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Lowell Stories : Black History

John Taylor- Freedom Seeker

Theodore Edson (1793 - 1883) served as Rector of St. Anne's Church in Lowell for 59 years, and recorded John Taylor's story in his diary. From Illustrated History of Lowell and Vicinity: Massachusetts.1


In March 1839, freedom seeker John Taylor, who had been called Robert when enslaved in Kentucky, came to Rev. Theodore Edson’s home in Lowell, Massachusetts. Taylor had been sold and sent to New Orleans, he told Edson, but while there had escaped among the free black crew members of a Mississippi steamboat to Cincinnati.  He then traveled into Ohio, where he was apprehended, rescued, and sent “on from town to town toward the North to Pittsburgh and thence to Philadelphia.”

Philadelphia abolitionists sent Taylor north to Gerrit Smith at Peterboro, a hamlet near Utica, New York.  From there Smith sent him to James Gillespie Birney, a Kentucky native and abolitionist then living in New York City. Edson noted that Birney knew Taylor’s “old master well.”

On March 19, 1836, Rev. Theodore Edson recorded in his diary the story John Taylor told about his life and journey north, revealing how many people assisted freedom seekers such as Taylor along the way (scans of this diary entry are included below).

Tuesday 19- A person called by name of John Taylor alias Robert - bred in Kentucky- as a bond servant in the family of a man by the name of Schulz who gave Robert to his daughter on her marriage to a lawyer. The legal gentleman undertook to chastise Bob for not catching a horse. It would seem that the lady thought the correction undeserved for says she to her slave who was probably something of a favorite "Bob don't you let him whip you" Accordingly Bob who was very strong as often as the man offered to strike him jerked the whip out of his hand repeating the process in a quiet and determined way till the Lawyer tired. For this offense Robert was sold to a slave dealer and carried with 50 others to New Orleans where he was exposed to public sale and purchased for 800 dollars as a house servant cook and coachman as he was bred. But the man having in mind to swap him away for another the slave took the opportunity to go on board a steamboat where the hands were free colored persons (captain white) and went up the river to Cincinnati thence to Marietta Ohio. But the advertisements went before him. And in Ohio he was apprehended and condemned as a slave put in irons, sent off in a wagon ironed in care of four men In a woods they had to pass about 30 men came upon them rescued Bob and sent him on from town to town toward the North to Pittsburgh thence to Philadelphia was sent to Gerrit Smith Esq. and to Birney who knew the old master well. 

Thru N. York he came to Boston where he was very sick of pleurisy from exposure in traveling lying out in the woods day and night in northern climate. Mr. Garrison befriended him But one day in Boston Cornhill he met an unexpected Kentuckian slave holder whom he knew James Coburn and who recognized him at once saying "Aye Bob what are you doing here" He made himself strange. But felt that he must leave Boston. A Mr. Leonard from Ludlow Vt. had seen him in Boston and had said to him that if he wod [sic] come to him he would take care of him and he gave him some directions. Mr. G. sent him to Salem to a Mr. Wm. A. Dodge But his story getting wind he was afraid to stay there and came on to Andover where he was directed to Smith's the [Sch?] at Frye Village. Smith directed him to come to me-which he did by the rail road. He seemed to be what the dealers would call a very likely negro.2


1.  Courier-Citizen Company, Lowell, Mass. Illustrated History of Lowell and Vicinity: Massachusetts (Lowell, Mass: Courier-Citizen, 1897), 701.
2. Edson, Theodore. Diary, 12/1822-4/1839, Box 1, 2018.037, The Theodore Edson Diaries. Lowell Historical Society, Center for Lowell History, University of Massachusetts Lowell. 



Edson Diary


Related Resources:

Mayo, Martha, Saint Anne's Church and Rev. Theodore Edson, Center for Lowell History, University of Massachusetts Lowell,  Archived at Wayback Machine
Hickey, Walter.  The Diaries of Reverend Theodore Edson, December, 8 1822 to April, 2 1839 [transcription of originals].  University of Massachusetts Lowell University Library, accessed 13 July, 2023.