Bounty Hunters and Kidnapping

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Bounty Hunters and Kidnapping

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 made it impossible for any American to ignore the sordid details of slavery. Even though the institution might not exist within their borders, northerners found it was suddenly possible for southern slave owners to travel north—or have their proxies do so—in search of their escaped chattel. Northern citizens not only found themselves witnessing such activities, but were now legally obligated to help the process. Sometimes the local constabulary was enlisted to apprehend suspected fugitives; however, blacks could also be captured by a slaveholder's employees or by independent agents who specialized in the activity. These bounty hunters received a commission from the planters, and were not always particular about whether they had captured the correct individual or not.


Free blacks were an appealing target, and an economic opportunity, for some unscrupulous whites. Their methods for "cashing in" could be brutal.

Having selected a suitable free colored person to make a pitch upon, the conjuring kidnapper employs a confederate to ascertain the distinguishing marks of his body, and then claims and obtains him as a slave, before a magistrate, by describing those marks, and proving the truth of his assertions by his well instructed accomplice …

The others whom I found in the same garret, and at the same time, were a young black widow woman, with an infant at the breast, both of whom were born free. Her husband had died a few days previous to her seizure, and she was in a state of pregnancy at the time. She stated that the man in whose house she resided, together with his brother, and three other persons … came into the room (a kitchen) where she was in bed, seized and dragged her out, fastened a noose round her neck to prevent her from screaming, and attempted to blindfold her…. She said one of them struck her head several times with a stick of wood, from the wounds of which she was almost entirely covered in blood…. She said, while she was struggling against them, and screaming, the man in whose house she lived bawled out "Choke the—don't let her halloo; she'll scare my wife!"… Three of them … carried her off in the condition that she was dragged from the bed, to a certain tavern in Maryland, and sold them both to the man-dealer who brought them to the city of Washington (p. 150).

SOURCE: The Abolitionist, or, Record of the New England Anti-Slavery Society. Boston: Garrison and Knapp, 1833.

Northern citizens, white and black alike, were often outraged by the sight of black townspeople—some of whom had been residing among them for years—being whisked away to slavery. The year after the act was passed, Syracuse resident William Henry was arrested by U.S. Deputy Marshall Henry Allen and several assistants, accused of being an escaped slave. "A manacled slave, in the city of Syracuse, was a novelty," the later trial report stated, "and an immediate and intense excitement ensued." The crowd was further agitated when Henry attempted to escape and the marshal, along with his civilian helpers, caught him. He was "placed upon a cart, and drawn back through the crowded streets, his clothes torn off, and excessively bruized [sic] in the struggle, and was taken to the Police Office of the city" (Allen 1852, p. 1). Stone-throwing citizens later rescued him and sent him to Canada. The man who claimed to be his rightful owner had to go home empty-handed, and the marshal was unsuccessfully tried for kidnapping. A more prominent case occurred in Boston in 1854, when Anthony Burns (1834–1862) was arrested and ordered to return to slavery; the angry crowd was unable to rescue Burns, but supporters raised the money to buy his freedom soon thereafter. Incidents such as these increased some white citizens' hostility toward slavery, and made blacks—whether fugitive or not—more suspicious of white strangers in general and the police in particular.

However, dramatic as these public captures were, they were not really new. Even before the Fugitive Slave Act, free blacks were susceptible to capture as runaways, especially in slave states. In 1841 Solomon Northup, free since birth, was approached in Saratoga, New York, by "two gentlemen of respectable appearance, both of whom were entirely unknown to me." The strangers told Northup they had heard of his skill with a violin, and offered him a generous sum to accompany them to Washington to play at the circus where they were employed. Once in Washington—and thus in slave territory—Northup was drugged, and awoke in chains, on his way to a new life as a slave (1853, pp. 29-30).

Other kidnappers were more direct. They preyed on free black communities throughout the South, the way cowboys would later forage for unbranded cattle to claim as their own. Florida Clayton, raised free in the state of Florida, recalled a covered wagon which used to come to Tallahassee at regular intervals and camp at some secluded spot:

The children, attracted by the old wagon, would be eager to go near it, but they were always told that 'Dry Head and Bloody Bones,' a ghost who didn't like children, was in that wagon. It was not until later years that Florida and the other children learned that the driver of the wagon was a 'nigger stealer' who stole children and took them to Georgia to sell at the slave markets (Works Progress Administration, Florida Narratives, Vol. 3, p. 62).

White kidnappers in Indian Territory used a similar tactic. Free blacks who had family ties with or were formerly owned by the Indians sent west on the Trail of Tears, and who had accompanied them to their new land, were especially vulnerable to kidnappers from surrounding slave states. "De nigger stealers done stole me an' my mammy out'n de Choctaw Nation, up in de Indian Territory, when I was 'bout three years old," Spence Johnson recalled (Works Progress Administration, Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 2, p. 248). Johnson's mother and her five children were washing clothes in the river when a wagon stopped nearby. She was not alarmed by this, as it was common for people to stop and water their horses at that spot. While she was working, however, the men in the wagon enticed some of the children close to the wagon with candy. Two of the men, meanwhile, had climbed out under the pretense of having a smoke. The man remaining in the wagon grabbed the children when they were close enough. Below is Johnson's description of the incident:

Den de man holler, "Git de old one an' let's git from here." With dat de two big men grabbed mammy and she fought and screeched and bit and cry, but they hit her on de head with something and drug her in and throwed her on de floor. De big chilluns begin to fight fer mammy, but one of de men hit em hard, and off dey driv, with de horses under whip (Works Progress Administration, Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 2, p. 248).

Later, the mother and her children fetched $3,000 at the auction block in Shreveport.

Another family of free blacks living in Choctaw Territory, the Beams family, was harassed by bounty hunters and kidnappers for years. Numbering between twenty-five and thirty, they were the descendants of white Mississippian William Beams and his former slave, Nelly, purchased after the death of his Choctaw wife. Beams traveled to Arkansas and manumitted Nelly and the children they had together. After his death, both his Choctaw children and his black children ended up in Indian Territory; the Choctaw Beams claimed that manumissions outside the Choctaw Nation did not count, and claimed their black siblings as property. In 1832 they made a contract with two white men from Louisiana, John B. Davis and Daniel Harvie, to apprehend and sell the black Beams family in return for half the profits. Davis, Harvie, and their agents tried for years to collect on the contract, making several raids on the Beams' homes. In 1840 they killed the eldest Beams son, Abraham, and captured four women and a child, whom they sold in Nacogdoches. In 1854 they captured seven more, critically wounding another Beams man. It was 1858 before the federal courts ruled in favor of the Beams family in their efforts to prove their free status, after more than twenty years of contending with kidnappers (Littlefield 1976).


Allen, Henry W., U.S. deputy marshal. Trial of Henry W. Allen, U.S. Deputy Marshal, for Kidnapping, with Arguments of Counsel & Charge of Justice Marvin, on the Constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law, in the Supreme Court of New York. Syracuse, NY: Daily Journal Office, 1852.

Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr., and Mary Ann Littlefield. "The Beams Family: Free Blacks in Indian Territory." Journal of Negro History 61 (January 1976): 16-35.

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave. Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, from a Cotton Plantation near the Red River, in Louisiana. Auburn, NY: Derby and Miller, 1853.

Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narratives: Florida Clayton. Florida Narratives, vol. 3, p. 62.

Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narratives: Spence Johnson. Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 2, p. 248.

                                        Troy D. Smith

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Bounty Hunters and Kidnapping

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