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Nyack's Role in Combating Slavery

Nyack was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and two notable residents played roles in aiding escaped slaves.

Antebellum Nyack may seem inconsequential when considering the scale of the Civil War and abolition, but the village—and some dedicated residents—helped combat slavery in their own way.

Firstly, it's important to note the Nyack we know wasn't identical to the Nyack of the nineteenth century. Due to the rapid extension of the country's railroad system in the 1800s, Nyack experienced quick growth. As a result, the incorporation of the village was proposed and comprehensively discussed (residents found they could no longer rely on the town government).

But the proposed village soon splintered in several smaller ones. Due to the fear of higher taxes, residents in the northern region of the village broke away and formed their own municipality—now known as Upper Nyack.

There was also a wave of dissatisfaction in the southern region of the village; its the residents had taxation qualms, too. Hence, South Nyack.

During this incorporation of villages and spat over taxes, escaped slaves were entering the region via the Underground Railroad, an illegal network of safe settlements and secret routes used by slaves to escape to freedom.                             

Hundreds of these escaped slaves fled with the help of a "conductor," or an individual who pretended to be a slave to gain entry into a plantation. They consequently offered slaves guidance on how to flee.

Canada quickly became the main destination for fleeing slaves; it offered easy access from slave states, friendly laws guaranteeing freedom to any slave and a good network of crucial support for freedom seekers entering the territory. Canada also housed the Home Society, which established a settlement for blacks seeking freedom from their masters. The society was funded by abolitionists and founded in 1851.

But along the way, Underground Railroad users sometimes stopped in Nyack.

Then-residents Edward Hesdra and John Towt were two prominent personalities in the Underground Railroad activities. Hesdra owned a riverfront property near where the brook drains into the river; Towt owned waterfront property nearby, too. Creeks, brooks, rivers and streams were the most commonly used paths for runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad—they offered direction, water and familiar landmarks.

Both men are known to have housed—in addition to caring for and keeping secret—runaway slaves. Plaques around the village now mark where, approximately, their homes were.

The Underground Railroad was one of the first prominent movements of anti-slavery since slavery in the country, as bondage was a lucrative business. And though Nyack's role was small, Hesdra, Towt and others aided refugees in finding their freedom.

Andy August 12, 2010 at 07:38 PM
fascinating!
William Joseph Reynolds August 13, 2010 at 06:49 PM
Thank you, Andy, for your comments. I have been doing historically-oriented articles for Patch, here in Westchester. I look forward to expanding my historical horizons in Rockland.
Richard Levine March 24, 2014 at 08:22 AM
I am doing historical research involving Edward and Cynthia Hesdra. Does anyone have any details of their life, especially religious activity? If so, please contact me at levine1945@gmail.com. I understand that he was a religious Jew and she was Baptist. Thanks!

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