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John Thomas

John Thomas. (Oct. 1811-1894) an African American man who self-emancipated from slavery at the age of twenty-nine, was born enslaved in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, on the plantation of Ezekiel Merrick in October 1811. Information about his family is unknown. What is known about Thomas life comes from two sources: his 1872 letter to Gerrit Smith, a wealthy white abolitionist and three-time unsuccessful presidential candidate; and Thomas’s 1894 obituary, published in the Malone Palladium newspaper of Franklin County, New York.

Little is known about Thomas’ life until his decision to escape enslavement in 1840, after Merrick sold his wife and children, permanently separating their family. Thomas wrote that due to this separation, “I became dissatisfied with my lot, of being marketable property[...], for no crime, but that of the Color, which God gave me.” (Thomas). Living so close to the free state of Pennsylvania, Thomas took the risk of self-emancipation, walking approximately sixty-five miles by himself to the city of Philadelphia, where he stayed for six weeks. He later received help from “Friendly Quakers, and others” to travel further north on the Underground Railroad (Thomas).

In August, Thomas arrived in Troy, New York, where he would live for seven years. In Troy, he married Mary Vanderhyden, a woman who had been manumitted in 1818 (Stewart, p. 182). Together, the couple would have three children. Thomas wrote that he met the wealthy white abolitionist Gerrit Smith at the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church of Reverend Henry Highland Garnet, a prominent abolitionist who had escaped slavery in Maryland himself. Hoping to encourage Black property ownership—and thus increase the number of Black voters in New York state—Smith bought land for many African Americans. According to Historian Jennifer Burns, sixty-four land-grantees came from around Troy (Burns, pp. 219-2020). Thomas received a deed from Smith for forty acres of land in Franklin County, New York, about two hundred miles north of Troy near the Canadian border (Malone Palladium).

Burns notes that Thomas regularly returned to Troy to attend events at the Liberty Street Presbyterian Church, and to visit friends (Burns, p. 220). He remembered “the inconvenience of church and School privileges” apparent with living in such a rural, Adirondack community (Thomas). Burns’ writing suggests that the land gifted by Smith proved poor for farming, and adding to Thomas’ woes, slavecatchers sent by Merrick had found him. Thomas and his fellow settlers, who were largely African American, forced the slavecatchers to leave at gun point (Burns, p. 230-31). Sometime afterward, Thomas returned to Troy.

Thomas soon sold the land given to him by Smith, buying fifty acres of land near Bloomingdale, New York, around 150 miles north of Troy. Through his own work, Thomas increased his holdings to two hundred acres, reporting profits of “two or three hundred dollars’ worth of farm produce to sell, every year.” Now joined with Mary by their two living daughters, Thomas wrote that “I have breasted the storm of prejudice and opposition, until I begin to be regarded as an ‘American Citizen’” (Thomas). On Monday, April 80, 1894, Thomas died at the age of eighty-three in the house of his daughter, Charlotte Morehouse, in Franklin County. His obituary remembered him as “an honest, upright and fair dealing man, a good citizen and much respected in the community where he lived so long.” (Malone Palladium).

John Thomas’s story is illuminating for three reasons. First, it is an account written by an ordinary person. Thomas, although respected and not poor in his community, was a farmer, not a member of any privileged class. Second, Thomas’ account is by a freedom seeker who decided to live in the Capital Region and North Country of New York for a significant amount of time, rather than merely as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Thus, Thomas’ story offers a glimpse into the successful lives some self-emancipated African Americans were able to create for themselves in Upstate New York, and the challenges they faced. Thomas ran a profitable farm, became literate, and quintupled the amount of land Gerrit Smith had originally gifted him. Lastly, Thomas’ story is unique due to its longevity. One hundred and thirty years after his death, Thomas’s descendants continue to live in the Adirondacks; in 2023, a local brook was renamed in his honor by the inhabitants of Onchiota, New York. Previously, John Thomas Brook was called Negro Brook, itself renamed from the racial epithet historically used by locals for the brook. Local Adirondacks journalist Robin Caudell dubbed the renaming as a changing the “narrative” of a forgotten history, thanks to the research of historian Don Papson and campaigning by paleoecologist Curt Stager (Caudell). David Kanietakeron Fadden, director of the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center which sits off the brook’s banks, said that “John Thomas’s story is one that will now be memorialized and referred to when I talk about that little brook I can still hear out my window,” a story which highlights that “[w]e all share the history of these mountains” (qtd. in Caudell).

Online Resources

Burns, Jennifer J. Thompson. 2019. “Black Trojans: The Free Black Community's Grassroots Abolition Campaign in Troy, New York, before 1861.” PhD diss. SUNY Albany,



Caudell, Robin. 2023. “John Thomas Brook Historic Marker Changes the Narrative.” Press-Republican.



Malone Palladium (Malone, NY). “Thomas.” May 18, 1894.

Thomas, John. Letter to Gerrit Smith. Gerrit Smith Papers. Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY. In Box 36. August 26, 1872.

Stewart, L. Lloyd. A Far Cry from Freedom: Gradual Abolition (1799-1827): New York State's Crime Against Humanity. Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2006.


Maxam A.B. Daniels

Only known photograph of the building that was Rev. Henry Highland Garnet’s Liberty Street Presbyterian Church in Troy, which John Thomas visited frequently in his quest for freedom in upstate New York. Source: Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy, NY.

Key Events

October 1811

John Thomas is born enslaved in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, on the plantation of Ezekiel Merrick.


John’s future wife, Mary Vanderhyden, is manumitted in Troy, New York.


John Thomas decides to self-emancipate after Ezekiel Merrick broke up his family by selling his wife and children. After traveling from Maryland to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he arrives in Troy, New York, in August with help from the Underground Railroad.


John Thomas marries Marry Vanderhyden, with whom he will have three children.


Abolitionist Gerrit Smith purchases 40 acres of land in Franklin County, New York, for John Thomas. He spends the rest of his life as a farmer, living between Troy and the Adirondacks.

April 08, 1894

John Thomas dies at the age of 83 in the house of his daughter, Charlotte Morehouse.


A brook in the Adirondacks is renamed in John Thomas’ honor.