During the years leading up to the Civil War, when tensions were highest, John Jay II and famed abolitionist Stephen Meyers worked closely to help enslaved persons escape to Canada along the Underground Railroad. Jay used his position as an attorney to free people escaping enslavement through the courts in New York City, while Myers, and his wife Harriet, used their home in Albany as a safehouse for those on their way to Canada. There was a mutual respect between the two for the passion they each brought to the cause of abolition, and both recognized the importance of the other’s role.
Stephen Myers was born into enslavement around the year 1800 in Hoosick, New York, a small town near the city of Troy. Unfortunately, like so many enslaved persons, little is known about his early life. The records that survive indicate that he was likely enslaved by someone named General Warren. He was most likely freed around the year 1818, and he met his wife Harriet sometime between then and 1827 when they were married. The couple had four children, and Stephen had jobs as a grocer and a steamboat steward in the years immediately following their marriage. By the mid- 1830s, they had both begun helping people escape slavery and were becoming active in the abolitionist movement.
In 1842 Stephen and Harriet began publishing their abolitionist newspaper The Northern Star and Freedman’s Advocate, which was successful in spreading the abolitionist message throughout upstate New York. The Myers’ home at 194 Livingston Ave in Albany served as the headquarters for the newspaper, and as a safehouse to aid people escaping enslavement before the last leg of their harrowing journey towards Canada. By the end of the 1840s, the Myers’ operation was the most well-organized section of the Underground Railroad and they had established themselves as the leading abolitionists in the Albany area.
It was during the late 1840s that Stephen Myers met and began working closely with John Jay II, who had established himself as one of the leading abolitionist attorneys in New York City. The two were likely introduced by John’s father, William Jay, who was active in the American Anti-Slavery Society during the 1830s. John Jay II had become an expert on laws relating to slavery in each state, and was, despite frequent resistance from local and federal officials, successful in winning several enslaved persons their freedom through the courts in the city. It was a dangerous job as Jay was constantly slandered and threatened by pro-slavery advocates and was even assaulted by an opposing attorney during a case in the early 1850s. He was able to win many cases by simply pointing out the differing slavery laws in each state; since slavery was illegal in New York, upon entering that state, a person running from their enslaver was immediately free. Many cases were like the case of George Kirk who escaped enslavement in Georgia. Kirk was able to hide himself on a cargo boat headed to New York, and upon arrival his case was brought to John Jay II via another activist, David Ruggles. Jay secured Kirk’s freedom, and connected him with other abolitionists in the area who helped Kirk get a job and settle into his new life as a free man.
Things changed for Jay and Myers, and for abolitionists in general, with the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It stated that anywhere in the United States, slave state or free, any formerly enslaved person could be captured and returned to enslavement. Citizens of free states were forced to comply under penalty of law. For Jay this meant the argument he used in court to free people like George Kirk was no longer valid, and for Myers it meant that simply securing jobs and homes for formerly enslaved people was not enough. Either one could face criminal consequences for aiding those fleeing enslavement as well. It became a very dangerous time to be an abolitionist.
In the 1850s, despite the Fugitive Slave Act, letters between Jay and Myers indicate they were helping more people to freedom than ever before. Now a significant player in the Underground Railroad, John Jay II enlisted other abolitionist-friendly officials and people of influence to help escaped people lay low in New York, gave them money, and assisted in their passage to the Myers home in Albany. Before the Fugitive Slave Act, Stephen and Harriet focused on getting escapees jobs and homes in the Albany area or elsewhere upstate. Now they had to concentrate on getting people to Canada.
Letters between John and Stephen in our collection give us an indication of the success rate of their underground railroad connection. The first letter we have was written by Stephen Myers to John Jay II on the back of a pamphlet from the Albany Anti-Slavery office’s annual Anti-Slavery Reporter from January 1st, 1860. It reads: I have added up the number of fugitives that I have received in eight years fed and lodged there has been more in the last three years than their has been in six years previous. We had six men arrive Sunday the fist day of the year 1860 last year we had three on the first day. Of the six men arrived on Sunday two came from Norfolk on a vessel to Stonington two from Fairfax Va two from Baltimore Maryland.
Myers was excited as his operation had only become more successful towards the end of the 1850s, despite the Fugitive Slave Law. During the summer of 1860, Harriet Myers wrote to John with a report that provides us a glimpse of John’s involvement in the network: the two fugitives arrived here that you sent and I sent them immediately on their route for Canada. In this month we has had then we have sent on the two that you sent they had some money they said that you gave them some….I thank you for all the favors you has done for the downtrodden that come to this office may god bless you sir and your posterity.
The last letter in our collection, written towards the end of 1860, just months before the start of the Civil War, indicates that the relationship between the Meyers and Jay was more than a professional relationship. In the letter Myers provides the usual report of an increase in the number of fugitives he’s seen, and says that they’ve all made it safely to Canada, but then concludes the letter with the sentiment: I have a smart and spritely grandson about four months old I have taken the liberty to name him William John Jay Myers I desire to have one colored childe to bear that name.
A common passion for human rights, their mutual admiration for each other, and their close friendship likely contributed to their prolonged success. After the Civil War, Stephen Myers retired and lived a quiet life at his home in Albany. Harriet died in 1865; followed by Stephen in 1870 at the age of 70, leaving behind a legacy as some of the most successful operators in the history of the Underground Railroad. John Jay II, who was much younger, continued his work as a lawyer after the war, and served as the Foreign Minister to Austria for six years under President Ulysses S. Grant. Jay died in 1894 at the age of 76 at his home in New York City.