Basil Dorsey Escapes from Liberty, Maryland Plantation to Settle in Florence
By Steve Strimer, The David Ruggles Center
Basil Dorsey was a self-emancipated slave and teamster born Libertytown, in Frederick County, Maryland. His father and mother, like Dorsey, were slaves of Sabrett Sollers, though Sollers himself is several times mentioned as Dorsey’s father.
He married another slave by the name Louisa who may also have been a slave of Sollers. Dorsey, then known as Ephraim Costly, was promised his freedom upon the death of Sabrett Sollers on 17 July 1834. The settlement of the estate, however, provided for the sale of 18 of his 23 slaves. Sollers’ son Thomas acquired Dorsey for $300 and offered him his freedom for $350. Dorsey appealed to Richard Coale to be his bondsman for that amount but when the price was raised by Sollers to $500 Coale encouraged Dorsey to take his freedom, which he did according to one account, on May 14, 1836.
With his three brothers, Charles, William, and Thomas, he traveled through Pennsylvania by way of Gettysburg, Harrisburg, and Reading, to Philadelphia. There the prominent African American abolitionist, Robert Purvis provided assistance. Thomas Dorsey stayed in Philadelphia while the other brothers were provided haven on Purvis’s farm in Byberry (now Bensalem) near Bristol in Bucks County. Basil continued on the Purvis farm with William and Charles settling at neighboring farms.
In July 1837 slave hunters hired by Thomas Sollers tracked Dorsey to the farm and seized him with the aid of a local constable. He was placed under arrest and jailed in Bristol. News of Dorsey’s capture reached Purvis who hired a well-known trial lawyer, David Paul Brown, to defend him in court. William and Charles escaped with help from Purvis’s brother Joseph who took them to New Jersey. Purvis, who had arranged housing for Louisa and the children in Philadelphia, brought them on to the courtroom in Doylestown where Dorsey awaited trial. In the meantime Purvis had organized local blacks to assist Dorsey should the judge rule in favor of the claimant. Sollers tried to settle the case by again offering to sell Dorsey his freedom, now at the cost of $800 which Purvis agreed to provide. When the price was raised to $1000 Dorsey, infuriated, exclaimed, “no more offers, if the decision goes against me, I will cut my throat in the Court House, I will not go back into slavery.” With tensions escalating Judge Fox ordered Dorsey to be released on the technicality that the prosecutor was unable to prove that slavery was the law in Maryland. After the verdict, Purvis and the local black abolitionists prevented another attempt to recapture Dorsey and he was moved on to New York City.
In New York he was introduced to the abolitionist Joshua Leavitt, editor of the anti-slavery journal Evangelist, and David Ruggles, secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee. Leavitt set Dorsey on a course to Northampton, Massachusetts where Colonel Samuel Parsons drove him on to Leavitt’s father and brothers in Charlemont, Massachusetts. While living at the home of Roger Hooker, Leavitt records show that Dorsey paid 50 cents for his membership in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. A third child, Charles Robert, was born on 29 August 1838. Two months later on 7 November 1838, Louisa died and was buried in the Leavitt town cemetery.
A biographical sketch published in the Hampshire Gazette of 2 April 1867 describes an incident that occurred when Dorsey accompanied Roger Hooker and Leavitt on a train trip to Albany. Passengers demanded the conductor move Dorsey to the black section. Dorsey refused and “divesting himself of his hat and coat threatened to pitch through the window any man who should molest him.”
In 1844 Dorsey moved with his family to the village later known as Florence, Massachusetts, three miles northwest of Northampton. The Northampton Association of Education and Industry had been established there in 1842 as a community of abolitionists and radical reformers of the stripe of William Lloyd Garrison. It was Garrison’s brother-in-law, George W. Benson, a founder of the NAEI, who hired Dorsey as the teamster for the Bensonville Manufacturing Company. Sojourner Truth and David Ruggles were members of the Association and Frederick Douglass visited on several occasions. Ruggles founded the Northampton Watercure there in 1845 and died in 1849.
That year, Dorsey purchased Lot #12 of Bensonville Village Lots and built his first house. In 1850, as many as 35 African Americans, along with Dorsey, were living on what later became known as Nonotuck Street. Bensonville, as Florence was then known, with a population of around 600, was just under ten percent African American as of the 1850 federal census. Dorsey, age 40 is listed with his wife Cynthia, age19, their first child Louisa, age four months, and two children from Dorsey’s first marriage, Charles and John. On 22 October 1850 one month after passage of the Fugitive Act, Dorsey, with nine other self-proclaimed fugitives from slavery, published a call for local residents to come to their aid and resist any effort to return them to the South. Local citizens were concerned that Dorsey was at risk in his travels as teamster and raised $150 to purchase his freedom which was affected in May 1851, fifteen years after his escape.
Bensonville was renamed Florence in 1852. Bensonville Manufacturing became Greenville Manufacturing after George W. Benson’s departure, but Dorsey remained as head teamster under its president J. P. Williston, a Northampton abolitionist. Basil Dorsey died in Florence on 15 February 1872.
This article appears in an expanded version in the African American National Biography online edition.
Smedley, R. C., History of the Underground Railroad in Chester County, (1883.
Magill, Edward H., Friends Intelligencer 55, “The Underground Railroad,” (1898).
Hampshire Gazette (Northampton, MA), April 2, 1867.