Skip to main content

If I could commune with the dead of Delmarva, one soul I would definitely want to call out is John Hunn, a great warrior for freedom during the days of slavery. He was a key player—the “superintendent,” as he once described it—along an Underground Railroad line the ran through central and northern Delaware.

Precise numbers are impossible to pin down, but it’s likely that Hunn and his fellow “conductors” and “station masters” on that line helped hundreds of slaves find the way to freedom. It’s also possible—though unconfirmed—that Harriet Tubman herself came knocking at Hunn’s door, fugitives in tow.

Even in nerdy history books, men like John Hunn tend to come off like Hollywood superheroes, risking all for righteousness at every turn. In reality, of course, Hunn lived his life not up on a big screen of history, but down in the real world. He ran a business. He raised a family. He had a reputation. There were bills to pay and mouths to feed.

Every time Hunn took in a runaway, he put the precious things in his life at risk. Once, in 1848, he lost out on that gamble. Sued for aiding a family on the lam, he suffered through a guilty verdict and a supersized fine that left him flat broke. His farm near Middletown, Del. was soon sold at public auction.

Based on what I’ve learned about John Hunn so far, I would guess that he will wave off this turn of events during our séance. My guess is that he’ll point instead to a simple fact: The slaves showing up at his doorstep had it worse than he ever did, no matter how broke.

Hunn started over again in a new town, Camden. He went right back to taking in fugitive slaves. He went right on taking in slaves while burying his oldest child and then his wife. The Civil War was still raging when he signed on to move to South Carolina and help former slaves navigate new lives in freedom. He would stick with that work for more than two decades.

There’s another question for our séance: “Mr. Hunn, didn’t you ever just get tired?”

The one-two punch of ill health and old age finally forced his hand. He returned to Delaware, closer to family. Then, in 1894, he did something that seems to me completely insane. While on his deathbed, he ordered his son to set fire to all the papers that detailed his Underground Railroad work. So at some point during the séance, I will have to work up the courage to ask: “What in God’s name were you thinking, Mr. Hunn? Had you lost your mind?”

EARLY YEARS: Orphan, Merchant, Farmer

John Hunn was lucky. He was born in 1818 on the Great Geneva estate in Lebanon, south of Dover, into a prominent family that traced its Delaware roots to the 1600s. Most of his ancestors were Quakers. (Several were buried outside the unforgettably named Murderkill Friends Meeting Place—the graveyard is still there, though the building is long gone.)

But Hunn was unlucky, too. Before his second birthday, his mother died in childbirth. His father died before his fourth birthday. Still, he came from a prominent family. He landed in the care of an older half-sister, Patience. Funds from his parents’ estate provided for a boarding-school education.

As a young adult, John got help from relative landing an apprenticeship with a Philadelphia silk merchant. During those Philadelphia years, he married a woman named Mary Allen Swallow. The silk business wasn’t for him. He hated it. He wrote to another relative, a cousin he had never met, and he asked that man to teach him farming.

MIDDLETOWN YEARS: Fugitives at the Door

Here’s another question I want to ask John Hunn during our séance: What was the spark that set you on fire for the cause?

It might have been lodged in his DNA. His father’s will had a clause setting aside income from a rental property for the benefit of “The Camden School for Colored Children.” There are unproven inklings in the historical record that perhaps his father helped a few runaway slaves in his day.

The easy way out here would be to say that everything must have hinged on Hunn’s Quaker faith. Almost all Quakers opposed slavery, and lots of Quakers helped out on the Underground Railroad. But it’s unclear whether that explains everything in this particular case.

Hunn spent a good stretch of his young adulthood adrift from Quakerism—the very same stretch, in fact, when he started helping fugitives. Remember how he married Mary Allen up in Philadelphia? The meeting house Hunn belonged there kicked him out for getting hitched to someone outside the faith.

In 1840, Hunn formally asked for readmittance, but there are signs that he might not have come fully back in the fold right away. More on that in a moment.

John and Mary Allen bought land near Middletown, Del. from that cousin who had taught John to farm. The cousin’s name was John Alston, and his presence here raises another possibility: Did Hunn join the Underground Railroad by way of the friends he hung out with? Consider this entry in Alston’s diary; it was written three years before John Hunn helped a fugitive for the first time.

“O Lord … enable me to keep my heart and house open to receive thy servants that they may rest in their travels that this house that thou has enabled me to build may be holy dictates unto thee of the pilgrim’s rest.”

Was Alston the only person the Hunns knew when they got to Middletown? Did he draw them in? Connect them with like-minded friends? Did Hunn accept his first assignment on the Underground Railroad in 1844 for the simplest of reasons, because a friend asked?

‘NATURE’S NOBLEMAN’: Back in the Fold

Hunn traveled to Pennsylvania the next year, 1845, visiting the sister who had helped raise him. A preacher now, Patience Hunn Jenkins was none too pleased when her brother showed up in a fancy-schmancy suit of clothes. Devout Quaker men wore only the plainest of garb.

Patience admonished her brother to “to take off his Babylonish garment.” Then she predicted that not only would John return to the fold, but that he would start preaching, too. Legend has it that Hunn took that stylish outfit to a tailor and had it remade into a drab, simple suit.

Patience’s prediction proved spot on, though it took a while. Hunn won official preacher status from the Quaker powers that be in 1854. The best description we have of what John Hunn looked like and how he behaved comes from the reminiscence of an unnamed member of Northwest Fork Friends Meeting in Federalsburg, Md. Patience and John attended multiple meetings there.

Though a mere boy, I well remember that he preached, and it then appeared to me that he was the most remarkable man I had ever seen or heard. He was handsome, tall, and … finely developed, — ‘a Nature’s nobleman.’ His hair was as black as a raven, his manner the most courteous and humble, and as gentle as a child.”

The writer recalls one sermon in particular, built around verses from the Gospel of Luke that refer to the way the Lord “anointed” the prophet Isaiah “to preach deliverance to the captive … and set at liberty them that are bruised.”

“His voice was of a rich, mellow accent, not high, but fatherly, and his thrusts into creeds, hirelings, and the slave-holding oppression were keen and searching. … In his denunciation of the creeds of men, he was fearless as a lion.”


During our séance, I’d ask John Hunn to tell stories about the fugitives he met and the close calls they had. Did they really number in the hundreds? How many made it? How many got caught? Which one most touched his soul? Did he stay in touch with any of them in later years?

The 1847 flight of Sam and Emeline Hawkins is the most famous of Hunn’s jobs on the Underground. That’s the one that ended in Hunn getting fined so heavily in court that he went broke. The Hawkins affair is dramatic and moving—plus, it’s complicated in fascinating ways. You can read a full version of it in this free excerpt from my book, Tubman Travels: 32 Underground Railroad Journeys on Delmarva.

The story I’ll include here is simpler, but quite moving in its own way. The heroine is Molly—we don’t know her last name. She was owned by a Cecil County, Md. man who treated her acceptably when sober, but viciously when drunk. The words here are from a letter Hunn wrote later in life:

The owner “would have [Molly] beaten unmercifully without cause, and then have her stripes washed in saltwater, then he would have her dragged through the horse pond until she was nearly dead. This last operation seemed to afford him much pleasure. When he became sober he would express regret at having treated her so cruelly.”

Molly ran off, but was captured while hiding with Hunn’s cousin, John Alston. Her owner rode a wagon to the jail in New Castle, Del., to pick her up. He started drinking on the way there. He had Molly handcuffed. He had her feet bound. When a white woman working in the jail tried to give Molly a piece of bread, the owner kicked it out Molly’s hands. He had Molly thrown in the back of his wagon. Then he had a drink before starting back.

“He stopped at a tavern about four miles from New Castle and took another drink of brandy. He then proceeded to Odessa … and got his dinner and more brandy, for the day was a cold one. He had his horse fed, but gave no food to his human chattel, who remained [outside] in the wagon, cold and hungry. After sufficient rest for himself and horse, he started again.

“He was now twelve miles from home, on a good road, his horse was gentle, and he himself in a genial mood at the recovery of his bond-woman. He yielded to the influence of the liquor he had imbibed and fell into a sound sleep.”

Somehow, Molly wriggled her bound body up over the tailboard of the wagon. She dropped with a thud onto the frozen ground, but her owner didn’t stir from his drunken doze. She rolled into some bushes. A black man came by and took her to a nearby cabin. Eventually, Molly ended up at John Hunn’s farm. Ironically, the farm was within sight of the place where she had been captured a few days earlier.

“I had no fear for her safety, as I believed that her master would not think of looking for her so near to the place where she had been arrested.”

Molly’s close call left her feeling quite skittish about resuming her flight, and Hunn seems to have been willing to have her stay as long as she liked. But as days turned into weeks, she eventually worked up the courage to try again.

“Molly remained with us nearly a month; but, seeing fugitives coming and going continually, she finally concluded to go further North. I wrote to my friend, Thomas Garrett, desiring him to get a good home for Molly. This he succeeded in doing, and a friend from Chester County, Pennsylvania, came to my house and took Molly with him. She remained in his family more than six months.”

Molly eventually ended up in Canada. I am unaware of any information about how things turned out for her up there.


The Camden (Del.) Friends Meeting House

The Camden (Del.) Friends Meeting House

The big fine and court verdict against Hunn come down in 1848. After that, he moved from Middletown to Camden. He may have stayed with family members for a while, but he managed to rebuild a farming operation eventually.

He had lots going on in his real-world life. Mary Allen had given birth to the first of their four children in 1843. Another son came along in 1846, then a daughter in 1849. Alas, the eldest son died in 1850. A fourth child, another daughter, arrived in 1851. Mary Allen died in 1854, leaving Hunn with three children under age 10. He remarried quickly, to a woman named Anne Jenkins.

Through all these ups and downs, Hunn kept at his Underground Railroad work.

The Civil war didn’t end until 1865, but in one pocket of the Confederacy, freedom reigned earlier than that. In 1862, the Union Navy liberated Port Royal, South Carolina. Slave owners of the nearby Sea Islands ran off in a panic, leaving thousands of their former slaves behind.

When John Hunn heard that a Philadelphia preacher was putting together a Port Royal Relief Association, he signed up and volunteered to move down there. Later in life, he described the decision as an easy one:

“I [wanted] to witness the uprising of a nation of slaves into the dignity and privileges of mankind.”

Hunn ran a store in South Carolina and worked with newly freed slaves to get those now-unsupervised plantation lands back into productive action. Both efforts were up-and-down affairs, far from unqualified successes. Things in the Port Royal area turned out much as they did with the broader Reconstruction effort that followed across the whole former Confederacy. The work of well-intentioned men like John Hunn was too often offset by greed and corruption among so-called “carpet-baggers.”

CLOSING CHAPTER: That Burning Question

At long last, we reach the part of the séance where I get to ask the spirit of John Hunn about whether he had lost his mind that day when he had all of his Underground Railroad records destroyed. By the early 1890s, an ailing Hunn had moved in with his son John in Wyoming, Del. (This younger John would soon be elected governor of Delaware.)

Underground Railroad Conductor John Hunn

John Hunn

Here is the story that the Hunn’s son told historian Henry C. Conrad, which Conrad then put in his 1908 book, History of the State of Delaware.

“When his old father was on his death-bed he called his son to him and exacted from him a promise to burn a history of the Underground Railroad which he had prepared, and which minutely detailed every fact and circumstance of that memorable secret chapter in Delaware’s history. The son promised to do so; but as he was turning away, something in his face caused his father to recall him.

“‘Son, thee meant to copy that diary before thee destroyed it, is it not so?’

“The son admitted he had intended to make a copy, whereupon his father made him promise to burn the record uncopied, which was done.

 “This valuable and doubtless intensely interesting recital was fully prepared for publication; but as the senior Hunn said, the issue was closed, and inasmuch as some of the actors in the affair were yet alive, and might be compromised thereby, he thought it best to cover the whole episode with oblivion by burning what was probably the only full and authentic account of this stirring drama of Delaware’s Underground Railroad.”

That smidgeon of justification at the end is thin gruel. This was the 1890s, after all. No one was getting arrested for 30-year-old Underground Railroad crimes.

Plus, by this point Hunn had been trading letters full of Underground Railroad details with at least two historians, William Still and William T. Kelley, so he wasn’t that committed to secrecy. His Underground Railroad co-worker, Harriet Tubman, had published two biographies of herself by this point. As a reader, it’s easy to tell in those pages where Tubman is leaving details out, presumably out of respect for the privacy and safety of some former colleagues. Hunn could have done the same quite easily.

I wonder if Hunn will be surprised during our séance when I explain to him that one hundred and twentysome years after his death, there is an insatiable hunger for the facts and stories of the Underground Railroad—among historians, to be sure, but also among the general public. Will it surprise him to hear that there is a magnificent museum on Delmarva that honors of Harriet Tubman?

I have a notion about how Hunn will answer the had-you-lost-your-mind question, but it’s only a guess. I think his answer will be rooted in an extreme notion of modesty, from the conviction that he did nothing special whatsoever during his life. In his mind, sharing details of his accomplishments as a warrior for freedom would be an act of egotism, of putting himself up on a pedestal and committing the sin of pride.

Again, it’s just a guess. But here is one quote where I suspect John Hunn’s deathbed secret is hiding—it, too, comes from a letter he wrote while still working in South Carolina for the cause that defined his life:

“I propose to remain where this great problem is in the process of solution; and to give my best efforts to its successful accomplishment. In this matter the course that I have pursued thus far through life has given me solid satisfaction. I ask no other reward for any efforts made by me in the cause, than to feel that I have been of use to my fellow-men.

“No other course would have brought peace to my mind; then why should any credit be awarded to me; or how can I count any circumstance that may have occurred to me, in the light of a sacrifice? If a man pursues the only course that will bring peace to his own mind, is he deserving of any credit therefor? Is not the reward worth striving for at any cost? Indeed it is, as I well know.”

John Hunn died on July 6, 1894, at the age of 76. He is buried outside of the historic Friends Meeting House in Camden.





Leave a Reply