Ohio's First Fugitive Slave Case

From Ohio History Central

An escaped slave woman known only as Jane became the subject of Ohio's first known fugitive slave case.

Jane was a slave of Joseph Tomlinson, Jr., in Brooke County, Virginia. In 1808, she was accused of stealing four dollars worth of merchandise. She was charged with a felony, and at her trial, which began on October 22, 1808, the judge pronounced her guilty. The judge sentenced Jane to death and set her execution date for December 10, 1808. Under Virginia law at this time, a slave found guilty of a felony was either to be put to death or sold to a new owner outside of Virginia. Fortunately for Jane, the governor of Virginia granted her a reprieve, postponing her execution until November 1, 1809, to allow her time to find a new owner outside of Virginia.

Before the jailer, who believed death was too harsh a penalty for this particular crime, was notified of the delay in execution, on November 9, 1808, he intentionally left Jane's cell door open, allowing her to escape. Jane remained in Virginia for two days and then traveled across the Ohio River to Marietta, Ohio. Here, she found employment with Abner Lord. She eventually married a free black man in Marietta and gave birth to a child.

Despite Jane now living in Ohio, a state that prohibited slavery, her owner and the State of Virginia could legally reclaim her, returning her to slavery. In late 1809, Samuel Beeson arrived in Marietta and tried to forcibly remove Jane to Virginia. Jane refused to accompany the man. Beeson then petitioned the Virginia governor, future President of the United States John Tyler, for assistance. On February 5, 1810, Tyler sent a letter to Ohio Governor Samuel Huntington, demanding that Huntington arrange for Jane to be given to Beeson. Beeson also wrote Huntington on February 24, 1810, informing the governor that Marietta's justice of the peace and local residents refused to turn Jane over to him. Several of Marietta's residents also petitioned Huntington, asking that he allow Jane to remain in Ohio.

Huntington responded to Governor Tyler's request on March 22, 1810. Huntington claimed that he did not have the legal authority to return Jane to the State of Virginia, because the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 directed that state executives could not intervene in a fugitive slave case. Tyler then wrote Huntington on April 26, 1810, demanding Jane's return because she was a fugitive from justice. Informed that Jane was a criminal, Huntington acquiesced and ordered her arrest on May 21, 1810. Jane was arrested and remanded to Beeson's custody. Governor Tyler ordered Beeson to return Jane to Virginia, where he pardoned her but also required Beeson to sell Jane back into slavery. It remains unclear as to what happened to Jane, her child, and her husband.

Jane illustrates the difficulties that African Americans faced in the United States of America in the early nineteenth century. While many Northern states had provisions outlawing slavery, runaway slaves did not necessarily gain their freedom upon arriving in a free state. Federal law permitted slaveowners to reclaim their runaway slaves. Some slaves managed to escape their owners, while others, like Jane, found themselves being returned to slavery.

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