George Spencer - Evansville's Radical Abolitionist and Reformer
Researched and Written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
In the spring of 1848, George F. Spencer left his home in Springfield,
Vermont and traveled west to Wisconsin to visit his brothers Lewis and
Henry. If he liked what he saw in Wisconsin, George intended to settle
in the new territory.
George had grown up on the family farm in Vermont. He was the
youngest of seven boys. As a child, George had attended school for
three months each winter and summer and at the age of 15 had entered
the Springfield Academy for three terms. What little formal education he
received was supplemented by reading from books and one newspaper,
the New York Tribune, published by Horace Greeley. Greeley's
newspaper was "law and gospel to us all," George recalled in later
When George was seventeen years old, he left his father's farm and
went to work as an apprentice shoemaker. The apprenticeship lasted
three years. During the time he served his apprenticeship, George
received an income of $50 a year.
In his free time, George continued to read books and newspapers and
became strong in his belief that slavery should be abolished. He was
especially influenced by his study of the lives of Milton, Lewis Clarke,
Frederick Douglas, William L. Garrison, Parker Pillsbury and Orin
Hutchinson. Hutchinson "did more to fire my soul with hatred for slavery
than anyone else," Spencer said.
George was just a few weeks short of his 26th birthday when he made
the decision to come to Wisconsin. His two older brothers, Henry and
Lewis, had already established farms in Section 27, Union Township, in
a little settlement called "The Grove".
It was common practice to find a traveling companion, preferably
someone who had already visited the new Territory of Wisconsin.
George Spencer made arrangements with S. W. Mathers who had
served as Lewis Spencer's traveling companion to Wisconsin three
year's earlier. Mathers was bringing his father, mother and sister to
Journeys over long distances took many days and required travelers to
take several kinds of transportation. George Spencer and the Mathers
family started their trip west on May 1, 1848. They hired a teamster to
bring their goods as far as Schenectady, New York. The trip from
Springfield, Vermont to Schenectady took four days. From Schenectady
the travelers went to Buffalo. Spencer and his companions arrived in
Buffalo on May 14th and immediately booked passage on a new boat
Some of the passengers entertained and enlighted the others with
political speeches. One speaker in particular impressed Spencer. His
name was Sherman M. Booth and he was moving his family to
Milwaukee. Booth started an anti-slavery newspaper "The Wisconsin
Free Democrat" and eventually became one of Wisconsin's strongest
foes of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
There were many other passengers on the boat who were members of
the "Free Soilers", a political party that advocated that new states be
admitted to the United States as "free" rather than slave states. George
listened with interest to their speeches and discussions about the issue
When Spencer reached Milwaukee, he traveled by stage coach by way
of Janesville to the hotel at Union. The journey from Vermont had taken
28 days. At the hotel, Spencer asked directions to "The Grove" where
he expected to visit his brothers.
His brother, Lewis Spencer was the first person George met as he
traveled toward the Grove. Since Lewis did not know that his brother
was on his way to Wisconsin, he was very surprised to meet George.
George stayed at the home of his older brother Henry for several
months. Lewis and Henry helped their brother get settled in the new
territory. Their reports to the family that remained in Vermont were so
glowing that it was not long before a fourth brother, Hiram arrived.
Hiram came in the fall of 1848 and built a house and wagon shop on
West Main Street. George opened his shoemaker's shop in the second
story of Hiram's house. Within the next few years, six Spencer brothers
and their mother and father had settled in the new community.
Speculating that the village would grow, the Spencer brothers invested
in land. George purchased 80 acres of land on the east side of Section
27, including what today is residential area on the south side of East
Main Street and Franklin Streets, and extending to the south edge of the
George married Elizabeth Campbell Spencer on November 22, 1849.
Elizabeth was a sister to Henry Spencer's wife, Margaret. By their
wedding day, George had nearly completed a small house, 14 x 22 feet.
However, the young couple had no furnishings. Stoves and dishes were
available at stores in Janesville, however, Elizabeth's father, William
Campbell, traveled to Milwaukee to get furniture for the newly married
Shortly after his marriage, George wrote this letter to relatives back east:
Evansville Dec. 23rd 1849
Dear Brother and Sisters
After a delay of some time I now take this opportunity to pen a few
lines to you to inform you of our health and prosperity which has been
very good since I last wrote you although it has been some time there
has been quite a change in my circumstances in life since you have
heard from me. I have left a life of celibacy and entered the matrimonial
ranks. I was married the 22 day of Nov and have been keeping house
about two week there has been very fine weather this fall it remained
warm here till the first of Dec before the ground froze up. It has been
much better season this than last for turnip crops have come in very well
this year although produce does not bring as large a price as it has
some time here to fore. Wheat is worth from 60 to 70 cts oats 25 c; corn
37 q/2 cts. Pork $3.00 per hundred but I think that the farming interest
will be better in a few years. There is quite a prospect of a railroad here
there has been a road laid out from the Chicago and Galena road in
Illinois to Janesville and Beloit and the stock is all taken and the grading
is to be contracted in the course of two or three weeks and the stock
from Janesville to Madison is nearly all taken up and the road will
probably be built in the course of two years. Lewis is a going to build an
addition to his house next season he is a going to build twenty three by
thirty four and two stories of wood. Father and mother health is very
good. They have moved into their house and appear to be quite
contented. Mother is going to have the children all at their house for
Christmas day for we intended to have them on Thanksgiving Day and
that past by before we knew when it was. Hiram & Julia are well now and
doing well and in a flourishing condition. Hiram has as much work as he
can do at his business and Lewis works in the blacksmith shop with of
the time I should thank that you was intending to stop at the East at
present by the appearance of things but I hope you will conclude to
come out here if you sell your place as I think that you would like better
here than there after you had lived here a short time. Please give my
respects to all and write me as soon as you receiving this. Yours, G. F.
Six months later, when the census was taken in June 1850, George, age
27, and Elizabeth, age 20, had already established a farm on their 80
acres of land. George reported harvesting crops of wheat and oats,
and also told the census taker that he owned 2 oxen, a "milch" cow, 5
sheep and 2 pigs. He supplemented his farm income for a few years by
working as a shoemaker and when the farm was well established,
George gave up shoemaking altogether.
The political issues in Wisconsin and the nation remained intense, with
heated discussions over the issue of slavery. George continued to read
the radical reform literature that he had found profoundly interesting as
a teenager. In the 1850s, there were many opportunities for Evansville
citizens to hear speakers who favored the abolishment of slavery.
Sherman M. Booth, the Milwaukee newspaper editor, delivered a 4th of
July speech in Evansville. Since George had first met Booth on his
journey to Wisconsin, the newspaperman had gained much notoriety for
helping a fugitive escape from slave catchers. Booth was arrested and
fined $2,460 for breaking the fugitive slave law. The brave deed made
Booth a hero to abolitionists, and a sought-after speaker.
During the 1850s, the abolitionist message of freedom for the slaves
was instilled deeply into the mind of George Spencer. He supported the
"Free Soil" ticket candidates at every election.
Then in 1854, George and several other men from Evansville helped
form the Republican Party in Wisconsin. The new political party
championed freedom for those confined in slavery. Evansville residents,
Hiram Spencer, Hiram Griffith, Levi Leonard, Daniel Johnson and
George Spencer, went to Madison to the political conventions where the
abolitionists implored those listening to work for the repeal of the fugitive
slave laws and the freedom of those kept in slavery.
George's belief in freedom was so strong that he became part of the
Underground Railroad and harbored fugitive slaves. Secrecy was of the
utmost importance as both the runaway slave and those who helped win
his freedom were considered lawbreakers. Although Wisconsin was a
free state, it's Fugitive Slave laws made harboring, feeding, or aiding a
runaway slave a crime.
There was always the danger that neighbors or relatives would give
evidence to authorities and those who were part of the Underground
Railroad would be arrested. The penalties for breaking the Fugitive
Slave laws were imprisonment and a fine of one thousand dollars.
Despite the danger, George Spencer claimed to have kept fugitives at
his house for two weeks at a time. "I kept a station at my house, feeling
that I was answerable to a higher law than the one then in force,"
Spencer wrote in "The Badger" newspaper's history of Evansville series
in March 1895.
"For two weeks at a time I have kept fugitives at my house not daring
even to let my own brothers know of their presence," Spencer recalled.
The fugitives knew they could at any moment be hunted down. "If a
neighbor was seen coming to the house they would run and hide in
some part of the house,".
Spencer did not explain how the fugitives contacted him, but he said that
most came from Missouri, "up the river". Wisconsin's Rock River was
one of the Underground routes used by the runaways. When the
runaways were ready to travel, Spencer contacted J. M Burgess of
Janesville, who would act as the next link in the journey to Michigan,
then on to Canada. "These secret struggles and the greater open
struggle that followed, ending in the breaking the shackles, help to
gauge the march of progress," Spencer wrote of his work with the
fugitives and the end of slavery after the Civil War.
Throughout his life, Spencer continued his interest in social, political and
industrial questions of the day. His nephew, William Spencer, described
George as a man who held convictions "with great intensity of feeling,
and moral indignation in view of what he believed were intolerable
industrial wrongs and political corruption."
When the Beloit and Madison Railroad first tried to purchase land to
build tracks in 1853, George Spencer and his brother Henry readily sold
their land for $1.00 for a right-of-way for the new enterprise. It was ten
years before the railroad was built and in another ten years, Spencer
was fighting against the railroad and the high prices charged farmers for
George invested in a number of Evansville enterprises. In 1868, he sent
a notice to the Evansville Citizen advertising the annual election of
officers of the Evansville Cheese Factory Association. George was the
secretary of the organization and in 1873 served as the president. The
cheese factory operated from 1866 through the 1870s and produced
thousands of pounds of cheese.
In 1873, when the Evansville Grange (Patrons of Husbandry) formed,
George Spencer became a Charter member and the secretary of the
organization. Once again, Spencer was championing the cause of the
"underdog", this time the farmer. The Grange, through state and
national legislation, and the formation of cooperative purchasing and
selling wanted to break up the railroad and warehouse monopolies.
They believed that the "middle man" was taking away the profits due the
producer, the farmer. The organization members believed that railroads
were charging unreasonable prices for freight, and raising the prices of
goods the farmer purchased.
When the local Grange sold stock to form a store where farmers could
purchase goods at a reasonable price, George Spencer signed his
name on the stock certificates as secretary of the organization. George
held his convictions against wrong doers "with great intensity of feeling,
and not seldom moral indignation," his nephew William said. He was a
"strenuous advocate" of what he believed was for the public good.
By 1879, George had retired from farming. He had served as a Village
Trustee for Evansville for several terms and as Union Township
treasurer. When George died in October 1899, he was eulogized as a
"most highly respected citizen. He has ever been a great reader and
was well informed on all economic and political questions of the day."
To read more about the Underground Railroad in Wisconsin check the
library for "Freedom Train North : Stories of the Underground Railroad in
Wisconsin" by Julia Pferdehirt. Although, George Spencer is not
mentioned, this book includes several accounts of Rock County
residents who assisted fugitive slaves, as well as an account of Sherman
Booth, editor of the Milwaukee abolitionist newspaper.