February 20, 2018

Slaves Rescued in Utica

Richard L. Williams, Town of Kirkland and Village of Clinton Historian

This article originally appeared in the Waterville Times

Prior to the Civil War fugitive slave laws sought to capture runaway slaves from the south and return them to their owners. The famous “Jerry” rescue in Syracuse occurred in 1851, but Utica had a similar rescue in December 1836.

“When two Negro men were claimed as fugitive slaves in Utica, several members of the Executive Committee of the state anti-slavery society immediately took an active part. The Negroes were in Judge Hayden’s office, taken there by a constable in Utica. Hayden found that two Virginians were testifying that the Negroes were fugitive slaves. A lawyer, Alvan Stewart, protested that the Negroes were not under legal arrest and were being treated without due legal process. A trial was set for the following day, and the colored men put in a court house room, guarded by the two slave-catchers who were hoping to earn $1200 reward for returning these men to the South.            Stewart did not get a chance to defend the men, because that evening a large group of colored people broke down the doors of the room where the men were held and released them.”  From Friend of Man, January 5, 1837 and January 27, 1837.


"An anti-slavery society met in a Bleecker Street church in October 1835, but a large number of persons., in a disorderly and boisterous manner, crowded into the house.....This committee created so much disturbance as to entirely interrupt the proceedings of the convention. The convention could not proceed so it adjourned. Delegate Gerrit Smith of Peterboro, New York invited the convention to Peterboro where it reconvened the following day."

These two events in Utica in the mid-1830's testify to the anti and pro slavery sentiments of Oneida County citizens. The convention passed several resolutions including this one:

“Resolved, that since Slavery is a rude and presumptuous invasion of the prerogatives of Jehovah who has expressly declared “All souls are mine,” its abolition demands the moral energies of the Christian World.

Author's Note: Slavery was phased out in New York State by 1827, and many free blacks lived in the state as well as runaway slaves who passed through enroute to Canada.