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"Rescued from the Fangs of the Slave Hunter": The Case of Shadrach Minkins

Boston served as a destination for many people escaping slavery on the Underground Railroad. Freedom seekers arriving in the city found that Boston's tightly knit free Black community provided support and a welcome sanctuary as they began their new lives. This article highlights the journey of a freedom seeker, Shadrach Minkins, who escaped to Boston. To explore additional stories, visit Boston: An Underground Railroad Hub.

Born enslaved in Norfolk, Virginia, Shadrach Minkins escaped to Boston in the spring of 1850. Nine months later, slave catchers, empowered by the Fugitive Slave Law, arrested Minkins with plans to return him to his owner in Virginia. While held at the courthouse, Black Bostonians staged a daring rescue and successfully escorted Minkins out of the city to safety. Follow his inspiring journey from slavery to freedom in Canada in this interactive story-map.

Explore the story map below to learn about Shadrach Minkins' journey to freedom. Click "Get Started" to enter the map. To read more about each point, click "More" or scroll down to view the map, historical images, and accompanying text. To navigate between the points, please use the "Next Stop" button at the bottom of the slides or the arrows on either side of the main image. To view a larger version of the main image depicted below the map, click on the image.

Shadrach Minkins

c.1814 - December 13, 1875

Follow Minkins' long journey north to freedom.

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Shadrach Minkins

c.1814 - December 13, 1875

Follow Minkins' long journey north to freedom.

Sketch of Market Square in Norfolk. (1845)While enslaved, Minkins worked by Market Square in Norfolk. (Credit: Henry Howe, 1845)

c. 1814-1849: Market Square, Norfolk, Virginia

Born enslaved, likely in 1814, Shadrach Minkins lived and worked in Norfolk, Virginia until his escape in 1849. Thomas Glenn, the slaveholder who owned Minkins and his parents, ran the Eagle Tavern and Hotel near Market Square. Minkins worked at the Eagle Tavern until Glenn hired him out to Martha Hutchings to work at her store and warehouse, also near Market Square.

Newspaper clipping that advertises the selling of enslaved people, including Shadrach Minkins.This newspaper clip advertises the upcoming public auction during which Shadrach Minkins will be sold. (Credit: Long Road to Justice)

c. 1814-1849: Market Square, Norfolk, Virginia

Hutchings soon purchased Minkins. However, when her business failed, she auctioned him and several other enslaved people to help settle her debts. John A. Higgins bought Minkins and then later sold him to his father-in-law, John DeBree.[1]

Sketch of Norfolk Harbor, 1861Minkins most likely boarded a ship in Norfolk Harbor to escape slavery. (Credit: Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1861)

May 1850: Norfolk Harbor, Norfolk, Virginia

In early May 1850, Minkins escaped from Norfolk, most likely by sea. Many northern bound ships departed from Norfolk to port cities such as Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. Many freedom seekers, particularly from places along the coast, used ships as their primary means of escape whether hiding as stowaways or with the help of sympathetic, or compensated, captains or crew.[2]

Map of downtown Boston, with a selection of buildings on Cornhill highlighted.Shadrach Minkins worked as a waiter at Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern, believed to have been located in the highlighted area. (Credit: Digital Commonwealth)

May 1850-February 15, 1851: Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern, Boston, Massachusetts

Though we do not know Minkins’ exact route to Massachusetts, he set foot in Boston in May 1850. He soon found steady work as a waiter in the Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern, in the commercial heart of the city. He may have lived there for a time as well.

Map of downtown Boston, with a selection of buildings on Cornhill highlighted.Shadrach Minkins worked as a waiter at Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern, believed to have been located in the highlighted area. (Credit: Boston Public Library)

February 15, 1851: Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern, Boston, Massachusetts

Nine months later, John Caphart, a constable from Norfolk, acting on behalf of Shadrach’s owner, John DeBree, enlisted the help of the U.S. Commissioner and federal marshals in Boston to execute the Fugitive Slave Law, arrest Shadrach, and transport him back to Virginia.

On the morning of February 15, 1851, Assistant Deputy Marshall Patrick Riley and other agents arrested Shadrach at the Cornhill Coffee House, minutes after he served them coffee.

With his arrest, Minkins became the first fugitive slave to be seized in New England under the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. [3]

Print of the Boston Court House from the street.Minkins escaped from the Boston Courthouse, depicted here in an 1836 print. (Credit: Boston Public Library)

February 15, 1851: The Courthouse, Court Square, Boston, Massachusetts

Following Minkins’ arrest, Riley and his deputies brought him directly to the courthouse nearby to await his hearing. Crowds soon gathered in and around the courthouse demanding answers.

As tensions mounted, a group of Black men, led by Lewis Hayden, rushed the courtroom, overwhelmed the guards, and seized Shadrach Minkins. The rescue party hustled Minkins out of the courthouse and into the streets heading for the Black community on Beacon Hill.

Shocked and defeated, the authorities did not pursue Minkins and his rescuers.

Dr. Henry Bowditch, a prominent member of the Boston Vigilance Committee, wrote, “Today will ever be a holy day in my calendar, for another slave has been rescued from the fangs of the slave hunter.” Reverend Theodore Parker considered this rescue to be “the most noble deed done in Boston since the destruction of the tea in 1773.” [4]

Lewis Hayden (right) took Shadrach Minkins to a safe house on Southac Place (highlighted on left) to hide.Lewis Hayden (right) took Shadrach Minkins to a safe house on Southac Place (highlighted on the left) to hide. (Credit: Boston Public Library)

February 15, 1851: Mrs. Riley's Attic, Southac Place, Boston, Massachusetts

According to Lewis Hayden, when the rescue party made it to Beacon Hill, he and Robert Morris, a Black attorney, "'escorted Shadrach away from the crowd' and 'safely lodged him in the attic of a widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Riley, one of our race, whose fidelity and humanity we all fully confided in.'" Riley lived on Southac Place, not far from Hayden’s own home and safe house on Southac Street.[5]

Portrait of Joseph C. LovejoyAccording to city directories from the 1850s, Lovejoy lived on the corner of Walnut and Charles streets. Today, this corner may be at the intersection of Putnam and Waverley Streets in Cambridge. (Credit: Joseph C. Lovejoy, c.1869)

February 15, 1851: Joseph C. Lovejoy's Residence, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Based on his account, Lewis Hayden soon took Minkins from Mrs. Riley’s house to nearby Watertown by horse and chaise to get him out of the city. After spending the afternoon there, they headed to the Cambridge home of Reverend Joseph C. Lovejoy, brother of the martyred abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. [6]

Photograph of the Ann Bigelow House in Concord, MA.On the night of February 16, Hayden and Smith brought Minkins to the Bigelows' house in Concord to hide. (Credit: Concord Library)

February 16, 1851: The Bigelow House, 19 Sudbury Road (now), Concord, Massachusetts

Later that night, Hayden and John J. Smith, another Black leader from Boston, drove Minkins to Concord where they left him in the care of Ann and Francis Bigelow. Mrs. Bigelow later recalled that Hayden, Smith, and Shadrach “arrived at Concord at three o’clock Sunday morning…Mr. Bigelow, hearing the carriage, opened his door, and let in the poor fugitive…The blinds of the house were at once shut, and the windows darkened, to evade the notice of any passers-by…” She cooked Minkins breakfast but described him as “so fatigued with loss of sleep, and anxiety, that he could hardly keep awake while eating.” [7]

Photograph of the Drake House.Shadrach Minkins briefly stayed with the Drakes, staunch abolitionists. (Credit: Leominster Historical Society)

February 16, 1851: The Drake House, 21 Franklin Street, Leominster, Massachusetts

According to Ann Bigelow, after Shadrach Minkins’ brief respite in Concord, her husband took him by horse and carriage to the home of Frances and Jonathan Drake in Leominster. A staunch abolitionist, Mrs. Drake later proudly proclaimed that she “had the honor of sheltering Shadrach when his pursuers were searching for him.” Minkins likely spent the remainder of the day with the Drakes before heading further north.[8]

Map of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Canada, with the cities of Keene, Brattleboro, Burlington, St. Albans, and Montreal highlighted.This map, with railroad routes and highlighted cities, demonstrate the possible paths Minkins may have traveled north to Canada. (Credit: Library of Congress)

c. February 17-21, 1851: La Praire, Quebec, Canada

Tracing Minkins’ journey from Leominster becomes more problematic as there are no verifiable accounts of the route he took. His biographer, Gary Collision, suggests that Shadrach Minkins may have crossed into New Hampshire on February 17th or 18th. He likely stuck close to the railroad heading north through Keene, New Hampshire or crossed overland west to Brattleboro, Vermont then followed the railway line north from there. Given the speed in which he reached Canada, it is likely that Minkins traveled both by foot and train as he made his way through either Burlington or St. Albans, in the northwest corner of Vermont, by midweek. In all likelihood, he crossed into Canada heading towards La Praire by Thursday or early Friday morning, then crossed the frozen Saint Lawrence River into Montreal.[9]

Printed letter from Frederick (Shadrach) MinkinsThe North Star printed Minkins' letter, mailed from Montreal. (Credit: The North Star)

1851-c.1860: Old Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Within a week of arriving in Montreal, Shadrach Minkins sent the following letter to an unknown recipient to let him know of his whereabouts. He signed it “Frederick Minkins,” the name he adopted in Boston to conceal his identity when he first ran away.

“Dear Sir:
I feel it my duty to forward you the account of my arrival in this city. I reached here last Friday evening, a journey of four days. The weather was very severe during this time, and we had to cross the ice twice; once the distance was nine miles. My health is not so good as when I left, but I hope a few days will restore me. I am at a loss for words to express the gratitude I feel to those kind and dear friends in Boston, and believe me I shall always consider it my duty to pray for their health and happiness. Please to remember me kindly here – and to the ladies. And in conclusion, permit me to subscribe myself,
Your grateful servant,
Frederick Minkins”[10]

Photograph of Notre Dame Street, Montreal, QC, 1866Photograph of Notre Dame Street in Old Montreal, 1866, where Minkins opened a business. (Credit: Musee McCord Museum)

1851-c.1860: Old Montreal, Quebec, Canada

To support himself, Minkins initially worked as a waiter in the Montreal House Hotel near Custom House Square in the section of the city known as Old Montreal. By late March, he opened a barbershop there. By the end of summer, he closed his barbershop and opened the West End Lunch at 172 ½ Notre Dame Street.

One of Minkins’ visitors wrote, “he is in excellent spirits, and feels what he never felt previous to his residence in Canada, that he owns himself, and is perfectly safe from the impious clutch of the manhunter…”

By 1853, he met and married his wife Mary and soon began to start a family. Throughout the rest of the 1850s, he owned and operated several barbershops, inns, and restaurants in Old Montreal. He named one of them Uncle Tom’s Cabin, after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling novel, in an obvious nod to his stature as a fugitive from American slavery. [11]

Map of St. Antoine Ward, that shows St. Antoine StreetWhile Minkins and his family lived on Montagne Street, he owned a barbershop on St. Antoine Street. (Credit: Images Montreal)

c.1860-1875: St. Antoine Ward, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

By 1860, Shadrach Minkins and his family moved from Old Montreal to the St. Antoine Ward, the emerging industrial center of the city. He opened a new barbershop on St. Antoine Street and moved his growing family to a home at 83 Montagne (now Mountain) Street.

He also involved himself in civic life. In 1860, he joined nearly forty other Black petitioners as they called for the creation of a Black Militia. Minkins and the other petitioners declared themselves “loyal and dutiful subjects of Her Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria…desirous of proving their attachment to the British Crown under which they hold their rights and privileges as Free Citizens, in common with their brethren of European origin.” [12]

Photograph of the entrance to Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal, QC, 1866Mount Royal Cemetery became Shadrach Minkins final resting place when he died in 1875. (Credit: Musee McCord Museum)

December 13, 1875: Mount Royal Cemetery, Outremont, Quebe, Canada

Shadrach Minkins died a “Free Citizen” of Canada on December 13, 1875 of “disease of the stomach.” His remains are buried in an unmarked grave in Mount Royal Cemetery.

Though born enslaved in Virginia, his journey on the underground railroad, though fraught at times, led to a new life of family, opportunity, and freedom in his adopted home of Canada. [13]

Footnotes

[1] Gary Collison, Shadrach Minkins: From Fugitive Slave to Citizen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 10.

Image (previous slide): Henry Howe, Historical Collections of Virginia, 1845. Accessed September 2020, https://www.wikiwand.com/en/History_of_Norfolk,_Virginia.

Image (current slide): "Long Road to Justice: The African American Experience in the Massachusetts Courts," Exhibit, (Boston, Massachusetts). Accessed September 2020, http://www.longroadtojustice.org/topics/slavery/shadrach-minkins.php.

[2] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 54.

Image: "The Navy Yard at Norfolk, Virginia," Harper's Weekly, March 16, 1861.

[3] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 2.

Image: J. Slatter, B. Callan, Matthew Dripps, Lemuel Nichols Ide, and Ferd, Mayer & Co., "Map of the city of Boston, Massts., 1852." (New York/Boston, M. Dripps/L.N. Ide 1852), Map. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/x059c9526.

[4] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 134.

Image: "View of the new court house, Court Street, Boston," Boston Public Library, 1836, https://www.digitalcommonwealth.org/search/commonwealth:ht24xc16r.

[5] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 130.

Image: J. Slatter, B. Callan, Matthew Dripps, Lemuel Nichols Ide, and Ferd, Mayer & Co., "Map of the city of Boston, Massts., 1852." (New York/Boston, M. Dripps/L.N. Ide 1852), Map. Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/x059c9526.

[6] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 132.

Image: "Joseph C. Lovejoy," A tract for the times. Prohibition ground to powder!!! By Joseph C. Lovejoy, with forty witnesses. (c. 1869). https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011552463.

[7] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 154.

Image: "Ann Bigelow House," Concord Library, 2006.

[8] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 159.

Image: "The Drake House," 2003, Photo courtesy of Leominster Historical Society.

[9] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 164.

Image: Ensign, Bridgman & Fanning. Ensign, Bridgman & Fanning's rail road map of the Eastern States. New York, 1856. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/98688360/.

[10] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 174.

Image: Shadrach Minkins, "Letter from Frederick (Shadrach) Minkins," The North Star, 1851.

[11] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 188, 201.

Image: William Notman, "Notre Dame Street, Montreal, QC," 1866. The McCord Museum. http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/I-20851.1.

[12] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 213.

Image: "Atlas Montreal plaque 13," BANQ, 1890. Accessed September 2020, https://imtl.org/carte_historique.php?carte=252.

[13] Collison, Shadrach Minkins, 222.

Image: William Notman, "Entrance to Mount Royal Cemetery, Montreal," 1866. The McCord Museum. Accessed September 2020, http://collections.musee-mccord.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/I-21071.1.

Last updated: November 19, 2020