John W. Garfield and the Underground Railroad


Garfield house & compound historic (2)

John W. Garfield, Sr. (in wagon) at 332 Goodman’s Hill Road, Sudbury, MA (late 1800’s)


In 1889, the town of Sudbury, Massachusetts celebrated its Quarter Millennial. It was a festive affair featuring a parade of marching bands and decorated carriages, followed by speeches and evening fireworks.  Just about everyone in town was there, including my great, great grandfather, John W. Garfield, Sr. and his son, John Jr.  At one point during the festivities, John Jr. and Jonas Hunt, the Sudbury Town Clerk and Chairman of the event, engaged in a conversation about a wagon.

Across the road from the cemetery entrance stood the home of Israel How Brown, an important stop on the Underground Railroad that smuggled fugitive slaves to Canada. Hunt remembered wheelwright John Garfield  showing him Brown’s hay wagon with a secret compartment built into the bed.”  (Excerpt from Sudbury: 100 Years in the Life of a Town, by Curtis Garfield)

Why would my great grandfather have a  conversation  about a wagon – one that would have been used decades ago during the Underground Railroad to hide and carry fugitive slaves to the next stop on their journey to freedom?   Was there some connection between the  wagon spoken of on that  day and my great grandfather or perhaps my great, great grandfather? Perhaps it was part of a display. Perhaps John Jr. was showing it off because of some special connection he had to it.

What I discovered during my research on Sudbury and the Underground Railroad was that my great, great grandfather (John W. Garfield Sr.) had actually built the wagon that was the topic of discussion on that celebratory day in 1889.

The Underground Railroad was neither a railroad nor underground, but an informal, secret network of safe houses used in the United States for black slaves to escape to freedom,  most often to Canada. Between 1810-1860, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 slaves escaped via the network.  Sudbury had 4 safe houses, one of which was the home of Israel How Brown  at 71 Concord Road.  Today  the Israel How Brown House is Stop #14 on the Sudbury Historical Societies Historic House Tour.

From Boston as a centre various underground routes radiated through the surrounding region. One of these passed through Natick, Sudbury, and Fitchburg. From Natick these fugitives were conveyed to the home of Israel How Brown near the cemetery at Sudbury. Mr. Brown was a man of long experience in underground methods and had a market wagon with high sides and a false bottom, beneath which he stored his passengers on a bed of straw. He filled the space above with his produce and was ready for the long drive to Fitchburg by 3:00 in the morning. Once he was detained by officers of the law, but they were not shrewd enough to make him unload and therefore made no discoveries. Altogether Mr. Brown transported more than 100 slaves. (Natick Herald, March 1930; Letter from Percival W. Jones of Sudbury, July 27, 1935)

In the book, History of Sudbury, Massachusetts 1638-1889 by Alfred Sereno Hudson, there are several references to John Garfield including one about his wagon and the Underground Railroad.

“History of Sudbury, 1800-1850

The following are names of families who settled in the present territory of Sudbury between about the years 1800-1850.


A near ancestor of the Garfield families in Sudbury was Enoch. He was born in New Hampshire and his wife was from Lincoln. His sons, Francis and John were born in Lincoln, and went to Sudbury from Concord, the former in 1860 and the later in 1854. Francis married Sarah, daughter of Thomas B. Battles and had 4 children, Emma F, Thomas F, Henry C and William E.

John had been twice married, his first wife was Louisa Rice of Marlboro, married in 1853, and his second wife was Harriett M. Flagg of Lincoln, married in 1858.  He had two children, Mary L and John W. Francis is a farmer and John is in the grocery store business (Garfield General Store), and both reside in Sudbury Centre.”

 And another excerpt reads:

He had John Garfield build him the special wagon with the fake bottom to transport escaped slaves headed to Canada to the next station along the way …”

false bottom wagon Jamestown

False Bottom Wagon at Jamestown

Later, I discovered a letter written in 1935 by the grandson of Israel How Brown to Professor Wilbur Siebert of Ohio State University. There was no explanation as to why the letter was written – what its purpose was – but it reveals  the strong emotions of a young white boy who one day learns about a long-held family secret.

“Dear Sir:

“… I am the grandson of Israel How Brown former owner of the so-called Underground station (in Sudbury, Massachusetts)

…“He (Israel How Brown) had a market wagon with the high side fitted with a false bottom laying the Negroes on straw covering with the false bottom and loaded potatoes or other stuff on top to conceal them. More than 100 men it is said were moved (by Brown) in this manner. The most famous of these men was Frederick Douglass, the great Negro orator who came back for a visit when I was a little boy about 5 or 6 years old. He was the first black man I ever had seen. I asked my grandfather who it was and he said it was his brother. You may imagine the impression it gave me to think my grandfather having a black man for a brother – one from which I have never recovered. I lived at that time in the next house to my grandfather now halfway between. There have been six generations of the Browns living on some part of this farm and family still living here.  Please excuse my mistakes and writing. I am not very well and my hand does not go well.”

Yours Sincerely,

Percival William Jones

Frederick Douglass, a slave who escaped from Maryland to freedom in Massachusetts, is considered the most influential African American of the 19th century. The national leader of the abolitionist movement in Massachusetts, he strongly believed in equality for all – whites, blacks, females, native Americans and Chinese immigrants. Many consider Frederick Douglass to be the father of the Civil Rights Movement. He became a famous orator and wrote several books and later was the first black man nominated for Vice President. Douglass and his wife participated in the Underground Railroad, providing lodging and food in their home in New Bedford to more than 400 escaped slaves. Based on the grandson’s letter, it is likely that Douglass worked with Israel How Brown of Sudbury in helping fugitives escape to freedom. Perhaps he also knew my great, great grandfather.

According to an article dated February 2005 in the Greensboro, North Carolina Community News, there are only two false bottom wagons in existence today, one of which is on display at Jamestown Settlement in Virginia.  The other is said to be in Ohio. I wonder what happened to the wagon that my great, great grandfather, John W. Garfield, built – the one which helped hundreds of slaves who passed through Sudbury, Massachusetts find their way to freedom.