Like Brooklyn, the Capital City area has long been recognized as an important nexus of the Abolitionist Movement in New York State, in the days before the Civil War. Anti-slavery activists were quite busy in Albany, Troy and the surrounding towns. The Hudson River cities became important routes on the Underground Railroad; the road to freedom in Canada for fugitives escaping slavery in the southern states. After the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted in 1850, the need for a strong and active resistance movement to pass escapees on up to Canada was necessary, as the new federal law not only made it a crime to help escapees, it also allowed bands of slave catchers to operate freely. The law also compelled local law enforcement to imprison and hold those who were captured, whether local officials wanted to, or not.
There was a small, but strong black community in the area, with black churches, schools and communities established in Troy, Albany, Saratoga, and beyond. Solomon Northrup, the hero of the true story “12 Years a Slave” lived with his family in Saratoga Springs. It was from there that he was kidnapped and spirited away down South, into slavery. Troy was home to several important black abolitionists, including Henry Highland Garnet, one of Troy’s most prominent ministers. Harriet Tubman had a cousin living in Troy. In Albany, Stephen Myers, another African American abolitionist, was publisher of “The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate,” an important African American newspaper. Myers was also one of the most important Underground Railroad agents in the state, and helped thousands of people make their way to freedom.
Our story starts not in Troy or Albany, but in Culpeper County, Virginia. There, Charles Nalle was born into slavery. He was the property of the Hansbrough family, and was, in fact, the planter’s son by one of his slaves. Charles Nalle favored his father, and was fair of complexion, and would pass for white anywhere but in the South, where even a drop of African blood doomed him to a life of slavery. He was not allowed to learn to read or write, and worked on the plantation, as a coachman. He was said to have a great affinity with horses. He was allowed to marry a woman named Kitty, who lived on a nearby plantation. Allowing slaves to marry was a rare occurrence, and having a married couple on different plantations was purposefully done to prevent strong family bonds from developing.
Kitty’s owner died, and in his will, freed the slaves on his plantation. Virginia law forbad free blacks from living in Virginia, so she had to leave the state. Kitty and their two children took up residence in Washington DC, which was also a slave territory, so she could be closer to Charles. He was rarely allowed to visit her. Finally, in 1858, on one of those rare visits, Charles saw his opportunity to escape, and with the help of a white agent of the Underground Railroad, he and another man named James Banks were spirited north. The Hansbrough family was furious, and in retaliation, sold Charles’ brothers far to the South, “sold down the river,” where slavery was even worse than in Virginia, and they were never able to be found again.
Kitty was suspected of aiding the escape and was arrested, and put in the D.C. slave pen. She would have been sold herself, had it not been for the aid of an Abolitionist lawyer named Chester Alan Arthur, the son of a Baptist minister, who would one day become the 21st President of the United States. He was able to prove her innocence and get her out of D.C. Charles Nalle, in the meantime, travelled along the routes of the Underground Railroad until eventually reached the Albany and Troy area. He thought he was far enough north to breathe easy and find work until Kitty and the children could make their way north and join him. He found work in Sand Lake, just east of Albany, with a man named William Scram, and worked as a teamster.
While living in Sand Lake he met an unemployed lawyer and local man named Horace Averill. The Troy Daily Times, writing in 1860, characterized Mr. Averill thusly, saying that he was “a penny-a-liner shyster lawyer, awhile seventh-rate reporter for a seventh-rate newspaper.” The paper went on to note that Averill was best known for his involvement in an embezzlement scheme in New York City, one that had led to his incarceration in the infamous Tombs prison.
Charles Nalle didn’t know any of this, and because he could neither read nor write, when Averill befriended him and offered to write letters for him, Nalle thought he had met an honest and true man, a friend indeed. He dictated several letters to be sent to Kitty, telling her that he was well, and was living in Rensselaer County. He wanted his family to join him, here in a fine place where they could all be free.
Averill asked a lot of questions while he was writing letters to Kitty and others, and by the time they were done, he knew all about Nalle’s life, his birth, legal status, marriage, how he had escaped and his journey north. He praised Nalle for his courage, and promised that the letters would find their way to Kitty. Charles Nalle was pleased, and left Sand Lake to move to Troy, at that time, the richest city in America.
He got a job as a carriage driver for Uri Gilbert, one of Troy’s wealthiest citizens. Gilbert’s manufacturing company built stagecoaches, omnibuses and railroad cars. He was one of Troy’s richest men, and lived on Second Street, across from Washington Park. Charles was able to rent a room in the home of a successful black grocer in Troy named William Henry. James Banks, the man he had escaped with, was also now living in Troy. Nalle was sure he would be reunited with his family soon, and they would make their new lives in Troy, surrounded by new friends and allies. But there was a snake in the grass, a snake named Horace Averill.
Unbeknownst to anyone, when Averill mailed the letters for Charles Nalle, he also sent a letter to Blucher Hansbrough, now the head of the Hansbrough family back in Virginia. Blucher was actually Charles Nalle’s half-brother, not that he let that bother him. Hansbrough wanted Charles Nalle and James Banks back on the plantation, especially Charles. Horace Averill had pro-slavery sympathies, but more than that, he saw Charles Nalle as a source of income, and he was prepared to cash in. The Fugitive Slave Act not only made in right and proper for Averill to turn in a runaway, it made it lucrative.
Hansbrough hired an agent, one Henry J. Wall, a professional slave catcher from Stevensberg, Virginia. He was carrying warrants for both Banks and Nalle. He arrived in Troy in April of 1860, and soon found Nalle, working for the Gilberts. Wall wired his employer, Blucher Hansbrough, who headed north himself. Wall then went straight to the U.S. Commissioner, who, because of the Fugitive Act, had no choice but to make out orders of arrest. Somehow James Banks found out about the slave catcher, and he was able to take off and leave Troy before Wall got there. But he was not able to warn Nalle. Wall and a Deputy United States Marshall named Holmes headed for the Gilbert house to make the arrest.
Around 11 am on April 27, Charles Nalle was out running an errand for his employer. He had been sent out to buy bread at the bakery, which was only a couple of blocks from the house. He never made it. The slave catcher, Wall, and the Deputy Marshall stopped Nalle in the street, and arrested him. Before he knew what had happened, he was manacled and taken back to the U.S. Commissioner, Miles Beach, the man who had signed the warrant. When Charles didn’t return, Uri Gilbert’s son went out to look for him. He went to his landlord, William Henry, but Henry had not seen him since that morning.
It was not like Charles to disappear, and William Henry, who knew Nalle’s history, suspected the worst. Henry, like some of Troy’s citizens, both black and white, was a member of the Vigilance Committee, an abolitionist group that aided escapees in secret and spoke out against slavery and the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Act in public. He made some inquiries, and quickly found out that Charles had been arrested and was in the hands of a slave catcher. With no time to waste, he sent the word out and told his people to get ready to act.
The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was a fine piece of evil legislation, with some especially nuanced advantages for the slave holder written into it. Not only could a slave owner or his or her representative come north and snatch a suspected escapee off the street, that person had no rights, and no recourse to prove that he or she was not a slave, or was not even the person they were looking for. There were usually no photographs or sketches, as slaves were not usually the topic of art. There were only vague descriptions which would match any number of people. This was fine with the slave catchers, because they got a bounty for each slave returned south. If they had the wrong person, it really didn’t matter, a black person, born slave or free, could be back picking cotton tomorrow. Who cares?
When Charles Nalle was brought before U.S. Commissioner Miles Beach, all the paperwork had already been prepared by Henry Wall, filled out before he had even been captured. Nalle was not allowed to identify himself or testify on his own behalf, or give any names for potential witnesses. His fate had already been decided. All that was needed was the formality of having Wall and the informer, Horace Averill, stand before the Commissioner and declare that Nalle was the fugitive Negro slave who had unlawfully escaped his enslavement, and run away. His lawful owner, Mr. Hansbrough, was on the way to meet them, and the fugitive would be taken back to Virginia, where he belonged.
Charles Nalle was being held in the cells in the basement of the Commissioner’s office, in the Mutual Bank Building, on the corner of State and First Streets. A prominent Troy attorney named Martin I. Townsend quickly volunteered to be Charles Nalle’s lawyer. He went to the Commissioner’s office to represent his client, but it was already too late, the decisions had been made and the paperwork had been signed. Townsend rushed out to prepare a writ of habeas corpus to present to a judge, and thereby get a stay.
As Townsend ran outside, he had to pass through a large crowd of people, both black and white, who had gathered outside the Commissioner’s office. What followed next was one of the most heroic moments the city of Troy has ever known. Join me on Thursday for the conclusion of this incredible story, one with an amazing cast of characters and deeds of great courage and determination.
If you are interested in this historical event, there is a book by Scott Christianson entitled “Freeing Charles: the Struggle to Free a Slave on the Eve of the Civil War”. He’s done a lot of great research, and is the authority on this subject. More information is available here.
(GMAP 1 State Street, Troy. Site of the U.S. Commissioner’s office in 1860. Photo: Suzanne Spellen)