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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Six (continued)
No Haven on Free Soil

I Notify Any Person That Can Have Claim to Me to Come Forward

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 made vulnerable not only fugitive slaves hiding in Pennsylvania, but also free blacks who had established their freedom through legal means, and even those who had been born in Pennsylvania. Slave owners, or persons working on their behalf, could now, without a warrant, immediately seize any black person, haul them before a local judge or magistrate, and with as little evidence as their oral testimony, or the written deposition issued by a magistrate in their home state, haul that person out of Pennsylvania and back to enslavement in their home state, provided they proved their case to the local judge’s satisfaction.

It also placed in legal and financial jeopardy, with the imposition of a five hundred dollar fine and threat of possible civil action, any person that stood in their way. As expected, southern slaveholders immediately took advantage of the weakened protections in the north by renewed efforts to recover long escaped slaves. Citizens of border counties in Pennsylvania began to shy away from any contact with black citizens that could be construed as “harboring” or providing protection.

It got so bad that some free blacks took extreme measures to establish their unencumbered status, in the hopes of regaining a normal life. John Hall was a free black man living in Montgomery County, Maryland, before the Fugitive Slave Law was passed. He moved to the free soil of Pennsylvania, settling in Warrington Township, York County, where he sought and found gainful employment.

With the passage of the new fugitive slave law, however, his fortunes changed. Local whites refused to hire him because they feared accusations of having provided shelter or comfort to someone who, as far as they knew, might be a runaway slave. Shortly after passage of the law, Hall found it necessary to try to prove his freedom by taking out an advertisement in the local newspaper that challenged anyone who could do so, to lay claim to him.

Hall complained that he could not “get employ in any kind of labor by reason of a doubt that has arisen in the minds of some people, touching on my being free.” He therefore took the highly unusual and dangerous step of inviting anyone who would do so to call him a slave, stating, “I notify any person that can have claim to me to come forward.”62 The presumption of bondage, despite earlier changes in the laws and slowly changing moral attitudes, was still a loathsome burden that rested upon Pennsylvania’s people of color.

But there was now an even heavier burden to bear, thanks to the federal government’s support for virtually unrestrained slave catching: the fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South. These were not, of course, new fears. The impetus for Pennsylvania’s letter to Virginia, that initiated the series of events that ended with passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, was a kidnapping, and it was far from an isolated occurrence.

A less ambiguous example from the same year is documented in the published Pennsylvania Archives, dated 17 January 1791: “Transmitted case of Negro Mary (who was supposed to have been kidnapped), from the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, to the Attorney General for prosecution of the offenders.” Mary was far from the first, however. Two years earlier, an article in the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that a ring of “hardened wretches” who kidnapped free blacks and sold them in Georgia had been broken up. The kidnappers were found with six “free Negroes” imprisoned on board a sloop at Oxford, Maryland. Upon being questioned, it was determined that the ring had been “long concerned” in this business, “having last fall kidnapped a number of free negroes, whom they actually sold at Georgia.”63

Pennsylvanians were suddenly witnessing the beginning of a new and very dangerous trend that would threaten African Americans all the way into New England: the kidnapping of free African Americans by unscrupulous individuals and even organized gangs of criminals. While slavery had always held the threat of persons being forcibly torn from their families and sold or carried far away, never to be heard from again, this new threat extended that danger to people who had thought themselves no longer vulnerable to such horrors. Highly disturbing reports of such incidents in local newspapers showed that sense of safety to be illusory.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 only served to embolden kidnappers, who stepped up their activities considerably after the United States outlawed the importation of slaves in 1808, making domestic slaves all that much more valuable, and the kidnapping business more lucrative. Moreover, their depredations began to extend into the interior counties of Pennsylvania, as African American residents of Carlisle, York, Lancaster, and Harrisburg were targeted.

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62. Pennsylvania Herald and York General Advertiser, 27 March 1793.

63. Pennsylvania Archives, 9th ser., 1791; Pennsylvania Gazette, 9 September 1789.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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