Thomas Garrett

Thomas Garrett (1789-1871), American abolitionist, openly defied state and Federal statutes by giving aid to fugitive slaves, thus strengthening resistance to proslavery legislation.

Thomas Garrett was born of Quaker parents on Aug. 21, 1789, in Delaware County, Pa. His father, a farmer and scythe and edge-tool maker, taught his son his skills. Garrett married, raised a family, and made a career in the iron trades. He was early sympathetic to the antislavery movement, joined the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and engaged in its work of aiding runaway slaves.

In 1820 Garrett moved to Wilmington, Del., where he became a wealthy iron merchant. He increased his abolitionist work, though Delaware was a slave state. Adjacent to Pennsylvania and New Jersey on one side and Maryland on the other, Delaware was a particular target for runaway slaves and offered many opportunities for Underground Railroad activities. Garrett explored all of these, aiding fugitives from several states and probing the various means for concealment and transportation. The State of Maryland set a reward of $10,000 for Garrett's arrest and employed all kinds of stratagems for surprising him in his illegal work.

Notorious for his antislavery campaign in this slave environment and vilified in the press, Garrett nevertheless managed to circumvent enemies and law officers until 1848, when a suit was brought against him in Federal court. His case was not helped by his bold declarations in court that he had aided fugitive slaves and would continue to do so. Judgment against him was rendered by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Roger B. Taney, and he was fined. The fine, coupled with business reverses, put Garrett into bankruptcy at the age of 60. However, friends helped him reestablish his business.

Garrett estimated that he had helped more than 2,700 slaves to freedom—a figure which became famous in antislavery annals. He was the prototype of Simeon Halliday in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Abolitionists of all persuasions, as well as the African American community, admired Garrett. During the Civil War, African Americans protected his home from angry proslavery partisans. In 1870, when the African Americans in Wilmington were celebrating the passage of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution (which gave the vote to African American men), they drew Garrett through the streets in an open carriage preceded by a transparency on which the words "Our Moses" were inscribed.

Garrett died on Jan. 25, 1871. He had stipulated that he was to be carried to his grave by African Americans. They not only honored his request but participated in the Quaker services.

Further Reading on Thomas Garrett

For a biography of Garrett see Thomas E. Drake's article "Thomas Garrett, Quaker Abolitionist" in Friends in Wilmington, 1738-1938 (1938) and the section on Garrett in Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (1961). Other useful works for the study of Garrett include William Still, The Underground Railroad (1872; repr. 1968); Robert C. Smedley, History of the Underground Railroad in Chester and the Neighboring Counties of Pennsylvania (1883; repr. 1968); and Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898; repr. 1967).

Additional Biography Sources

McGowan, James A., Station master on the Underground Railroad: the life and letters of Thomas Garrett, Moylan, Pa.: Whimsie Press, 1977.