in Ashaway holds the secrets of the many fugitive slaves who stopped there to eat and rest on their dangerous journey to Canada.
Babcock, who owned the Ashaway mill, was an abolitionist whose home was the first stop in Rhode Island in the network of individuals, both African-American and white, who constituted the Underground Railroad. It is estimated that between 1810 and 1850, approximately 100,000 southern slaves fled north to eventual freedom.
Hopkinton author and historian Lauri Arruda said the secrecy surrounding the Underground Railroad, necessary because of the dire consequences for captured fugitive slaves and their helpers, left few clues as to what happened at the Babcock house.
But she was able to glean some information from interviews done years ago with the town’s elderly residents, who recalled a tunnel under the small store that was attached to the Babcock home.
“I believe that they had places in the house where they would hide them,” she said. “I’ve been interviewing older people for 20 years, and when I first started, they had worked in the store that’s attached to the Jacob Babcock house and they would tell me ‘there’s tunnels in there. There’s places that they would hide the slaves.’”
The tunnels were later filled in for structural safety reasons, obliterating evidence of hiding places and secret travel routes.
After leaving Hopkinton, the fugitive slaves headed farther north.
In addition to Babcock house, it is believed that there were two lesser-known houses in Ashaway owned by abolitionists who were also part of the Underground Railroad network.
“They went north, pretty much the straightest route,” Arruda said. “After they left the Babcock house, they went to a ‘Mr. Foster’s’ house. I’m not sure which Mr. Foster that was, but he was on the western side of Hopkinton. [The fugitive slaves] kept to the rural areas… I believe they went up through Exeter, which is very rural, and up to northern Rhode Island and then up through the northern states into Canada.”
Slavery in Rhode Island
Rhode Island had a long history of slavery, with records of African slaves dating back to 1652.
While at first Rhode Island had a smaller population of black slaves than neighboring Connecticut and Massachusetts, by the the mid-1700s, Rhode Island had twice the slave population of the other New England colonies, more than 6 percent of the total population.
Rhode Island was also one of the most active slave-trading colonies, sponsoring nearly 1,000 slaving voyages to Africa between 1709 and 1807. An earlier law abolishing African slavery was largely ignored, however in 1784, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Gradual Emancipation Act granting freedom to children born to slaves.
After the emancipation, Arruda said many Hopkinton slaves chose to remain with their owners.
“A lot of the slaves in town, once the emancipation took place, this is after 1784, they stayed with most of their previous owners because they had no resources to live on their own. So, they essentially continued the same work they had been doing.”
During her 18-year career as Deputy Town Clerk, Arruda combed through town records, learning about the first Hopkinton residents, many of whom kept slaves to work on their farms and in the mills.
“There is just so much history in those records that people would never know about,” she said. “It occurred me one day, after I’m sitting there for two or three weeks reading records, that it was only me that was going to be able to have a chance to have these people’s stories.”
Slaves, however, proved more challenging for Arruda to track, even after emancipation.
“It’s very difficult to follow their actions and tell their story," she said, because of a lack of birth, death, marriage or tax records. “So I could follow a few of them, but not many.”