by Jeanne Gehret

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Large old yellow mansion with shutters
The Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY

The Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY is a treasure chest of 19th-century history and artifacts. If you’re interested in the Civil War era, Victorian life, or American reformers, you’ll find something there to intrigue and delight you.

The Sewards and the Anthonys focused on the same reforms–namely, racial equality and equal rights for women. In fact, Susan visited the historic house in 1904, just months before her brother Daniel died.

Picture of 19th century woman and man
Frances and Henry Seward, image courtesy of Seward House Museum

Frances, a woman of great intelligence who disliked politics, remained at home in Auburn for many months while her husband advanced his career as governor in Albany and then as Secretary of State in Washington. She died in 1865 shortly after an almost-fatal attack on Henry. He continued to live and entertain in the mansion until his death in 1872.

China and silver in large place setting on tablecloth
Old Paris place setting used for many diplomatic dinners at Seward House

The Sewards’ home now serves as a museum, offering deep insights into the lives of this generous and influential couple. We visited this summer and had an excellent guide. But the one-hour tour didn’t give us nearly enough time to answer all our questions, so we went back!

Good friends with Harriet Tubman

The Sewards lived just a mile from their good friend Harriet Tubman, whose homestead is another must-see attraction in Auburn. In addition to engaging Frances in UGRR (Underground Railroad) activity, Tubman also entrusted the couple with the care of her ten-year-old niece Margaret. Frances and Henry raised the girl as their own daughter until the age of 18 when Tubman herself took up residence in Auburn.

According to The Agitators: Three Friends Who Fought for Abolition and Women’s Rights, Frances Seward likely encountered Harriet Tubman through their mutual involvement in abolitionist circles. With the deepening divide between North and South before the Civil War, Frances realized that Auburn, in central New York, was the perfect place for Tubman to make her final stop to safety in Canada. Frances not only converted her basement kitchen into a shelter for escaping slaves but also offered to give Tubman a free house. Even though Tubman declined the handout, she did purchase the home for a very modest cost.

Stone fireplace, table and chairs
In her basement kitchen, Frances Seward harbored runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad

The Sewards’ sacrifices to promote equality

Frances and Henry made many sacrifices to promote equality between the races. Working for the UGRR could have landed Frances in jail or required her to pay a fine of up to $1,000. If word reached Washington during Henry’s tenure in Lincoln’s cabinet, it could have cost him his job. Because of Henry’s stance on slavery, the same group who plotted to kill Lincoln almost murdered Seward that same night. One whole room at Seward House Museum pertains to that fateful night.

Though Henry survived the violent attempt on his life, one of their sons was seriously ill from wartime deprivations and the other had his skull broken by Henry’s attacker. Overcome with worry and sorrow, Frances passed away only two months later. She had occupied a front seat to the most heartbreaking battles of the 19th century.

These days more and more comes to light about the influence of behind-the-scenes women on history. Seward House does a fine job of highlighting the grit and intelligence of Frances Seward and her influence.

I won’t even attempt to give you a complete photo tour of this beautiful house museum because you really must see it for yourself to appreciate it.

Lace curtain behind white marble statue of woman sitting on tiger
Front parlor of Seward House

 

Armchair in front of bookcase and lamp, Seward House
William Henry Seward’s library in Auburn, NY

One Comment

  1. Carol Crossed October 5, 2023 at 7:32 pm - Reply

    Thanks to Jeanne for bringing to life this spectacular. account. I visited the museum for the first time only 3 years ago and couldn’t get enough. The docent was exceptional. His enthusiasm for the Sewards was palpable.
    The Susan B Anthony Birthplace in Adams MA, on whose Board of Historical Advisors Jeanne Gehret is a member, is enhanced by this co-contemporary historical account.
    Carol Crossed, President
    Susan B Anthony Birthplace Museum
    Adams MA

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