by David Fiske
In Stanley Harrold’s book, Border War: Fighting over Slavery before the Civil War (University of North Carolina Press, 2013), the point is made that one source of friction in the border states--those along the boundary between free and slave states--was the kidnapping of free Northern blacks who were subsequently sold as slaves. But this friction was not limited to the states along the Mason-Dixon line.
The film 12 Years a Slave told the story of New York State resident Solomon Northup (based on his own narrative, published in 1853). In 1841, Northup went to Washington, D. C. when some men promised him work, but instead he was sold as a slave and sent south to Louisiana. Fortunately he was rescued by a friend from New York, but not until 1853. His story was told in newspaper articles and also in his own book, Twelve Years a Slave.
The tragedy that befell Northup turned many people in the North against slavery, who perhaps had previously had no objection to it. If southern slavery--with its markets for slaves that helped to encourage kidnappers--were allowed to continue, even more free blacks from the North would become victims.
In the slave states, the issue of kidnapping had a connection to their desire for enforcement of the Constitutional guarantee that their escaped slaves would be returned to them. This guarantee was implemented by the 1793 and 1850 Fugitive Slave Laws. In some cases, in which kidnapped free persons were released with the cooperation of Southerners, the point was made that Northerners should respect the slaveholders’ right to have their “property” returned.
In 1842, the year following Northup’s kidnapping, Eli Terry endured a very similar fate. He left Indiana when offered work in Missouri. When the work was completed, he and his “employer” began the trip back to Indiana, but Terry was instead taken to Clarksville, Texas. There, he was sold as a slave. Years later, some men from Indiana, having learned his whereabouts, made the arduous journey to Texas and were able to gain his release in 1850. Reporting on the story, the Clarksville newspaper noted that the local officials, instead of following procedures that could have kept Terry enslaved for much longer, had allowed him to be released. On the other hand, the paper observed, when Southern slave owners tried to regain slaves who had escaped to the North, they encountered “meddlesome persons [who] interfere to prevent the proper administration of justice.” Abolitionists, it noted, were “quite willing in the negro’s behalf to steal the property of the master, for which he has paid a value, perhaps from the hard earnings of his own personal labor.” [“The Difference between Slaveholders and Abolitionists,” Clarksville Standard (January 12, 1850)].
In 1858, when New York citizen George Anderson was kidnapped (via ruse), the mayor of Richmond, Virginia wrote to the mayor of New York. He told of Anderson’s insistence that he was a free man when attempts were made to sell him as a slave. In his letter, Joseph Mayo requested that someone from New York travel to Richmond and provide confirmation that Anderson was indeed free. He also worked in a dig at the Northern states, who had passed laws meant to interfere with the return of fugitive slaves. “As long as any State of this Union retains on its statute book, laws made in palpable contravention of the constitution of the United States,” he wrote to Mayor Daniel Tiemann of New York, it was unlikely that sectional difficulties could be abated.
Another example of frustration in the slave states was the formation, in 1844, of an “anti abolition society” in Missouri. Its members helped to accomplish the recapture of slaves that had escaped from owners, and also resolved that “a free citizen of Illinois be kidnapped for every slave that escaped.”
David Fiske’s book, Solomon Northup’s Kindred: The Kidnapping of Free Citizens before the Civil War, was recently published by Praeger. He is also the author of Solomon Northup: His Life Before and After Slavery, and he co-authored Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.
Full biography of Solomon Northup, Solomon Northup: The Complete Story of the Author of Twelve Years a Slave.
Solomon Northup was the most well-known kidnapping victim, but he was by no means the only one. The 2016 book, Solomon Northup’s Kindred: The Kidnapping of Free Citizens before the Civil War, tells about many others who were kidnapped and sold into slavery. The book also provides historical background that explains why kidnappers were able to operate with relative ease.