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Freed Slave, Adirondack Landowner Highlight of Local Historian's Lecture Feb. 17

PLATTSBURGH, NY __North County historian Don Papson will share his exciting discovery of the life of a runaway slave on the Underground Railroad who died a free and respected man in the Adirondacks during a presentation at the State University of New York College at Plattsburgh on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 11 a.m.

His talk, "Discovering the Story of John Thomas: From Slavery in Maryland to American Citizenship in the Adirondacks," will be held in the Feinberg Library's Special Collections (lower level).

Papson's research began one day at Special Collections at SUNY Plattsburgh when he found an 1872 letter sent by John Thomas to his benefactor and New York's wealthiest abolitionist, Gerrit Smith.  Smith had circumvented the state's discriminatory voting qualifications law in 1846 by offering parcels of his vast land holdings to 3,000 black men so they could qualify to vote. 

Until Papson discovered John Thomas' letter and investigated its contents, historians believed that Smith had never given any land to fugitive slaves. However, this letter reveals that Thomas accepted 40 acres in Franklin County, and by 1872, was the owner of 200 acres.

After a year of searching obituaries, land deeds, census records, cemeteries, archives and Civil War records, Papson made the most amazing discovery of all - he found two of Thomas' great-great grandsons living in the Adirondacks. Until that time, these men had known nothing about their great-great grandfather. 

The story of John Thomas has changed the lives of his descendants. It has made the Underground Railroad of the 19th century relevant to the 21st.  And it has rewritten history.

In conjunction with this presentation, an exhibit about the Underground Railroad has been installed in Feinberg Library's second floor display case.  The narrative and much of the material in this exhibit was donated by Papson.

The presentation is free and open to the public, however reservations are requested.  Coffee and refreshments will be served. Contact Debra Kimok, Special Collections librarian, at 518-564-5206 or [email protected]


Don Papson combines his training as an educator and his interests in historical research and creative writing to compose essays, lectures, historical readings and plays to reveal the hidden stories of our history. He has presented lectures on the abolition of slavery in New York, African Americans in the Battle of Plattsburgh and the American Revolution, Mohawks in the Civil War and the Underground Railroad. He is President of the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association.

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