Harriet Powell and Henry Kelly house

Street Address : 126 Queen Street
Period : 1800-1850

Henry Kelly and Harriet Powell

Lot 301 – Municipal parking lot, south side of Queen Street, between Bagot and Montreal Streets, and adjacent to building at south-west corner of Queen and Bagot.

In 1835 opponents of slavery in Onondaga County, N.Y., formed an anti-slavery society. Gradually convincing others of slavery’s evil effects, their influence grew until Syracuse became the focal point for abolitionist activity in Central New York, and an important station on the Underground Railroad.

In late September 1839, Mr. and Mrs. Davenport of Mississippi arrived in Syracuse for a visit accompanied by a domestic servant named Harriet Powell. They took up residence at the Syracuse House, where it became known that Harriet was held as a slave by the couple.

She was approached by several hotel employees, who offered to help her escape. After some hesitation she made up her mind to risk it, knowing she might never again see her mother and sister, also held in slavery by the Davenports. On the evening of 7 October, Harriet, dressed in a man’s hat and coat, left the hotel, and was quickly hurried off by carriage. Upon learning of her disappearance, Mr. Davenport had posters printed offering $200 reward for her return. She was described as being so fair that she would generally be taken for white.

After passing through several safe houses, she eventually reached the home of Gerrit Smith, the famous abolitionist whose Peterboro, N.Y., mansion was a station on the underground railroad. Here Harriet was dressed as a Quakeress, and driven by horse and carriage to Cape Vincent. After having to wait a whole day for the weather to improve, she finally was able to cross on the ferry on 29 October 1839, and reached freedom. Upon arriving in Kingston, she was taken in by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Hales.

Hales was a member of the Wesleyan Methodist Auxiliary Missionary Society by 1830 and in 1836 married Elizabeth Charlotte Chettle, whose father was a Wesleyan minister in England. In 1839 she did volunteer work for the Female Benevolent Society. This may have been how the Hales got involved with Harriet. (By the 1840s Mr. Hales was a successful merchant who owned Bellevue House on Centre Street, “Hales’ Cottages” on King Street West, and the Commercial Mart or S&R, at the corner of Ontario and Princess Streets.)

Shortly after Harriet’s arrival, Gerrit Smith was brought up to date by the following letter penned by Charlotte Hales.

January 2nd, 1840
Dear Sir,
Although a stranger, I am persuaded I need not apologize for addressing you. Harriet Powell is residing with me and has done so since she came to Kingston. She is most anxious to hear of her mother and sister, and particularly wishes you would write to the former; if you could obtain any information respecting them and forward it to Harriet, this poor girl would be most thankful. She received your letter of Dec. 6 for which she is much obliged. She desires me to tell you that she is quite contented & very comfortable in her present situation. I am teaching her to read, and if she continues with me I may teach her writing. I find her a girl of good moral principles, but very ignorant concerning the things which belong to salvation. I am happy to say she seemed willing to receive instruction and as she now enjoys many religious privileges I trust she will be truly converted to God. We have heard many reports of Mr. Davenport’s determination to get her again if possible. We also understood men were employed to kidnap her. I scarcely think the latter is true, but it was sufficient to put us on our guard, and we do not allow her to go out unprotected. Harriet begs me to give her very kind love to you Mr. Smith and Laura & any of her kind friends you may see. She wishes me to tell you that she feels very grateful to you all, for your great kindness in assisting her to obtain her freedom. She finds a great difference between here and in Mississippi, but is likely to stand it well. Harriet says she has not any wish to return, and as long as this is the case we are resolved to protect her. I hope you will be kind enough to write to Harriet as soon as you can obtain any satisfactory information. With best wishes for your success in your labour of love
I remain dear sir
Yours truly
Charlotte Hales.

Very soon after this letter was written, Harriet married musician Henry Kelly on 23 April 1840. The abolitionist newspaper Friend of Man commented on the happy event: “Mr. Kelly is a respectable colored man, in good pecuniary circumstances, and his wife has become rather famous within a few months, as ‘the white lady fugitive,’ who had the good fortune to escape from the clutches of a slaveholder named Davenport, at Syracuse, last autumn.”

Their first child, William Henry Kelly, born 21 April 1841, was followed by five more brothers and two sisters. Edward, the last, was born on 28 March 1856. Three of the children died very young. From 1849 to 1866 the assessment records indicate that the family was living on property (lot 301) owned by Jane Cox on Queen Street. (The 1850 Plan of the City of Kingston by Gibbs shows a small building on lot 301 that would have occupied part of what is now the municipal parking lot immediately west of the current building on the south-west corner of Queen and Bagot Streets.) Although the Kelly family seemed for the most part to have led a quiet, normal life, the year 1854 would have stood out as one best forgotten. Their sixth child, Henry, died on 26 July at the age of two years and seven months; their seventh child, Harriet Eliza, died on 11 August at the age of six months. These tragedies were soon followed by what must have been a night of sheer terror. On Friday around 11 p.m., 10 November 1854, a fire broke out in a small building in the rear of the storehouses connected with the Chequered Store, corner of Princess and Bagot streets. Fanned by strong winds the fire spread quickly through the range of wooden frame buildings, and cinders were carried as far as the roof of St. Paul’s Church, diagonally across Queen Street from the Kelly residence. It is doubtful that they would have described the burning church in the same terms as a reporter who witnessed the conflagration – “The wind sweeping fearfully through its flaming aisles, the burning masses of wood from the roof and the upper floor falling in upon the red-hot piles of timber below, or whirled blazing through the interior by the strong swift currents of air; the united elements roaring and sighing like a thousand furnaces in full blast…” One third of the block they lived on was consumed, in addition to the Church, and half the block bounded by Queen and Barrack, Wellington and King.

Harriet died at the age of 45 on 8 February 1860 according to the Parish Register of St. Paul’s, Kingston. Henry died in Bowmanville on 14 March 1874. He joined his wife in Cataraqui Cemetery, where they are buried on the side of a hill under a large maple tree. The tombstone says that she died on 5 February 1859 at the age of 40, thus disagreeing with Church records.


Another fugitive from Syracuse

William “Jerry” Henry, like Harriet Powell, was a fugitive slave who became famous in Syracuse. Both received assistance there to escape to freedom at Kingston. After fleeing a life of slavery in the south, he was working in Syracuse, N.Y., as a barrel-maker. On 1 October 1851, he was grabbed at work under authority of the Fugitive Slave Act and taken before a judge. By coincidence there was a convention of the anti-slavery Liberty Party under way in Syracuse. In a short time local abolitionists and convention members converged at the office of the Commissioner where he was being held. The large crowd, after smashing the doors and windows, forced the police to give “Jerry” up. He was hidden in the city for a few days before being smuggled across Lake Ontario in a British schooner to Kingston. Sent to the home of Joseph George, a friend of slaves, he was soon working for Chester Hatch, a famous chair maker in Kingston from about 1817 to 1857. In the 1853 assessment records “Jerry” is listed immediately below Hatch in St. Lawrence Ward and both are listed as cabinet-makers. William Henry died in Kingston on 8 October 1853. His celebrated escape is known as the “Jerry Rescue” and a large memorial in Syracuse commemorates the event.

Additional information:

23 April 1840 abolitionist newspaper Friend of Man notes marriage between Harriet and Musician Henry Kelly
Notices of birth of their children (1st William Henry Kelly 21 April 1841, Last, Edward, 28 March 1856)
Notice of death of Henry Kelly in Bowmanville on 14th March 1874 (both buried in Cataraqui Cemetery)
Notice of William Henry being snatched (1 october 1851) under authority of Fugitive Slave Act in Syracuse
Notice of W. “Jerry” Henry’s death 8th October 1853
Notices of death of their children (maybe Victorian death photos?) Henry 26th July 1854, Harriet Eliza 11 August, 1854
Notice of fire that broke out 10 Nov 1854
Parish Register of St. Paul’s Kingston, notice of Harriet’s death age 45 on 8th February 1860

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