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“The Whole Land is Full of Blood”: The Thomas Sims Case

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 one freedom seeker, Thomas Sims, who escaped to Boston. To explore additional stories, visit Boston: An Underground Railroad Hub.

Similar to many other freedom seekers, Thomas Sims' path to emancipation took many years and several attempts. Born enslaved in Georgia, Sims escaped bondage by hiding on a ship headed to Boston. A few weeks after his self-liberation, authorities captured Sims under the Fugitive Slave Law and returned him to slavery. After living several more years enslaved and being sold across the South, Sims permanently achieved freedom during the Civil War by escaping north in a 'dug-out boat.'

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Thomas Sims

c. 1830s - 1902

Learn about Thomas Sims' long journey to freedom.

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Thomas Sims

c. 1830s - 1902

Learn about Thomas Sims' long journey to freedom.

Portrait of Thomas Sims wearing a three-piece suit and bow tie.Portrait of Thomas Sims, a freedom seeker. (Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum)

c. 1830s - c. February 21-22, 1851: Chatham County, Georgia

Born in the early 1830s, Thomas Sims grew up in Chatham County, Georgia, enslaved by the rice planter James Potter. In the ten years prior to his escape from slavery, Sims lived in Savannah with his mother and worked as a bricklayer under the condition that he turn his wages over to Potter.

In February 1851, Sims made his escape by secretly boarding the brig M. and J.C. Gilmore undetected by the captain and crew as it headed North.[1]

Boston Light House in Boston Harbor, with people standing and sitting on large rocks in front of it.Near Boston Light in Boston Harbor, a mate discovered Sims hiding on board. (Credit: Boston Public Library)

March 6 - April 3, 1851 : Boston Harbor, Boston, Massachusetts

As a stowaway, Sims remained undiscovered by the crew for the two-week journey. However, near Boston Light in Boston Harbor, a mate caught him and brought him before the captain, who then locked him in a cabin. Sims managed to escape the cabin, steal a boat, and make his way to South Boston.

He soon moved into a boarding house for "colored seamen" at 153-155 Ann Street in the city. [2]

Sketch of the Boston Court House, with crowds of people outside.Authorities put chains around the courthouse and stationed guards outside to prevent an attempt to free Sims. (Courtesy of the Boston Athenaeum)

April 4-11, 1851: Courthouse, Boston, Massachusetts

Agents for James Potter came to the city and enlisted the help of U.S. Marshal Charles Devens and other local authorities to return Sims to Georgia under the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law. They arrested Sims, who wounded one of the officers in the struggle, and held him in the courthouse. Still reeling from the rescue of Shadrach Minkins less than two months prior, authorities took no chances. They draped the courthouse in chains, stationed numerous guards in and around it, and garrisoned a militia at nearby Faneuil Hall in case of possible public unrest. Seeing such an excessive display of force and precaution around the courthouse led abolitionist lawyer Richard Henry Dana to exclaim, "Our temple of justice is a slave pen!"[3]

Knowing an attack on the courthouse would be impossible, abolitionists hatched a plan to place mattresses outside and have Sims leap from his third floor window to freedom. According to Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

Great pains were taken to keep the plan a secret and I well remember the sinking of the heart with which I saw, on walking through Court Square on the evening planned for the enterprise, that masons were at work putting iron bars in the window of Sim’s cell. The whole plan was thus frustrated.[4]
Sketch of the procession of Thomas Sims down State Street.Over 300 local and federal authorities marched Sims from the courthouse to Long Wharf where a brig awaited him. (Credit: "Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion," 1851)

April 11-12, 1851: State Street, Boston, Massachusetts

At his hearing, Sims declared, "I will not go back to Slavery. Give me a knife, and when the Commissioner declares me a slave I will stab myself in the heart, and die before his eyes! I will not be a slave."[5] Despite this plea and the best efforts of Sim’s legal team, Commissioner George Ticknor Curtis ruled in favor of the claimant and remanded Sims to James Potter.

To avoid a daytime procession that would likely draw a large and angry crowd, authorities escorted Sims to a waiting ship in the early morning hours of April 12. With the mayor and U.S. Marshal in attendance, 300 armed police, city watch, and others formed a hollow square in which they placed Sims. With swords drawn, they marched him down State Street to Long Wharf. Roughly one hundred abolitionists bore witness to this spectacle crying "Shame! Shame!" and asking aloud "Where is Liberty?" as they followed the procession to the waterfront. As Sims walked with his captors, "his sable cheeks were bathed in tears, and although he evinced the deepest grief and sorrow, he marched with a firm and manly step, like a martyr and a hero, to his fate."[6]

Brig AcornThe Acorn returned Sims back to slavery in Savannah. (Credit: "Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion," 1851)

April 12, 1851: Long Wharf, Boston, Massachusetts

Authorities succeeded in getting Sims aboard the brig Acorn without incident, which quickly departed for Savannah.

J.W.C. Pennington, an abolitionist minister who fled slavery himself, wrote:

Thomas Sims has been given over to his Claimant and has been taken back into Slavery. These cases are enough to break one’s heart. It is difficult to see how the enormous evil and crime of Slavery can be carried to a greater extent.
The whole land is full of blood…[7]
Photograph overlooking Savannah, Georiga. After being imprisoned, Sims worked as a bricklayer in Savannah. (Credit: New York Public Library)

c. April - June, 1851: Savannah, Georgia

James Potter had Sims publicly whipped thirty-nine times upon his arrival back in Savannah and sent him to prison for three months. Sims became so ill that the physician who cared for the inmates told Potter that Sims would die if he remained much longer. Potter released Sims from jail, and once he recovered, hired him out once again to work as a bricklayer and turn over his wages.[8]

Sketch of a slave auction in Charleston.Sims' enslaver Potter sent him to Charleston to be sold by a slave trader. (Credit: Library of Congress)

c. Summer 1851: Charleston, South Carolina

Because his new boss mistreated him so badly, Sims asked Potter to be sold. Potter agreed and sent Sims to the slave pens in Charleston, South Carolina on consignment to Mordecai, a slave trader. [9]

Print of Birds-eye view of New Orleans, with the river in the foreground.After no one bought Sims in Charleston, the slave trader sent him to New Orleans to be sold. (Credit: Library of Congress)

c. 1850s: New Orleans, Lousiana

Mordecai could not find someone who wanted to buy Sims, so he purchased Sims himself and sent him to New Orleans to be sold.[10]

Map of Vicksburg that shows forts and troop arrangements.In Vicksburg, Sims continued to work as a bricklayer while enslaved. (Credit: Library of Congress)

c. 1850s - 1863: Vicksburg, Mississippi

A slaveholder and mason ultimately bought Sims in New Orleans and brought him to Vicksburg. Sims continued to work as a bricklayer for the next ten or eleven years.[11]

In 1859, Sims sent a letter from Vicksburg to his sister who lived in Boston in the Black community on Beacon Hill. He wrote:

I hope you will remember me to those dear friends in Boston whose hearts bled with sorrow when I was sent away from that City, which I hope to reach again one day, if God spares my life, and join hands with them & struggle for my right to freedom…I do live in hopes of seeing those friends in Boston again.[12]
Newspaper clipping advertising a lecture by Thomas Sims at Tremont TempleThomas Sims shared his journey to freedom at public lectures, including at one held in Tremont Temple in 1863. (Credit: Boston Herald, May 6, 1863)

Late April - May, 1863: Garden Street, Boston, Massachusetts

During the Civil War, Sims, his wife and child, and three other men escaped from Vicksburg in a 'dug-out boat.' Following his escape, he met with U.S. General Ulysses S. Grant. After providing details of Confederate fortifications and manpower that he witnessed, Sims received permission to pass through Union lines to get to Boston.

He moved in with his sister, then living on Garden Street in the city.

Sims began speaking publicly to northern audiences eager to hear his story, including a talk at Boston’s Tremont Temple on May 6, 1863.

On May 28th, he watched the 54th Massachusetts, one of the first Black regiments in the Civil War, march out of the city down the very same street on which heavily armed officers once escorted him back to slavery.[13]

Photograph from a fort overlooking Nashville.Sims traveled to Nashville to recruit soldiers for Black Massachusetts regiments. (Credit: Library of Congress)

c. 1864 - c. 1870s: Nashville, Tennessee

Sims did not serve as a soldier during the war, but rather used his celebrity to recruit men for the Black Massachusetts regiments both in Huntsville, Alabama and Nashville, Tennessee. A Lowell newspaper referred to him as "a quiet, energetic recruiting agent to aid that very government which exhausted all its warlike powers and all the resources of statesmanship to return him to a state of slavery…" Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper wondered,

what statesman could have dreamed when Thomas Sims was carried down State street in Boston, as a fugitive slave, that in March 1865, he would be in Huntsville, Ala., recruiting colored troops for the State of Massachusetts? This is the fact, but the man who ventured to predict four years ago would have been considered a candidate for the insane asylum.[14]

Sims and his family later settled in Nashville.[15]

Sketch of Washington D.C. from the National Oberservatory.Thomas Sims lived the rest of his life with his family in Washington D.C. (Credit: Library of Congress)

c. 1877 - 1902: Washington, D.C.

By 1877, Sims and his family had moved to Washington, D.C.

U.S. Attorney General Charles Devens, who as U.S. Marshal in Boston assisted in the arrest of Sims years earlier, hired Sims as Messenger in the Department of Justice, perhaps to assuage his guilty conscience.

Sims continued to live the rest of his life in relative obscurity in Washington, D.C. where he died in 1902. [16]

Footnotes:

[1] Trial of Thomas Sims, on an issue of personal liberty, on the claim of James Potter, of Georgia, against him, as an alleged fugitive from service: Arguments of Robert Rantoul, jr., and Charles G. Loring, with the decision of George T. Curtis, Boston, April 7-11, 1851. Phonographic report by Dr. James W. Stone (Commonwealth Building. No. 60 Washington Street, Boston: Wm. S. Damrell and Co., 1851), https://archive.org/details/trialofthomassim00sims/mode/2up, 46-47.

Image: “Wendell Phillips,” Gleason's Pictorial vol. 1, no. 1, (May 3, 1851): 4, https://cdm.bostonathenaeum.org/digital/collection/p13110coll5/id/4316.

[2] Leonard W. Levy, "Sims' Case: The Fugitive Slave Law in Boston in 1851," The Journal of Negro History vol. 35, no. 1 (Jan., 1950), 43

Image: B. W. (Benjamin West) Kilburn, "Boston Light, Boston Harbor, Mass." Photograph (Littleton, N.H.: Photographed and published by B.W. Kilburn, 1878), Digital Commonwealth, accessed September, 2020, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/7p88d0093.

[3] Levy, "Sims' Case," 64.

Image: “Boston Court House,” Gleason's Pictorial vol. 1, no. 1, (May 3, 1851): 5, https://cdm.bostonathenaeum.org/digital/collection/p13110coll5/id/5443/rec/1.

[4] Stanley W. Campbell, Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1968), 119.

[5] Levy, "Sims' Case," 68.

Image: “Boston Police and Night Watch Conveying the Fugitive Slave, Sims, to the Vessel,” Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, vol. 1, 1851, accessed September 2020, 44, https://archive.org/details/gleasonspictoria01glea/page/44/mode/2up.

[6] The Liberator (Boston, Massachusetts), April 18, 1851, 2.

[7] "'The whole land if full of blood,' 1851, A Spotlight on a Primary Source by James W. C. Pennington," History Resources, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, accessed September 2020, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-resources/spotlight-primary-source/whole-land-full-blood-1851.

Image: “Departure of the Brig Acorn From Boston Harbor with Sims on Board,” Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, vol. 1, 1851, accessed September 2020, 44, https://archive.org/details/gleasonspictoria01glea/page/44/mode/2up.

[8] "A letter from Francis Jackson to Lydia Maria Child about Thomas Sims, who was arrested and re-enslaved under the Fugitive Slave Law, 1860," Digital Public Library of America, accessed September 2020, https://dp.la/primary-source-sets/incidents-in-the-life-of-a-slave-girl-by-harriet-jacobs/sources/1140.

Image: "Panoramic view of Savannah," The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library, New York Public Library Digital Collections, accessed September 16, 2020, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-56da-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

[9] "A letter from Francis Jackson."Image: “Slave sale, Charleston, S.C.,” 1856, Sketch, accessed September 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/2006687271/.

[10] "A letter from Francis Jackson."

Image: John Bachmann, “Birds' eye view of New-Orleans / drawn from nature on stone by J. Bachman i.e., Bachmann,” New Orleans, Louisiana, United States, (New York: Published by the agents A. Guerber & Co. Photograph, ca. 1851), accessed September 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/93500720/.

[11] "A letter from Francis Jackson."

Image: Robert Knox Sneden, “Map of the rebel position at Vicksburg, Miss., May” [S.l., to 1865, 1863] Map, accessed September 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/gvhs01.vhs00140/.

[12] "A letter from Francis Jackson."

[13] William Cooper Nell, William Cooper Nell: Selected Writings 1832-1874, edited by Dorothy Porter Wesley and Constance Porter Uzelac (Baltimore: Black Classic Press 2002), 641.

Image: “The House of Bondage,” Boston Herald, May 6, 1863, accessed September 2020, https://mississippiconfederates.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/a-remarkable-incident-the-escape-of-thomas-sims-from-vicksburg/.

[14] Jeff T. Giambrone, "A Remarkable Incident: The Escape of Thomas Sims from Vicksburg," Mississippians in the Confederate Army, September 28, 2013, accessed September 2020, https://mississippiconfederates.wordpress.com/2013/09/28/a-remarkable-incident-the-escape-of-thomas-sims-from-vicksburg/.

Image: George N. Barnard, “Nashville, Tenn., from Fort Negley looking northeast,” Fort Negley, Nashville, Tennessee United States, March, 1864, Photograph, accessed September 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/2007662878/.

[15] Robert S. Davis, "Chattanooga History Column: Thomas Sims Epic Struggle for Freedom," Chattanooga Times Free Press, February 5, 2017, accessed September 2020, https://www.timesfreepress.com/news/opinion/columns/story/2017/feb/05/davis-lave-thomsims-epic-struggle-freedom/410943/.

[16] Davis, "Chattanooga History Column: Thomas Sims Epic Struggle for Freedom."

Image: “City of Washington, D.C. from the National Observatory,” ca. 1877, Photograph, accessed September 2020, https://www.loc.gov/item/2007682995/.

Last updated: November 19, 2020