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Help at the Hanford House

~by Bella Williams~

How Altha Todd Hanford Made Her Mark in the Antislavery Movement

Good morning to all of those who have been able to join us on this beautiful day! I hope you had a good day so far in lovely Ithaca. Most of you know Ithaca because of its roaring waterfalls, from Buttermilk Falls down South near East Ithaca to Triphammer Falls, which finds its place in the beautiful Cornell campus. You all have associated Ithaca to Cornell University and its sprawling campus right up on the hills. But Ithaca is also a home to hundreds of years of history, from the indigenous Cayuga, Seneca, and Onondaga Nations whose land we are currently on, to the Underground Railroad, and Ithaca’s vital part in its operation. Ithaca was a part of this so-called “Railroad” that funneled thousands of fugitive slaves to freedom up North in Canada. Today, I am going to take you along a few sites of the Underground Railroad, so you can have a firsthand look at the secret activity that helped fugitives achieve their freedom. We have around five minutes until we reach our first destination, and I’ll take this time to talk about the history behind the Underground Railroad, the station masters that played vital roles in operating it, and the other antislavery efforts that were taking place in the Finger Lakes region. 

            Our story starts in New York in the late 1850s. By this time, a network of antislavery activists had spread throughout the state, centered in the hotspot of New York City. The city was a dangerous place for black people, fugitive or free, who were often whisked away from the cobbled streets, only to reappear thousands of miles down in the plantations of the South. In response to these frequent kidnappings, a group of ambitious and like-minded people came together to create the New York Vigilance Committee. This group focused on grassroots efforts to promote antislavery as well as providing legal support to free men who were accused of being fugitives.[1] But this network was reinforced not only through these efforts, but through the efforts of hundreds of women and men stationed throughout the entirety of New York and beyond, a cohesive unit that funneled fugitive slaves up to Canada. These people were called stationmasters, and their goal was to provide housing and food to starved and fatigued fugitives who had traveled long distances, and guide them to their next stop along the Underground Railroad. 

            After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the activity of the Railroad only heightened, although the route became all the more harrowing. “Freedom seekers” would travel for hundreds of miles, often through Upstate New York, aided with the help of hundreds of volunteer stationmasters. The risks were plentiful. Caught fugitives would face torture, separation from families, and often unimaginable horrors, while stationmasters would be charged with aiding and abetting and were often jailed or received worse forms of punishments. It was a job only for those with a strong belief and passion to create an anti-slavery force against the government. One of these station-masters was a woman who lived right here in Ithaca, in a house located at the address right ahead of us, 118 Lower Creek Road. I’ve looked up the current house on Zillow and it looks like it was built in 1840, so it might still be the original house that is relevant for the history of the Underground Railroad.

            Nestled in between tall trees and plentiful foliage lies the Hanford House, built by Altha Todd Hanford and her husband William. Walking alongside the home, we can imagine the wear that the years would have brought to the farmhouse and get a sense of the hundreds of years of history that lie beneath the walls of this home. Altha and William had roles both as stationmasters and as members of the antislavery efforts that laid outside of the Underground Railroad. William Hanford was known to be an important man in Ithaca, and was active in various movements gaining traction. He was a leader in both the anti-slavery and temperance movements in Ithaca and was involved in the town’s government.[2] Altha was also just as involved, but her efforts were far more secretive. Fatigued fugitives gained moments of respite at her house before embarking on their journey up North. Since we have been able to look at the house’s exterior, let’s all picture the room where much of Altha’s antislavery efforts centered: the kitchen.[3]

            If we were to take a few steps around the room, what would you observe? Most people would look around the room to see if there are any hidden rooms or hiding spots, overlooking what lies just below the house. Altha Todd Hanford was documented to hide freedom seekers in a cistern under the stone slabs beneath the pine planks covering the kitchen floor.[4] What makes this site a Level Four on the Wellman Scale, meaning that is confirmed by historians to be a part of the Underground Railroad, is the clear documentation on Altha’s obituary that outlines how she made friends with freedom seekers on their way to Canada. Altha was known to lecture and teach at various schools and participated in many organizations. She was known for her selflessness, her desire to help others, and her active role in Ithaca’s anti-slavery movements.[5] Now that we’ve thoroughly explored this site, let’s take a break by looking at a primary source document from Altha’s time. 

            Now here you can see this small weathered pamphlet. It is a couple pages but it might be delicate so please be careful with it. This document was published and spread to the Ladies’ Emancipation Society in Edinburgh, New York, which is located about three and a half hours from here. This document was published more than 200 years ago, in 1800.[6] The first Fugitive Slave Act had just passed seven years earlier in 1793, and fugitive slaves had to once again battle a new wave of obstacles, as the document outlines. During this time, the South and North were still opposing forces with contrasting ideologies. By 1800, quite a few Northern states had abolished slavery, a feat that Thomas Jefferson, who was soon to be elected president the next year, had tried to accomplish. However, slavery ran strong in the Southern states. The economy of the South was wholly dependent on slavery because of the sprawling plantations and agriculture-based economy. Due to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, local governments were told to seize fugitive slaves and return them back to the Southern slave masters.[7] This made the Underground Railroad all the more important in helping these fugitives stay on the path to freedom. 

            The document expresses clear support for the Underground Railroad and the antislavery movement. In very general terms, the pamphlet outlines the workings of the railroad and how slaves were able to travel from station to station. Interestingly, this text also sheds light on how the Underground Railroad came to be and the history behind the name. The condensed nature of the document suggests that it could have been a reading that was required of the ladies in the society, as it didn’t seem like a book but rather a pamphlet. The document contextualizes the Railroad to provide insight on it during a time when its true breadth and magnitude hadn’t been uncovered yet. By reading the first few pages, we learn about Charles Torrey, who fought arduously for the freedom of slaves and coined the term “Underground Railroad”. We also read an anecdote about the journey up to Philadelphia of a fugitive slave named Katy, who finally found her freedom. [8]

            There is much to learn about these stories and the content of this document. We learn about the secrecy of the Railroad as we look at how the descriptions of the Railroad were written. The context of this source is especially important to understand how each Fugitive Slave Act led to an increased urgency to be free for fugitive slaves. It is also interesting to contextualize the document in terms of its use by the Ladies Emancipation Society. Obviously, by this time, slaves were far from being emancipated. However, this document sheds light on how discussion about this topic seemed to start far earlier than the Fugitive Slave Act and was actually prevalent. Additionally, although women weren’t afforded the same rights as men, they were still engaged in educational and active discourse, as shown by the presence of such societies. 

            Although the document offers plenty of knowledge and topics to analyze, like we did earlier, it is still important to note that we don’t fully understand what the effects of this document were for the Ladies Emancipation Society. Was the society able to create stations for the Railroad in Edinburgh? Was Edinburgh a prime location of the Underground Railroad? Finally, what were the consequences of this publication and what could have happened if information about the Railroad was more widely spread? We would need more anecdotes and further research into primary sources to be able to answer these questions. 

            Learning about this document and Altha’s role in the Underground Railroad, it is interesting to note how women played such an active and important role in the anti-slavery movement, and how it was able to give them a place in the political world. Here in Ithaca, Altha and others like Elsie Brooks, who you will learn about later on the tour, were important beacons of hope for fugitives. Outside of Ithaca, women had vital roles in the antislavery movements abuzz in the United States. Women were already engaged in other organizations, like temperance and church organizations, but “it was the antislavery movement that schooled them in political activism”, according to the Current History Journal of Women in America. Women like the Grimké sisters and Lucretia Mott started to become active in once male-dominated political arenas and pushed the boundaries for women in politics in the United States and beyond. In the 1840s, just when Altha was beginning her Underground Railroad work in Ithaca, women from the Boston and Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Societies were sent to represent the United States in the World Anti-slavery Organization.[9]  It is interesting to note that Mott and the other’s frustration at not getting seated with the men at the convention is one of the reasons that they were motivated to hold the Seneca Falls Convention for Women’s Suffrage in upstate New York.[10]

            Women proved that they were vital figures in the political world and they could institute real change, even while working hard to bring fugitives to freedom along the Railroad. Harriet Tubman was one such woman, a trailblazer for the Railroad and a liberator of hundreds of fugitive slaves. She is well-known for her work on the Underground Railroad and her fearlessness, which allowed her to rescue slaves in perilous conditions. But she was also one of the primary black feminists of her time, and was a staunch supporter of women’s rights. She was a member of the National Association for Colored Women, and attended and spoke at one of their primary conventions. In 1896, she spoke at a suffrage movement in Rochester, New York, only an hour away from here. [11] However, in the typical manner that history was written, her efforts and the efforts of other important women were often undermined and overlooked. Since white men were the writers of history, it is often hard to uncover the true role that Tubman, Altha Hanford, and other women had, and how much more they did. Thankfully, we have access to primary sources that have allowed us to unearth a little part of the world of women’s activity. Due to the efforts of historians and volunteers here in Ithaca, we have been able to learn about the “remarkable woman” that Altha Todd Hanford was and learn about the important history of the Underground Railroad and antislavery movements in Ithaca. Let’s take a small break right now to get some refreshments. See you all at the next stop along the Underground Railroad Tour!


“Altha Todd Hanford, A Remarkable Woman.” The Ithaca Journal, THEN & NOW, February 17, 1996. In The History Center in Tompkins County. “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom.” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers. 2005.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Fugitive Slave Acts.” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 23, 2020.

Cornell University Library. “The Slave’s Underground Railroad to Freedom.” Edinburgh: Printed for the Edinburgh Ladies’ Emancipation Society, 1800. Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection. Accessed May 11, 2022.

Foner, Eric. Chapter 3. “Origins of the Underground Railroad: The New York Vigilance Committee.” In Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, 57–80. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. Google Books. 

Hobson, Janell. “Harriet Tubman: A Legacy of Resistance.” Meridians 12, no. 2 (2014): 1–8.

Thompson, Carol L. “Women and the Antislavery Movement.” Current History 70, no. 416 (1976): 198–201.

[1] Eric Foner, Chapter 3, “Origins of the Underground Railroad: The New York Vigilance Committee,” in Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), Google Books, 57-80.

[2] “Altha Todd Hanford, A Remarkable Woman,” The Ithaca Journal, THEN & NOW, February 17, 1996, in The History Center in Tompkins County, “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom,” Information compiled by The History Center volunteers, 2005.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cornell University Library, “The Slave’s Underground Railroad to Freedom” (Edinburgh: Printed for the Edinburgh Ladies’ Emancipation Society, 1800), Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection, accessed May 11, 2022,

[7] T. Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Fugitive Slave Acts,” Encyclopedia Britannica, July 23, 2020,

[8] Ibid. 

[9] Carol L. Thompson, “Women and the Antislavery Movement,” Current History 70, no. 416 (1976): 198–201.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Janell Hobson, “Harriet Tubman: A Legacy of Resistance,” Meridians 12, no. 2 (2014): 1–8.