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Fugitive Slave Laws and the Underground Railroad


Fugitive Slave Laws.


The Ordinance of 1787 included six definite "Articles of compact between the original States and the people and States in the Northwest Territory, which were to "for ever remain unalterable unless by common consent." The Sixth of these articles ordains that "there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said Territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted. Article VI (also) required fugitive slaves to be returned, giving slave owners unprecedented support not previously available.

This was actually the first form of a Federal U.S. Fugitive Slave Law.


Each Southern State had its on laws against helping fugitive slaves escape.


The United States enacted a Fugitive Slave Law on February 12, 1793. The law however did not contain the word slave. Any Federal district or circuit judge or any state magistrate was authorized to decide finally and without a jury trial the status of an alleged fugitive.


The Underground Railroad which aided fugitive slaves from the Southern States of  the United States reach freedom in Canada from 1812 through 1861, arose as a resistance against U.S. Fugitive Slave Laws.


Excerpted text of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793


SEC. 3. And be it also enacted, That when a person held to labor in any of the United States, or in either of the Territories on the Northwest or South of the river Ohio, under the laws thereof, shall escape into any other part of the said States or Territory, the person to whom such labor or service may be due, his agent or attorney, is hereby empowered to seize or arrest such fugitive from labor, and to take him or her before any Judge of the Circuit or District Courts of the United States, residing or being within the State, or before any magistrate of a county, city, or town corporate, wherein such seizure or arrest shall be made, and upon proof to the satisfaction of such Judge or magistrate, either by oral testimony or affidavit taken before and certified by a magistrate of any such State or Territory, that the person so seized or arrested, doth, under the laws of the State or Territory from which he or she fled, owe service or labor to the person claiming him or her, it shall be the duty of such Judge or magistrate to give a certificate thereof to such claimant, his agent, or attorney, which shall be sufficient warrant for removing the said fugitive from labor to the State or Territory from which he or she fled.


SEC. 4. And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct or hinder such claimant, his agent, or attorney, in so seizing or arresting such fugitive from labor, or shall rescue such fugitive from such claimant, his agent or attorney, when so arrested pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall harbor or conceal such person after notice that he or she was a fugitive from labor, as aforesaid, shall, for either of the said offences, forfeit and pay the sum of five hundred dollars. Which penalty may be recovered by and for the benefit of such claimant, by action of debt, in any Court proper to try the same, saving moreover to the person claiming such labor or service his right of action for or on account of the said injuries, or either of them.


The New Fugitive Slave Law or New Fugitive Slave Act was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers. This was one of the most controversial acts of the 1850 compromise and heightened Northern fears of a 'slave power conspiracy'. It declared that all runaway slaves be brought back to their masters. Abolitionists nicknamed it the "Bloodhound Law" for the dogs that were used to track down runaway slaves. In 1843, several hundred slaves a year successfully escaped to the North, making slavery an unstable institution in the Border States.


The earlier Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was a Federal law which was written with the intention of enforcing Article 4, Section 2 of the United States Constitution, which required the return of runaway slaves. It sought to force the authorities in Free States to return fugitive slaves to their masters. This motivated “Free Blacks” and Melungeons to wholeheartedly support the Underground Railroad and the Abolitionist Movement.

Some Northern States passed "personal liberty laws", mandating a jury trial before alleged fugitive slaves could be moved. Otherwise, they feared free blacks could be kidnapped into slavery. Other states forbade the use of local jails or the assistance of state officials in the arrest or return of such fugitives. In some cases, juries simply refused to convict individuals who had been indicted under the Federal law. Moreover, locals in some areas actively fought attempts to seize fugitives and return them to the South. And everywhere that was not tied with slavery, abolitionists spoke against this.


In response to the weakening of the original Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made any Federal marshal or other official who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. Law-enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The suspected slave could not ask for a jury trial or testify on his or her own behalf. In addition, any person aiding a runaway slave by providing food or shelter was subject to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.

Officers who captured a fugitive slave were entitled to a bonus or promotion for their work. Slave owners only needed to supply an affidavit to a Federal marshal to capture an escaped slave. Since any suspected slave was not eligible for a trial this led to many free blacks being conscripted into slavery as they had no rights in court and could not defend themselves against accusations. The Fugitive Slave Act brought defiant responses from some Abolitionists.


Bounty Hunters and Slaver Catchers.

Dear Mr. Burke,

In the course of doing my genealogy, I found Enoch Hoff, born about 1774 probably in Prince William County, VA, and died in Washington County, OH. I thought you might be interested in his obituary. I've never encountered one that is so blunt. [Please See below]

Thank you for your work.

Brenda P.

From "The Wilderness that Became Lawrence":

Enoch Hoff, the oldest, had been a slave master and trader [in Virginia]. He settled near the mouth of Morse Run (Moss Run). He was married five times. The children by his third wife were: James P., Angeline and Mary. Both James P. and his father were known in the community as "nigger catchers." Refugee slaves on several occasions were induced into the Hoff residence, and there they were captured and carried back to bondage.

In the "Western Spectator" 15 May 1812
"Hoff Dies"
"It is said a general rule that death is accompanied by grief and perhaps to his mother this might be true. But last Thursday at Cow Run Enoch Hoff died of fever and it would take a strange man indeed to mourne his passing. Although his mother is a gentle and kind woman, this is not passed on to her son who made his living through the miseries of other human beings. Catching runaway slaves and selling them back to their owners was how he spent his time to a point where he was known throughout the Cow Run region as a “nigger catcher”. He also caused trouble in other ways and only the high regard for his mother prevents us from exposing them here.

It must prove that a man does not get his life's tendencies from his parents and other close relations since even though dying in Prince William County, Virginia, about a decade ago, his sire was Reverend Daniel Hoff, a farmer and a man of God in that region as well as his native, New Jersey. There, according to his wife Sophia, Hoff’s father was John Hoff, also a Christian man who lived in a rural area near a village of the family name. The violence of the war near this region caused the Rev. Daniel Hoff and his family to move to northern Virginia. Also the late Enoch’s other grandfather, William Moffitt, was a Christian minister who followed the Hoff group to Ohio along with other residents including the well-known Dye family.

Thus, God moves in mysterious ways and the 39 years of Hoff’s life does nothing but substantiate this. He will not be missed by his neighbors who have had the strength of character to tolerate his nefarious activities. Our only sympathies go to his family who deserve more."