Thomas Garrett was born into a Quaker family on 21 August 1789 in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. His father was a farmer and scythe maker. As a young man Thomas was instrumental in helping one of the family servants to escape from men who had captured her, with the intention of selling her into slavery. This incident is said to have influenced him to devote his life to the abolition of slavery and to helping fleeing slaves. He was a follower of Elias Hicks, who also supported the abolition of slavery and goods made using slave labour.
He married Margaret Sharpless in 1813 who died after the birth of their fifth child in 1828. Two years later he married Rachel Mendenhall, the daughter of a fellow abolitionist. The Garretts moved to Quaker Hill in Wilmington in Delaware. This was the dividing line between the north and the south. Garrett continued to aid runaway slaves and soon became known as the “station master” of the eastern route of the underground railroad, for which he worked for the next forty years. During this time he worked with “conductors” such as Harriet Tubman to help to move the slaves to a place of freedom. His generosity to her is recorded in the records maintained by William Still. He was the inspiration for the character Simeon Halliday in the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In December, 1845, The Hawkins family escaped from Queen Anne’s County, Maryland. The father was a free man, but his wife and six children were enslaved. Two of the children belonged to Charles Glanding, and their mother Emeline Hawkins and the other four children belonged to Elizabeth Turner. The Hawkins family were captured by slave hunters while hiding at the Underground Railroad Station of John Hunn, and taken to the New Castle County Jail. The sheriff, Jacob Caulk, told the slave hunters that the commitment that they had obtained to imprison the Hawkins family was not legal, and that they had to get a new commitment. Meanwhile, Thomas Garrett learned of the family’s plight, and brought the fugitives before Judge Booth (Chief Justice of the state of Delaware) on a writ of habeas corpus. Judge Booth ordered the family’s release. Garrett ordered a coach for the fugitives, and sent them to Pennsylvania.
This resulted in the trial of Thomas Garrett and John Hunn in 1846 as the slave owners sued them under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. There were six trials: John Hunn was involved in two and Thomas Garrett was involved in four. The trials took place in the U.S. Circuit Court in Delaware with court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney presiding. Both men were given considerable fines although Garrett as the “ring-leader” was given the larger fine amounting to $5,400. In his closing address, Garrett told the courtroom that he would continue to work to free slaves. He said to Judge Taney, “Thou has left me without a dollar,….I say to thee and to all in this court room, that if anyone knows a fugitive who wants shelter….send him to Thomas Garrett and he will befriend him.” At the conclusion of the trial one of the slave owning jurors from Southern Delaware rose and shook Garrett by the hand and apologized.
Thomas Garrett is reputed to have helped about 2,700 slaves to freedom. When the Civil War brought an end to slavery he said that he was disappointed not to have reached 3,000 freed people. Garrett continued to work for minority groups in America. In 1870, when black Americans were given the right to vote by the establishment of the 15th Amendment, Garrett was carried on the shoulders of his supporters through the streets of Wilmington as they hailed him “our Moses”. He retired from active work on behalf of minority groups in that year. Less than one year later, on January 25, 1871, Thomas Garrett died. His funeral was attended by many of the black residents of the city. There was a procession with Thomas Garrett’s coffin borne from shoulder to shoulder to his final resting place in the cemetery at the Wilmington Friends Meeting House at 4th and West Streets in Quaker Hill.