Abolitionist Thomas Garrett: a snapshot biography

Black and white portrait of Thomas Garrett looking slightly to the right. He has receding hairline, mid-length sideburns, and is wearing a dark, formal 19th-century suit with a high-collared shirt and bow tie.
Thomas Garrett

Thomas Garrett was born on August 21, 1789, in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, into a family deeply rooted in the Quaker faith. The beliefs of equality, peace, and simplicity inherent in Quakerism would shape Thomas’s worldview, instilling in him a profound sense of justice from an early age.

These beliefs he began putting into practice in his early years. In 1813, Thomas assisted in rescuing a free Black woman his family employed after her kidnapping by slave traders who intended to sell her in the South.

In 1822, Thomas moved to Wilmington, Delaware. Here, he became a successful iron merchant, establishing a thriving business. It was also here that Thomas, now fervently committed to the abolitionist cause, became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, a secret network of safe houses and routes used by enslaved African-Americans to reach freedom in the Northern states and Canada. Thomas’s home in Wilmington, on the border between slaveholding and free states, was a crucial hub, serving as a station providing shelter, sustenance, and solace.

Operating in a border state placed Thomas at great risk, but he refused to back down, openly aiding those who sought refuge at his doorstep. He displayed extraordinary courage and resourcefulness, collaborating with other abolitionists such as Harriet Tubman, to whom he became a trustworthy ally.

Thomas’s work was not without consequence. In 1848, he was sued for aiding the escape of an enslaved family, resulting in a trial that left him financially ruined. The presiding judge, an ardent pro-slavery advocate, demanded that Thomas be made an example of, and levied a fine that stripped him of his entire wealth.

In the trial, the judge said to Thomas, “Thomas, I hope you will never be caught at this business again.” To which Thomas replied in his closing arguments, “Judge thou has left me not a dollar, but I wish to say to thee and to all in this courtroom that if anyone knows a fugitive who wants a shelter and a friend, send him to Thomas Garrett and he will befriend him.”

After the trial, Thomas rebuilt his life and business and continued his work with the Underground Railroad through the challenges, including the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, when being part of the Underground Railroad became even more perilous. This law mandated that officials in free states assist in the return of escaped enslaved people and imposed penalties on those who aided in their escape. Despite the increased risks, Garrett continued his work, never refusing aid to those who sought help.

He continued working on the Underground Railroad until the abolition of slavery with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865. It was estimated that Thomas helped around 2,700 enslaved individuals escape to freedom, earning him a reputation as one of the most important conductors of the Underground Railroad.

Thomas actively worked on behalf of minority groups into his early 80s, retiring shortly after the passing of the 15th Amendment in 1870. He passed away the following year.

“Abolitionist Thomas Garrett: a snapshot biography” sources:

Kathleen Lonsdale, Is Peace Possible?, Penguin Books, 1957, p. 124 (referring to Speak Truth to Power by the AFSC) / Portrait taken circa 1850, Boston Public Library (no changes made) / Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Foundation, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Thomas_Garrett_ambrotype_c1850-crop.jpg / Quote: History of the Rise and Fall of the Slave Power in America, Vol. 2 (1874) by Henry Wilson, p. 85; also in Station Master on the Underground Railroad: The Life and Letters of Thomas Garrett (2005) by James A. McGowan, p. 65 / “Thomas Garret.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Garrett