The Genesee River and the Underground Railroad

Flowing for about 157 miles from Potter County in northern Pennsylvania to the city of Rochester, one of the Genesee River’s most important characteristics is that it flows from south to north. This directional flow made the Genesee River and western New York State the setting for the secret route to freedom for runaway slaves known as the Underground Railroad.

The role the river played in a slave’s journey to Canada had a lot to do with the route they were on. For some slaves, the city of Rochester was the final stop on the Underground Railroad. It is from Rochester, particularly from a spot on the Genesee River called Kelsey’s Landing, that slaves would sneak onto Canadian ships. Once on these vessels the runaways were under the protection of Canadian government and, by and large, the British Empire, which had legally abolished slavery in all of its colonies in 1834. In other words, slave gained their freedom! From Kelsey’s Landing it was a short 5 mile boat ride north to Lake Ontario, and eventually Canada.

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We can only speculate the extent to which the Genesee River in Livingston County was used by runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. While it is conceivable, there is no indication that slaves walked beside the river by foot or boated north to Rochester. Considering that the Genesee can be very rapid with large rocks and unnavigable waterfalls, as well as very windy in parts, it is unlikely that runaway slaves would have strictly followed the river north.

Maps showing well-known Underground Railroad routes indicate that Niagara Falls and Buffalo were also very popular destinations for runaway slaves to cross into Canada. These routes travel across western New York, meaning that at the very least slaves would have encountered and crossed the Genesee River at some point on their way to their destinations.

Because the Genesee flows north, the river could have also acted as a directional tool, helping the conductors and runaways slave navigate. While slaves were told to follow the North Star to Canada, they could not rely on the star exclusively. What if the sky was cloudy, and the stars could not be seen?  Flowing the width of the region, the Genesee would have helped orient slaves crossing western New York and an encouraging sign that freedom was close at hand.