The remarkable story of Nancy Adams, who escaped slavery three times

Mildred Europa Taylor Jul 6, 2020 at 01:00pm

July 06, 2020 at 01:00 pm | History, Women

Mildred Europa Taylor

Mildred Europa Taylor | Associate Editor

July 06, 2020 at 01:00 pm | History, Women

The grave of Nancy Adams. Photo: Atlas Obscura/Susan Franz

Engineers from the Massachusetts Department of Public Works were laying out improvements to Route 146 in 1982 when they discovered several unmarked gravestones on a wooded hill next to a gravel pit. Archaeologists from Boston University, who were called to assess the site, found about 16 fieldstones, but one stood out. The “traditionally inscribed headstone”, when reassembled, read: “Mrs. Nancy Adams.”

Described as a respectable colored woman, Adams, born 1766, had escaped slavery thrice – once in Maryland and twice in Connecticut, despite records showing she walked with a limp. She later settled down in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, where she lived as a free woman for many years before her death on June 6, 1859.

When her grave alongside that of 31 bodies from the burial ground was discovered, authorities noted that they had to continue with their highway plans, thus, the 32 bodies were removed from the site and taken to Boston University for study. In 1995, 31 bodies were reburied in what became the New Almshouse Cemetery, 80 Almshouse Road, about a half-mile from the original site. The last body – one Native American – was re-interred in the Indian Burial Ground in Thompson, Connecticut, according to accounts.

Despite being given a proper reburial, Adams’ story remained largely unknown until a few years ago when a group of researchers including Michael Potaski from Uxbridge submitted a proposal for Adams’ burial site to be accepted to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom operated by the National Park Service, with more than 600 sites as part of the network.

The Network to Freedom was created in 1998 to allow communities to submit sites, research facilities, and educational programs that are associated with the Underground Railroad freedom movement.

Uxbridge was the “heartbeat” of the Underground Railroad and hosted the Quaker community that worked actively to abolish slavery. Adams lived in the Uxbridge community for many years, appearing in the 1850 U.S. census, identified as a slave.

Last year, it was announced that her burial site had been finally accepted by the National Park Service into the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. Researcher Potaski and other members of the Uxbridge Historical Commission welcomed the development. Having researched Adams’ life for years, they discovered three years ago at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library a letter dictated in 1838 by Adams.

The letter, which she sent to abolitionist sisters Sarah and Angelina Grimké, gives some insight into the life of Adams.

Though her gravestone states she was born in Louisiana, her letter says she was born in eastern Maryland. An illiterate, she was married at 17 and had two sons and a daughter. When was told that her slaveowner planned on selling her and her children to the “Spaniards,” she escaped with her family into the woods, where they lived for about five months “with no food but acorns and no shelter but a large tree which had been blown up by the roots,” the letter continues.

Adams and her children later came out of their hiding place when they were promised that they would be sold to a neighbor who said Adams could buy her freedom. But this neighbor ended up selling Adams and her three children down south to Port Gibson, Mississippi. Sadly, Adams’ daughter died on the journey.

Getting to Port Gibson, Adams and her sons worked on a cotton plantation for more than 23 years before Adams was sold again. The letter states that her new owner took her on a trip to Norwich, Connecticut, where she escaped for the second time. She hid in an icehouse for two days until the slaveowner left town.

For 12 years, she lived in Norwich until she learned that her former slave owner was aware of where she was and planned to recapture her. Thus, she fled for the third and last time to Uxbridge where she lived until her death.

“I have thus far tried to give some account of myself but I have not told half that I could tell,” Adams dictated in her letter. “My eyes have seen what my tongue dares not speak.”

Recent studies of her remains disclose that she “suffered from a tragic and difficult life and with severe disabilities.” Though much is not known about her years in Uxbridge, she is cited in an article as having donated 25 cents to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society and sending cakes to prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who came to Uxbridge to speak.

Today, her gravestone itself, damaged during cleaning, is stored on the third floor of the Uxbridge Free Public Library while a replica stands at the new cemetery.

Her narrative, which is among a few narratives that come directly from formerly enslaved people, is what national program manager of the Network to Freedom Diane Miller describes as “beautiful documentation.”

Touching on Adams’ acceptance into the Network to Freedom, Miller said: “Even if she escaped one time, we would have included her gravesite.

“But it’s remarkable that she had to escape three times.”

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