Before the Civil War fugitive slave laws were passed (notably in 1787, 1793, and 1850) to encourage the capture and re-enslavement of people who had run away from slavery.
In New York, abolitionist sentiment was particularly strong, though not universal. Many New Yorkers believed that only the federal government could regulate slavery, and they had spoken on the matter to give wide support for the recapture of escaped enslaved people.
New York Supreme Court Justice Samuel Nelson had been a bucktail supporting the extension of civil rights of white men, but later served on the U.S. Supreme Court and supported the Dred Scott decision. He believed that “slavery may be said still to exist in a state,” even after that state had abolished it.
On the other hand were men like John Jay, who served as the first president of the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves, and Protecting Such of Them as Have Been or May be Liberated (founded in 1785). He helped pass the law gradually emancipating slaves in New York State. The last of this state’s slaves were freed on July 4, 1827, although some people born to enslaved mothers were required to serve as indentured servants into their 20s.
At a convention of abolitionists in Utica in October, 1835 “a large number of persons, in a disorderly and boisterous manner, crowded into the building” to interrupt the proceedings. Forced to adjourn the meeting, delegate Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, New York, “invited the convention to Peterboro where it reconvened the following day.”
There they passed several resolutions including this one:
“Resolved, that since Slavery is a rude and presumptuous invasion of the prerogatives of Jehovah who has expressly declared ‘All souls are mine,’ its abolition demands the moral energies of the Christian World.”
Slavers used the fugitive slave laws to recapture their “property” and also to kidnap free people and enslave them, some for the first time. In the North, these captures sometimes led to efforts by African-Americans to free them.
Among the most often repeated stories of what are known as “slave rescues” in New York State are those of William Henry (who used the name Jerry) in Syracuse in 1851 and that of Charles Nalle in Troy in 1860. Utica had a similar rescue in December 1836 – that of George and Harry Bird:
“When two Negro men were claimed as fugitive slaves in Utica, several members of the Executive Committee of the state anti-slavery society immediately took an active part,” the Friend of Man, an abolitionist newspaper published in Central New York reported.
“The Negroes were in Judge Hayden’s office, taken there by a constable in Utica. Hayden found that two Virginians were testifying that the Negroes were fugitive slaves. A lawyer, Alvan Stewart, protested that the Negroes were not under legal arrest and were being treated without due legal process. A trial was set for the following day, and the colored men put in a court house room, guarded by the two slave-catchers who were hoping to earn $1200 reward for returning these men to the South.”
Stewart did not get a chance to defend the men, because that evening a large group of African Americans and other abolitionists broke down the doors of the room where the men were being held and freed them.
Photo, below: The Hayden Building at 96-98 Genesee Street in Utica, location of the Judge’s law office (provided by Oneida County History Center).
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