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Monday, May 27, 2024

Local Family Donates Runaway Slave Letters

Less than a half hour’s drive from the College is an enchanting farmhouse-turned-museum called Rokeby that was once the home of the Robinson family who profoundly influenced Vermont and American history. Middlebury Special Collections at Davis Family Library now has an extensive collection of letters that offers a unique look into the lives of this influential family and their efforts as some of the state’s most famous abolitionists.

The 15,000 Robinson family letters offer a detailed, intimate record of correspondence. The letters are remarkably comprehensive, spanning four generations of Robinsons and dating from 1757 to 1962. They are on extended loan from the Rokeby Museum and can be easily accessed by the Middlebury community. Anyone wishing to read these letters should visit Special Collections in Davis Family Library and use an index, organized by letter recipient, to navigate the collection.

The letters present an opportunity to explore the lives of the Robinsons and their operations of the Rokeby farm property in Ferrisburgh, Vermont. Among Robinson family members are some of Vermont’s earliest opponents of slavery. Rowland Thomas Robinson (1796-1879) and Rachel Gilpin Robinson (1799-1862) were devout Quakers and enthusiastic abolitionists who boycotted all slave-made goods. Rowland was a prominent member of the Vermont Anti-Slavery Society and the American Anti-Slavery Society.

Rowland and Rachel Robinson operated the Rokeby property as a safe house along the Underground Railroad where they harbored men, women and children who had escaped slavery in the South. They did so openly, even offering former slaves employment on Rokeby.

“There’s a lot of folklore associated with the Underground Railroad,” explained Joseph Watson, Preservation Manager and Special Collections Associate at the College.

“Having primary source materials that refer to people in the day, participating in those activities, is rare,” he said.

The collection offers valuable insight into the nuts and bolts of abolitionist organization and activities. Scholars engaging with the letters can examine the daily life of Rowland and Rachel Robinson as they worked to enact sweeping social change and alter conventional mindsets.

Engaging with these primary source materials will prove valuable in Professor Will Nash’s Reading Slavery and Abolition course. Students will be using selected Robinson Family letters to complete original archival research.

“One goal will be to gain perspective on how anti-slavery activists in Vermont carried out the day-to-day work of the struggle,” Nash said. “The other will be to look, where possible, at groups of letters between the Robinsons and particular correspondents with an eye to uncovering what we can about these individuals.”

Professor Nash’s hope is that by utilizing the letters, his students will be able to contribute to the ongoing scholarly conversation about anti-slavery activism in Vermont.

“However, the collection is not just about the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad,” clarified Watson, careful not to sell the collection short.

Rowland and Rachel Robinson were by no means the only noteworthy members of the Robinson family. The following generation of Robinsons included Rowland Evans Robinson (1833-1990), a prominent Vermont artist and writer. His writing was inspired primarily by his love of nature and his conservation work. By the time of his death in 1900, he had earned the Green Mountain State’s most beloved author award. Some of Rowland E. Robinson’s works are currently part of the “Old Friends and New: Writers in Nature” display at Davis Family Library.

Rachael Robinson Elmer (1878-1919) was likewise a distinguished artist in the Robinson family, and perhaps the most successful. She worked as a book illustrator and is known particularly for her fine art post cards of New York scenes. Tragically, her life was cut short at the height of her artistic success. In one of the collection’s particularly moving letters, Rachael expressed her concern for her mother’s health. Soon after writing this letter, Rachel became one of the millions whose lives were claimed by the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

While the Robinson family letters will prove particularly useful to Professor Nash’s course, their application is by no means limited to the field of American Studies.

Jane Williamson, Executive Director at the Rokeby Museum, described the collection as a “gold mine” of social and cultural history. The personal correspondence within the Robinson Family Letters spans topics varying from art history and religious history to personal struggles with mental illness and alcoholism.

Rebekah Irwin, Director of Special Collections and Archives for the Middlebury College Library, believes that the letters will prove useful to scholars across all disciplines.

Today when so much information for potential researchers can be found online, “there is something intimate and rare about working directly with original, material artifacts,” she said.

​The letters possess a particularly strong symbolism for students at Middlebury College. The Robinsons played a meaningful role in American history despite their rural location in Vermont. Irwin hopes that Middlebury students will be inspired by this family’s story as they consider their own involvement in today’s most prominent social and human rights issues.