Open main menu

The Reverse Underground Railroad was the pre-American Civil War practice of kidnapping free blacks and fugitive slaves from U.S. free states and slave states and transporting them into or within the Southern slave states for sale as slaves. Three types of kidnapping methods were employed which included physical abduction and inveiglement (kidnapping through trickery) of free blacks and slave-catchers using kidnapping in apprehending run away slaves.[1][2] The Reverse Underground Railroad operated for 85 years, from 1780 to 1865. The name is a reference to the Underground Railroad, the informal network of abolitionists and sympathizers who helped smuggle escaped slaves to freedom, generally in Canada[3] but also in Mexico[4] where slavery had been abolished.

Reverse Underground Railroad
Tearing Up Free Papers.jpg
Tearing up the free-born and manumission papers and kidnapping of a free black, in the U.S. free states, to be sold into Southern slavery, from an 1838 abolitionist anti-slavery almanac
LocationNorthern United States and Southern United States
Participantsillegal slave trader kidnappers, police, criminals, and captured free blacks
OutcomeThe forced resettlement of free negro and fugitive slave African Americans into Southern slavery, ending with the Union victory at the end of the American Civil War and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution giving them full citizenship rights.



Free African-Americans were often kidnapped from the northern free states along the border of the slave states of Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri because of their relative closeness to the South but kidnapping was also prevalent in states further north such as New York, Pennsylvania, and Illinois as well as in some of the Southern states such as Tennessee.

Mid-Atlantic statesEdit

New York and PennsylvaniaEdit

Free blacks in New York City and Philadelphia were particularly vulnerable to kidnapping. In New York, a gang known as 'the black-birders' regularly waylaid men, women and children, sometimes with the support and participation of policemen and city officials.[5] In Philadelphia, black newspapers frequently ran missing children notices, including one for the 14-year-old daughter of the newspaper's editor.[6] Children were particularly susceptible to kidnapping; in a two-year period, at least a hundred children were abducted in Philadelphia alone.[7]

Delaware, Maryland, and VirginiaEdit

From 1811 to 1829, Martha "Patty" Cannon was the leader of a gang that kidnapped slaves and free blacks, from the Delmarva Peninsula of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and Chesapeake Bay and transported and sold them to plantation owners located further south. She was indicted for four murders in 1829 and died in prison, while awaiting trial, purportedly a suicide via arsenic poisoning.

Midwestern statesEdit


John Hart Crenshaw was a large landowner, salt maker, and slave trader, from the 1820s to the 1850s, based out of the southeastern part of Illinois in Gallatin County and a business associate of Kentucky lawman and outlaw, James Ford. Crenshaw and Ford were allegedly kidnapping free blacks in southeastern Illinois and selling them in the slave state of Kentucky. Although Illinois was a free state, Crenshaw leased the salt works in nearby Equality, Illinois from the U.S. Government, which permitted the use of slaves for the arduous labor of hauling and boiling salt brine water from local salt springs to produce salt. Due to Crenshaw's keeping and "breeding" of slaves and kidnapping of free blacks, who were then pressed into slavery, his house became popularly known as The Old Slave House.

Other cases of the Reverse Underground Railroad in Illinois occurred in the southwestern and western parts of the state, along the Mississippi River bordering the slave state of Missouri. In 1860, John and Nancy Curtis were arrested for trying to kidnap their own freed slaves in Johnson County, Illinois to sell back into slavery in Missouri.[8] Free blacks were also kidnapped in Jersey County, Illinois and taken away to be sold as slaves in Missouri.[9]

Southern statesEdit

Black sailors who voyaged to southern states faced the threat of kidnapping. South Carolina passed the Negro Seamen Act in 1822 out of fear that free black sailors would inspire slave revolts, requiring that they be incarcerated while their ship was docked. This could lead to black sailors being sold into slavery if their captains did not pay fees resulting from them being jailed, or if their freedom papers were lost.[10]


In the 1820s–1830s, John A. Murrell led an outlaw gang in western Tennessee. He was once caught with a freed slave living on his property. His tactics were to kidnap slaves from their plantations, promise them their freedom, and instead sell them back to other slave owners. If Murrell was in danger of being caught with kidnapped slaves, he would kill the slaves to escape being arrested with stolen property, which was considered a major crime in the Southern United States. In 1834, Murrell was arrested and sentenced to ten years in the Tennessee State Penitentiary in Nashville for slave-stealing.


The opposite of the enslavement of Reverse Underground Railroad was the freedom of the Underground Railroad showing the routes on a map which lead thousands of runaway slaves to liberation in the Northern United States, Canada, and Mexico

The 1827 newspaper The African Observer described how several Philadelphia children were lured on board a small sloop, at anchor in the Delaware River, with the promise of peaches, oranges and watermelons, then immediately put into the hold of the ship in chains, where they took a week long journey by ship. Once landed, they were marched through brushwood, swamp and cornfields to the home of Joe Johnson and Jesse and Patty Cannon, on the line between Delaware and Maryland, where they were 'kept in irons for a considerable amount of time.' From there, they were again put on board another vessel for a week or more, where one of the children heard someone talking about Chesapeake Bay, in Maryland. Once landed, they were marched again for 'many hundred miles' through Alabama until they reached Rocky Springs, Mississippi.

The same article described a chain of Reverse Underground Railroad posts "established from Pennsylvania to Louisiana."[11]

In the West, kidnappers rode the waters of the Ohio River, stealing slaves in Kentucky and kidnapping free people in Southern Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, who were then transported to the slave states.[12]

Travel conditionsEdit

Many kidnapped black people were marched to the South on foot. The men were chained together to prevent escape, while the women and children tended to be less restricted.[13]

Prevention and rescueEdit

The Protecting Society of Philadelphia, an auxiliary of the anti-slavery organization the Abolition Society of Philadelphia, was established in 1827 for "the prevention of kidnapping and man-stealing".[14] In January, 1837, The New York Vigilance Committee, established because any free black person was at risk for being kidnapped, reported that it had protected 335 persons from slavery. David A. Ruggles, a black newspaper editor and treasurer of the organization, writes in his paper of his futile attempts to convince two New York judges to prevent illegal kidnapping, as well as a daring successful physical rescue of a young girl named Charity Walker from the New York home of her captors.[15]

State and city governments had difficulty in preventing kidnappings, even before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society compared records of apprehended blacks to try to free those who were wrongfully detained, kept a list of missing people who were potential abductees, and formed the Committee on Kidnapping. However, these efforts proved to be expensive, rendering them unable to work effectively due to their lack of sustainability.[16]

Citizens, particularly free black citizens, were active in lobbying local governments to adopt stronger measures against kidnapping. Due to the lack of effectiveness from these institutions, free blacks were frequently forced to use their own methods to protect themselves and their families. Such methods included keeping proof of their freedom with them at all times and avoiding contact with strangers as well as certain areas. Vigilante groups were also formed to attack kidnappers, including black kidnappers, the latter who were universally condemned by the free African-American community.[16]

From Philadelphia, high constable Samuel Parker Garrigues took several trips to Southern states at the behest of mayor Joseph Watson to rescue children and adults who had been kidnapped from the city's streets. He also successfully went after their abductors. One such case was Charles Bailey, kidnapped at fourteen in 1825 and finally rescued by Garrigues after a three-year search. Unfortunately, the beaten and emaciated youth died a few days after being brought back to Philadelphia. Garrigues was able to find and arrest Bailey's abductor, Captain John Smith, alias Thomas Collins, head of "The Johnson Gang".[17] He also tracked down and arrested John Purnell of the Patty Cannon gang.[18]

In popular cultureEdit

In 1853, Solomon Northrup published Twelve Years A Slave, a memoir of his kidnapping from New York and twelve years spent as a slave in Louisiana. His book sold 30,000 copies upon release.[19] His narrative was made into a 2013 film, which won three Academy Awards.[20] Comfort: A Novel of the Reverse Underground Railroad by H. A. Maxson and Claudia H. Young came out in 2014.

Abolitionist publications frequently used accounts of people who were kidnapped into slavery for their publications. Notable works that published these accounts include The African Observer, a monthly publication that used firsthand accounts to demonstrate the evils of slavery, as well as Isaac Hopper's Tales of Oppression, a compilation by the abolitionist Isaac Hopper of kidnapping accounts.[11]

Notable illegal slave trader kidnappers and illegal slave breedersEdit

Notable victimsEdit


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Wilson, Carol (1994). "Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780–1865". Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky. pp. 11–16.
  2. ^ Musgrave, Jon. "Black Kidnappings in the Wabash and Ohio Valleys of Illinois, Research Paper for Dr. John Y. Simon's Seminar in Illinois History, Southern Illinois University, April–May 1997". Carbondale, IL.
  3. ^ Cross, L.D. (2010). The Underground Railroad: The long journey to freedom in Canada. Toronto, ON: James Lorimer Limited, Publishers. ISBN 978-1-55277-581-3.
  4. ^ Leanos Jr., Reynaldo (2017). "This underground railroad took slaves to freedom in Mexico, PRI's The World, Public Radio International, March 29, 2017". Minneapolis, MN: Public Radio International.
  5. ^ Manisha Sinha, The Untold History Beneath 12 Years, The New York Daily News, March 2, 2013
  6. ^ Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827 to 1860, Greenwood Publishing, 1993, p. 152
  7. ^ "Kidnapping in Pennsylvania", Africans in America,
  8. ^ Lehman, Christopher P. (2011). "Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787–1865: A History of Human Bondage in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin". Jefferson, NC: McFarland. p. 166.
  9. ^ Hamilton, Oscar Brown (1919). "History of Jersey County, Illinois". Munsell Publishing Company. p. 189.
  10. ^ Blight, David. Passages to Freedom. Smithsonian Books. p. 152. ISBN 006085118X.
  11. ^ a b Lewis, Enoch, "Kidnapping," The African Observer, Vol. 1–12, p. 39, 1827
  12. ^ Harold, Stanley, Border War:Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War p. 53, University of North Carolina Press, 2010.
  13. ^ Collins, Winfield (1904). "The Domestic Slave Trade of the Southern States". New York City: Broadway Publishing Company. pp. 101-102.
  14. ^ Frankie Hutton, The Early Black Press in America, 1827 to 1860, p. 152 Greenwood Publishing Group, 1993
  15. ^ Hutton, p. 152
  16. ^ a b Bell, Richard. "Counterfeit Kin: Kidnappers of Color, the Reverse Underground Railroad, and the Origins of Practical Abolition".
  17. ^ Hutton p. 153
  18. ^ Michael Morgan, Delmarva's Patty Cannon: The Devil on the Nanticoke, Arcadia Publishing, 2015, p. 3
  19. ^ Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Summary, online text at Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 19 July 2012
  20. ^ Cieply, Michael; Barnesmarch, Brooks (March 2, 2014). "‘12 Years a Slave’ Claims Best Picture Oscar". The New York Times.

External linksEdit