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Oral History / Research Guide

Wanzer Descendants


Thelma Nelson Hudgins, Winona Nelson, and Allen Uzikee Nelson heard stories from both their mother, Sarita Emily Allen, and their great-aunt, Emily Elizabeth Allen Hanson, about the escape of their great-great-grandfather, Frank Wanzer, from slavery in Loudoun County, Virginia, on Christmas Eve, 1855.  Born in Canada in 1902, Sarita learned these stories as a young girl directly from her great-grandfather Frank before he died in 1911. Wanzer also told the story of his escape to his granddaughter, Emily.  Before she died at age 110 in 1991, she passed on his story and that of his wife, Emily Foster Wanzer, to younger generations. Is there more information to document this family’s story?

From her grandmother, Cora Plumley Denton, Barbara Knight heard stories about Mrs. Denton’s grandparents, Starr and Harriet Clark, who kept a house in Mexico, New York, where freedom seekers stayed in a room behind the kitchen. “Many were cared for & sometimes kept for days before ways were found to pass them on to Canada,” said Mrs. Denton, who also remembered a story about a tunnel behind a jelly cupboard in the basement that connected the house with the tinshop next door.  Can documentation be found to confirm this family’s story? [1]  


In 1975, Frances Grant recorded the story of her life in an interview for the Schlesinger Library's African American women's oral history project. "I was born on June 30, 1895," she said, "and had two of the best parents that anyone could ever have had.  My father [George Grant] was born in 1846 in Oswego, New York.  He came of a family that had been part of an underground railroad station, taking slaves over the border into Canada, and many a time he told me of waking up at night and seeing these slaves taken out of haycarts, and all smuggled over the border.  A situation and a memory that was very, very poignant."[2] Is there written evidence from before the Civil War to support this family story?

Mayhew Cabin

People in Nebraska City, Nebraska, told stories about a cave they called John Brown’s Cave, where freedom seekers would hide.  Nearby stood a log cabin, now identified by a state marker as the “Mayhew Cabin 1852.”  The cabin belonged to Barbara Kagi Mayhew, sister of John Kagi, “trusted assistant of John Brown,” all European Americans, who reportedly used it to shelter fugitives from slavery.  Is there evidence to support this story?

Oral traditions like these are some of the most common and important sources of information about the Underground Railroad.Yet people often do not understand oral traditions.Sometimes oral sources are accepted uncritically.Other times they are rejected entirely. If the Underground Railroad was a secret movement, they argue, why would Underground Railroad activists leave a paper trail about illegal activities?

In fact, although the Underground Railroad was often a secret movement, it was also often widely publicized. Because Underground Railroad supporters needed community support, they used personal stories to bring new recruits to the abolitionist cause. They left newspapers, personal manuscripts, census records, antislavery petitions, church records, and other written sources, as well as an extensive oral tradition, to document their work.

This booklet offers an introduction to using and verifyingoral sources and documents that relate to the Underground Railroad. It outlines a rating scheme to analyze those sources critically, and it offers examples for discussion. Anyone interested in Underground Railroad research—local historians, genealogists, high school and college students, teachers, and interested citizens—will find this booklet useful.



[1] Knight, Barbara. “Starr Clark Family History.” Unpublished paper in Mexico Historical Society, April 13, 1989. In 1940, Cora Plumley Denton,wrote stories of her grandfather’s Underground Railroad activities down for Elizabeth Simpson, a local historian. “His home was one of the stations on the underground railway,” wrote Denton. “He had a tunnel dug from his house to his store where the slaves could pass from one building to the other when officials searched for them. Many were cared for & sometimes kept for days before ways were found to pass them on to Canada, sometimes in wagon loads of grain to Os. [Oswego] or to Mexico Bay where small boats would take them to larger boats going to Canada.”  Elizabeth Simpson, Mexico, Mother of Towns (Buffalo, NY: Mexico Independent, 1949), 354. Many conversations between Barbara Knight and Judith Wellman. Special thanks to Barbara Knight for her consistent generosity in sharing her family’s strong oral tradition.

[2] Frances O. Grant, Black Women’s Oral History Project, Schlesinger Library, 1975.