National Park Service

National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom 

 

Herman and Hannah Phillips House

Sherwood, Cayuga County, New York 

 

Phillips House

November 2004 

 

Prepared as part of a Survey of Historic Sites Relating to the

Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American life in

Auburn and Cayuga County, New York, 1820-1900

Sponsored by the City of Auburn Historic Resources Review Board

with the support of the Cayuga County Historian’s Office

Funded by Preserve New York, A Grant Program of the

Preservation League of New York State and the

New York State Council on the Arts

Judith Wellman, Project Coordinator 

 

Abstract:

In 1843, Herman and Hannah Phillips walked with their four children from slavery in Maryland to Sherwood, New York. There, sponsored by Quaker storeowner Slocum Howland, they found work and a home. Recognized by a former Maryland neighbor who visited Sherwood in the late 1850s, the Phillips family fled to Canada. They soon returned to Sherwood, however, and in 1854, they bought land from Slocum Howland and moved a house (probably built prior to 1837) from the NE corner of the four corners of Sherwood hamlet about 1855. Here they raised their eight children. Three sons served in the Civil War. The house remained in the family until 1913, when Rose E. and Estella Phillips, daughter-in-law and granddaughter of Hannah and Herman, sold it to Isabel Howland, granddaughter of Slocum Howland.  Estella Phillips remained in Sherwood, a friend, and employee of Isabel Howland, until Isabel’s death in 1942, when Estella moved to Fitch Avenue in Auburn. Herman, Hannah, and several of their children are buried in the Sherwood cemetery. Relatives of this family still remain in the area.  Primary source documentation for the Phillips family is extensive through letters and diaries kept by Emily Howland, daughter of Slocum Howland.  

 

 

A white frame house standing in Sherwood, New York, looks similar to many other vernacular houses in central New York, but it actually represents a remarkable story, the fulfillment of the dream of Hannah Phillips (November 8, 1801-June 1, 1873) and Herman Phillips (March 28, 1806-Sept. 2, 1875), who left slavery in Maryland about 1843 to find safety and freedom for their family in this small rural upstate New York village. This story is well-documented by diaries and letters kept by the Howland family (who assisted the Phillips family in Sherwood), as well as by census records, deeds, assessment records, gravestones, and oral traditions. 

 

In 1888, Emily Howland--abolitionist, teacher, woman’s rights advocate and daughter of Quaker abolitionist and storekeeper Slocum Howland of Sherwood, New York--wrote a brief essay about her life for Indian woman’s rights activist Pandita Ramabai. In it, she recalled scenes from her abolitionist childhood, including the story of one family of freedom seekers from Maryland:

 

Once a man and his wife and four children, the youngest being an infant, carried in a bag slung on its father’s back, who escaped from Maryland, settled under my father’s protection for some time. But one hapless day a lady came to visit in the neighborhood who recognized them at once, having visited at their master’s house. She promised not to betray them to the slave holder, but they could not thus risk the liberty for which they had dared and suffered, to an uncertainty, and fled in terror to the Queens’ dominions where they suffered so much from the more rigorous climate and from other causes that they returned, and the parents ended their days where they began their life of freedom. They were both worthy and industrious, and earned a comfortable home, as well as the respect of those who knew them.[1]

 

On October 8, 1928, Emily Howland wrote to Leonard Searing, President of the Cayuga County Historical Society, giving more clues about this family, including their name, date of arrival, and possible routes of travel, as well as indicating her own family’s work on the Underground Railroad:

 

My father’s house was the station for those who fled from slavery. I can remember several arrivals from what was called the patriarchal institution. There was Herman Phillips, his wife and four children, coming about 1843. At another time two young men, all from Maryland. Another man came from West Virginia. Footsore and weary they reached here, having walked all the way. They were usually sent forward from a station in Pennsylvania, by John Mann, a Friend who was head of a school. Some came from another station farther south, the home of Dr. Fussell. All of these stations were the homes of Friends. The fugitives whom I have mentioned felt so safe that they made their home here. The family of one of them went to Canada but suffered so from cold that they returned. Just after their return the Fugitive Slave law was passed but they decided to take the risk of remaining here, which they did unimpeded [?] to the end of their lives. Two of their sons served in the Civil War. Later Harriet Tubman had a station and was the leader of many of her people to freedom. This was a very important station on the road, which was traveled without line or compass. [2]

 

In a second letter to Searing, March 19, 1929, when she was 102 years old but still of sound mind, she amplified her story about the Phillips’ family. Most refugees “came, rested, and then passed on to Canada,” she recalled, “with the exception of one family having four small children, the parents settled down here, and were contented in their new estate of freedom, until a Lady from the South on a visit to friends here recognized them. Tho’ she promised not to reveal here knowledge to their former master—they felt their freedom so uncertain that they sought refuge in Canada—They found their lot there so hard that they returned here. Not long after[,] the fugitive slave law was passed making their freedom more perilous but they decided to take the risk and were unmolested, passing their lives in this place.”[3]

 

If this family did indeed come to Sherwood, flee to Canada, return to Sherwood before the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, and live the rest of their lives in this small county, would their lives then be documented in local records, beginning with the U.S. census for 1850? Such indeed is the case.

 

By 1850, Herman (or Harmon) Phillips, laborer, listed wrongly in the census as aged 26 (he was actually 44); his wife, Hannah Phillips, listed wrongly as aged 28 (she was actually 49); and five children (Martha, William, John, Harriett, and James, aged 19, 14, 12, 9, and 1) lived in the Town of Scipio (where the village of Sherwood is located). All listed their birthplaces as Maryland, except James, the youngest, who had been born in Canada, confirming Emily Howland’s story about the family’s flight to and return from the “Queen’s dominions” just prior to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act.[4] 

 

But when did this family first arrive in Sherwood? The 1855 New York State census included a question about length of residence in the town. The family noted they had arrived nine years earlier, which would date their arrival as 1846. But Emily Howland had reported that “four children, the youngest being an infant, carried in a bag slung on its father’s back” had walked from Maryland in 1843. Unless one child had died, that “infant” would have been Harriett, somewhere between four and six years old, at the time of their escape, More likely, however, the 1855 census date is wrong. The image of an infant carried in a bag on her father’s back is a powerful one, unlikely to be confused with that of a four-year-old, riding on her father’s shoulders.[5]

 

When this family first arrived in Sherwood, they most likely worked on one of Slocum Howland’s farms and lived in one of his tenant houses.[6]

 

Austin Comstock, who knew the Phillips family in their later years, remembered that “Herman was unable to read and so he decided to attend school and learn to read his Bible. He went to school with his own children in the 50s, he in the primer and they in the 3rd and 4th grade reader.”[7] If so, Herman probably attended school house No. 2 in Sherwood. Though the 1865 census listed Hannah as able to read but not write, none of the census records suggested that Herman Phillips was illiterate, so his quest for learning must have been successful.[8]

 

Although the Phillips family returned to Sherwood before 1850, passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 surely made them uneasy. In October 1851, just after the rescue of William “Jerry” Henry in Syracuse, New York, when African Americans in central New York, especially those born in slavery, feared capture, both Slocum and Emily Howland made inquiries with Underground Railroad contacts farther north about possibilities for employment and safe living conditions for a fugitive family. As Joseph McCaffery has argued in his careful study, these letters may relate to efforts by the Phillips family to find alternative places to live, in case they needed to leave Sherwood quickly.

 

One letter was to William O. Duvall, whose father (also William O. Duvall) had been an antislavery agent in the 1830s. Duvall lived on a swampy point, almost an island, in the Seneca River near the village of Port Byron, Town of Mentz. Locals called his place “Hayti,” a spelling still retained today, pronounced with a long “I,” because Duvall hired African Americans rather than European Americans on his farm. Duvall replied, somewhat brashly, since he was writing to a Quaker,

           

            Respected Friend Howland

Morning of the 14th, just received and hasten to answer it. It strikes me I would not go to Canada. The winter will soon be upon us. And doubly there are more there now that can maintain themselves with any degree of comfort. If he were to come to my place I would protect him to the last drop of blood in my veins, and I think that our location is such that it would be hard to get him. My own opinion is that he and his family will b safe here and I will give him employment.

If he is a fugitive slave, of course, he is not without a good, loaded revolver and ?constantly in his pocket. If he has not these weapons let him sell his coat and get them forthwith, and then in case of an arrest let him defend himself like a man who loves freedom better than life even though the blood flows to the horse bits.

Friend Slocum, you know my location and its facilities for escape if necessary, and the pretty healthy sentiment here about on the subject if you and him think it is a good plan, fetch him out and I will do the best I can.

                                                                                    Ever and Truly Yours,

                                                                                    W.O. Duvall.[9]

 

About the same time, Emily Howland wrote to Samuel C. Cuyler, then living in Pultneyville, New York. Cuyler had been a leading abolitionist in Scipio in the late 1830s, hosting a meeting with Samuel R. Ward in Aurora in 1837, acting as Secretary and Treasurer of the Scipio Antislavery meeting in September 1839 and also as a delegate to the New York State Antislavery Society meeting that fall, and promoting a Cayuga County abolitionist meeting in 1841.[10] He kept a very active Underground Railroad station in Pultneyville, and on October 31, 1851, he described his situation to Emily Howland:

 

I rec’d yours making enquiries in reference to the facilities for the escape of Fugitives to Canada from this place. In Answer, I would say, that the opportunities at this season of the year are not good at all but in the Summer pretty good. . . .

            As to the situation for a man to labor, it is the same with us probably as with you, not much needed at present, and I do not now know of a house. As to the AntiSlavery Sentiment it is as good as the average of this thrice guilty people. As to advising the Fugitive to remain or go, it is difficult to determine. I do not think however there is much danger in your community or ours. They will not come in the country for fugitives. . . .

                                                            Yours for Freedom

                                                            S.C. Cuyler

 

By the mid-1850s, freedom seekers in central New York were much more confident about their safety. In Syracuse, Rev. Jermain Loguen, himself once enslaved in Tennessee, advertised in the newspapers that his home was available to help others escaping from slavery. In this more open atmosphere, Herman and Hannah Phillips decided to stay in Sherwood permanently. Beginning in 1852, they celebrated their new-found stability by having three more children, Hannah, born in 1852; Octavia (or Octavius), born in 1853; and Mary, born in 1857.  By 1855, Herman was working as a farmer. He was 49 years old, and Hannah was 48. They had six children, all living at home, ranging in age from 21-year old William to Martha (18), John (17), Harriet (15), Canadian-born James (6), and little Hannah (Jeremiah?) (4).

 

To celebrate their new-found freedom, the Phillips family also acquired a house. In 1854, they purchased one-half acre of land from Slocum and Hannah Howland. Whether they built the house themselves or someone built it for them, we do not know. Dorothy Wiggans, in Historic Homes of Sherwood, attributed its construction to John Lapham. There is no record that John Lapham ever owned the land, but it is possible that the house was an older house, moved to this lot from another site.[11]

           

This theory gains some support from a note by Austin Comstock in his 1940 Early History of the Town of Scipio, in which he noted that in 1837, “the only habitations on the northeast corner were the old tavern, the house just built by Lapham, and an old house later owned and rebuilt by Herman Phillips, now (1938) occupied by LaMar Lane, principal of Emily Howland High School.” Two small structures appear on the northeast corner of the crossroads in Geil’s 1853 map of Cayuga south of the Stone Store. These do not appear on the 1859 Gray map. Could one of these have been the Phillips house, moved to the Phillips’ lot about 1855? Perhaps the Aurora-Sherwood Road was widened about this time, and the houses were moved to make room for the larger road.[12]

           

A barn on the Phillips’ site, according to Dorothy Wiggans, once housed a blacksmith shop.[13]

 

Map plotted by Bernard Corcoran, Supervising Tax Map Technician, Cayuga County Office of Real Property Services, December 2004, for Survey of Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Auburn and Cayuga County, New York, Sponsored by City of Auburn Historic Resources Review Board.

 

The Phillips family was probably living in this house by 1856, when Emily Howland visited with her friend, Caroline Putnam, on Christmas Day. In an article for the Liberator, Caroline Putnam reported that

 

On entering the house, I was struck with the air of contentment within, and the cheerful demeanor of the inmates. Their Christmas supper stood in bountiful readiness on the table—two nicely roasted chickens, and other dishes suitable for the occasion. The father seemed of the hopeful, good-feeling African temperament, while the mother, a quiet, sensitive woman. . .they now live in a snug little house built with their own earnings and the older children’s, enjoying confidence and respect, and finding employment in the community. . . . A little baby, a few weeks old, was in the arms of its eldest sister, while the mother was intent on the arrangements for the supper. The neat and tidy housekeeping, the holiday happiness, and, above all, the sacred endearments of the family relation, touched my heart with the effect of a sweet and eloquent picture.[14]

 

Certainly this house was standing by 1859, when a structure appeared on this site in Ormando Willis Gray’s Map of Cayuga and Seneca Counties, New York (Philadelphia: A.R.Z. Dawson, 1859).

 

In1860, the federal census listed the Phillips family as Herman Phillips, farmer, aged 48, with real property worth $500 and personal property worth $30, living with his wife Hannah, aged 50, housekeeper, living with all eight of their children aged 24 to 3. Interestingly, none of the family was listed as black or mulatto.

 

 

When the Civil War began, the Phillips sons all joined the Union army. According to Austin Comstock, a Sherwood resident who knew the Phillips family when he was growing up, Herman said that, “if they failed “he would go down and do his duty.”[15] William and John, both born in slavery, and James, born in freedom in Canada, all served. All are listed in the 1865 New York State census as “now in army.” James Phillips’ regiment is listed on his gravestone: “Co. F 39 Reg. N.[U.] S. Colored Vol. Inft., 1845-1896.[16]

 

 

 

By 1870, the family had begun to scatter, leaving only James, Mary, and perhaps daughter Hannah still at home to care for their aging parents. On June 1, 1873, Hannah Phillips died. aged 72. Her husband followed her two years later, on September 2, 1875, aged 69. They are buried together under one stone in the Sherwood community cemetery, across the road from their home.

            Austin Comstock recalled that Herman “was one of the most highly respected citizens in the community and a true Christian gentleman.”[17]

                             

 

 

 

We do not know what happened to most of the Phillips children, once so close, after their parents’ death. Harriet A. Phillips died January 30, 1886, and is buried in the Sherwood Cemetery. At least one child remained in Sherwood. James Phillips married Rose E. Gaskin (1858-1915), daughter of Richard Gaskin, another freedom seeker from Maryland. They probably continued to live in their parents’ home, since title to the home in 1910 went to Rose E. Gaskin and Estella Phillips, probably a daughter of James and Rose Phillips.

Estella Phillips, known locally as Stella, became a friend, confidant, and employee of Emily Howland’s niece, Isabel Howland (Miss Isabel) continued Miss Emily’s tradition of community service, abolitionism, education, and woman’s rights. Local historian Dorothy Wiggans suggested that Stella Phillips worked in Isabel Howland’s home “from 1909 until Isabel’s death, except for the years Isabel was in France.”[18] Pauline Copes Johnson, descendent of four families of freedom seekers, remembered coming to help Cousin Estelle at the Howland house when Isabel Howland died in 1942. “My cousin Estelle Phillips came from the Howland house,” Mrs. Johnson recalled in October 2004. “She lived on Fitch Avenue [in Auburn]. I helped Cousin Estelle out in the kitchen at Isabel Howland’s funeral. I have a book at my house Miss Howland gave to Estelle.”[19] Estelle Phillips is buried near her parents in the Sherwood cemetery.

The Phillips house has always remained a residence. In the 1930s and 1940s, when it was owned by H. Stubbs of McGraw, two school principals, LaMar Lane and Donald Gazley, rented the building.[20] Only six transactions separate the sale from Howland to Phillips from the sale to the current owners.[21] 

 

 

Bibliography: National Network to Freedom Nomination

Herman and Hannah Phillips House

Sherwood, New York

 

Secondary Materials

 

Breault, Judith Colucci. The World of Emily Howland: Odyseey of a Humanitarian.

Millbrae, California: Less Femmes, 1976.

Comstock, Austin.  Early History of the Town of Scipio, Cayuga County, Mimeographed

typescript (1940),

McCaffery, Joseph. “Slocum Howland, Herman Phillips, and the Underground Railroad,”

paper completed for Milton Sernett, Syracuse University, [2002].

Wiggans, Dorothy. History of Sherwood. New York. Auburn: Cayuga County Arts

Council, 1989.

 

Primary Sources

 

Census Records:

            Manuscript U.S. Census—1850, 1860, 1870

            Manuscript New York State Census—1855, 1865

            Loe, Mary, and Tanya Warren. “Hannah and Herman Phillips Family, Freedom

Seekers from Maryland, Sherwood, New York, Census Data, 1850-1870.”

 

Deeds searched by Bernie Corcoran.

 

Manuscripts:

            Cuyler, S.C. to Emily Howland. October 31, 1851. Howland Papers, Cornell

University.

            Duvall, W.O. to Slocum Howland, October 16, 1851. Howland Papers, Cornell

University.

Emily Howland to “My dear Ramabi,” Bermuda, April 1888, typescript in

collections of Howland Stone Store Museum, Sherwood, New York, and Cayuga County Historian’s Office; original in Phebe King Collection, Emily Howland Papers, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore.

Howland, Emily to Leonard Searing, October 8, 1928. Copy in Cayuga County

Historian’s Office.

            ________ to “My dear Ramabai,” Bermuda, April 1888, typescript in

Howland Stone Store Museum, Sherwood, New York. Original in Phebe

King Papers, Emily Howland Collection, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College.

            ________ to Leonard Searing, March 19, 1929. Photocopy in Cayuga

County Historian’s Office.

Myers, Mildred—Typewritten notes on Isabel Howland. Collections of Howland

Stone Store.

            Porter, Charles T. to John and Abigail Porter, [October 18, 1841], Village of

Aurora Archives, Transcribed by Sheila Edmunds, Historian, Village of

Aurora.

 

Maps:

Corcoran, Bernard. “Deed Plot Map: Deed Conveying Land from Slocum and

Hannah Howland to Herman Phillips, 1854.”

            Samuel Geil, Map of Cayuga County. Philadelphia: Samuel Geil, 1853.

Gray,    Ormando Willis. Map of Cayuga and Seneca Counties, New York

Philadelphia:     A.R.Z. Dawson, 1859.

 

Oral Sources:

            Johnson, Pauline Copes, Recollections of Estella Phillips. Recorded by Sheila

Tucker, October 2004.

            Mitchell, Brad. Interviewed by Tanya Warren and Judith Wellman, November 4,

                        2004.

Printed Materials:

Friend of Man, September 25, 1839; August 17, 1841.

Howland Stone Store Museum, “Sherwood and the Underground Railroad: What

Do We Know???” Typescript available through the Howland Stone Store         Museum.

Putnam, Caroline. The Liberator, XXVII:3 (January 16, 1857), as noted in Joseph

McCaffery, “Slocum Howland, Herman Phillips, and the Underground Railroad,” paper completed for Milton Sernett, Syracuse University, [2002].

 

All photographs by Judith Wellman, taken with the assistance of Brad Mitchell and Tanya Warren, November 2004, except for Phillips house in snow, taken February 2003.

 

The Phillips house nomination is part of a survey of Historic Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life. Judith Wellman, Director of Historical New York Research Associates, Coordinator; Sheila Tucker, Cayuga County Historian, Research Coordinator; Judy Bryant, Oral History Coordinator; Tanya Warren and Bonnie Ryan, Research Assistants; and many, many other extraordinary local volunteers.

 

This nomination is the result of the effort of a remarkable team of researchers, including

Sheila Tucker, Cayuga County Historian and Project Research Coordinator; Bernard Corcoran, Supervising Tax Map Technician, Cayuga County Office of Real Property Services; Christopher Densmore, Director, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College; James Driscoll, Director, Queens Historical Society; Sheila Edmunds, Historian, Village of Aurora; Penny Helzer, Village of Port Byron Historian; Pauline Copes Johnson, relative of Phillips family; Mary Loe, Librarian, State University of New York at Oswego; Joseph McCaffrey, student, Syracuse University; Brad Mitchell, Historian, Howland Stone Store; Michael Riley, Historian, Town of Mentz; Tanya Warren, Research Assistant; Patricia White, Secretary, Howland Stone Store. Special thanks to Joseph McCaffrey for his careful and insightful study of the Phillips and Howland families. He was the first to see the possible connection between the Duvall, Cuyler, and Howland letters in 1851 and the Phillips family.

 

Special thanks to Susan Dwyer, Cayuga County Clerk; Bill Hulik, Jr., Cayuga County Records Retention Officer; and Alan Kozlowski, Director of the Cayuga County Real Property Tax Office. A site-based project like this could never be done without these public records, and in Cayuga County, they are backed up by exceedingly friendly, helpful, and organized staff. Thank you. The project is sponsored by the City of Auburn Historic Resources Review Board, with support from the Cayuga County Historian’s Office and funding from Preserve New York, a grant supported by the New York State Council on the Arts and the Preservation League of New York State.

 



[1] Emily Howland to “My dear Ramabai,” Bermuda, April 1888, typescript in collections of Howland Stone Store Museum, Sherwood, New York; original in Phebe King Papers, Emily Howland Collection, Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore.

[2] Emily Howland to Leonard Searing, October 8, 1928. Copy in Cayuga County Historian’s Office.

[3] Emily Howland to Leonard Searing, March 19, 1929. Photocopy in Cayuga County Historian’s Office.

[4] For more information, see chart See chart of census data from 1850, 1855, 1860, 1865, and 1870 census records. Many thanks to Mary Loe and Tanya Warren for preparing this.

[5] The 1850 census noted Harriett’s age as nine; the 1855 census identified her as 15.

[6] Samuel Geil, Map of Cayuga County (Philadelphia: Samuel Geil, 1853).

 

[7] Austin Comstock, “Some of the Early History of the Town of Scipio, Cayuga County, New York,” Typescript, Mimeographed, 1940, 10.

[8] Howland Stone Store Museum, “Sherwood and the Underground Railroad: What Do We Know???” Typescript available through the Howland Stone Store Museum.

[9] W.O. Duvall to Slocum Howland, October 16, 1851, Howland Papers, Cornell University. I am indebted to Jim Driscoll of the Queens Historical for finding and transcribing this letter. Many thanks to Penny Hevell and Michael Riley of Port Byron and the Town of Mentz for locating W.O. Duvall’s house and for historical information about the Duvall family.

[10]Charles T. Porter to John and Abigail Porter, [October 18, 1841], Village of Aurora Archives, Transcribed by Sheila Edmunds. Many thanks to Sheila Edmunds, Historian, Village of Aurora, for sharing this reference.  Friend of Man, September 25, 1839; August 17, 1841.

[11] Dorothy Wiggans, Historic Homes of Sherwood (Auburn: Cayuga County Arts Council, 1989), 13.

[12] Austin Comstock, Early History of the Town of Scipio, Cayuga County, Mimeographed typescript (1940), 8.

[13] Dorothy Wiggans, History of Sherwood. New York (Auburn: Cayuga County Arts Council, 1989), 13.

 

[14] Caroline Putnam, The Liberator, XXVII:3 (January 16, 1857), as noted in Joseph McCaffery, “Slocum Howland, Herman Phillips, and the Underground Railroad,” paper completed for Milton Sernett, Syracuse University, [2002].

[15] Austin Comstock, “Some of the Early History of the Town of Scipio, Cayuga County, New York,” Typescript, Mimeographed, 1940, 10.

[16] Manuscript New York State Census, 1865, noted that William, John, and James were “now in army.”

[17] Austin Comstock, “Some of the Early History of the Town of Scipio, Cayuga County, New York,” Typescript, Mimeographed, 1940, 10.

[18] Dorothy Wiggans, History of Sherwood. New York (Auburn: Cayuga County Arts

Council, 1989), 13.

 

[19]Notes on Isabel Howland taken by Mildred Myers, in Howland Stone Store collections. n.d., mention Estelle Phillips employment by Isabel Howland; Recollections by Pauline Copes Johnson at a meeting of the Advisory Council for the Survey of Historic Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Auburn and Cayuga County, October 2004. Notes taken by Sheila Tucker.

[20]Dorothy Wiggans, History of Sherwood. New York. (Auburn: Cayuga County Arts

Council, 1989), 13. 

 

[21] Deed search by Bernard Corcoran.