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Henry O. Wagoner to Frederick Douglass, January 27, 1848


HENRY O. WAGONER1One of Douglass’s most enduring friendships was with Henry O. Wagoner, Sr. (1816–1901). Born in Hagerstown, Maryland, to a formerly enslaved mother and a German father, Wagoner learned to read and write despite a lack of formal education. He spent most of his youth working on western Maryland farms, but fled to Ohio in 1838 out of fear that his Underground Railroad activities had roused suspicion. The following year he moved to Galena, Illinois, where he found employment as a newspaper typesetter and bill collector. He next worked for a newspaper and taught school in Chatham, Canada West, from 1843 until he relocated to Chicago in 1846 to run a profitable milling business. Wagoner met Douglass during one of the latter’s lecture tours in Illinois in the late 1840s and became an occasional correspondent for Douglass’s newspaper. Wagoner participated in abolitionist activities and aided John Brown in March 1858 by offering his mill as a hiding place for escaping Missouri slaves en route to Canada. During the Civil War, Wagoner recruited black troops for regiments in Illinois and Massachusetts. In 1865 he settled in Denver, Colorado, where he established a barbering business and quickly became a leader in the African American community. An active Republican, Wagoner campaigned for equal male suffrage as Colorado applied for statehood in the 18605, served as deputy sheriff of Arapaho County, Colorado, between 1865 and 1875, and received an appointment as clerk of the Colorado state legislature in 1876. With years of friendship between them, Wagoner and Douglass aided each other’s adult sons. In 1866 Wagoner hosted Frederick, Jr., and Lewis in Denver, teaching them typography. Eight years later Douglass returned the favor by helping to secure Henry O. Wagoner, Jr., a position as consular clerk in Paris, France. The younger Wagoner died while in Lyons, France, and upon the elder Wagoner’s request, Douglass looked for the grave during his 1886 European tour. NS, 18 February 1848, 24 August 1849; FDP, 11 December 1851; Denver Rocky Mountain News, 28 December 1901; Henry O. Wagoner to Douglass, 27 August 1866, 10 December 1873, 23 March 1878, 13 July, 13 October 1885, 19 August 1886, 1 September 1890, 17 August 1893, Henry O. Wagoner, Jr., to Douglass, 2 April 1874, 12 May 1877, Douglass to Lewis Douglass, 24 January 1887, all in General Correspondence File, reel 2, frames 197–98, 700–703, 733–36, reel 3, frames 122–26, 241–43, reel 4, frames 193, 217–19, 380–81, reel 5, frames 783–84, reel 32, frames 250–51, FD Papers, DLC; William Simmons, Men of Mark: Eminent, Progressive and Rising (Alexandria, Va., 1887), 679–84; Benjamin Quarles, Allies for Freedom: Blacks and John Brown (New York, 1974), 39, 59; Quintard Taylor, In Search of the Racial Frontier: African Americans in the American West, 1528–1990 (New York, 1998), 123. TO FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Chicago, Ill. 27 Jan[uary] 1848.



Although I have not had the pleasure of a personal interview with you, yet I am not entirely a stranger to your public character, and am somewhat acquainted with the former period of your life, having read your narrative in a little book which you published, to the best of my knowledge, about three years ago.

I must confess that I have felt a secret joy ever since I first heard your name spoken of in connection with the “North Star.” Your position is of great prominence, and will call into action all the power, energy and resources of your mind. You are engaged in a noble work; and, being a native of the same State with yourself, I most sincerely wish you every success in your new enterprise. The whole civilized world seem to have turned their attention somewhat towards the subject of human rights, therefore you will not be entirely alone in your new undertaking.

I write very little, and never for the public press; therefore, I beg you will make a reasonable allowance for my wild and unconnected manner of addressing you. But to the subject.


On looking abroad over this land, and reflecting on the impoverished condition of our unfortunate and disfranchised countrymen, a plan has occurred to me, which, if it is worthy of notice, I beg you or some one else will urge its claims, after putting it into a favorable shape. The plan I allude to is similar to those which are now in successful operation in Canada. This plan (if it can be made to work) would, I feel quite sure, have a tendency to better our condition in the point of wealth, and consequently improve sour condition in several important respects. We are all too poor, as a general thing, and we must be awakened to every species of enterprise.

I shall here present you with a general View of the plan, which is, in its details, about the same as that of the Building Societies in Canada,2Residents of black Canadian settlements such as Elgin organized mutual-aid societies to assist residents to achieve economic independence. Jason H. Silverman, Unwelcome Guests: Canada West’s Response to American Fugitive Slaves, 1800–1865 (Millwood, N.Y., 1985), 68–71; Pease and Pease, Black Utopia, 90–93. with the exception of a difference in the name, and a slight difference in the object.

Suppose, for example, a Society is organized with shares of $12, and each shareholder is a member of the Society. The instalments on the shares are $2 per month, or fifty cents per week; but more can be paid by any one who chooses. These funds are let to members who may desire assistance in purchasing real estate and for the improvement of the same, atten per cent. a year. This would make it an object to those who would not wish to purchase, (if there should be any,) to invest their litt[l]e weekly savings at a good rate of interest.

Let us, for instance, suppose there are 300 members. The monthly receipts of the Society are $600;—this sum could be divided between two on loan of $300 or less, each.—If there are more than two applicants for a loan, they draw for their chance of getting it. The person who obtains it gives satisfactory personal security, or otherwise; that the funds are to be applied immediately in completing the purchase for which it was obtained; and as soon as possible after the title shall have been made out and completed, a mortgage shall be taken upon it, naming the Trustees of the Society, if not incorporated.

In this way, the Society would have abundant security, and the purchaser would be enabled to pay cash for his property at the lowest market prices; the purchasers would then generally occupy their own premises, and their next ambition would be to reduce their loan, by paying into the Society all they could monthly spare from the support of their families; and all good wives would use every economy necessary to help their husbands pay back the loan, so as to own clear of all incumbrance their own premises. The money paid to the Society would be immediately re-let, to assist some other member of the Society to do the like again, &c., &c.


I would now say to you, to urge our people to push forward and make themselves owners of the soil. This certainly can be brought about by using great persevering industry, joined to the most rigid economy. By making use of the above means, no one need fear the result; for I tell you, that all attempts to crush a whole people in their efforts to succeed in a good cause, to check the favorable progress of things, must fail. These principles of human justice, which have been put on foot, must strengthen with the advancement of man and the progress of civilization. But in the language of Jefferson, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that his justice cannot sleep forever.”3In Query 18, “Manners,” from Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I tremble for my county when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever.” Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (1784; Chapel Hill, N.C., 1955), 163.

Since writing the above, I have seen the first number of your paper; and being some little of a “Typo”4A “typo,” short for typographer, refers to a printer or one who sets type. Mathews, Dictionary of Americanisms, 1791. myself, I am much pleased with the workmanship of it, and also with the general appearance, tone and spirit which it breathes.

I am a man of family, and am here, not from any choice of my own, but from the force of peculiar circumstances, and not knowing how long I may make Chicago my residence; but I will obtain subscribers for your paper.

Very respectfully, &c.,


PLSr: NS, 18 February 1848.



January 27, 1848


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