Discovered document proves anti-slavery past

Lisa Depies
Geneseo Historical Museum curator Angie ?Snook, left, and the Rev. Monica Corsaro display a model of the first church and school in Geneseo. Settlers created the structure from parts of their covered wagons. A recently discovered document proves Geneseo was founded by abolitionists.

Geneseo’s founders were known to be ardent abolitionists, however, a document has recently come to light that shows just how against slavery the early settlers were.

While still in New York, the future founders of Geneseo signed a covenant vowing not only to be against slavery, but to do everything in their power to end slavery.

“They had to sign the document if they wanted to come (to Geneseo),” said the Rev. Monica Corsaro.

Working with Angie Snook, curator of the Geneseo Historical Museum, Corsaro has spent the last decade researching Geneseo and its abolitionist past.

A native of Geneseo, Corsaro now lives in Seattle, Wash., and is working toward her doctorate in ministry at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Her abolitionist research is part of her thesis project, and Corsaro plans to create curriculum for elementary and high school students on Geneseo and its anti-slavery stance.

In the early 1800s, “the abolitionism movement was huge in New York and that furor came right through the Congregationalists who were descendants of the Puritans,” explained Corsaro.

“They had a belief in Christian perfection, which meant through their actions they could be right with God,” she said.

The group felt it was their duty to “Christianize the west” said Corsaro.

 In 1836, a group of 38 men, women and children traveled by wagon to the area that would become Geneseo.

When they arrived, the wagons were dismantled and reassembled as a church and school near the present-day location of First Congregational Church.

“Geneseo’s history and the Congregational?Church are so intwined,” said Corsaro.

Fittingly, it was at First Congregational Church that Snook and Corsaro discovered the original covenant.

The document was among items in the church’s archives. “There was a real sense of elation and relief when we found it,” said Corsaro. “We’d read about it in so many secondary documents, so we knew it had to exist.”

She credits the Rev. Bruce Bergthold and the staff at First Congregational Church for their help in uncovering the document.

Signed by 13 men — though wives were referenced in the document — the covenant demonstrated the group’s commitment to abolitionism.

As part of that commitment, the citizens of Geneseo were active in helping slaves escape via the Underground Railroad. Several local “stops” on the Underground Railroad, including a hiding spot in the Geneseo Historical Museum’s basement, remain in existence today.

“Not only did Geneseo play its part on the Underground Railroad, but the community was founded on the principles of being anti-slavery,” said Corsaro. “Because of their faith, the founders felt that slaves were humans and they had an obligation to help.”

Though the Congregationalists played a lead role in the founding of Geneseo, the group that traveled West also included Presbyterians and Methodists.

What the group had in common was its dedication to ending slavery. “Geneseo was well connected to the national abolitionists leaders. It was one of the most well known, unknown towns in that era,” said Corsaro. “Of course, the things they were doing had to be secret, but for those connected to the Underground Railroad, Geneseo was known.”

Corsaro is unsure how many slaves found their way to freedom via Geneseo. “A lot of things are written in a coded language. For instance, they might write, ‘I picked up potatoes today’ which might mean ‘I picked up eight people,’” she said.

The founders of Geneseo remained committed to helping slaves, despite the fact that it was illegal.

“After the? American? Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, it became very dangerous to help escaping slaves,” she said.

The abolitionist nature of the town continued. “They had a shared passion,” said Corsaro. “The idea for social justice is at the root of our community. This is an important story that’s unique to Geneseo.”

Corsaro hopes the curriculum she’s developing will help school children learn about Geneseo’s history. “I want them to think, ‘What would they do?’ if they had to make the decision to leave their friends and family and travel across the country to do something that was illegal.

“We should have a real pride for our town and for what the original settlers did,” she said.

Artifacts from the settlers’ trip west, including a foot warmer and trunk, as well as early documents, are all part of the Geneseo Historical Museum’s collection.