1850 Fugitive Slave Act


Warning to African Americans living in Boston about slave catchers. 

Slave escapes increased after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850.  The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, designed to curb slave escapes had the opposite effect.  Escapes from Kentucky increased 53 percent after 1850.[1]   One Underground Railroad operative boasted in 1855 that “The Fugitive Law has raised the stock on some of our Western tracks, at least 50 to 75 percent.”[2]  Within a short time after the passing of the new law, Kentucky slaveholders met to discuss heightened security on Kentucky slaves.  News reports compared the exodus of slaves as a stampede.  In 1856 the Louisville Courier estimated 250 escapes from or through Kentucky with the first two months of the year.[3]

A similar law passed in 1793, granted slaveholders the right to recover slaves and required states to assist.  However, in Prigg v Pennsylvania (1842), the United States Supreme Court called the 1792 Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional.  The court ruling prohibited state officials from interfering with runaway slaves.  States could not assist in capture, incarceration, or assistance.  The Supreme Court called the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law unconstitutional and only federal agents could enforce it.  The ruling weakened the 1793 act disabling slaveholders’ ability to recover fugitives. 



1850 Fugitive Slave Act allowed federal agents to kidnap any African American suspected of being a fugitive.

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act converted the United States into a hunting ground for federally appointed agents to kidnap African Americans. Agents could accuse any African American of being a slave.  Claimants of fugitives presented an affidavit stating that a particular African American belonged to him or her.  A slaveholder’s word deemed sufficient to prove that person was the fugitive in question.  The act denied due process to African American’s and deprived them of all civil rights, including the right to testify on their behalf.  Those assisting fugitives or obstructing the law in any form faced stricter legal repercussions; $1000 fine per fugitive and six months in jail.  Abolitionists in Madison, Indiana proclaimed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as the most “tyrannical and unjust enactment that ever disgraced the annals of any country, Pagan or Christian.”[4] 

The 1850 Fugitive Slave Act not only increased escapes in the South, but it forced many fugitives living in the Ohio Valley Borderland to flee further north.  As the thread of capture loomed over the head of many Underground Railroad operatives, many fled the borderland to areas further north or to Canada.  Black populations in Indiana and Ohio shrank as hundreds of former slaves’ feared recapture.  Abolitionists in Ohio refused to cooperate with slave catchers.   The Louisville Courier reported, “. . . the Fugitive Slave Law cannot be executed in Ohio and probably never will be.”[5] 

After 1850, federally appointed slave catchers patrolled the Ohio River daily looking for fugitives.  Sometimes slave catchers were not hired by a slaveholder, but acted on their own accord seeking the monetary reward.   With federal power, agents kidnapped any African American they came into contact with and used ruthless measures.  Patrols did not hesitate to enter the homes of Underground Railroad agents.  In 1845, three agents from Washington County, Ohio were kidnapped and taken to Virginia and jailed for aiding fugitives.  Amanda Smith witnessed a slave patrol tear down the door to her family’s home and beat her father and stabbed her mother with an infant in her arms.[6]


Warning to fugitive slaves.

[1] Blaine Hudson, Fugitive Slaves and The Underground Railroad in the Kentucky Borderland. (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 2002), 32-35.

[2] Keith Griffler, Frontline of Freedom: African Americans and the Forging of the Underground Railroad in the Ohio Valley, (Lexington: Unviversity of Lexington Press, 2004), 118.

[3] Hudson, Fugitive Slaves,  For slaveholder meetings see p. 83.  Louisville Courier news reports p 50 & 64.

[4] Griffler, Frontline, 107-108.

[5] Hudson, Fugitive Slaves 85.

[6] Griffler, Frontline, 82-83.



1850 Fugitive Slave Act