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The Perilous Journey of a Fugitive Slave

Blog post by Randi Richardson

Tony, a slave from Kentucky sometime in the years before the Civil War, escaped from his master and made his way north.  He got as far as Monroe County before he was captured on a Saturday night by the Corsaws who were prominent among Bloomington slave catchers.  The following morning James Clark, an elder in the Reformed Presbyterian Church whose members were often called Covenanters, heard the news as he was on his way to Sunday services.

Image from the cover illustration of the Anti-Slavery Record, July 1837.

Clark sent word of the capture to Thomas Smith who lived two miles southeast of Bloomington.   Together the two men then legally secured Tony’s temporary release from the Corsaws.

A trial quickly ensued for the possession of Tony.  Evidence was heard by Judge David McDonald who declared that he should be set free.  Afterward, Tony went to the Corsaw home on the east side of the courthouse square to collect what few clothes he had with him at the time of his escape.  While there, the Corsaws convinced him that Smith and Clark’s true motive in gaining his release was for the purpose of taking him back to Kentucky.  The Corsaws, on the other hand, promised to help Tony to get to Canada where he would be free.

Smith and Clark tried diligently to contact Tony during the next few days, but the Corsaws didn’t allow anyone near their home.   Some IU students who were sympathetic with the cause of southern slave owners aided the Corsaws.  Eventually, Smith and Clark gave up and returned to their homes.  Their absence prompted the Corsaws to start on their journey with Tony.  After a time, Tony noticed the Corsaws were traveling south toward Louisville.

Realizing he had been duped, Tony racked his brain to come up with a new plan to escape.  He remembered that Samuel Gordon, a member of the Bloomington community who was active with the Underground Railroad, told him that if he ever got into trouble again and wanted protection, that he should make his way to the Gordon home a bit south of Bloomington.

At the end of the day the Corsaws stopped at Nick Fleener’s home a few miles north of Salem.  During the night, Fleener urged the Corsaws to tie up Tony, but the Corsaws refused.  They argued that they could take Tony anywhere and that he had all the confidence in the world in them and they would rather not arouse his suspicions.  Tony immediately planned his escape.

The next morning while his captors were not looking, he slipped away.  Two or three nights later he made his way to the Gordons.  And before the Corsaws could track him to the Gordon home, he was taken to the Smith home and hidden for over a week.

Illustrated map of Underground Railroad routes in Indiana from a comprehensive history of The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom by Wilbur H. Siebert published in 1898

The Corsaws strongly suspected that Tony was at the Smith home and vowed that he would not escape from them again.  On the pretext of gathering blackberries, the Corsaws and their sympathizers stayed near the Smith home; guards were posted on all the roads.  Meantime, plans were made to deliver Tony to a man north of Bloomington who would transport to Mooresville.

When the agreed upon day finally came, two wagons were loaded, one driven by a Mr. Curry and the other by Smith.  The Smith wagon was open and carried sacks of grain; the Curry wagon was closed.  Tony was hidden in the Smith wagon under the sacks.

Smith drove his wagon to the square and began mingling with the people while Curry drove east toward Unionville and looked rather guilty and nervous.  Curry had not driven far when he began whipping his horses.  That aroused suspicion and prompted a crowd of Corsaw sympathizers to follow him.  Finally he was overtaken.  Although his wagon was searched, nothing was found.

Smith, in the meantime, unhitched his horses and started north. He proceeded unmolested to the designated point thus successfully aiding Tony on the next leg of his journey toward freedom.

Sources:

  • Rev. D. J. Shaw, “The Bloomington Congregation,” Our Banner, August 15, 1879, pp. 239-242.
  • Henry Lester Smith, “The Underground Railroad in Monroe County,” Indiana Magazine of History, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 288-297.
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