Timeline

1787  | |  Fugitive Slave Clause of the U.S. Constitution

  • Article IV, Section II of the U.S. Constitution establishes the right of reception, empowering slaveholders to pursue and seize runaway slaves who had escaped into other states.

1793  | |  Congress passes Fugitive Slave Law

  • On February 12, 1793, Congress passes “An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters,” commonly known as the Fugitive Slave Law. [U.S. Statutes at Large 1 (1793): 302-305]

1793  | |  Origins of the U.S. Commissioner post

  • In a separate piece of legislation, approved on March 2, 1793, Congress authorizes Circuit Courts to hire “discreet persons learned in the law” to take bail, marking the origins of the post of U.S. Commissioner. [U.S. Statutes at Large 1 (1793): 333-335]

1812  | |  U.S. Commissioners empowered to take affidavits

  • On February 20, 1812, Congress expands the authority of the “discreet persons” mentioned in the 1793 statute, authorizing them to take both bail and affidavits. [U.S. Statutes at Large 2 (1812): 679-682]

1817  | |  First legislative use of the title “commissioner”

  • On March 1, 1817, Congress officially denotes the “discreet persons” mentioned in the 1793 and 1812 legislation as “commissioners.” Congress also authorizes commissioners to “exercise all the powers that a justice or judge of any of the courts of the United States may exercise” by Section 30 of the 1789 Federal Judiciary Act, involving maritime cases. [U.S. Statutes at Large 2 (1817): 350]

1842  | |  U.S. Supreme Court rules on 1793 Fugitive Slave Law

  • On March 1, 1842, the Supreme Court rules in the case Prigg v. Pennsylvania. The court’s ruling shifts the burden of responsibility for returning fugitive slaves from Northern states to the Federal Government.

1842  | |  Congress gives U.S. Commissioners new powers in criminal cases

  • On August 23, 1842, Congress empowers commissioners to arrest and imprison criminals. [U.S. Statutes at Large 5 (1842): 517]

1850  | |  Congress passes 1850 Fugitive Slave Law

  • On September 18, 1850, Congress passes the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850, calling for the hiring of additional commissioners with new powers relative to fugitive cases. [U.S. Statutes at Large 9 (1850): 462-465]

1850  | |  First case under the 1850 law

  • On September 26, 1850, the first case under the new law unfolds in New York City, where fugitive James Hamlet is remanded by Commissioner Alexander Gardiner.

1850  | |  Henry Long remanded from New York

  • On December 23, 1850, fugitive Henry Long is seized and brought before Commissioner Charles M. Hall. Following a lengthy, nearly two week hearing, Long is remanded to slavery.

1851  | |  Shadrack Minkins rescued from custody in Boston 

  • In February 1851, alleged fugitive Shadrack Minkins is rescued from Federal custody in Boston.

1851  | |  Commissioner Curtis remands Thomas Sims

  • On April 11, 1851, Boston Commissioner George T. Curtis rules that Thomas Sims is a fugitive. The following day, April 12, Sims is remanded from Boston under heavy military escort.

1851  | |  Commissioner McAllister separates family

  • In a predawn hearing on April 21, 1851, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Commissioner Richard McAllister remands three fugitives from Maryland–Daniel and Abby Franklin, and their eldest child. Yet in doing so McAllister separates the Franklins from their family’s newest addition, a young infant born on free soil.
1851  | |  Commissioner Meeker decides fugitive case on Section 10
  • In Chicago on June 7, 1851, Commissioner George W. Meeker rules that alleged fugitive Moses Johnson does not match the description provided in the claimant’s affidavit, under Section 10 of the law. The case came down to a debate over the accused’s skin tone–Johnson was described as “copper colored” in the affidavit, but Meeker found him to be “black,” and accordingly discharged him from custody.

1851  | |  Pennsylvania Personal Liberty statute interferes with Harrisburg’s Commissioner McAllister

  • In August 1851, after issuing a certificate of removal for alleged fugitive William Smith (or Bob Sterling), Commissioner Richard McAllister places Smith in a hotel overnight–due to Pennsylvania’s 1847 Personal Liberty Law, fugitives cannot be detained in state jails. During the night, anti-slavery activists attempt to set fire to the structure and free Smith, but are unsuccessful.

1851  | |  Maryland slaveholder killed at Christiana 

  • On September 11, 1851, slaveholder Edward Gorsuch is killed while trying to recapture his escaped slaves at Christiana, in southern Pennsylvania.

1851  | |  “Jerry Rescue” in Syracuse

  • On October 1, 1851, Missouri fugitive William “Jerry” McHenry is rescued from the office of U.S. Commissioner Joseph F. Sabine in Syracuse, New York.

1853  | |  George Smith remanded from Philadelphia

  • In July 1853, George Smith (or William Fisher) is seized by notorious slave catcher George Alberti and brought before Commissioner Edward Ingraham, who remands him to slavery.

1854  | |  Joshua Glover rescued from Federal custody 

  • On March 11, 1854, fugitive Joshua Glover is rescued from Federal custody in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

1854  | |  “Saltwater fugitive” Edward Davis remanded by Commissioner Guthrie

  • On April 16, 1854, Commissioner Samuel Guthrie remands alleged fugitive Edward “Ned” Davis to slavery. Davis, who claimed to be a free African American from Pennsylvania wrongfully enslaved in Georgia, had escaped by boat from Savannah, Georgia to New Castle, Delaware.

1854  | |  Anthony Burns remanded from Boston

  • After a hearing in late May 1854, Commissioner Edward Loring remands alleged fugitive Anthony Burns from Boston. Burns is heavily guarded during his rendition on June 2, 1854.

1856  | |  Garner family case

  • In February 1856, Cincinnati, Ohio Commissioner John L. Pendery remands Margaret Garner and six other fugitives.

1859  | |  Daniel Webster released in Philadelphia

  • In April 1859, alleged fugitive Daniel Webster is seized in Harrisburg and transported to Philadelphia for a hearing. Commissioner J. Cooke Longstreth releases Webster.

1859  | |  John Rice remanded from Cincinnati

  • In October 1859, Commissioner Edward R. Newhall remands John Rice to slavery, in spite of Rice’s claims that other witnesses could vouch for his freedom.

1861  | |  Sarah Lucy Bagby remanded from Cleveland in midst of the secession crisis

  • In January 1861, as part of a last-ditch effort to ease sectional tensions and stave off a looming conflict, alleged fugitive Sarah Lucy Bagby is remanded to slavery. Cleveland Commissioner Bushnell C. White oversees the case.

1861  | |  Harris family returned from Chicago

  • On April 3, 1861, “Onesimus” Harris, his wife Ann and two young children are seized in Chicago and transported by rail to Springfield, IL, where they appear before Commissioner Stephen Corneau. Following a hearing on April 4, 1861, the family is remanded to slavery in Missouri.

1864  | |  Fugitive Slave Law repealed

  • In June 1864, Congress repeals the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.