If you’ve driven on U.S. 684 or Byram Road in Greenwich, CT you see signs notifying you that you are crisscrossing back and forth between New York and Connecticut. The border has been a sore point since the British colonies were founded in the 17th century.
In the 1680s Bedford and Rye were shifted from Connecticut to New York leading to a local taxpayers revolt. In 1857, a report by the New York State Senate noted, “Along the whole distance the greatest uncertainty existed, and a distrust and want of confidence in all the supposed lines.” The border was not finally clarified until 1879.
One person caught up in the border uncertainty was Peter John Lee, a freedom seeker who escaped from slavery in Virginia and was living in Greenwich, Connecticut. In Connecticut, a captured runaway could not be returned to slavery without a jury trial where he or she had the opportunity to dispute the claims of slave-catchers. In New York, however, an African American could be kidnapped by slave-catchers and sold into slavery in the South without recourse to due process and a chance to defend themselves.
Peter John Lee, who had escaped slavery in Virginia in 1830, was living and working in Greenwich, Connecticut on a farm owned by Seth Lyon, just east of the New York State border. At the time Lee was married and a father.
On November, 20th, 1836, an acquaintance of Lee was paid by slave-catchers to lure him across the border into Port Chester in New York State. Once over the border, Lee was apprehended by notorious “blackbirders” Tobias Boudinot and Daniel Nash of New York’s “Kidnapping Club.” They were joined by Sheriff Edward Waddy who brought Lee back to Virginia and enslavement.
An account in the New York Sun reported that Lee ” was immediately seized by ten or a dozen ruffians, bound, and thrown into a wagon, which was then driven at great speed for New York.” Although Boudinot had a valid warrant in New York State that was requested from Virginia for the arrest of Lee for stealing a boat during his escape, Nash was later charged and fined for the kidnapping of Lee.
David Ruggles, head of New York’s Vigilance Committee, enlisted prominent local white abolitionists and attorneys to defend Lee but the Vigilance Committee unable to prevent him from being returned to slavery. In a letter, William Johnston, secretary of the New York Vigilance Committee, described Lee as a man who “bore a good character for industry and became quite a favorite in the neighborhood.” Lee escaped to Canada from Virginia seven years after being recaptured using a boat to help a group of twelve freedom seekers reach Cape May in New Jersey.
Peter John Lee ‘s case received wide attention when it was featured in an 1839 issue of the Anti-Slavery Almanac. An image showed Northern whites capturing a free Black man with the inscription:
“November 20th, 1836, (Sunday,) Peter John Lee, a free colored man of Westchester Co., NY, was kidnapped by Tobias Boudinot, E. K. Waddy, John Lyon, and Daniel D. Nash, of N. Y., city, and hurried away from his wife and children into slavery. One went up to shake hands with him, while the others were ready to use the gag and chain.”
The Kidnapping Club: Wall Street, Slavery, and Resistance on the Eve of the Civil War by Jonathan Daniel Wells (New York: Hachette, 2020) is an important and very disturbing history of slavecatchers and Black resistance in New York.
Illustration: kidnapping of John Peter Lee courtesy Anti-Slavery Almanac.