Before I begin researching and writing in earnest, it is important that I consult the voluminous literature on the Underground Railroad. While the most important historiographical texts for this project include Stanley Campbell’s The Slave Catchers (1970), Stanley Harrold’s Border War (2010) and Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (2018), these works are not discussed here in detail, but will each be the subject of future posts. Here, I’ll be examining how Underground Railroad scholars have treated commissioners (or, conversely, overlooked them), and what details they provide about hearings under the 1850 law. While not all the works discussed below cover the 1850 law in detail, this survey of the Underground Railroad literature should prove useful as I continue to hone in the scope of my honors thesis, and identify historiographical gaps that my work can attempt to answer.

I started with several foundational texts of Underground Railroad scholarship, which are national in scope. The first, Wilbur Siebert’s The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (1898), which has been criticized for its romanticized portrayal of the Underground Railroad, mentions just two commissioners: Bostonians Edward Loring and George Ticknor Curtis. The next major work, Larry Gara’s The Liberty Line (1961), attempts to resurrect the Underground Railroad from the thick cloak of myths and legends surrounding it. However, while discussing cases under the 1850 statute, Gara does not explicitly name any commissioners, instead employing what I found to be a common practice within Underground Railroad scholarship. When detailing fugitive slave cases, historians routinely refer to “the United States commissioner,” without ever identifying the specific commissioner handling the case. [1]

More recent national histories of the Underground Railroad have emphasized the agency of the enslaved and the efforts of free black communities across the North. John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger’s landmark tome, Runaway Slaves (1999) provides an in-depth analysis of slave escapes and day-to-day resistance, revealing that most escapees did not immediately head north, but instead practiced what they refer to as “lying out” near a plantation. However, their work does not treat the 1850 law in detail, and the book does not mention any commissioners or discuss any hearings under the controversial statute. [2]

Continuing the theme of exploring resistance, David Blight’s edited volume, Passages to Freedom (2004), focuses in on the actions of freedom seekers and abolitionists throughout the country. Especially relevant for this project, Blight’s edited collection includes numerous essays that tackle topics related to the 1850 law, including a piece on resistance to the statute authored by Richard Blackett, “‘Freemen to the Rescue!'” Blackett describes the myriad of African American-led vigilance operations which worked throughout Northern towns and cities to impede the law’s enforcement, and explores public reactions to several high-profile fugitive cases, albeit without delving deeply into the law’s operations. [3] In a similar vein, Lois Horton’s piece, “Kidnapping and Resistance,” explores the lengthy history of violent resistance to slave catching parties. The 1850 law, Horton argues, amplified violent resistance among black Northerners, while also convincing white abolitionists “that nonviolence alone could not thwart the power of slaveholders.” Horton describes multiple cases under the 1850 statute, though she does not name any commissioners or discuss the hearings in detail, instead highlighting the response of black communities to the law’s implementation. [4] Likewise, “Slavery is War,” Catherine Clinton’s biographical essay of Harriet Tubman, opens with a description of Tubman’s key role in the rescue of alleged fugitive Charles Nalle from a commissioner’s office in Troy, New York. Yet Clinton’s focus remains firmly on resistance to the law and the slave system; as a result, the commissioner in the case, Miles Beach, is not named. [5]

Published a year later, another national history, Fergus Bordewich’s Bound for Canaan (2005) provides a sweeping narrative of the Underground Railroad’s operations. Although Bordewich covers multiple cases under the 1850 law, he emphasizes resistance and the collaboration between freedom seekers and white and black abolitionists. Consequently, he does not name any of the statute’s enforcers, or describe hearings under the law in detail. [6]

Next, I turned my attention to the many regional and local histories detailing the operations of the Underground Railroad. Many of these texts emerged out of the 1990s, as a revival of popular and scholarly interest in the Underground Railroad spawned an influx of local studies. This generation of historians, part of what one scholar has termed the “second major wave of slavery revisionism,” highlighted the role Northern abolitionists played in the struggle against slavery. [7] The result was a sizable array of works examining Underground Railroad routes and activities in abolitionist strongholds, which continued to proliferate during the early 2000s and beyond.

As I sifted through the mountains of regional histories published within the last 30 years, I referred to two recent historiographical essays to help focus my efforts–Scott Hancock’s “Crossing Freedom’s Fault Line” (2013) and Corey Brooks’s “Reconsidering Politics in the Study of American Abolitionists” (2018). While both essays approach the field in different ways (and Brooks’s essay only briefly extrapolates recent developments within the Underground Railroad historiography), they each proved useful as I worked to identify key regional monographs. Likewise, I also turned to the recent work of two noted Underground Railroad scholars, Richard Blackett and Eric Foner, who cite numerous local studies in their own volumes. [8] Yet out of 20 such regional histories I examined, published between 2000-2010 (all of which covered cases under the 1850 law), only 9 explicitly name the commissioner involved. Many, like Kate Larson’s Bound for the Promised Land (2004) and Harriet Frazier’s Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves (2004), refer to an unnamed commissioner; while others, such as Keith Griffler’s study of the Ohio Valley, Front Line of Freedom (2004) and Ann Hagedorn’s study of Ripley, Ohio, Beyond the River (2002), do not reference any commissioner. [9]

Regional histories have continued to dominate the historiographical landscape, though recent works have placed more emphasis on the crucial role played by free African American communities throughout the North, and the agency of freedom seekers themselves. Likewise, in the wake of Stanley Harrold’s landmark study, Border War (2010), scholarly focus has increasingly shifted from abolitionist strongholds such as Boston and Syracuse, New York, to to the contentious border region. David Smith’s aptly titled On the Edge of Freedom (2013) highlights the actions of fugitive slaves escaping across the Mason Dixon line into south central Pennsylvania, and the efforts of their white and black abolitionist allies. Smith mentions both Harrisburg, Pennsylvania commissioner Richard McAllister, and Philadelphia’s Edward Ingraham, while also referring to (without ever naming) another Philadelphia commissioner, J. Cooke Longstreth. However, Smith focuses mostly on the reaction of border state residents to the controversial fugitive cases unfolding in their midst, rather than exploring the hearings themselves. [10] Another widely-cited tome, Cheryl LaRoche’s The Geography of Resistance (2013), examines four free black communities situated near the border in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, highlighting the pivotal role that free African American settlements played in shaping the routes taken by northbound freedom seekers. LaRoche’s work foregrounds escape routes and the agency of enslaved and free African Americans working in tandem on both sides of the North-South border, and as such her focus remains on resistance (as indicated in the book’s title). Her section on the 1850 law explores how black Americans marshaled their resources to oppose the law, but does not cover any cases under the statute in detail, nor mention any commissioners. [11]

The historiographical focus on the border region continued with Lowell Soike’s history of Iowa’s Underground Railroad network, Necessary Courage (2013). Soike vividly reconstructs the routes taken by freedom seekers through the Hawkeye State, while also examining the numerous legal cases which unfolded along the border, as anti-slavery Iowans resisted the attempts of slave catchers to seize alleged fugitives. While ably treating the state’s network of anti-slavery activists, Soike is among a select few scholars who also explores the operations of the law in detail. He identifies three commissioners, and thoroughly describes multiple fugitive cases which unfolded in the buckeye state. Soike writes at length about an 1855 case heard by Commissioner George Frazee of Burlington, Iowa, and the 1860 case of a fugitive named Eliza Grayson, who was successfully rescued from the custody of U.S. Commissioner Phillip Hoyne in Chicago. Soike also observes that one Missouri claimant apparently preferred to obtain a warrant of arrest from Springfield, Illinois commissioner Stephen A. Corneau, who had a track record of successful renditions, rather than a Chicago commissioner. [12] Yet few scholars delved as deeply into the law’s workings as Soike. Elsewhere, many references to commissioners appeared in conjunction with successful rescue attempts–with scholars focusing more on resistance to the law, rather than its actual operations.

Building on these recent historiographical developments, the most recent regional studies have spotlighted the vital roles played by African American abolitionists and biracial vigilance networks. Eric Foner’s Gateway to Freedom (2015) explores New York City’s vigilance operations, demonstrating how abolitionists responded to the threat of slave catchers and the passage of the 1850 law. In his chapter on the controversial law, Foner names three commissioners, and concisely describes two hearings under the statute which unfolded in the city–the September 1850 James Hamlet case, where Commissioner Alexander Gardiner invoked of Section 9 of the law; and the May 1854 case of Stephen, Robert and Jacob Pembroke, heard by Commissioner George W. Morton. Still, Foner’s focus remains on resistance, and he devotes considerably more attention to New York abolitionists’ legal and covert efforts to undermine the statute than the hearings themselves. [13]

Likewise, Thomas Mainwaring’s study of Washington County, Pennsylvania’s Underground Railroad network, Abandoned Tracks (2018), highlights the crucial presence of predominately African American vigilance networks in facilitating slave escapes from the vicinity of Wheeling, Virginia through rural southwestern Pennsylvania. While focusing on resistance efforts, Mainwaring does not explore the operations of the 1850 law in detail, or name any commissioners, though he does excerpt an intriguing letter penned by Pittsburgh journalist J. Heron Foster to abolitionist Dr. Julius LeMoyne sometime during the 1850s. A former Wheeling newspaperman–in pursuit of a neighbor’s runaway slaves–had visited Foster’s Pittsburgh office, interrogating the Pennsylvanian about “who was U.S. Commissioner in Washington, Pa.” When Foster pleaded ignorance, the Wheeling slaveholder groused, “I suppose if you did [know] you wouldn’t tell me, as one of our citizens wants to seize a slave of his there?” While the letter occupies only a brief portion of Mainwaring’s work, it sheds new light on the ways in which slaveholders and abolitionists negotiated the mechanisms of enforcement. Foster closed his missive with a warning to LeMoyne and Washington County’s vigilance network: “if there is no U.S. Com. there,” he advised, “the ‘master’ will soon be there himself, in search.” [14]

While commissioners appear sparingly in the literature prior to Richard Blackett’s The Captive’s Quest for Freedom (2018) (the subject of a future post), my examination of the extensive Underground Railroad scholarship allowed me to glean new details, and notice historiographical gaps. For instance, the commissioners most commonly referenced were Edward Loring and George Ticknor Curtis, both Bostonians–perhaps a result of historians’ intense focus on Boston’s abolitionist community. As the first commissioner to handle a case under the new law, New York’s Alexander Gardiner was also frequently mentioned, as were Commissioner Miles Beach of Troy, New York, and J.F. Sabine of Syracuse, New York.

Likewise, the literature revealed a degree of confusion and ambiguity about commissioners, their role in hearings and the law itself. For one, no less than 7 scholars claimed that the post of commissioner was “created” by the 1850 statute. [15] As outlined in my site timeline, the post of commissioner was actually in existence as early as 1793. The 1850 law encouraged the hiring of additional commissioners, who would be equipped with new powers to handle fugitive cases.

Although few works examined the law’s operations in depth, several scholars identified commissioners with purported anti-slavery leanings. Carol Mull’s The Underground Railroad in Michigan (2010) claims that reputed Underground Railroad operative Chester Gurney held the post of U.S. Commissioner in Centerville, Michigan, even as he actively assisted fugitive slaves in their bids for freedom. [16] In a similar vein, Don Papson and Tom Calarco’s Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City (2015) identifies Boston abolitionist George Hilliard as another active U.S. Commissioner who allegedly sheltered fugitives in his own home. The authors note that it is “unknown” if Hilliard ever presided over a fugitive case. [17]

All considered, the Underground Railroad literature reveals that there is a great deal more to learn about the actual operations of the 1850 law. While scholars have studied abolitionist resistance in detail, considerably less attention has been devoted to the law’s enforcement. Understanding this gap in the historiography should prove helpful as I continue to scour primary sources, further focusing my attention on which types of sources could reveal new insights about the mechanisms of enforcement inside the hearing room.


[1] Wilbur H. Siebert, The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom (New York: MacMillan, 1898), 251, 271, [WEB]; Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 1961), 110, 112.

[2] John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[3] Richard J.M. Blackett, “‘Freemen to the Rescue!’: Resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850,” in David W. Blight (ed.), Passages to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in History and Memory (New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 133-147.

[4] Lois E. Horton, “Kidnapping and Resistance: Antislavery Direct Action in the 1850s,” in Blight (ed.), Passages to Freedom, 149-173.

[5] Catherine Clinton, “‘Slavery is War’: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad,” Blight (ed.), Passages to Freedom, 195-209.

[6] Fergus M. Bordewich, Bound for Canaan: The Epic Story of the Underground Railroad, America’s First Civil Rights Movement (New York: HarperCollins, 2005).

[7] Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619-1877 (New York: Hill & Wang, 1993), 239.

[8] Scott Hancock, “Crossing Freedom’s Fault Line: The Underground Railroad and Reentering African Americans in Civil War Causality,” Civil War History 59:2 (June 2013): 169-205; Corey M. Brooks, “Reconsidering Politics in the Study of American Abolitionists,” Journal of the Civil War Era 8:2 (June 2018): 291-317; see Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015); and Richard Blackett, The Captive’s Quest for Freedom: Fugitive Slaves, the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and the Politics of Slavery (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[9] Margaret Hope Bacon, But One Race: The Life of Robert Purvis (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2007), 133-134; Nat Brandt and Yanna Kroyt Brandt, In the Shadow of the Civil War: Passmore Williamson and the Rescue of Jane Johnson (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2007); Harriet C. Frazier, Runaway and Freed Missouri Slaves, and Those Who Helped Them, 1763-1865 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2004); Keith P. Griffler, Front Line of Freedom: African Americans the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2004); James Patrick Morgans, John Todd and the Underground Railroad: Biography of an Iowa Abolitionist (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006); Ann Hagedorn, Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002); J. Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and the Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002); Ruby West Jackson and Walter T. McDonald, Finding Freedom: The Untold Story of Joshua Glover, Runaway Slave (Madison, WI: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2007); William C. Kashatus, Just Over the Line: Chester County and the Underground Railroad (West Chester, PA: Chester County Historical Society, 2002); Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tumban, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004), 180; Owen W. Muelder, The Underground Railroad in Western Illinois, (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008); Pamela R. Peters, The Underground Railroad in Floyd County, Indiana (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001); Milton C. Sernett, North Star County: Upstate New York and the Crusade for African American Freedom (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002); William J. Switala, Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2001);  William J. Switala, Underground Railroad in Delaware, Maryland, and West Virginia (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2004); William J. Switala, Underground Railroad in New York and New Jersey (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2006); William A. Link, Roots of Secession: Slavery and Politics in Antebellum Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); T. Stephen Whitman, Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake: Black and White Resistance to Human Bondage, 1775-1865 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2007); Carol E. Mull, The Underground Railroad in Michigan (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010); James Patrick Morgans, The Underground Railroad on the Western Frontier: Escapes from Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa and the Territories of Kansas, Nebraska and the Indian Nations, 1840-1865 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010); Graham Russell Gao Hodges, David Ruggles: A Radical Black Abolitionist and the Underground Railroad in New York City (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

[10] David G. Smith, On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 124, 134, 145, 152.

[11] Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, The Geography of Resistance: Free Black Communities and the Underground Railroad (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2013), 120-122.

[12] Lowell J. Soike, Necessary Courage: Iowa’s Underground Railroad in the Struggle Against Slavery (Iowa City, IA: University of Iowa Press, 2013), 61-65, 130-134.

[13] Foner, Gateway to Freedom, 126-128, 133-134, 169; recent scholarship has resurrected many long-overlooked black vigilance leaders, such as New York City’s David Ruggles and Louis Napoleon. See Hodges, David Ruggles (included in the regional studies I examined published between 2000-2010); and Sarah H.L. Gronningsater, “‘On Behalf of His Race and the Lemmon Slaves’: Louis Napoleon, Northern Black Legal Culture, and the Politics of Sectional Crisis,” Journal of the Civil War Era 7:2 (June 2017): 206-241.

[14] Thomas W. Mainwaring, Abandoned Tracks: The Underground Railroad in Washington County, Pennsylvania (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2018), 123.

[15] See Foner, Gateway to Freedom, 124; Griffler, Front Line of Freedom, 107; Morgans, John Todd and the Underground Railroad, 65; Don Papson and Tom Calarco, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City: Sydney Howard Gay, Louis Napoleon and the Record of Fugitives (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 115; Thomas P. Slaughter, Bloody Dawn: The Christiana Riot and Racial Violence in the Antebellum North, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), xi; Smith, On the Edge of Freedom, 97; Whitman, Challenging Slavery in the Chesapeake, 195.

[16] Mull, The Underground Railroad in Michigan, 100.

[17] Papson and Calarco, Secret Lives of the Underground Railroad in New York City, 147.