Pursued By Slave Catchers – Underground Railroad

This excerpt from “The Underground Railroad” by William Still describes the fear of three men of being apprehended by slave catchers.

James Albert, John Spencer and his son William had escaped from slavery in Maryland. But instead of traveling further north, they settled in New Jersey where they found work.

They soon realized that they were being hunted. They made their way to Philadelphia where the local committee of the Underground Railroad ensured their passage to Canada.

About The Fugitive Slave Act Of 1850

This excerpt refers to the “Fugitive Slave Law”.

This was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that required all captured fugitives were returned to their owners even when caught in free states.

The original act ensured that anyone captured could not testify on their own behalf. Anyone helping them could be imprisoned for six months.

Law officials who caught fugitives were paid a bounty. This advertisement in Boston warns black residents of the dangers.

One of the consequences was that many fugitives attempted to pass through the free states in the North and on to Canada.

As you will see in the excerpt below, the committee members of the Philadelphia station on the Underground Railroad were keen to emphasize how important it was not to tarry within reach of slave catchers.

Excerpt – James Albert, John Spencer And His Son William

This excerpt is nearly verbatim from the book. There are some changes to the punctuation.

These individuals escaped from the eastern shore of Maryland, in the Spring of 1853, but were led to conclude that they could enjoy the freedom they had aimed to find, in New Jersey.

They procured employment in the neighborhood of Haddonfield, some six or eight miles from Camden, New Jersey, and were succeeding, as they thought, very well.

Things went on favorably for about three months, when to their alarm “slave-hunters were discovered in the neighborhood,” and sufficient evidence was obtained to make it quite plain that, John, William and James were the identical persons, for whom the hunters were in “hot pursuit.”

When brought to the Committee, they were pretty thoroughly alarmed and felt very anxious to be safely off to Canada.

While the Committee always rendered in such cases immediate protection and aid, they nevertheless, felt, in view of the imminent dangers existing under the fugitive slave law, that persons disposed to thus stop by the way, should be very plainly given to understand, that if they were captured they would have themselves the most to blame.

But the dread of Slavery was strong in the minds of these fugitives, and they very fully realized their folly in stopping in New Jersey.

The Committee procured their tickets, helped them to disguise themselves as much as possible, and admonished them not to stop short of Canada.

About The Book

“The Underground Railroad” was published in 1872. The book gives the testimonies of hundreds of slaves who escaped to freedom using the network of agents and safe houses.

The author, William Still, was a black abolitionist and businessman who was a key member of the Philadelphia stop in the freedom network.

The book is in the public domain. It can be found in the Library of Congress.