The Underground Railroad
in Indiana County
Excerpts taken from the "Biography of Dr. Robert & Jane C. Mitchell," collected by Rev. M. Clark & Jennie Mitchell, compiled by Robert T. Mitchell, Type-written by Stella M. Houston, 1916
VAN METRE vs. MITCHELL
(from Pennsylvania Law Journal, January, 1848)
In the Circuit Court of the United States for the Western District of Pennsylvania, Nov. 1847.
This was an action of debt brought under the fourth section of the Act of Congress, passed on the 12th of February, 1793. By Garrett Van Metre, a citizen of Virginia, against Robert Mitchell, a citizen of Pennsylvania, to recover the penalty of $500, prescribed in the act for harboring and concealing a fugitive slave belonging to the plaintiff.
Mr. McCandless and Mr. Selden, for plaintiff.
Mr. Forward and Mr. Loomis for defendant.
Charge to Jury by Judge Grier
The plaintiff in this case claims to recover from the defendant the sum of $500, being the penalty given by the fourth Act of Congress of the 12th of February, 1793, against persons who "harbor or conceal fugitives from labor."
The declaration avers, 1st, that by the laws of Virginia a certain person named Jared was held to service and labor by the plaintiff; 2nd, that Jared escaped into the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and 3rd, that the defendant with notice or knowledge of these facts, did harbor and conceal the said Jared contrary to the Act of Congress in such case made and provided, and thereby became liable to pay the sum of $500, the penalty inflicted for such offense. A third and fourth count in the declaration charged the defendant with harboring only without the charge of concealing.
These allegations the defendant has denied.
To men of your intelligence it is unnecessary to remark that no theories or opinions which you or we may entertain with regard to liberty and human rights, or the policy or justice of a system of domestic slavery can have place on the bench or in the jury box. We dare not substitute our convictions or opinions, however honestly entertained, for the law of the land.
The institutions of the Jews, while they tolerated slavery and would not permit the harboring or concealing of the slave of one Jew by another, nevertheless forbade their extradition when they escaped into Judea from a gentile or foreign nation. While we would not deliver up slaves escaping from a foreign nation, the people of these United States, as one people, united under a common government, have bound themselves by the great charter of their Union, to deliver up slaves escaping from one State into another. Whatever may be our private opinions on the subject of slavery, it is well known that our Southern brethren would not have consented to become parties to a Constitution, under which we have enjoyed so much prosperity, unless their property in slaves had been secured. This Constitution has been adopted by the free consent of the people of Pennsylvania, and it is the duty of every man to give it a fair and candid construction and carry it into full force and effect.
(Article 4, Section 3, read here)
By virtue of this clause, the master might have pursued and arrested his fugitive slave in another State, he might use as much force as was necessary for his reclamation, he might bind and secure him so as to prevent a second escape. But as the exercise of such a power, without some evidence of legal authority, might lead to oppression and outrage, and the master in the existence of his legal rights, might be obstructed and hindered; it became necessary for Congress to establish some mode by which the master might have the form and support, and persons guilty of improper interference with his rights might be punished. For this purpose the Act of Congress of February 12, 1793, was passed.
The fourth section describes four different offenses against the master, which are liable to be punished with a penalty of $500:
- 1st. Knowingly and wilfully obstructing the claimant in seizing and arresting the fugitive.
- 2nd. Rescuing the fugitive when so arrested.
- 3rd. Harboring.
- 4th. Concealing such person after notice that he is a fugitive from labor.
Two counts of the plaintiff's declaration charge the defendant with harboring and concealing, two others with harboring only.
You will, therefore, inquire 1st whether Jared was held to labor, or was a salve by the laws of Virginia; 2nd due; 3rd had the slave Jared escaped into Pennsylvania; 4th was he harbored or concealed by the defendant after notice that he was a fugitive from labor?
The first three propositions are not contested and the case will depend on the sufficiency of the evidence to establish the fourth, and two questions obviously present themselves: 1st What is meant by "notice," and 2nd, what constitutes harboring?
It has been decided that "notice" as used in this act means knowledge; that it is not necessary that a specific, written, printed or verbal notice from the owner be brought to the defendant, but it is sufficient if the evidence show that he knew the person he harbored or concealed was a fugitive from labor. That the defendant in this case had such knowledge is fully proved and is not denied.
The important question in the case, therefore, is whether the conduct of the defendant towards Jared comes within the category of "harboring or concealing."
The word "harbor" is defined by "to entertain, to shelter, to secure, to secrete, to receive clandestinely, and without lawful authority, a person for the purpose of concealing him, sto that another shall be deprived of the same." Yet one may "harbor" without concealing. He may afford entertainment, lodging and shelter to vagabonds, gamblers and thieves without the purpose or attempt at concealment, and it may be said he harbors them. The use of the terms "harbor" or "conceal" assumes that the works are not synonymous, An innkeeper is said to entertain travelers, not to harbor them; but may be accused of harboring vagabonds, deserters, fugitives or thieves or persons he ought not to entertain.
It is too plain for argument that this act does not intend to make common charity a crime, merely furnishing food, lodging or raiment to the hungry, weary, or naked wanderer, though he be an apprentice or a slave. On the contrary, it contemplates not only an escape of the slave, but the intention of the master to reclaim him, and it is for an unlawful interference or hindrance of this right that this penalty is imposed. The intention or purpose which accompanies the act must be to encourage the fugitive in deserting his master, to further his escape and impede and frustrate his reclamation.
This mala mens, or fraudulent intent, required by the act to constitute illegal harboring is not measured by the religious or political motions of the accused or the correctness or perversion of his moral perceptions. Some men may conceive it a religious duty to break the law, but legally liable to the penalty of this act, however much his conscience, or that of his associates, might approve his conduct.
The evidence on this point is that Jared and another escaped from their master in Virginia, and came without stopping in the way, to the defendant in the town of Indiana, about the last of April, 1845; that defendant sent them with a letter to his tenant residing on his farm, some miles from Indiana, that they were directed to take possession of a vacant house on the land of defendant; that he furnished them with bedding, cooking utensils, grain, a cow and axes; that they were employed to labor for him on the his land, in making fences, or otherwise, and hired themselves to work for other neighbors; that they remained in the defendant's house till September, and that defendant will knew they were fugitive slaves, and to whom they belonged. A man is presumed to intend what is the natural and necessary result of his actions. It appears that the fact was notorious to the people of Indiana that he made no secret of it; that a partner of defendant was asked to give the Negroes employment at his saw mill, saying that "they would be out of the way there." What amounts to concealment depends on circumstances. It does not require that the subject be secreted in a garret or cellar, a barn or covered wagon.
The highways of Indiana County may be better places of concealment than the by ways of many other places and the limits of the whole county as good a place to secrete fugitives if the fugitives have a committee of sympathizers to watch over their interests and give them warning of the approach of danger.
Look at the conduct and declarations of the defendant. Does he furnish a rendezvous, but for other? When there is danger, does he have them notified that there are "Indians abroad." Does he call a meeting at his own house of persons friendly to the fugitives? It will be for you to say whether such conduct be proved. If you believe from the testimony that the entertainment and shelter given to the fugitives were but the exercise of the principles of common humanity, without any intention of encouraging the escape of the fugitive, or impeding or frustrating his reclamation by his master, you will find for the defendant.
If, on the contrary, you believe he has afforded entertainment to the fugitive to further his escape and enable him to elude his master, you will find for the plaintiff the sum of $500.
The jury, after a few minutes consideration, found a verdict for the plaintiff for $500.
For more on the topic of the Underground Railroad, read Mr. Clarence Stephenson's, Impact of the Slavery Issue on Indiana County, and visit these links:
* Knight Ridder-Tribune: Slavery in the United States - At this site, you will find the turbulent history of black people in the United States from 1619 to the present. Between 1500 and the late 1800's, slave traders turned million of African human beings into property. Historians are gradually discovering what happened. http://www.sanluisobispo.com/krtinteractive/0298/022098/slave/slave.htm
* National Geographic Interactive Game - You are a slave. Your body, your time, your very breath belong to a farmer in 1850's Maryland. Six long days a week you tend his fields and make him rich. You have never tasted freedom. You never expect to. And yet . . . your soul lights up when you hear whispers of attempted escape. Freedom means a hard dangerous trek. Do you try it? http://www.nationalgeographic.com/features/99/railroad/
One hundred fifth Congress
of the United States of America
AT THE SECOND SESSION
Begun and held at the city of Washington on Tuesday,
the twenty-seventh day of January, one thousand nine hundred and ninety-eight
To establish within the United States National Park Service the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program, and for other purposes.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
This Act may be cited as the "National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Act of 1998."
SEC. 2. FINDINGS AND PURPOSES.
(A) FINDINGS - The Congress finds the following:
(1) The Underground Railroad, which flourished from the end of the 18th century to the end of the Civil War, was one of the most significant expressions of the American civil rights movement during its evolution over more than three centuries.(2) The Underground Railroad bridged the divides of race, religion, sectional differences, and nationality; spanned State lines and international borders; and joined the America ideals of liberty and freedom expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to the extraordinary actions of ordinary man and women working in common purpose to free a people.
(3) Pursuant to title VI of Public Law 101-628 (16 U.S.C. 1a-5 note; 104 Stat. 4495), the Underground Railroad Advisory Committee conducted a study of the appropriate means of establishing an enduring national commemorative Underground Railroad program of education, example, reflection, and reconciliation.(4) The Underground Railroad advisory Committee found that -(A) although a few elements of the Underground Railroad story are represented in existing National Park Service units and other sites, many sites are in imminent danger of being lost or destroyed, and many important resource types are not adequately represented and protected;
(B) there are many important sites which have high potential for preservation and visitor use in 29 States, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands;(C) no single site or route completely reflects and characterizes the Underground Railroad, since its story and associated resources involve networks and regions of the country rather than individual sites and trails; and effective coordination of the Federal and non-Federal elements of the national network referred to in section (b) with National Park Service units and programs, the Secretary may enter into cooperative agreements and memoranda of understanding with, and provide technical assistance to -(1) the heads of other Federal agencies, States, localities, regional governmental bodies, and private entities; and(2) in cooperation with the Secretary of State, the governments of Canada, Mexico, and any appropriate country in the Caribbean.(d) APPROPRIATIONS - There are authorized to be appropriated to carry out this Act not more than $500,00 for each fiscal year. No amounts may be appropriated for the purposes of this Act except to the Secretary as set forth in section 3(a).