Monday, January 17, 2022

The Terror of the Fugitive Slave Act

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Earlier this month I got the coolest gift for my birthday. And by I, I of course mean the museum, but the donation came on my birthday, so I’m counting it. The gift in question was a letter from Mary and Seymour Fairman of Elmira to Mary’s parents in Fredonia, dated July 8, 1845. In the letter, the Fairmans talked about Elmira’s small, but growing, Black community and the problem of slave catchers.

Mary wrote:

We have for citizens in this place some hundred and fifty or two hundred Negros mostly if not all run-away slaves. They are constantly coming away from the south— Last summer six came here together, two on three weeks ago. Some four or five more came, and yesterday five more from Maryland arrived in search of them. The poor fellows have a good many staunch friends all. And last evening two or three of them went around and told all of them of the arrival of the hunters so they might be on their guard. One of the latest arrived Negros has been in the employ of the first man in the place—not an abolitionist, and when he and his family heard of the arrival of these creatures seeking after the poor negroes that they might drag them back again to slavery, they shed tears. The gentleman has given the negro his rifle to defend himself with—We think the southerners will not be able to take the negroes away if they succeed in finding them.  


Seymour recounted the following:

Those slaveholders are making quite the effort to catch their slaves. Judge Dunn has issued precepts for them and the sheriff is attempting to arrest them. Some three of them were sent by their abolition friends into the country about 6 miles to escape detection but the sheriff heard of them and started in pursuit with five slave holders, but one of the leading abolitionists found out that they discovered the negro retreat and mounting his horse he rode about six miles in 30 minutes to warn them of their danger. He arrived about 20 min before the sheriff. It will be impossible to take them.


With the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, slave catchers became an ever-present threat to Blacks throughout the United States. Under the law, slave owners and their agents could snatch any Black person they liked after obtaining a warrant from a judge. Armed with a warrant, slave catchers could search and seize with impunity, even in free states and anyone who harbored a fugitive or tried to interfere with an arrest could be charged and fined $500. The law was wildly unpopular throughout the North and many states passed personal liberty laws designed to nullify or at least blunt the impact. New York, for example, enacted a personal liberty law in 1840 which guaranteed anyone accused of being an escaped slave the right to a jury trial and attorney. Despite various Northern state’s attempts to circumvent the laws, hundreds of Blacks, both free-born and fugitive, were kidnapped and forced into slavery.   

In 1850, the new Fugitive Slave Act made the problem exponentially worse. Slave catchers no longer required a warrant and the right to a trial was explicitly stripped. What’s more, state and federal law enforcement were now required to help slave catchers and could be fined $1,000 for refusing to do so. They also received a bonus for each person captured. The fines for those assisting fugitives was bumped up to $1,000 as well.

The act was hugely unpopular throughout the North. Many fugitives and free-born Blacks fled their homes in the North for the safety of Canada. Riots erupted in Massachusetts, New York, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as angry mobs attempted to prevent slave catchers from kidnapping their targets. One such riot in Christiana, Pennsylvania turned deadly in September 1851. A slave owner by the name of Edward Gorsuch, aided by his son, nephew and a federal marshal, attempted to take four men. The townsfolk defended them in a pitched battle that ended with Gorsuch dead, his son and nephew wounded, and the marshal fled.  

In 1858, a confrontation with a slave owner here in Elmira nearly ended just as badly. An elderly Black man who had fled slavery to settle in Canandaigua was dying and wished to return to the South to be with his family. He wrote to his former master asking him to come and collect him. The pair stopped in Elmira, staying at the Brainard House on the corner of Water and Baldwin. When the town got word of what was happening, a posse of Black and white abolitionists assembled to rescue the man. Local bookseller Frank Hall, attempted to calm the situation declaring, “If this fugitive wishes to return home to his master, he shall go. If he don’t want to go back there is no power on this earth that shall force him from this place for that purpose.”  

Three Black leaders, Sandy Brant, Jefferson Brown, and John W. Jones, spoke with the man to determine his wishes. They explained to the crowd that the fugitive wanted to go, but the mob would not be deterred. A second group headed to the train station to keep them from boarding the train. In the end, Sheriff William Gregg ended up smuggling the man and his master out of the hotel and spiriting the pair away to Southport so they could board the train safely on the far side of the river. 


Both Fugitive Slave Acts were officially repealed in 1864, but their legacy still casts a long shadow.


  1. This letter is a treasure. Wonderful look into our past.

  2. In honor of Martin Luther King Day, I am posting this letter on my Facebook page! Elmira has a remarkable history to live up in today’s divided political environment! Many thanks for sharing!