Cayuga Centers' Connection with Harriet Tubman

Mar 14, 2017

“Eyesight almost gone. 4 years old March 29th 1878”

It’s always fascinating to read an account of orphans placed at what began as the Cayuga Asylum for Destitute Children in Auburn, NY.  But imagine our astonishment and delight when we discovered a Harriet Tubman connection with a child at our agency!Cayuga_Centers_ledger_record_for_Harriet_D.jpg

Beginning in 1852, Cayuga Centers, formerly known as Cayuga Home for Children, cared for orphans or half-orphans. A series of ledger books document each orphan’s placement. The sometimes faded, often spidery handwriting tells a story of each child’s need and the institution’s provision of care.

Some stories are positive – the family overcame their difficulties and was reunited with their child or children. Some records show disruption – children repeatedly “taken on trial” by area families and often returned. It’s uncertain the purpose of this trial period – was it to learn a trade?  Or to provide household or farm work in exchange for room and board? 

The sometimes tragic endings were often the result of common childhood illnesses that present-day children are vaccinated against, or due to infectious diseases like pneumonia or consumption (tuberculosis.)

Such is the story of the child with the connection to Harriet Tubman.  We stumbled upon the ledger book account of the toddler Harriet D, who was placed at the orphanage on Owasco Street in Auburn, in the spring of 1877. She was “committed by the Overseer of the Poor of the Town of Venice” with her brothers, age 8 and 12.

The child experienced several outside placements, starting with a 10 day stay with a Port Byron family when she was 11 years old. In December 1885 she was sent to the Institution for the Blind in Batavia – where according to our records she apparently lived during the school year, returning each summer for several years for vacation at the asylum.

Then our record notes:  “Taken by Harriet Tubman July 28th 1891”
Sadly, the story ends a short while later as the teenager “died there of consumption Sept 3, 1891.”

We have many unanswered questions. Was the young Harriet D taken to Tubman because she had returned ill with tuberculosis from the Institution for the Blind and the asylum did not have the facilities to care for her as she succumbed to the disease? We know of Tubman’s humanitarian work in Auburn caring for the impoverished and the elderly, but did she also care for young people? Other children died at the orphanage. Why did this child go to Tubman? Did Tubman receive other children from the old asylum? A brief look through the records shows no other references to the famous abolitionist and humanitarian, but prompts us to further research.

Our brush with the historic Harriet Tubman, a woman of great influence, was brief. We value her part in writing the story of our mission to help children, families, and individuals to grow as independent, healthy and productive citizens through quality counseling, residential and support services.


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