Seward House Historic Museum (Underground Railroad)
Originally built in 1817, the Seward House Historic Museum was the former home of William H. Seward, one of the foremost politicians of the 19th century. He served as a New York state Senator, Governor of New York, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. The house features the household items of three generations of the Seward family. It is believed that the book collection of Seward's daughter, Fanny, is one of the few remaining intact collections of a teenager in the 19th century. Other items include Native American artifacts Seward acquired from Alaska, Asian and other ancient artifacts he and his family collected while traveling abroad, and the horse-drawn carriage he and Abraham Lincoln used in Washington D.C. The house was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966 and designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964.
The Seward House was originally built in 1817 and was the home of William Seward, who served as Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln.
Interior view of one of the many stately rooms in the house.
William Henry Seward
Backstory and Context
One of the most influential politicians of the nineteenth century, William Henry Seward was involved in politics from the 1820s through the 1860s. He served as governor of New York before eventually entering national politics, where he was active in the antislavery wing of the Whig Party. After the Whig Party collapsed, he joined the newly-formed Republican Party, which was committed to the cause of ending slavery. Though he was regarded as the leader of the Republican Party and had aspirations of becoming President, Seward failed to secure the nomination of his party in both 1856 and 1860. He was appointed Secretary of State under Lincoln and continued in that capacity under Andrew Johnson.
The Seward house was built in 1816 for Judge Elijah Miller, who would become William Henry Seward's father-in-law. When Seward asked for permission to marry Frances Miller, her father asked that the couple move into the house with him, and the three continued to live there until Elijah Miller's death in 1851. Seward oversaw the construction of an addition to the home in the 1840s, which was the only home Seward would ever own, in spite of his long career in Washington, DC. In the 1950s, Seward's grandson, who bequeathed it to the Fred L. Emerson Foundation so that it could be turned into a museum. The home is remarkable because it remains much as it was when Seward lived in it, and many of the Seward family's possessions are on display.
As a young man, Seward became convinced that slavery was morally wrong. And though he was active in the anti-slavery wing of the Whig Party, he was not an abolitionist. He favored the gradual emancipation of slaves rather than immediate abolition, though his wife frequently encouraged him to take a more radical stance on the issue. While his position might have alienated him from those who favored immediate abolition, he was nonetheless committed to the rights of African Americans and his home served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Letters between Seward and his wife indicate that the first kitchen in the basement of the house was used as a safe room. There are also mentions of "passengers" who stayed with the Sewards and Frances Seward referred to the room above the woodshed as a "dormitory." Given the secretive nature of the Underground Railroad, little is known of the Seward's activities beyond what is written in their letters. It is not known, for example, when the Sewards became involved in aiding runaway slaves or how many they helped escape. But an 1891 newspaper article described the basement kitchen as "one of the most popular stations of the Underground Railroad."
Seward and his family were close friends with Harriet Tubman, who was a conductor of the Underground Railroad and was an escaped slave herself. Seward helped Tubman purchase land and a home in Auburn; the land formerly belonged to the Seward family. It may seem like a minor event today, but selling a parcel of land to a self-emancipated person was illegal under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. It was a risk for the Sewards to sell the property to Tubman, and it's likely that had he not been a well-known national figure, Seward (or his wife) would have been prosecuted.
The Seward house opened to the public in 1955.
"The Seward House," Seward House Museum. Retrieved 9-29-15. http://sewardhouse.org/about-the-seward-house.
Richard Greenwood. "William H. Seward House," National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form. 10-15-66. http://focus.nps.gov/pdfhost/docs/NRHP/Text/66000504.pdf.
Cuddy , Beth Beer. William Henry Seward Aided Runaways at his Auburn House as He Rose to Power , Syracuse.com. February 3rd 2005. Accessed May 1st 2022. https://www.syracuse.com/news/2005/02/seward_aided_runaways.html.
Harriet Tubman Home , National Park Service . Accessed May 1st 2022. https://www.nps.gov/places/harriettubmanhome.htm.