A Haven for Frederick Douglass

September 17, 1838 - 1839 | New Bedford
Mary J. "Polly" and Nathan Johnson's home in New Bedford (photo: Daniel Case)

Mary J. “Polly” Johnson, whose mother was part of the Fall River (Troy) Indian community and her husband Nathan Johnson were well known anti-slavery activists. (1) Their home was a known stop on the underground railroad noted for its hospitality and warmth. Prominent entrepreneurs in New Bedford, the Johnsons were able to offer comfort, safety and even job assistance for the people they took in.(2)

Among the refugees from slavery they assisted were Frederick and Anne Bailey, providing them a home immediately after their arrival to freedom. Escaping to Newport, Rhode Island from Maryland in September 1838, they were met by the anti-slavery Quakers Joseph Ricketson and WIlliam C. Taber who, in turn, delivered them to the Johnson household in New Bedford. (3) That Ricketson and Taber thought to bring them to the Johnsons suggests this was not the first time the couple’s home had served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Moved by Johnson’s generosity, Frederick gave Nathan the honor of selecting his new name. Mr. Johnson suggested “Douglas,” inspired by the poem “Lady of the Lake” by Sir Walter Scott, to which Frederick added the extra -s. The Douglass family stayed with the Johnsons for the better part of a year until they could afford to support themselves, and remained in New Bedford for five years. Frederick Douglass remarked, “Mr. and Mrs. Johnson took a deep and lively interest in our welfare. They proved themselves quite worthy of the name of abolitionists.” (4)


1. Gifford, Richard (Ed.). 1861 Earle Report Appendix: Native American's of Fall River (Troy) Indians” 2021.

2. Begley,Tom; O’Leary, Ann. “Provider of Sweet Freedom,” Rhode Tour, accessed March 22, 2023 (https://rhodetour.org/items/show/393 )

3. Aboard the Underground Railroad: Nathan and Mary Johnson Properties. National Park Service. United States Department of the Interior (https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground/ma6.htm)

4. Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself: Electronic Edition. (https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/douglass/douglass.html)

Image: Mary J. "Polly" and Nathan Johnson home, New Bedford, MA (Daniel Case)


The Rescue of Randall Burton

1854 | Aquinnah

The Rescue of Edgar Jones

1854 | Aquinnah

Mary J. "Polly" Johnson

1784 - 1871 | Pokanoket