Coin of a Different Realm
by Terence Maguire, for the Kennett Underground Railroad Center
The Underground Railroad operated during the first half of the 19th C., a time during which gender roles were pretty tightly defined. Typically men acted as conductors—the people who led or drove freedom-seekers from one station to another.
Of course the greatest and most famous conductor was a woman—Harriett Tubman, who was unique in many ways. After she escaped, she is believed to have returned a dozen or more times to rescue hundreds from slavery. Mostly, however, in the households that were UGRR stations, the wives and sisters acted in traditional ways—cooking for the sudden arrivals, nursing injuries, and providing clothing that could be spared for those who needed it.
An exception in Chester County was Sarah Marsh, daughter of Gravener and Hannah Marsh, of Caln Township. Both parents were ardent supporters of those who sought freedom; and it seems she had no brothers. So Sarah was most often the driver of the wagon that conveyed them to the next station, usually to northeast Chester County on their way to Philadelphia.
According to Robert Smedley’s History of the Underground Railroad in Chester County, before 1850 Sarah usually took her passengers in the daylight, heading toward Philadelphia, where she often attended the markets. She would sometimes have her women passengers dress in Quaker clothing and bonnets, so faces could be hidden.
After 1850, when the Fugitive Slave Law was passed and movement became more dangerous, Sarah would take her charges at night, leaving them at the next station and returning home in the small hours of the morning.
By 1848 her father had died, and six years later she married the widower Eusebius Barnard –his second wife named Sarah. With her husband and daughter gone, Hannah Marsh could no longer maintain her home as a UGRR station. Sarah, however, had joined a household that was perhaps even more active than were the Marshes. It was Sarah’s stepson, Eusebius R., whose story of a seemingly endless trek was told recently in this paper.
One of the Marshes’ neighbors, while neither a supporter nor an antagonist of the UGRR, was curious and kept track of the Marshes’ unexpected visitors. Over the course of a year, she believed she had seen sixty “guests” pass through their hands. The neighbor concluded that the Marshes “didn’t do it all for nothing. They wouldn’t harbor and feed that many in a year without getting paid for it in some way.” Apparently she could not imagine that the Marshes, and so many others, were being paid—but in the coin of a different realm.
Click here to select another story