Remembering Thomas Garrett: Delaware’s Stationmaster

Thomas Garrett by Bass Otis (DHS collection, gift of Miss Helen S. Garrett)

This month, we celebrate the life and achievements of Thomas Garrett, a leading abolitionist and Stationmaster on the Underground Railroad. He was born on August 21, 1789 in Upper Derby, Pennsylvania to Thomas and Sarah (Price) Garrett, both Quakers with strong anti-slavery views. In 1822, Thomas Garrett moved to Wilmington, Delaware, to go into the iron and hardware business and soon opened his home at 227 Shipley Street as a station on the Underground Railroad. At this time, Delaware was slave state and Wilmington an important stop for fugitive slaves escaping to freedom in Pennsylvania. By his own estimation, Garrett aided around 2700 escapees.

A controversial figure during his life-time, he was both loved and hated in equal measure depending on where one stood on the issue of slavery. The state of Maryland issued a reward of $10,000 for his arrest, and, in 1848, he was brought to trial before a federal court for aiding in the escape of Hawkins family of Maryland. The resulting fine bankrupted him, but he was later able to re-establish himself with the help of his anti-slavery friends. His unswerving opposition to slavery and willingness to take a stand against it won him the respect of the local African-American community, who would defend his home from pro-slavery sympathizers during the Civil War and later conduct his coffin for burial at the Friends Meeting House in Wilmington when he died on January 25, 1871. He was also a friend of Harriet Tubman and was said to be the inspiration for the character of Simeon Halliday in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

It seems fitting, then, that such an important Delawarean should be immortalized by one of the leading portrait painters of the day, Bass Otis (1784-1861). Otis mainly worked in Philadelphia but painted this portrait of Thomas Garrett in 1838, when he had a studio on Market Street in Wilmington. His considerable talents as a portraitist are definitely showcased here as he captures the essence of his sitter: a modest, middle-aged man who nevertheless has a solid, stalwart presence and clear, steady gaze that shows him to be a man of firm convictions. The portrait was given to the Delaware Historical Society by the Garrett family in 1928 and we are proud to have it as part of our collections.


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