Building on Stanley Harrold’s work in Border War (2010), Robert Churchill has further explored resistance to recaption efforts and renditions in two recent articles, “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North” (2014) and “When the Slave Catchers Came to Town” (2018). Churchill divides the regions Harrold refers to as the “Lower North” and “Upper North” into three separate and distinct zones–(1) the “borderlands,” the southerly 40-miles of a free state abutting a slave state; (2) the “contested region” to its north; and (3) finally the “free soil” region (what Harrold terms the “Upper North”), which has typically received the most scholarly attention. While slaveholders, “emboldened” by the 1850 law, initially sought to initiate a series of renditions in “free soil” abolitionist strongholds such as Boston and Syracuse, New York, Churchill argues that by the mid-1850s “the locus of resistance” shifted south to the “contested region.” [1]

While Harrold’s Border War demonstrated that slave catching was anathema to many residents in the Northern border states, Churchill expands upon his work, emphasizing the “collision of cultures” between slaveholders journeying northward in pursuit of escaped bondsmen and residents in the “contested region.” While many Northern residents were content to let the law play out, the violence which so often characterized slave catching forays proved “culturally alien and threatening.” As slaveholders attempted to reclaim fugitives under the new 1850 law, the tensions were only exacerbated. Churchill argues that before the decade was out, the vast majority of Northerners in the “contested region” had “embraced a culture of violence that treated slave catching in all of its forms as incompatible with their political and cultural identity.” In terms of this thesis project, Churchill identifies several overlooked cases unfolding in the “contested region” during the late 1850s, which he frames as crucial to understanding the law’s failure. In one case during 1860, a U.S. Commissioner from Camden, New Jersey (who is unnamed) personally led a group of deputies and slave catchers to seize alleged fugitive Perry Simmons, who was living near Moorestown, New Jersey. Yet blatantly defying the Federal officer’s authority, local residents joined together in force, prompting the commissioner and his party to beat a hasty retreat. Churchill only names one commissioner in his two articles (Boston’s Edward Loring), but refers to multiple enforcers. He notes, for instance, that as opposition to the law mounted in the late 1850s, renditions grew more infrequent–except in “a few localities,” such as Springfield, Illinois (where U.S. Commissioner Stephen A. Corneau operated). During the course of this project, Churchill’s insights on the “contested region” and his mounds of new data on rescue attempts will undoubtedly prove instrumental. [2]

Both Harrold’s tome and Churchill’s subsequent work focus on resistance to the law and the shifting geographical centers of that opposition. However, while both scholars shed new light on the efficacy and violent nature of resistance, they do not explore the law’s actual operations in depth. Moving forward, this should help me as I attempt to hone in the scope of my thesis. While a growing body of literature has yielded crucial new insights about the nature of resistance to the law, my task is to illuminate the mechanisms of enforcement, and demonstrate how commissioners, abolitionists and freedom seekers negotiated them in the hearing room.


[1] Robert H. Churchill, “Fugitive Slave Rescues in the North: Towards a Geography of Antislavery Violence,” Ohio Valley History 14:2 (Summer 2014): 56-59, 62-63.

[2] Robert H. Churchill, “When the Slave Catchers Came to Town: Cultures of Violence along the Underground Railroad,” The Journal of American History 105:3 (December 2018): 514-518, 534-537.