FREDONIA – Local history researchers now have a new interactive computer map and database to use when looking for information about anti-slavery supporters in Chautauqua County.
The map is the combined effort of a local surveyor, Wendy Woodbury Straight, and Doug Shepherd, a retired professor from SUNY Fredonia State. They presented their findings at a Dunkirk Rotary Club meeting, and Nicholas Gunner, a Rotarian, was enthusiastic. The two used a large cardboard map and some colored stickers to indicate the locations of the abolitionists.
“I am sort of embarrassed now at how simple it must have looked,” said Straight.
“I knew I could build them an interactive computer map that would make all their information easy to access,” said Gunner. He is a Fredonia State employee who works in communications.
Gunner built the map on his own time, and it now has 120 sites around Chautauqua County. Viewers can look at the map of the county and select an area where they want to learn more about the anti-slavery movement. A click on the computer brings up a photo of the person who lived there or a picture of the property and a short narrative about the data known about the Underground Railroad activity that went on there.
Straight said that most of the locations are on private property and that in many cases the structure is gone, but the historical evidence of the site used to help slaves escape to Canada was documented with several reliable sources.
Shepherd, who has taken many hours to read through old newspaper clippings, diaries and property records, said he has been fascinated with the rich history of the county.
He said his interest started when he first moved to Fredonia to teach at the college in the 1960s. He said he lived on Maple Street and was eager to hear stories from his landlord, who told him about the rich history in his own neighborhood.
“We were thrilled when Nick wanted to take his own time and energy to turn our information into a site that is user-friendly and accessible to anyone,” said Straight. As the project unfolds, stories of hiding slaves in small homes and with rural families and in churches in small villages are related.
“Our hope is that we find some families who have private records, like diaries that may have told how their families helped with the anti-slavery movement,” said Straight. “We would like to hear from people because so many of the records were lost or even destroyed,” she said.
Straight said the controversies that surrounded the Underground Railroad made it dangerous for families to participate and so many of their actions were kept secret even from their closest friends.
“The ideas of how they communicated that there were people in need is fascinating given the times,” she added.
Now Straight, Gunner and Shepherd hope their efforts will bring records out from attics and basements so they can build even more information into the website.
They invite anyone interested in Chautauqua County history to view the interactive map at www.orbitist.com/ugrr.