Rokeby Museum: Historic Home of the Abolitionist Robinson Family

by Cyndy Bittinger

Jane Williamson, Director of Rokeby Museum

Rokeby Museum, designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997, is about 20 minutes from downtown Burlington, but a world away in terms of history and landscape. The bucolic setting for the museum in Ferrisburgh, VT, near the Lake Champlain ferry at Charlotte, takes you back in time to before the Civil War.

The longtime centerpiece of the museum is a 225-year-old historic house, formerly the home of the abolitionist Robinson family.

House and Grounds

The house, called Rokeby after a novel by Sir Walter Scott, was built in the 1780s by the Dakin family and added to in 1814 by Thomas R. Robinson. In 1792, the Robinson family moved from Rhode Island to Rokeby, and four generations of Robinsons occupied the house until 1961, when it became a museum.

The fully furnished home shows evidence of each generation, including artwork produced by many artistic family members. The most widely known one was Rachel Robinson Elmer (1878–1919), who settled in New York City and painted impressionist watercolor scenes on postcards in 1914 and art deco postcards from block prints in 1916.

The farm originally had 850 acres, now down to 90. On those 90 acres, nine historic farm buildings still stand, filled with agricultural artifacts, among them a smokehouse, chicken coop, creamery, outhouse, toolshed/slaughterhouse, and granary. Also on the grounds are the foundations of other buildings, old wells, stone walls, and historic orchards.

The Robinson Family

Rowland T. Robinson and his wife, Rachel Gilpin Robinson, ran a sheep farm at Rokeby in the early 19th century, and at one time had 1,500 Merino sheep. Historians often characterize this period as a sheep boom, when the animals did not so much dot the countryside as cover it. With over 1.5 million sheep in Vermont, six times the human population, they ruled the fields, and Vermont was almost completely cleared of forests for them.

The Robinsons were staunch abolitionists, and their farm became a haven for escaped slaves who lived and worked there. To these Quakers, slavery was a sin and should be opposed in meetings, writings, and actions. They even ran an interracial school called Brick Academy with a philosophy of nonresistance that appealed to both local students and others, who came from as far away as New York City.

Escaped slaves could make a life in this abolitionist stronghold, where the Robinsons refused to use any products, such as cotton and sugar, from southern plantations. Their clothing was homespun, and their sugar was from maple. They were purists.

A bedroom on the top floor of the Robinson home where
escaped slaves may have slept. photo: Jan Doerler

Jane Williamson, Director of Rokeby Museum

Rokeby Museum is fortunate to have Jane Williamson at the helm. She embodies everything most of us want to see in a historical museum director—and I know of what I speak. I was a director of a historical organization as part of a historic site in Plymouth, VT, for 18 years. Williamson lives history—breathes it, envisions it. She is the real deal. Williamson’s wealth of knowledge has enriched everyone who visits this historic site.
So how did she come to Vermont and become the director of

Rokeby? In a recent interview, she shared the story of her path here. Born in a small town in Minnesota, Williamson left the state to attend Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio (1968–1973), and graduated with a history major. She then went on to Columbia University to obtain a library science degree.

After that, her passion turned to feminism. Those of us who remember the 1970s and 1980s can well understand her excitement in being part of the women’s studies movement with its emphasis on women’s history, a new field with many opportunities. She was part of a team that published the Women’s Studies Newsletter (now Women’s Studies Quarterly) and worked at the Women’s Action Alliance. She was a consultant at MS. magazine in the early 1980s and organized the magazine’s library when it moved into a new building in Manhattan.

Her next career move took a medical turn. She became the editor of the Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association. This freelance position enabled her to leave New York and move near friends in Vermont, where she worked out of her home.
Her volunteer work at Rokeby, beginning in 1989, brought her into a

new world of “amazing historical collections, a compelling family story, and an ideal historic site” to quote Williamson. She also plunged into the study of historic preservation at the University of Vermont, obtaining a master’s degree there. Then in 1995, she was chosen as the director of Rokeby. During her tenure, Williamson has added two part-time staff members, who assist her in greeting visitors, managing the gift shop, arranging programs, and cataloging.

The most exciting change came with the recent opening of the museum’s Education Center. With the new building, Williamson now has the space to realize her “thousands of ideas.” This year the museum will exhibit the art of Rowland Evans Robinson at the Education Center; next year an exhibit of early furniture is planned.

Free and Safe

Rokeby Museum has a brand-new building, the 2,500-square-foot Education Center, and a new permanent exhibit, installed in the second floor of the center: “Free & Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont.” The exhibit does a wonderful job of depicting slavery, with audio recordings, historic texts, and dramatic images, all bringing this topic to life.

The exhibit was developed from letters and artifacts from the archives in the Robinsons’ home. The exhibit provides evidence that escaped slaves worked on the sheep farm in broad daylight, quite contrary to the traditional history that slaves hid in cellars until taken by wagon to Canada.

The meaning of freedom is made clear in the story of Jesse, a former slave living at Rokeby who, nevertheless, wanted to buy his freedom from his master to ensure that he would be free and safe forever. Rowland T. Robinson wrote Ephraim Elliott, a slave owner in North Carolina, offering the funds that Jesse had saved from his work to buy his freedom. Elliott replied that Jesse was worth $900, but he would take $300 to relieve him of his bondage as a gesture of kindness.

Unfortunately, Jesse had saved only $150 to purchase his freedom, and Elliott refused to lower his price. Robinson, meanwhile, refused to contribute any money, since it was against his principles. All three—Robinson, Elliott, and Jesse—knew that the slave owner would not travel to Vermont to get his slave; that was too expensive and Canada was too close by for a quick exit. The exhibit includes a play, written by David Budbill, that dramatizes this story.

The Abolitionists

One focus of the exhibit is Vermont’s groundbreaking role in opposing slavery. The Vermont Constitution of 1777 banned slavery; the first American Anti-Slavery Society was formed in the state in 1834; and Vermont senator William Slade was the first US senator to call for the emancipation of slaves. Fugitive slave laws, where slaveholders could claim their “property” in the United States, were nullified by the Vermont legislature with “personal liberty laws.” Town and county antislavery societies were formed across the state.

The exhibit also reveals a wider story of the abolitionists: how they were such strong antislavery advocates that the nation eventually moved to Civil War when the southern states realized that their system of slavery was in jeopardy and decided to secede. The visitor to Rokeby is introduced to the stories of abolitionists Frederick Douglass, Lucretia Mott, Abby Kelley Foster, Angelina Grimke, and Rachel Robinson. Robinson’s plain dress is on display, still looking in mint condition.

Female abolitionists were very active in Vermont and across New England. They became part of the political process, circulating petitions that asked for an end to slavery in the District of Columbia and to interstate slave trade. Yet women had to ask men to represent them since they had no vote.

One of my favorites is Angelina Grimke. She and other abolitionists’ writings are dramatized in the exhibit: you can push a button and hear her speak. According to historian Sara Evans, Angelina and her sister Sarah had grown up in Charleston, SC, in a “prominent slave-owning family.” Encouraged by William Lloyd Garrison, an abolitionist, they toured female antislavery societies in New England in 1836.

They also spoke in public and wrote. The sisters “asserted their kinship with female slaves,” and Angelina’s pamphlet“An Appeal to the Christian Women of the Southern States” urged her southern sisters to turn against slavery and educate slaves. But the sisters went too far for most local ministers when they also asserted that men and women were created equal. When their meetings included men, they were condemned by the orthodox churches of New England.

Programs and Other Exhibits

The Rokeby Museum has much more than the underground railroad exhibit. Seasonal exhibits are mounted in the meeting room of the new Education Center. This year Rowland Evans Robinson’s pencil drawings, dating from 1850 to 1880, will be on display. These will be highlights from his treasured collection of more than 2,000 of his drawings, most of farm life in Vermont.

Programs and events will be going on all summer and into fall at the historic site. Evidently these programs draw large numbers of people, according to Jane Williamson, director of Rokeby. Some are sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council and are free; others have a small charge or are free with admission.

On September 27, folklorist Jane Beck will speak about her long-awaited book on Daisy Turner, a famous African American in Vermont history and daughter of a slave. Beck interviewed Turner in 1983 when Turner was 100 years old, and she then verified this oral history with her own research. The book, Daisy Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga, which is about Turner’s relatives coming from Africa, traveling to the American South, and then to Vermont, is worth the wait.

According to Williamson, social justice is one of the programming themes at the historic site. She will be hosting a discussion on undocumented Hispanic workers working on dairy farms in today’s Vermont. Cheryl Mitchell of the Addison County Farmworker Coalition will give a talk and reveal the backstory of the harsh conditions and isolation that these workers face.

A visit to Rokeby should be high on anyone’s list for summer and fall outings. Visitors will learn much about Vermont history and the state’s proud stand as an antislavery stronghold. All ages will enjoy the new exhibits, which have sound and visuals to bring history alive. The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from May 17 to October 25. For more information, visit



Cyndy Bittinger, writer and historian, teaches Vermont history and women’s history at the Community College of Vermont. Her books include Grace Coolidge: Sudden Star and Vermont Women, Native Americans and African Americans: Out of the Shadows of History.