Mr. Gunn’s willingness to stand up for his convictions and risk his livelihood, his marriage and his home to stand against slavery is well known in the town of Washington.
Returning home following his graduation from Yale in 1837, he started Washington Academy and was living in a two-story farmhouse owned by his sister. Washington was in a fever of excitement over the antislavery movement. Often called the “Georgia of New England,” Connecticut primarily supported the preservation of the Union rather than the abolition of slavery, but the northwest corner of the state was an exception.
A few men had seen the evils of slavery and started a movement for its abolition. Mr. Gunn’s older brother, John, who raised him after their parents passed away in 1826, was a longtime vocal abolitionist and was known to facilitate the movement of slaves through the Underground Railroad. Two other prominent abolitionists were John’s brother-in-law, Lewis Canfield, and Daniel Platt.
The first anti-slavery societies were formed in 1837. At this time, abolitionists were still a minority and Pastor Gordon Hayes of the Congregational Church insisted on biblical justifications of slavery. In 1839, Abbey Kelly, a prominent abolitionist lecturer, was invited to speak at the meeting house by the Washington abolitionists.
The congregation was in an uproar and the minister delivered a stinging sermon. John Gunn spoke out against the church’s behavior and was consequently excommunicated from the church. Fearing his livelihood would be compromised by his brother’s radical activities, Frederick Gunn cautiously urged moderation.
Mr. Gunn began reading abolitionist tracts provided by his brother and was converted to the cause. In 1843, he visited his two sisters in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where he stayed at his brother-in-law’s plantation. There he experienced an active and functional slavery system, which confirmed his opinion of the immorality of the culture.
Back in Washington, Mr. Gunn assumed leadership of the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad. In "The Master of The Gunnery," Senator Orville H. Platt noted that a "system of espionage was organized... for the purpose of ascertaining whether Mr. Gunn and others were in fact concealing and aiding fugitive slaves, of finding out to whom they belonged, and of furnishing information to their masters which should result in their capture and the criminal prosecution of those who had harbored them. It is believed that such espionage in several instances resulted in putting the agents of slave-holders on the track of the fugitives; but no captures were made, and so great was the care exercised by the abolitionists that sufficient evidence for their prosecution was never obtained."
"When the pursuit became too warm, the fugitive was driven in the night to the next 'station' in Torringford, and the men-hunters were compelled to abandoned the chase. Mr. Gunn never denied his violation of the Fugitive Slave law. He asserted his obligation to obey ‘the higher law’ of a common brotherhood. He gloried in whatever obloquy attached to him for being true to humanity in disregarding an inhuman and barbarous enactment,” Platt recounted.
However, due to the church’s influence, the number of students in Mr. Gunn's first school declined, and attendance dwindled to include only the children of abolitionists.
“Whenever men met, abolition and the abolitionist were the topics of talk; and whenever the subject was broached in his presence, he took up the cudgels in their behalf. Of course it was to ruin his school. In 1843-4 the number of his pupils was reduced to eleven – all, I think, children of abolitionists,” Platt wrote in “The Master of The Gunnery.”
Unable to earn a living in Washington, Mr. Gunn left his home and his fiancé, Abigail Brinsmade, in 1847 and moved to Towanda, Pennsylvania. He began teaching at Towanda Academy and wrote numerous letters to Abigail, expressing his abolitionist convictions and detailing his experiences teaching African American students. Their correspondence is now included in the Paula and George Krimsky Archives and Special Collections at The Gunnery.
While his in-laws were sympathetic to the abolitionist movement, and Mr. Gunn’s role in it, as prominent members of the Washington community and the church, they were unwilling to sanction the marriage and actively denounce the church’s position.
“Washington was a station on the ‘underground railroad,’ and the occasional discovery of a negro at or near the house of some abolitionist was sufficient evidence that the Fugitive Slave law was deliberately violated by the concealing and assisting of escaping slaves. Many were the meetings held at Mr. Gunn’s room and elsewhere, attended only by a few of the more daring abolitionists, in which plans were discussed and matured by which the fleeing bondman was shielded from pursuit and aided in his flight toward Canada and liberty."
Senator Orville H. Platt, “The Master of The Gunnery”
As the controversy regarding the Fugitive Slave Act raged in the late 1840s, the tide of public opinion shifted, and the church’s position became more moderate. Any abolitionists who were excommunicated were invited back into the community, ushering in an era of relative serenity. Daniel Brinsmade convinced Mr. Gunn to return with Abigail and their son, and further arranged a land trade in 1849 that provided a house where they could live and establish a school.
Based on Mr. Gunn’s reputation as a school teacher, several nationally prominent abolitionists sent their children to The Gunnery, including Harriet Beecher Stowe, Henry Ward Beecher, John Fremont and the Jervis and Olivia Langdon family of Elmira, New York, whose daughter married Samuel Clemens.
In addition, in the 1850s, Mr. Gunn welcomed his Native American cousins-in-law from the family of Elias Boudinot and Harriet Ruggles Gold. In the 1870s, he participated in the Chinese Educational Mission, which brought four students from China to The Gunnery.
During a visit to the school in February 2000, Carl Westmoreland, then-External Affairs Director of The Underground Railroad Freedom Society in Cincinnati, Ohio, commented: “When the tide of public opinion changes, it is rare for the community to welcome back to its midst the ostracized party who reminds them of their prior errors. It is even rarer for that party to be offered a leadership position in the ‘new’ movement. The fact that Washington did those things speaks well for the community and also for Mr. Gunn.”