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Elmira’s Fugitive Slave Case of “Sam,” 1858

And yet vile as it was, the fugitive slave law was…a gift to the anti-slavery activists…because wherever it was enforced, it allowed them to show off human beings being dragged back to the hell whence they came. 

This was Professor Andrew Delbanco’s contention on one of the impacts in the North of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 in The War Before The War: Fugitive Slaves and the Struggle for America’s Soul From the Revolution to the Civil War (2018). His depiction of a rendition of captured runaway slaves “being dragged” is especially poignant. Yet in 1858, there was an unusual, and surprising, case in Elmira that was dramatically different from the city’s Underground Railroad experience of aiding emancipated men and women in the antebellum era. It dealt with the decisions made by a former slave identified only by his first name in the press as he sought, in a sense, to regain his soul.

“Sam” fled enslavement in Cecil County, Maryland, in August 1858, and traveled on the Underground Railroad to Canada. There are no references that recall his journey’s stopovers, nor his residence in Canada where he lived until December when he experienced intense personal turmoil which was described in news dispatches. For example, on December 20, The Elmira Advertiser described “Sam’s” unexpected predicament—“he was sick and could not work…and he wanted to go see his wife and children.“

The Pioneer and Democrat from Olympia in the Washington Territory editorialized on February 11, 1859, that his troubles prevented him from enjoying “the sweets of freedom.” Finally, “Sam” understood how to resolve his predicament—he would contact his former enslaver to make a request. He had traveled secretly to the North, but now he asked in a letter to his former “Owner” if he could return to the place he left in Maryland which was accepted.

Research does not indicate where “Sam” met two men including his former “Master,” Mr. Mills, to escort him, but the arrival of the three men by train in Elmira caused an uproar by the city’s black residents. The Rochester American on the 22nd clearly captured the opening drama, declaring that “there was fearful excitement at Elmira… occasioned by the discovery that two Southerners had arrived on the Canandaigua train with a fugitive in their keeping, who was hurried to the Brainard House and locked up in a room. A large and excited crowd many of whom were armed with knives and pistols at once filled and surrounded the house, but they were told that the fugitive was going to be taken back at his own request.” The city’s black population was organizing its first Vigilance Committee which like the others in the State tried to rescue fugitive slaves from slave catchers. Vigilance representatives were allowed to meet with “Sam” to dissuade him but his decision was firm. This event quieted the crowd, and many left the scene so that there was a relatively calm atmosphere. The day’s closing drama began to emerge when residents heard that the two Southerners would depart with “Sam” by train in the evening. Soon a larger assemblage of whites and blacks waited at the depot for “Sam” in order to prevent ”Sam’s” departure. The situation’s volatility intensified, and The American suggested that “a fearful riot” was about to erupt. In fact, a letter from an unnamed writer to the New York Herald—and reprinted in the New Orleans Daily Crescent on January 4, 1859 provides first-hand details about an emerging crisis, noting that “at one time the excitement ran so high that it was deemed necessary to call upon the military, who held themselves in readiness in case their services were wanted.” What happened next prompted the Daily Crescent to gladly declare “hurrah for our Northern brethren.”

In Elmira, word spread that “Sam” would depart for Baltimore at 6:40 by way of the Williamsport, Pennsylvania, train but this belief was a diversion. “Sam” had been spirited out-of-town by the time a riotous crowd of whites and blacks assembled at the depot. An arrangement for the train to stop a few miles below town had been made to pick up “Sam” and the two Southerners. In the pursuit of freedom, “Sam” became lost. He changed the paradigm in order to regain his soul. The Gazette concluded that “the poor old negro is [now] on the ‘old plantation,’ in the midst of his family and friends. We think he will not soon try his luck in Canada again.” One year after the Dred Scott decision, and one year before John Brown’s raid, the issue of race-based bondage spurred an uproar in Elmira.

This article was originally published on 12/6/20 on

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