Shadrach Minkins: from Fugitive Slave to Citizen

Harvard University Press, 1997; paper 1998

Shadrach Minkins Book Cover

Professor Gary Collison
Penn State York
1031 Edgecomb Ave.
York, PA 17403

Summary: Drawing on extensive new documentary sources, Shadrach Minkins follows the dramatic life of an ordinary African American in slavery and freedom in the middle of the nineteenth century. It tells the story of Minkins' life as a slave in Norfolk, Virginia, his flight to Boston in 1850, his arrest under the new Fugitive Slave Law, his daring rescue by black Bostonians, and his escape to Canada. Finally, the book uncovers the previously unknown story of the lives of Shadrach Minkins and other African American expatriates in Montreal who created the city's first black community.

For Reviews from the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, go to, Harvard University Press and

Outline of Chapters

PROLOGUE -- The Boston Courthouse, Febuary 15, 1851

PART ONE: Norfolk, Virginia (3 chapters)

Chapter 1: "Han't Got No Self"
Norfolk and Norfolk life ca. 1800 -- Shadrach Minkins' birth -- Thomas Glenn, first owner -- Norfolk in the 20s and 30s -- free blacks and slaves -- life at Glenn's Eagle Tavern -- effects of the Nat Turner rebellion -- death of Thomas and Ann Glenn -- sudden uncertainty of life for the Glenn slaves

Chapter 2: "Sheep, Pigs, Horses, Slaves"
The Glenn estate -- slaves "hired out" while Glenn children grow up -- sale to store owner Martha Hutchings -- black life and community in the 30s and 40s -- failure of Hutchings' business -- slave sales to Deep South -- Shadrach Minkins sold for a second and third time -- new owners and work -- black and white tensions in mid-century Norfolk -- black culture, opportunities, limitations, and hopes

Chapter 3: "The Silver Trump of Freedom"
1849 visit of Daniel Webster to Norfolk -- Shadrach's decision -- the typical fugitive slave described -- Shadrach Minkins fits the portrait -- overview of fugitive slave traffic -- the "Underground Railroad" and Norfolk connections by water with Philadelphia and Boston -- Norfolk efforts to halt fugitives -- Norfolk black assistants -- passage of the Fugitive Slave Law and its implications -- dangers of flight by water -- captains who collaborated, for a price -- the journey -- (almost) free at last

PART TWO: Boston, Massachusetts (7 chapters)

Chapter 4: "Cradle of Liberty"?
Boston compared to Norfolk -- Minkins' arrival and early struggle in Boston -- Boston barriers in housing, occupations, social life -- Frederick Douglass' Boston experiences -- visitors and businessmen from Norfolk -- first work -- social and political conservatism of Boston's elite -- strengths of the black community in Boston: church, other organizations, leaders -- Minkins finds work at Cornhill Coffee House -- militancy of Boston's black community

Chapter 5: "A New Reign of Terror"
Effects of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in Boston and the nation -- flight to Canada -- protest meetings -- first cases under the new law --Hamlet case in New York -- fugitive slaves in the border states and further north -- panic in Boston -- rumors, flight -- Boston blacks meet to organize resistance -- mostly white Boston Vigilance Committee formed -- sketch of its members and activities -- Frederick Douglass' fiery speech at the initial meeting -- Whig papers ridicule black fears -- history of earlier Boston cases -- Webster in Boston

Chapter 6: "Much Excitement Prevails"
First case in Boston -- arrival of the claimant's agents -- history of famous fugitive slave couple William and Ellen Craft -- Boston's Webster-Whig federal officials act hesitantly and ineffectively -- the black community and Vigilance Committee hound the claimants -- Ellen Craft is safely hidden -- William Craft and the black community arm themselves and wait -- federal marshal Charles Devens' qualms and legal problems -- stalemate -- Crafts sent to England -- Webster arrives (too late) to assist -- first reaction in Boston and nation to the failure -- Webster's friends organize "Union" meeting -- lingering fears in black community -- other attempts on fugitives in Boston and the North

Chapter 7: "A Thing . . . or a Man?"
Arrival of Norfolk agent in Boston -- possible model for Stowe's slavecatcher -- warrant issued quietly - U.S. Marshal's posse surrounds the Cornhill Coffee House -- delay -- arrest of Minkins -- defense counsels arrive -- the hearing before Commissioner Curtis -- Chief Justice Shaw refuses to interfere -- crowds gather -- city police withdraw -- postponement -- excitement increases

Chapter 8: "Plucked as a Brand from the Burning"
Attack on courtroom door -- invasion by small black rescue party -- feeble resistance -- fugitive half carried out -- across Court Square and toward the black Beacon Hill neighborhood -- incidents along the way -- Minkins temporarily hidden -- mysterious arrangements -- driven from Boston by black community leaders Lewis Hayden and John J. Smith

Chapter 9: "Never Was a Darker Day"
Exaggerated reports of 200 "rioters" -- abolitionist reaction -- Boston reaction, including the racist reaction of the Times -- Southern reaction -- moderate voices -- accusations in Boston -- reaction in Washington -- Webster's reaction -- Henry Clay and Senate confrontation -- Presidential Proclamation issued -- hearing resumed in Boston -- first arrests of alleged rioters -- conciliatory gestures from Boston officials -- hearing of Charles G. Davis, defended by attorney Richard Henry Dana, Jr. -- government case weak -- Davis dismissed -- worries of Boston's blacks -- rumors of troops, arms, reinforcements -- additional arrests of suspected rescuers -- Lewis Hayden and Robert Morris seized -- 7 men (5 black, 2 white) held over for trial -- many Boston fugitives flee city -- feeble Vigilance Committee efforts -- federal expedition against New Bedford fugitives -- Boston black leaders keep bold front -- election of Charles Sumner to U.S. Senate in April -- arrest and rendition of fugitive slave Thomas Sims in Boston -- Webster's new optimism -- remaining fugitives warned to be on guard

Chapter 10: "North Star II"
Minkins' late night arrival in Concord on day of rescue -- the Concord abolitionist group -- brief rest at home of a Concord blacksmith -- Thoreau -- from Concord to Leominster -- the "female attire" legend -- trail grows faint after Leominster -- to Fitchburg -- to Vermont -- to the Canadian line

PART THREE: Montreal, Quebec (3 chapters)

Chapter 11: "Please to Remember Me Kindly"
Arrival in Montreal -- city characterized -- distribution and origin of black population across Canada -- Toronto's large fugitive community -- situation of the few blacks in Montreal described -- a few white sympathizers identified -- Minkins' thank-you' note -- Montreal attitudes toward fugitive slaves -- the search for work -- ironies of the benefit concert by Butler's Real Ethiopian Serenaders

Chapter 12: A Home Far Away, 1851-1859
Harriet Beecher Stowe uses Montreal setting for Harris family home -- actual difficulties and adjustments compared with Stowe's fictional account -- reports of 1851 visitors who sought out Shadrach Minkins -- story of S's struggles of the first 6 months -- fellow fugitive Charles Williams -- no further news for two years -- Boston May/June 1851 trials of John Scott and Lewis Hayden for Minkins' rescue -- hung juries -- Robert Morris's trial -- Morris acquitted -- two trials of white editor Elizur Wright in 1852 -- failure of Webster's presidential aspirations in June -- Whig Party disintegration -- Wright's acquittal (Concord blacksmith who sheltered Shadrach Minkins on jury) in same week as Webster's death -- U.S. District Attorney finally gives up the cases -- Minkins' Montreal restaurant in 1853 -- marriage to an Irish woman -- their children -- fugitive slaves continue to be hunted in U.S. -- Minkins' reaction to Boston cases of Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns -- more fugitive slaves reach Montreal -- newcomers characterized -- Minkins tries other restaurants and trading, then takes up barbering -- evidence of a social network among Montreal's black expatriates from the U.S. -- Montreal fugitives threatened by an attempt to lure them back across the Canadian border

Chapter 13: A Fragile Community, 1860-1866
Coming of the Civil War -- Minkins moves family to Montreal's St. Antoine district -- increase in black immigrants from U.S. -- Montreal's black population in 1861 census characterized -- loose residential clusters - some evidence of racial prejudice in Montreal -- Montreal blacks participate in a meeting following John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry -- hold first black community meeting -- present petition (denied) to form black militia company -- other group activities -- first Montreal celebrations of the August 1 emancipation in the British West Indies -- effects of the Civil War and Emancipation Proclamation in Montreal -- core of black expatriates choose to remain in Montreal after the Civil War

EPILOGUE -- aftermath of the Civil War in Norfolk, Boston, and Montreal -- dwindling number of Montreal's black expatriates from antebellum years -- Minkins' last years -- death in 1875 -- changes in Montreal by end of century - Montreal's 20th-century black community -- silent connections to the days of the fugitive slave refugees -- scene in the Mount Royal cemetery, June 1, 1990

date created: May 3, 2000