Underground Railroad ran through Ridgefield, historian's research shows

RIDGEFIELD — A cave in the Ridgebury neighborhood hid fugitive slaves as a stop on the Underground Railroad before the Civil War, according to a local historian’s research.

Jack Sanders began researching the little-known stop, run by a Black couple named “Uncle Ned” and “Aunt Betsey” Armstrong, in December after coming across a 1879 newspaper story about the discovery of a skeleton in a cave on Ned’s Mountain in Ridgefield.

“Kept secret from contemporaries and undiscovered by historians, a station on the famous ‘Underground Railroad’ apparently once operated in Ridgefield,” Sanders wrote in his research published in “Uncle Ned’s Mountain, An Underground Railroad Station and Home for Civil War Soldiers from Near and Far.” The June 9 article can be found on the Ridgefield Library’s website.

According to his research, the station’s site went on to be the home of at least five men of color who fought in the Civil War, two of whom died while in the service and two others who were wounded.

“‘Uncle Ned and Aunt Betsey’ Armstrong, a popular Black couple in the first half of the 19th century, risked arrest and imprisonment as they sheltered slaves who were fleeing from bondage in the South and seeking freedom in the North,” Sanders wrote. “Two of their Ridgefield-born grandchildren went on to fight slavery via the Civil War, and one became among the last victims of the conflict.”

Sanders came across the information about the Armstrongs and their Underground Railroad stop while reading a 140-year-old newspaper.

“I was doing research for a study of 18th-century African Americans and their contributions to Ridgefield, especially their service in the Revolutionary War,” he said.

While digitally digging through old newspapers, he said he came across a New Haven Register story from 1879 that mentioned a skeleton being found in a cave in Ridgefield, and reporting that the cave was once used by a black couple, ‘Uncle Ned and Aunt Betsey,’ to hide fleeing slaves as part of the Underground Railroad.

“I was astounded,” Sanders said. “I had never heard of this, though I had heard of Ned through my research into place names; he was the source of the name, Ned’s Mountain. But Underground Railroad? Wow. No history of Ridgefield — or Connecticut — had even hinted of that.

More research uncovered a New York Tribune article, also in 1879, that gave more details, including Ned and Betsey’s surname. From there it was more digging through newspapers, land records, probate court documents, church records, census data and cemeteries.

Well hidden cave

The Armstrongs’ “station” was in Ridgebury section of Ridgefield, near the top of a namesake hill still called Ned’s Mountain.

“The stop included a well-hidden cave where runaways could elude pursuing slave-catchers,” Sanders wrote.

The 1879 article from the New York Tribune was contributed by a writer identified only as “S” — someone who “lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., but clearly knew Ridgebury and its people,” Sanders wrote.

“Uncle Ned,” wrote S, was “a man who devoted a life to an idea, the freedom of his colored brothers of the South, and so well did he plan and execute, that to this day, Captain John Rockwell, Smith Keeler, George Bouton, and other near neighbors only knew ‘Uncle Ned’ and ‘Aunt Betsey’ as good, kind colored people, handy to have around to assist with the house or farm work.”

According to the article, behind the Armstrongs’ house was “a cave that furnished a hiding place and shelter for the weary liberty-seekers, and there Uncle Ned and Aunt Betsey supplied food and clothing until, rested and refreshed, under darkness of night, they would flee from this land of ‘freedom’ to Canada.”

The 1879 Tribune article may have been prompted by the skeleton being found in the cave, as reported in the New Haven Register article Sanders came across:

“The discovery of a skeleton in a cave at Ridgefield is causing some speculation,” the Register reported June 17, 1879. “Many years ago, Uncle Ned and Aunt Betsey, a colored couple, and most diligent agents of the underground railway, lived nearby, and many a fugitive slave, traveling from the South to Canada, found a refuge with them. These guests were always hidden in the cave, an inclosure about twenty square feet, with a very small opening, and some people think the skeleton may have belonged to one of them.”

Sanders, however, is skeptical of the Register’s speculation.

“The skeleton’s belonging to a runaway slave seems unlikely since the Armstrongs were, by this and the Tribune accounts, devoted to helping slaves and would hardly have left a dead or dying person in their cave,” he wrote.

Little noticed

Other than the 1879 Tribune and Register articles, the African-American couple’s activities harboring fugitive slaves seem to have left little other surviving notice, according to Sanders.

“None of Ridgefield’s many histories even hints that the town may have had an Underground Railroad stop, much less one operated by an African-American couple living in a remote part of Ridgebury. Nor have statewide studies of the Underground Railroad mentioned any Ridgefield activity,” he said.“That’s not unusual since so many of the stations were kept secret from slave-chasers, authorities and sometimes-unsympathetic neighbors. White men and women who operated stations were at risk of arrest or at least public censure, but a black couple providing shelter faced serious threats from not only law enforcers but also racists.”

Six children

Sanders research, some of it old census records, found both Edward and Betsey Armstrong were born in Ridgefield in the later 1700s — it’s not clear whether either was born enslaved or free. They married and had a family that included three boys and three girls.

“The Armstrongs were likely living on Ned’s Mountain by the 1830s. The exact location of their home is not certain, but tradition and one land record suggest it was off the east side of Ned’s Lane, a short, dead-end road running off the southern end of today’s Ned’s Mountain Road,” Sanders wrote. “Nearby was the cave where, according to at least two accounts, the slaves escaping from the South could be temporarily hidden and housed on their journey north.”

By 1850, Sanders said, there appeared to have been at least three houses in the Ned’s Lane compound, occupied by 13 African Americans, most of them Armstrong grandchildren.

Related research

“African Americans have been part of Ridgefield’s history since at least the 1730s, yet little has been written and even less documented about their lives and their contributions to the community — and the nation — during the town’s first century,” Sanders wrote in “Farmers, Soldiers and Slaves, African-Americans in 18th Century Ridgefield, Connecticut.” “Ridgefield records in the 1700s rarely mention non-European residents, be they free blacks, slaves or native American Indians. ... Even African Americans who were free landowners here weren’t considered full citizens, prevented by Connecticut tradition and laws from voting or holding office.”

Among Sanders’ findings is that seven Blacks who lived in Ridgefield fought in the American Revolution.

Sanders has published “Racism in 20th Century Ridgefield,” which reviews three episodes — the beating of an African American by a drunken white man in 1922, the burning of a cross on a multiracial couple’s law in 1978, and the difficulties Black entertainer Godfrey Cambridge encountered upon moving to Ridgefield in 1974.

The piece documents the long record of work for equality left by the Rev. William Webb, an African-American who moved to Ridgefield in 1934, was one of the founders of the Ridgefield Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1951. He was ordained a minister in 1969, leading African Methodist Episcopal congregations in Danbury, Waterbury, Bridgeport, Norwalk and Branford while living in Ridgefield on Knollwood Road.

“In Ridgefield, he was also active in leading efforts to bring affordable housing to town; he often spoke at meetings to promote the need for lower-cost apartments,” Sanders wrote of Webb. “He served in the Ridgefield Clergy Association and on the board of directors of Danbury Hospital. A World War II veteran, he belonged to the American Legion and VFW posts.”

Webb died in 1991.

Significant contributions

A historian who is white and grew up in Danbury in the 1950s and 1960s, Sanders presents his research on Black history in Ridgefield as a part of the past too often overlooked.

“The Armstrongs and their compound on Ned’s Mountain are just part of a larger, important and fascinating story of African Americans in early Ridgefield and their many contributions to the community,” Sanders said. “Virtually nothing has ever been written about their lives and their contributions, so people are left with the impression that Ridgefield was settled by white people and that only white people served their country in the Revolution and even in the Civil War. And yet, African Americans contributed significantly to the first two centuries of the town.”

It’s all part of Connecticut’s history — and the history of Black enslavement and emancipation in America.

“Although Connecticut began taking steps in the 1780s to do away with slavery, it was in fact the last New England state to abolish the practice; that was in 1848,” Sanders said. “Massachusetts had banned slavery a half-century earlier.”

Learning that there were slaves in Ridgefield often surprises people, Sanders said.

“Slaves were here very soon after the town’s founding in 1708. Free blacks began buying land here in the 1730s,” he said. “So far I’ve found 33 enslaved and 26 free African Americans in Ridgefield in the 18th century. Those 33 included more than a dozen children born here, and being born of a slave woman meant you were a slave from your very first breath.”

Jack Sanders is a former longtime reporter and editor for The Ridgefield Press