Why Frederick Douglass spoke at Himrod during Civil War

Yates County History Center

YATES COUNTY – July 4 next year will mark 160 years since former slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke to crowds in Yates County. Yates is the smallest of New York’s counties. Why come here?

Frederick Douglass

Yates County was a hotbed of loyal Unionists. Many were sympathetic to the cause of abolition, and Yates was well known to Douglass. He spoke to its citizens in 1842, 1848, 1861, 1862, and 1867. After escaping from slavery in Baltimore in 1838, he eventually settled in Rochester, where he found the sympathy and support of others for freedom of the enslaved. The American Anti-Slavery Society sponsored his first visit here as part of a three-month tour.

Again, why Himrod? Life in Yates County was different then. Himrod was a more bustling place. Its pro-abolitionist citizens wanted to aid the movement as much as possible. It was also the next stop on the train line from Canandaigua, after Penn Yan.

In 1862, Penn Yan’s citizens didn’t want to hold a big 4th of July celebration due to the feelings about being in the midst of our Civil War. The newspaper, The Penn Yan Democrat, tried unsuccessfully to drum up support for a celebration. The competing newspaper, The Yates County Chronicle, began promoting Douglass’ July 4 visit to Himrod Center at nearly the same time. The promotion read, in part, “Those who want to hear true Democracy had better go.”

And go they did! The paper reported that 2,000 citizens came to Himrod that afternoon to hear Douglass’ hour plus long speech titled, “The Slaveholder’s Rebellion.”

Edson Lott, who was 8 years old at the time and living across the grove where Douglass spoke, wrote of it in his autobiography, "A Penn Yan Boy," published in 1941. Lott described the attendees as “white-hot,” either pro-slavery or pro-abolition. According to him, Douglass succeeded in getting the anti-slavery supporters so “aroused” that they drove the pro-slavery folks completely away, complete with physical altercations.

We know the rest of the story. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The war dragged on, ending in May of 1865. Many U.S. lives were lost over that four-year period. President Joe Biden just signed into law a new national holiday, Juneteenth, marking the day Union soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to inform slaveholders and slaves that slaves were no longer anyone’s property.

To learn more about escaping slavery, visit the Yates History Center’s exhibit, "A Dangerous Freedom," at the Yates County History Center, 107 Chapel St., Penn Yan, open Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Thanks to Rich MacAlpine, former editor of Yates Past, the bi-monthly newsletter of the Yates History Center, Stephanie Olsen, and the imaging team of The Yates History Center for contributing information.