I get most excited learning about those lesser-known figures in Virginia history who nevertheless lived amazing lives. Paquiquineo is my favorite example, but I also love to go on and on about Moncure Daniel Conway and even George Tucker. Let me tell you more! I shout to whomever is passing by, to whomever will listen. (I can be weird that way; just ask my wife.)
Now add to that list Shadrach Minkins. No link yet, because I just finished writing his entry yesterday, but let me tell you more. Minkins was a slave born in Norfolk who escaped to Boston in 1850 and, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, was arrested by an agent sent north by his owner. While Minkins was confined in the Boston courthouse, a group of twenty or so black men broke through the doors, grabbed him and roughly carried him out of the courthouse, his clothes partially ripped off. According to the scholar Gary L. Collison, in a lovely bit of writing, “The rescuers headed north along Court Street, 200 or more following like the tail of a comet.”
Collison’s book, Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (1997), is a wonderful recreation, ex nihilo, of the times and places of Minkins life: a devoted historian making something out of a historical record that provides almost nothing. Collison follows that comet to a widow’s attic in Boston, then across the river to Cambridge, where Minkins stayed with the brother of the abolitionist martyr Elijah Lovejoy. From there it was on to Concord, and a house down the road from Henry David Thoreau, who just happened, later that day, to pen some furious lines on the subject of freedom. Perhaps he spied Minkins? Whatever the case, the fugitive eventually made it to Montreal, where he lived the rest of days in freedom.
Minkins’s story is important in part because his rescue was such a huge embarrassment for the politicians who had so agonizingly crafted the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act was crucial to that compromise, they believed, because if free states couldn’t make this minimal concession to their neighboring slave states, then an enduring union would be impossible. But if the good people of Boston refused to follow the law, then a union was still impossible!
But what I love about the story, especially as Collison tells it, are the telling little details. One of his attorneys helped Minkins, who was illiterate, make his mark to sign over his power of attorney. Minkins—who must have believed he was headed straight back to Virginia and then to the auction block—was “a good deal excited,” the lawyer later recalled, “and I had to guide his hand.”
When Minkins arrived in Montreal, he composed a letter, presumably with another’s help, to thank those in Boston who had rescued him. It was printed in a Boston paper and then reprinted in the North Star, Frederick Douglass‘s broadsheet. Minkins complained of his poor health and the severe weather he had endured on the journey north, but confessed, “I am at a loss for words to express the gratitude I feel to those kind and dear friends in Boston.” He ended the letter—the only extant communication attributed to Minkins—by writing, “Please to remember me kindly here,—and to the ladies.” I love that—and to the ladies.
After the jump, read the entire letter.
There’s more—believe me!—but I’ll stop there. Look for this entry, along with entries on fugitive slave laws and the even more famous Anthony Burns trial, in the next few months.
PS: To read how the tale of Shadrach Minkins might be bandied about in today’s political environment, go here.
IMAGE: Effects of the Fugitive-Slave Law by Theodor Kaufmann, 1850 (Library of Congress)
Oh, and why is the letter signed Frederick? Shadrach Minkins was actually born with the name Sherwood. Then, at some point, he took on (or someone gave him) the name Shadrach, as can be seen in this sale ad that appeared in a Norfolk paper on July 23, 1849:
When he escaped to Boston, Shadrach took the name Frederick, presumably to help conceal his identity. Then, when he made it to Canada, he adopted the last name Minkins and, at some point, reverted to one of his previous first names, Shadrach.
A jumble of names but also a jumble of identities. It seems fitting.