The steamship Hero made its way up the Connecticut River. It was October 1, 1850; two men with different purposes were aboard the vessel. The first was a runaway slave, now working on the steamer. The second was the fugitive’s owner, determined to get him back. Waiting on the Hartford docks were slave catchers, ready to help the owner when the ship reached port.
Slave hunting had always been a profitable business. The U.S. Constitution specifically required states the return of escaped “persons held to service or labor.” The government passed two laws to enforce this provision, first in 1793 and then the infamous Fugitive Slave Act.
This act was part of the Compromise of 1850, a desperate measure to keep the country together. Brokered by northern politicians, the “compromise” permitted slavery to exist in some new states and gave vigorous federal support to slave owners who demanded the return of their property.
Approved less than a month before the Hero was traveling up river, the Fugitive Slave Act required local officials in every state to assist in the capture of runaways and get paid for their efforts. Anyone who didn’t help out–or worse, actually aided a fugitive– could be fined and imprisoned. In addition, the alleged slave had no legal right to protest his or her capture. The word of aggrieved owner in court was enough.
A local anti-slavery newspaper took notice of the slave hunters hanging around the Hartford docks just before the Hero was to arrive. The Republican was published weekly by J.D. Baldwin from his office at 20 State Street, a short walk from the river. In the pages of his paper, Baldwin taunted the men trying to profit from slavery:
“Slave hunters made their appearance in Hartford…It was noticed that they paid particular attention to the steamer Hero which had just arrived from New York. Nice boat; isn’t she, Messers. Slave Hunters?”
Baldwin called the new slave law “kidnapping made easy.” He wrote that the legislation “delivers every colored person to the mercy of any kidnapper who may see fit to claim him as a ‘fugitive’.”
All five fugitives were then spirited away to Canada where, as Baldwin later wrote, “man-stealing is not lawful.”