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Historical Context: An Outrage on the Canal

Gretchen Sullivan Sorin, Director, Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies

Imagine what it must have been like to be an enslaved person. You were someone's property with no right to make decisions about your own life. What would you do? Would you accept your lot, or would you rebel? Would you run away north to Canada and freedom? Flight would not be easy under any circumstances, particularly if you were old or very young or had a family with small children. In 1860, there were four million enslaved African Americans in the U.S. This was the dilemma they faced every day. Here is the story of one family and their race for freedom on the Erie Canal. 

William and Catherine Harris and their child were slaves in South Carolina. They decided to end their ordeal and began a harrowing journey to freedom. The most dangerous part of the trip was the journey alone through the southern slave states. Fugitive slaves had to find their own way on the initial part of the journey. Once they reached the northern states, they traveled on the Underground Railroad. Of course, the Underground Railroad was not really a railroad, but a secret transportation system operated by black and white abolitionists to help slaves reach freedom in the northern United States and Canada. Of necessity, fugitives used every mode of transportation - foot, horseback, wagon, train, or boat - to escape and to confuse slave catchers. One fugitive even shipped himself north in a large crate. 

After a long trip, the Harrises were relieved to arrive in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Founded by Quakers, many of whom were abolitionists, the city was a refuge for many fugitive slaves. Philadelphia had a large free black community into which fugitive slaves might blend comfortably and be less conspicuous to slave catchers. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, however, changed things. This law allowed slave catchers to come into free states and return escaped African Americans to the South and bondage. Like hundreds of other fugitives, William and Catherine Harris had to fear once again for their safety. They decided to move to Canada to ensure their freedom. 

Leaving Philadelphia, the frightened family traveled first to New York City and then up the Hudson River to Albany. There they boarded a boat on the Erie Canal. According to later police reports, they traveled in the hold of a canal freight boat from Albany, riding with the oysters and the clams.” The early part of the trip was uneventful. But when they were outside Utica, the boat's captain (a man named Webster), an oyster peddler named Cowells, and a passenger named Cluny began to taunt them. They told the Harrises that their master was in pursuit and would catch up with the slow-moving canal boat. The men hurled racial slurs at the couple and threatened them. 

Terrified, the Harrises decided to kill themselves rather than be taken back to the South. Drawing a razor, William Harris slit his own throat, cutting through his windpipe. Catherine jumped into the Erie Canal with their child in her arms. 

The reasons that Webster, Cowells, and Cluny decided to torment this family are unclear. The newspapers speculated that they were trying to drive the family from the “boat" or simply decided that this cruelty was a matter of personal amusement.” Whatever the reason, the price was high. William was horribly wounded and was rushed to a Syracuse physician, who saved his life. Catherine was rescued from the canal, but the child drowned. The canal boat captain and his accomplices continued on their way, but they were arrested in Rochester and returned to Syracuse to answer for their crimes. The Harrises were placed in the care and protection of Syracuse's "friends of the slave.” The Underground Railroad was very active in western New York, and Syracuse was a major “station.” Many daring escapes and rescues took place in this community. 

A newspaper article describing the incident appeared in the New York Tribune on October 26, 1850. In the 19th century, newspapers were the primary form of mass communication. Some newspapers were very sympathetic to the abolitionists' cause and ran articles like the Tribune's, which referred to slave catchers as "diabolical," or evil. This article does not simply report the facts of the case but expresses an opinion about the incident. Newspapers that supported slaveholding did not run this story. Instead, they chose stories about happy and cooperative slaves. Those who opposed slavery and those who supported it used their newspapers to share their opinions with thousands of readers.