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The Old Speed Homestead

~by Hannah Engles~

Peter Webb and the Shocking Past of a Farm in Caroline

Good morning everyone and welcome to Ithaca! Ithaca is a beautiful city with a rich and diverse history, and I can’t wait to welcome you here. As you already know, today I’ll be taking you to one of the possible Underground Railroad sites and a significant site overall, in terms of the history of slavery. We’ll also be seeing a rare manuscript regarding slavery and the Underground Railroad from Cornell’s very own collection. 

            While I can’t wait to begin the tour, I would love to first give you some background information about Ithaca and its history. Today, you may know Ithaca as a bustling town with academics, students, and residents alike. Two hundred years ago, it was also bustling with lots of prominent historical figures. For example, did you know that Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass have both given speeches here?[1] Ithaca has a liberal reputation today and this activism has extended for ages. In the past, Ithaca was the site of many Underground Railroad safe houses and of antislavery work.[2] It’s important to note that the Underground Railroad isn’t actually a railroad and is instead a loosely connected network of safe houses. The members of the network hid people, at great cost, in these safe houses, and made arrangements for the slaves to go to other houses as well.[3] In fact, the main site we will be going to today may have even been part of one such safe house.[4] Plus, to end off our tour, we’ll see an example of how arrangements for the Underground Railroad may have worked. 

            Before we get started, I also want to mention that there was great Black pride here in Ithaca throughout history, with one of the oldest Black churches in America being the St. James AME Zion church.[5] Free and fugitive slaves settled here, with many running farms and also trying to help others on their way to freedom. Ithaca was a prominent site of the Underground Railroad because of its proximity to many upstate cities, like Albany, and also to Canada.[6]

            Now that we know a little bit about Ithaca and its role in the Underground Railroad, let’s head to our first site! Through my part of the tour today, we’ll be going to three main sites: the Old Speed Homestead, Cornell University Library’s Rare Manuscript Collection, and finally, The History Center of Tompkins County.  The first of these sites is actually in Caroline, a town not too far from Ithaca and still part of Tompkins County.[7]

            Welcome to the Old Speed Homestead! Even if you do not see it in front of you now, this was the location of an approximately eleven acre farm that was on the back of Dr. John Speed’s land. Dr. John Speed settled here in the 1800s and was one of the first people to bring slaves to the Ithaca area.[8] We’ll be talking about the Webb-Bailor family today; Peter Webb was ­­a slave Dr. Speed brought up here. Peter eventually bought his own freedom before becoming a prominent Tompkins County resident.

            Webb was born into slavery and was sold to Dr. John Speed in Virginia for ninety dollars, one dollar per pound.[9] As a child he was transported to Level Green Road in Caroline, New York, where the so-called Speed Homestead was built.[10] His owner, Dr. John Speed, and Speed’s relatives trafficked slaves and continued their business even after settling in Caroline.[11] Dr. Speed brought two slaves of each sex with him when he came up here. Peter Webb was just thirteen years old at the time, and had been brutally torn away from his family.[12]

            However, Peter was very, very determined to be free and decided to perform additional work at the Ithaca Hotel to buy his freedom. This hotel was demolished long ago, but is the site of many historical events.[13] He paid $350.00 to buy his own freedom in 1817, ten years before slavery was abolished upstate, and he married a slave girl, Phyllis. Together they settled on land given to them in the back of Dr. Speed’s farm. He had an 11-acre farm and log cabin and ended up raising a whole family and generation there. He had 11 kids, many of whom continued to live in Tompkins County.[14]

            Peter Webb also seemed to be an activist, and it is hard to imagine that he was not part of the Underground Railroad, with him being so passionate about antislavery. His farm ended up being quite profitable, and he was involved in many business pursuits. In fact, the Tompkins County Public Library and the Dewitt Historical Society even have a record of Peter going to abolitionist meetings with his master, Dr. Speed.[15] These records do seem true, but it is important to always take them with a grain of salt and remember that this history is made of many recorded stories, some of which may only be rumor. After all, John Speed was a slave trafficker, and it would be quite a change for him to be going to abolitionist meetings. He also asked Peter Webb to pay an additional interest on the sum he required to let Webb free, so that would suggest that he was not on the side of the abolitionists.[16]

            Peter Webb and his extended family’s home may have been used for the Underground Railroad, but we can imagine that it may have been hard, as the home was located on the back of Dr. Speed’s land and we are still unclear how Speed felt about slavery. Nonetheless, we have some evidence regarding Peter and slavery. In a set of documents about the Underground Railroad compiled by Gretchen Sachse, one of Tompkins County’s past historians, a newspaper clipping claims that in Caroline, “Peter Webb family members as descendants of slaves or former slaves themselves probably participated in the UGRR in some capacity.”[17] We can certainly imagine this, as if Peter was so keen to free himself, he would most definitely be passionate about helping others as well. However, like we said earlier, living on the back of his former master’s land, and not actually his own, may have resulted in logistical difficulties. There is not too much information and documentation on Webb’s involvement in the Underground Railroad, but we can imagine that his 11 kids, many of them who grew up and moved off the family’s initial land, may have also helped people through the Railroad.

            There is actually a historical ranking system for the Underground Railroad sites. This scale is known as the Wellman Scale, named after historian Judith Wellman, and it operates from levels one to five.[18] Five indicates almost a definite site, and one means that it is more like a legend and not an actual Underground Railroad site.[19] As we uncover more evidence about different sites, rankings often change. For example, there have been houses that historians were almost certain were part of the Railroad, but then after further digging, they discovered that these houses had not yet been built at the time of the Underground Railroad. Such a site would be designated as or downgraded to a level one on the Wellman Scale. 

            Judith Wellman’s definitions for reliable sites are as follows: 

Level Three—good chance the story is true; evidence of abolitionist sympathies, abolitionism or African American background but no direct evidence of Underground Railroad activity. If clear evidence of the site’s actual involvement in Underground Railroad activity is found, then the site can be relabeled as Level Four—considerable evidence of involvement; story almost certainly true. If conclusive evidence of involvement in Underground Railroad activity—such as a diary entry or a portion of a letter where the person states clearly his/her providing aid to certain freedom seekers on a certain date—is found, then the site would be considered Level Five—conclusive evidence of involvement. [20]

            This site, the Webb-Bailor farm, is most likely level three because there is a good chance that the Webb/Bailor family did help out in the Underground Railroad. It would make sense given that they were past slaves and believed in independence. Additionally, Gretchen Sachse’s work confirmed this as she says they probably participated in the Railroad in some capacity. However, there is no direct evidence of UGRR activity.

            Another very interesting detail about Peter is that after his farm became profitable, he dabbled in various pursuits. While he may or may not have participated in the Railroad directly, it seems like he definitely participated indirectly. One of these pursuits was the purchasing of the St. James AME Zion Church.[21] The St. James Church was one of the oldest black churches in America and it still stands today. Its full name is the St. James AME Zion Church and it was founded by African Americans. These people first attended church in a segregated Methodist Episcopal church.[22] However, they were considered a “colored class” and discriminated against. Thus, they withdrew and founded their own church.[23] This church was also convenient for many and had many famous speakers visit because Ithaca is a pretty accessible location in  Central New York. 

            From 1823-1825, the Church did not have land and had to meet in the home of a private citizen.[24] However, soon, Peter Webb bought the land for the church and within the next decade, the Church was built on Cleveland Avenue.[25] This church is still standing today and was the chief Ithaca station of Underground Railroad:

From its earliest years, St. James Church was a station on the Underground Railroad. Church members, along with white residents of Ithaca helped some fleeing slaves move to safety in Canada; they also provided assistance for those who chose to stay in Ithaca. One of the distinguished pastors was Jermain Loguen, a man who had escaped from slavery in Tennessee. Another famous guest was Harriet Tubman who attended St. James many times.[26]

            School children and college students alike both go visit the church, and in recent years, there have been collaborative excavation projects in which Cornell students and other Ithaca residents help excavate history from the church. This was a great archaeological experience for the community to be involved in during Covid because they did not need to travel, and many artifacts have been excavated that directly prove the Church’s involvement in the Underground Railroad. We can presume that Peter Webb was almost definitely aware of what the Church was up to, especially since he bought the land and was probably an active member, and he attended abolitionist meetings.

            Now that we have an idea of one of the prominent historical figures and families in Ithaca, I’d like to give you a better idea of the Underground Railroad and the town of Ithaca itself by taking you to one of Cornell University’s libraries. Cornell University has many different libraries that are an invaluable resource for both students and the public. These massive buildings make up a big part of Ithaca and also have a rich history. In fact, Ezra Cornell himself was against slavery. 

            In these libraries, we can find lots of rare manuscripts and documents from the past. There are collections on everything from Asian American history to German literature, to what we’ll be focusing on today, African American History and specifically, abolitionist movements.

            There are many sources on abolitionism in this area and resources from the past, but today I’ll be focusing on one from our Cornell African American Studies library. This library is located inside Uris Library, in the back, and has many different artifacts and letters from the past showcasing anti-slavery efforts and documents showing what slavery was like back then. 

            The document we are examining today is a letter from George Fisher to his friend, Robert Slatton, asking for Mr. Slatton’s help in aiding a fugitive slave reach Canada.[27] It is particularly interesting that their final destination is Canada – this is because Canada fully outlawed slavery back then whilst the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act, meaning that fugitives or suspected fugitives could be captured and brought back to slavery in the South. This was a big issue as slave catchers were often ruthless and just wanted their bounty, so they would take free people back to the South. Additionally, if someone claimed that you were a slave, most African Americans did not have papers to show they were free and so they could be taken back to the South. And so, Canada was often the final destination for fugitive slaves.

            The letter mentions that the slave arrived from the Eastern shore of Maryland.[28] This is also very interesting because many escaped slaves were from border states like Maryland and Delaware. These states were close to and sometimes shared a long border with places like Pennsylvania so it was much easier for slaves to escape from there. For slaves in the deep south, it was not nearly as easy to get to the north and some of them ended up going south to the tropics or British island territories instead. 

            This particular slave also came well recommended to Mr. Fisher and we can see here that Mr. Fisher was passing him onto his friend.[29] This is a great example of how the Railroad basically worked, as the slaves were passed from one safe house to the other. In the document, Mr. Fisher asks his friend to help the fugitive slave board the railroad to Canada from Albany. He mentions an eight dollar fare, of which he provided one dollar.[30] This shows the many logistical challenges in getting to Canada, as slaves often did not have their own money to buy a ticket. Since this document mentions a trip from Albany to Canada, it also helps show how Ithaca was an important place for these fugitive slaves to find shelter on their way to Albany. 

            Next, we’ll be moving to our last location! This wonderful building before you today is the History Center in Tompkins County! The archives of the Center include a Black History Collection, and from this collection I found a folder about Peter Webb. This folder, along with many other carefully curated sources, helped provide much of the information I gave you today. The building you see in front of you opened in 2019, but The History Center of Tompkins County was founded by the DeWitt Historical Society, which was founded in 1935, and housed in various buildings before settling here.[31] There is a massive amount of information in here on all topics and I truly encourage you to take a look around. In fact, another one of my colleagues will be telling you more about the Center’s archival collection shortly!

            I hope that through my part of the tour today, you have learned a lot about Ithaca and its history. It is crazy to think that not so long ago, Ithaca was part of such a different world, and it played such a fundamental role in creating change. From barbers to priests to lawyers and more, so many different people worked together towards a common goal: abolishing slavery. Peter Webb was just one such person, and he never gave up. Even after being born into a life of struggle, he worked to buy his own freedom and kept working to fight for others. He was an inspiration to many and I hope his courage and determination serve as a reminder for all of us to never give up in our fight to become more antiracist each day. Thank you all so much and have a great rest of your day!

Figure 1: A letter showing the inner workings of the Underground Railroad.[32]

Figure 2: A photo of the “Old Speed” Homestead[33]

Figure 3: A photo of Peter and Phyllis Webb from the History Center in Tompkins County.[34]


Fisher, George. Underground Railroad Letter. 1858. In Cornell University Library. Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection,

Gable, Walter. “Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes.” 2007. 

Gallwey, Sydney H. Early Slaves and Freemen of Tompkins County. New York: Dewitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, 1962.

Image. The History Center in Tompkins County, -Month

Image. “Webb Family History.”

New York Geography. “St. James AME Zion Church of Ithaca, NY.” Finger Lakes Underground Railroad Lesson Page.

Olds, Marjorie. “Along with the Land.” The Ithaca Times, December 20, 2017.                                                                

The History Center in Tompkins County. Black History Collection. Folder 22.

The History Center in Tompkins County. “Our Story.”

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.

“Walking Tour of Underground Railroad Sites in Ithaca.” In The History Center in Tompkins County. “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996.” Information compiled by Gretchen Sachse. 1996. 

[1] “St. James AME Zion Church of Ithaca, NY”, Finger Lakes Underground Railroad Lesson Page, New York Geography,

[2] 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] “Walking Tour of Underground Railroad Sites in Ithaca,” in The History Center in Tompkins County, “Underground Railroad Materials Compiled by Gretchen Sachse Tompkins County Historian in 1996,” Information compiled by Gretchen Sachse, 1996. 

[5] “St. James AME Zion Church of Ithaca, NY.”

[6] The History Center in Tompkins County, “The Underground Railroad in Tompkins County: Searching for the Path to Freedom.”

[7] The History Center in Tompkins County, Black History Collection, Folder 22. 

[8] Ibid. 

[9]  Marjorie Olds, “Along with the Land,” The Ithaca Times, December 20, 2017,

[10] Ibid. 

[11] The History Center in Tompkins County, Black History Collection, Folder 22. 

[12] Ibid.

[13] Marjorie Olds.

[14] The History Center in Tompkins County, Black History Collection, Folder 22. 

[15] Sydney H. Gallwey, Early Slaves and Freemen of Tompkins County. New York: Dewitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, 1962.

[16] The History Center in Tompkins County, Black History Collection, Folder 22. 

[17] “Walking Tour of Underground Railroad Sites in Ithaca.”

[18] Walter Gable, “Uncovering the Underground Railroad in the Finger Lakes,” 2007. 

[19] Ibid. 

[20] Ibid.

[21] “St. James AME Zion Church of Ithaca, NY.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] George Fisher, Underground Railroad Letter (1858), in Cornell University Library, Gail and Stephen Rudin Slavery Collection,

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid. 

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Our Story,” The History Center in Tompkins County,

[32] George Fisher. 

[33] Image, from “Webb Family History,”

[34] Image, from The History Center in Tompkins County, https://www.thehistoryce