Under a waxing moon on what likely was a warm night on Saturday, Aug. 5, 1843, a family of six slaves was spirited across the Ohio River from a plantation in Hunters Bottom in Carroll County to Jefferson County, Ind., where they began a treacherous journey to freedom – and an important place in U.S. history.
After hearing rumors that their four children – John, Ben, Cyrus and Lucretia – were to be sold by the family who owned them, Adam and Sarah Crosswhite chose to risk everything and flee, with help from local “conductors” on the Underground Railroad.
On the surface, the story of fugitive slaves is not an unusual one in the early to mid-1800s, particularly where slave states bordered along free states. As many as 400 fugitives may have fled their slave owners in Kentucky, traveling to northern cities and towns through Madison, Ind., one of the main hubs of the Underground Railroad, said Madison historian Sue Livers.
According to a letter regarding the case, included in the book, “Michigan Pioneers and Historical Collections,” during their flight, the Crosswhites and others in their party, which had grown to about 20, were nearly captured in Newport, Ind. The fugitives were hidden and kept safe by Quakers there. Adam and two of their children went on ahead; Sarah and their other two children arrived in Michigan five weeks later.
What makes the Crosswhites’ story significant in the nation’s history, however, is what occurred in Michigan four years after their escape.
Kentuckians attempt to reclaim ‘property’
Under the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, slave owners had the right to pursue and recapture any of those fugitives, even in states where slavery was outlawed.
So, after the Crosswhites fled, Francis Giltner hired his grandson, Frank Troutman of Henry County, to act as his agent and track down the family and bring them back to Kentucky.
Troutman followed their trail to the town of Marshall in Calhoun County, Mich. – a town of 700 that was home to about 50 blacks, both free and fugitives, at the time, according to an account of the incident by Michigan law professor David G. Chardavoyne in the November 2004 issue of “The Court Legacy,” a publication of the Historical Society of the U.S. District Court.
Accompanied by his uncle, David Giltner who also owned a plantation on Hunters Bottom, Troutman posed as a schoolteacher to collect information on the Crosswhites. Once he determined where they were living, Troutman, Giltner and two other Kentuckians – Franklin Ford and John S. Lee – were accompanied by the Calhoun County sheriff and broke into the house early in the morning of Jan. 26, 1847.
Under the federal law, Troutman was required to take the family before the local justice of the peace to prove ownership before he could transport the family back to Kentucky. By that time, Adam and Sarah had had another child – but that child was not considered Giltner property because it was born in a free state.
According to witness depositions taken later that year, local residents had become suspicious that something was about to happen to the Crosswhites and a plan for alerting neighbors was devised. Soon after the Kentuckians broke into the family’s home to take Adam to the justice of the peace, a large crowd – estimated in depositions to be anywhere from 150-300 white and black residents – came to the house to defend the Crosswhites and keep them from being taken back to the south.
For a time, the situation was tense. Some testimony indicates a few people were armed, but most threatened to take the Kentuckians to the courts. Others allegedly suggested the men be tarred and feathered “and run out on a rail” instead.
But while the standoff remained peaceful, it became apparent to the sheriff that the crowd would not allow the Crosswhites to be taken away. Another Marshall resident had obtained a warrant for the arrest of the Kentucky men and, instead of serving a warrant on the Crosswhites, the sheriff was obliged to take Troutman, Giltner, Ford and Lee into custody instead.
During the next couple of days, while the Kentuckian’s case went through the local court system, sympathizers helped transport the Crosswhites to Detroit, where they crossed the river into Canada and, once again, to freedom. The family remained there until 1870, when they moved back to Marshall.
In the end, Troutman and his men returned to Kentucky empty handed, as did Boone County, Ky., men who had attempted a similar raid in nearby Cass County, Mich., seven months later.
Soon after the Marshall incident, Troutman, himself an attorney, held a meeting with other slave-owning families in Carroll, Trimble and Henry counties. The group wrote a letter demanding action from the Kentucky Legislature to help them reclaim their property.
On March 1, 1847, Chardavoyne writes that the “legislature approved a resolution deploring ‘the outrages committed upon the rights and citizens of the State of Kentucky’ in Marshall and warning that continued disregard of slave owners’ property rights must, if repeated, ‘terminate in breaking up and destroying the peace and harmony’ among the states.”
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Legal ramifications and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
In December 1847, Troutman filed a civil suit on behalf of Francis Giltner with the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Michigan for $2,752 – the determined value of the Crosswhite family.
The first attempt ended in a hung jury; Troutman refiled the suit in November 1848, and the second jury awarded Giltner $1,926 in damages, plus costs.
Similar suits were filed by others from Kentucky whose attempts to recapture slaves from other Michigan towns had also failed.
Chardavoyne says the Crosswhite case, as well as the Cass County, Mich., raid later that year, are not major incidents in the anti-slavery movement, which eventually led the country into civil war.
But, these cases were cited by Kentuckians who took the legislature’s 1847 resolution to Washington, D.C., in a push to revise the Fugitive Slave Act, he said. And the legal documents generated during both cases have been preserved in the National Archives in Chicago.
In 1850, Henry Clay’s revision of the Fugitive Slave Act, which provide much stiffer penalties against fugitives and those who assisted them, was seen as a victory by the southern states, whose agrarian economy depended on slavery to thrive.
In Monday’s interview, Chardavoyne said most Northerners weren’t necessarily against slavery because of the perceived inhumanity of the institution. Because it was illegal in the north and not visible there, it was, for the most part, seen as “someone else’s problem,” he said.
The Free Soil Party in the north, actually, was more concerned about the threat of the expansion of slavery into the west, which would give wealthy plantation owners a competitive advantage over non-slave owners who might hope to find their fortunes there, he said.
But, he said, “every time the south won a battle [over slavery], it made them more paranoid,” Chardavoyne said. “I think they realized it was a dying system.”
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 actually forced people in the north to become more involved in the anti-slavery movement. Not only were they susceptible to harsher penalties if found to be harboring or assisting fugitives, primarily, Chardavoyne said, they were afraid the issue would split the nation. More than that, he said, they feared such a division would make both the north and the south vulnerable to being retaken by England orFrance.
“There was a saying in the North, ‘Liberty and Union – One and Indivisible,” Chardavoyne said.
Of course, the debate led the country into the Civil War, which spanned from 1861 to 1865. And, during the height of the war – on Jan. 1, 1863 – President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which proclaimed the estimated 3 million to 4 million still enslaved in the south to be “forever free.”
Adam and Sarah Crosswhite returned to Marshall, Mich., with three of their children in 1870 – Adam was 70 and Sarah was 74. Adam died in January 1878 in Marshall, 78. A monument in Marshall marks the location of their home and the events that occurred there.
Adam and Sarah Crosswhite returned to Marshall, Mich., with three of their children in1870 – Adam was 70 and Sarah was 74. Adam died in Marshall eight years later. A monument in Marshall marks the location of their home there.
Francis Giltner died in 1849 and was buried in the Giltner Cemetery, which was moved from land now owned by Nugent Sand to the cemetery at St. Peter’s Luther Church. His son, David, who remained in Hunters Bottom, died in 1881 and is buried in Moffett Cemetery.
Frank Troutman served in the Kentucky House of Representatives from 1852-54 and returned to life as a farmer, traveling often to England to import sheep. He died in November 1892 at the age of 61 and is buried in the Eminence Cemetery.