Upstate New York was a center of abolition activity during the canal era and anti-slavery ideas spread from port to port. The Canal was completed in 1825, and two years later, New York state officially abolished slavery. Many freedom seekers followed the canal path on their way to Canada and others settled in towns and cities along the Canal. Some of the great leaders of the movement lived a short distance from the Erie Canal, including Stephen and Harriet Myers in Albany, Harriet Tubman in Oswego, Jermain Loguen in Syracuse, William Wells Brown in Buffalo, and Frederick Douglass, who published his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star in Rochester, New York.

Activists organized anti-slavery societies throughout New York, and in October 1835, the first convention of the New York Anti-Slavery Society took place in Utica, not far from the Erie Canal. Several prominent figures in New York’s abolitionist movement had businesses that were tied to the success of the Erie Canal, including Lyman Spalding of Lockport, Isaac and Amy Post of Rochester, and Gerrit Smith of Utica and New York City.

In 1817, New York passed a new law that would free enslaved people born before 1799, but not until 1827. As seen in this manumission certificate recorded in 1818, many in New York wanted to see a speedier end to slavery. By the 1830 census, there were only 75 slaves in New York. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery at age twenty, moving to Massachusetts and later New York, where he became a world-famous orator, author, newspaper publisher, and leading figure in the abolitionist movement. Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery via Smithsonian Institution.

Some New Yorkers clashed with their neighbors over the legality of harboring freedom seekers who had escaped from their enslavers. This 1824 reward notice for a bilingual runaway slave from Oppenheim, New York asks for community help finding an enslaved man. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Not as well known as Frederick Douglass, Austin Steward also wrote an autobiography titled, Twenty-two years a slave, and forty years a freeman; embracing a correspondence of several years, while president of Wilberforce Colony, London, Canada West. He resided in Rochester, New York after escaping enslavement. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.