NEH Landmarks of the Underground Railroad From Christiana to Harper’s Ferry

Amy Allaire

Class:  U.S. History I


Grade:  9th


Level:  Regular Education and Inclusion Students


Time:  1 to 1 ½  88 minute double block


Overview:  Students will examine the Underground Railroad through a study of the Fugitive Slave Act and the Shadrach Minkins case.  Using primary source documents, dealing with these two topics, students will create a new definition of the Underground Railroad and will relate that definition to local history.


Objectives:  Students will:


Lesson Procedure:

  1. Discussion:  Have students give their general definition of the Underground Railroad and discuss with the class.
  2. Lecture:  The teacher should give a brief discussion of the Underground Railroad then give a small lecture on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
  3. Document:  Students should be given the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to analyze and discuss its meaning (for upper level students the whole document can be given, for regular level and inclusion, editing can be done to the document).  Document attached.
  4. Activity:  Divide the class into small groups and pose the following scenario for them to discuss:

A law has been passed that you are absolutely against and think is totally wrong.  Someone you know has been arrested under this law and is about to go to court.  What do you do?

  1. Lecture and Documents:  Begin to tell the story of Shadrach Minkins, an escaped slave that made his way to Boston and worked as a waiter.  Discuss how Minkins was caught by a slave catcher and was brought to court to be sent back to his master according to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Continue through the story of how a large group of men stormed the Boston Courthouse and rescued Minkins and began the process of using the Underground Railroad, primarily through Lewis Hayden, to send him to Canada.  Discuss how people were arrested for Minkins’ escape and then how those arrested for helping Minkins, filed suit against the District Attorney and others declaring the Fugitive Slave Act unconstitutional.  Use the following documents to help in the story:  Shadrach Sale Poster, Lewis Hayden picture, New York Tribune telegraph, and Minkins’ letter of thanks from Canada.
  2. Local History:  If in MA, have students take a map and research Minkins’ escape through MA.  He was taken from Boston eventually to Concord, then to Leominster and West Fitchburg where he boarded a train for Vermont and ended in Canada.  (See local Fitchburg newspaper article). 
  3. Application:  Have students compare their answers to the scenario given above to what happened in Boston with Minkins.  Discuss how this could happen and the fact that all arrested for the crime of Minkins’ escape were found not guilty. (Use Vigilance Committee Document).  Continue with this discussion and have students begin to redefine the Underground Railroad as not just a series of secretive hidey-holes but organized, open and defiant protest. 


Sample Assessment:


·         Creative:  Have students write a diary entry of the escape of Shadrach Minkins.

·         Analytical:  Have students write on whether this same type of protest could happen in society today with all participants being acquitted. 

·         Factual:  Have students write a newspaper article detailing the event.

Test or quiz on information.

Artistic:  Have students create a poster either for or against Minkins’ liberators.

























Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

Section 1

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the persons who have been, or may hereafter be, appointed commissioners, in virtue of any act of Congress, by the Circuit Courts of the United States, and Who, in consequence of such appointment, are authorized to exercise the powers that any justice of the peace, or other magistrate of any of the United States, may exercise in respect to offenders for any crime or offense against the United States, by arresting, imprisoning, or bailing the same under and by the virtue of the thirty-third section of the act of the twenty-fourth of September seventeen hundred and eighty-nine, entitled "An Act to establish the judicial courts of the United States" shall be, and are hereby, authorized and required to exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act.

Section 2

And be it further enacted, That the Superior Court of each organized Territory of the United States shall have the same power to appoint commissioners to take acknowledgments of bail and affidavits, and to take depositions of witnesses in civil causes, which is now possessed by the Circuit Court of the United States; and all commissioners who shall hereafter be appointed for such purposes by the Superior Court of any organized Territory of the United States, shall possess all the powers, and exercise all the duties, conferred by law upon the commissioners appointed by the Circuit Courts of the United States for similar purposes, and shall moreover exercise and discharge all the powers and duties conferred by this act.

Section 3

And be it further enacted, That the Circuit Courts of the United States shall from time to time enlarge the number of the commissioners, with a view to afford reasonable facilities to reclaim fugitives from labor, and to the prompt discharge of the duties imposed by this act.

Section 4

And be it further enacted, That the commissioners above named shall have concurrent jurisdiction with the judges of the Circuit and District Courts of the United States, in their respective circuits and districts within the several States, and the judges of the Superior Courts of the Territories, severally and collectively, in term-time and vacation; shall grant certificates to such claimants, upon satisfactory proof being made, with authority to take and remove such fugitives from service or labor, under the restrictions herein contained, to the State or Territory from which such persons may have escaped or fled.

Section 5

And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of all marshals and deputy marshals to obey and execute all warrants and precepts issued under the provisions of this act, when to them directed; and should any marshal or deputy marshal refuse to receive such warrant, or other process, when tendered, or to use all proper means diligently to execute the same, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in the sum of one thousand dollars, to the use of such claimant, on the motion of such claimant, by the Circuit or District Court for the district of such marshal; and after arrest of such fugitive, by such marshal or his deputy, or whilst at any time in his custody under the provisions of this act, should such fugitive escape, whether with or without the assent of such marshal or his deputy, such marshal shall be liable, on his official bond, to be prosecuted for the benefit of such claimant, for the full value of the service or labor of said fugitive in the State, Territory, or District whence he escaped: and the better to enable the said commissioners, when thus appointed, to execute their duties faithfully and efficiently, in conformity with the requirements of the Constitution of the United States and of this act, they are hereby authorized and empowered, within their counties respectively, to appoint, in writing under their hands, any one or more suitable persons, from time to time, to execute all such warrants and other process as may be issued by them in the lawful performance of their respective duties; with authority to such commissioners, or the persons to be appointed by them, to execute process as aforesaid, to summon and call to their aid the bystanders, or posse comitatus of the proper county, when necessary to ensure a faithful observance of the clause of the Constitution referred to, in conformity with the provisions of this act; and all good citizens are hereby commanded to aid and assist in the prompt and efficient execution of this law, whenever their services may be required, as aforesaid, for that purpose; and said warrants shall run, and be executed by said officers, any where in the State within which they are issued.

Section 6

And be it further enacted, That when a person held to service or labor in any State or Territory of the United States, has heretofore or shall hereafter escape into another State or Territory of the United States, the person or persons to whom such service or labor may be due, or his, her, or their agent or attorney, duly authorized, by power of attorney, in writing, acknowledged and certified under the seal of some legal officer or court of the State or Territory in which the same may be executed, may pursue and reclaim such fugitive person, either by procuring a warrant from some one of the courts, judges, or commissioners aforesaid, of the proper circuit, district, or county, for the apprehension of such fugitive from service or labor, or by seizing and arresting such fugitive, where the same can be done without process, and by taking, or causing such person to be taken, forthwith before such court, judge, or commissioner, whose duty it shall be to hear and determine the case of such claimant in a summary manner; and upon satisfactory proof being made, by deposition or affidavit, in writing, to be taken and certified by such court, judge, or commissioner, or by other satisfactory testimony, duly taken and certified by some court, magistrate, justice of the peace, or other legal officer authorized to administer an oath and take depositions under the laws of the State or Territory from which such person owing service or labor may have escaped, with a certificate of such magistracy or other authority, as aforesaid, with the seal of the proper court or officer thereto attached, which seal shall be sufficient to establish the competency of the proof, and with proof, also by affidavit, of the identity of the person whose service or labor is claimed to be due as aforesaid, that the person so arrested does in fact owe service or labor to the person or persons claiming him or her, in the State or Territory from which such fugitive may have escaped as aforesaid, and that said person escaped, to make out and deliver to such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, a certificate setting forth the substantial facts as to the service or labor due from such fugitive to the claimant, and of his or her escape from the State or Territory in which he or she was arrested, with authority to such claimant, or his or her agent or attorney, to use such reasonable force and restraint as may be necessary, under the circumstances of the case, to take and remove such fugitive person back to the State or Territory whence he or she may have escaped as aforesaid. In no trial or hearing under this act shall the testimony of such alleged fugitive be admitted in evidence; and the certificates in this and the first [fourth] section mentioned, shall be conclusive of the right of the person or persons in whose favor granted, to remove such fugitive to the State or Territory from which he escaped, and shall prevent all molestation of such person or persons by any process issued by any court, judge, magistrate, or other person whomsoever.

Section 7

And be it further enacted, That any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, either with or without process as aforesaid, or shall rescue, or attempt to rescue, such fugitive from service or labor, from the custody of such claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or other person or persons lawfully assisting as aforesaid, when so arrested, pursuant to the authority herein given and declared; or shall aid, abet, or assist such person so owing service or labor as aforesaid, directly or indirectly, to escape from such claimant, his agent or attorney, or other person or persons legally authorized as aforesaid; or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, so as to prevent the discovery and arrest of such person, after notice or knowledge of the fact that such person was a fugitive from service or labor as aforesaid, shall, for either of said offences, be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months, by indictment and conviction before the District Court of the United States for the district in which such offence may have been committed, or before the proper court of criminal jurisdiction, if committed within any one of the organized Territories of the United States; and shall moreover forfeit and pay, by way of civil damages to the party injured by such illegal conduct, the sum of one thousand dollars for each fugitive so lost as aforesaid, to be recovered by action of debt, in any of the District or Territorial Courts aforesaid, within whose jurisdiction the said offence may have been committed.

Section 8

And be it further enacted, That the marshals, their deputies, and the clerks of the said District and Territorial Courts, shall be paid, for their services, the like fees as may be allowed for similar services in other cases; and where such services are rendered exclusively in the arrest, custody, and delivery of the fugitive to the claimant, his or her agent or attorney, or where such supposed fugitive may be discharged out of custody for the want of sufficient proof as aforesaid, then such fees are to be paid in whole by such claimant, his or her agent or attorney; and in all cases where the proceedings are before a commissioner, he shall be entitled to a fee of ten dollars in full for his services in each case, upon the delivery of the said certificate to the claimant, his agent or attorney; or a fee of five dollars in cases where the proof shall not, in the opinion of such commissioner, warrant such certificate and delivery, inclusive of all services incident to such arrest and examination, to be paid, in either case, by the claimant, his or her agent or attorney. The person or persons authorized to execute the process to be issued by such commissioner for the arrest and detention of fugitives from service or labor as aforesaid, shall also be entitled to a fee of five dollars each for each person he or they may arrest, and take before any commissioner as aforesaid, at the instance and request of such claimant, with such other fees as may be deemed reasonable by such commissioner for such other additional services as may be necessarily performed by him or them; such as attending at the examination, keeping the fugitive in custody, and providing him with food and lodging during his detention, and until the final determination of such commissioners; and, in general, for performing such other duties as may be required by such claimant, his or her attorney or agent, or commissioner in the premises, such fees to be made up in conformity with the fees usually charged by the officers of the courts of justice within the proper district or county, as near as may be practicable, and paid by such claimants, their agents or attorneys, whether such supposed fugitives from service or labor be ordered to be delivered to such claimant by the final determination of such commissioner or not.

Section 9

And be it further enacted, That, upon affidavit made by the claimant of such fugitive, his agent or attorney, after such certificate has been issued, that he has reason to apprehend that such fugitive will he rescued by force from his or their possession before he can be taken beyond the limits of the State in which the arrest is made, it shall be the duty of the officer making the arrest to retain such fugitive in his custody, and to remove him to the State whence he fled, and there to deliver him to said claimant, his agent, or attorney. And to this end, the officer aforesaid is hereby authorized and required to employ so many persons as he may deem necessary to overcome such force, and to retain them in his service so long as circumstances may require. The said officer and his assistants, while so employed, to receive the same compensation, and to be allowed the same expenses, as are now allowed by law for transportation of criminals, to be certified by the judge of the district within which the arrest is made, and paid out of the treasury of the United States.

Section 10

And be it further enacted, That when any person held to service or labor in any State or Territory, or in the District of Columbia, shall escape there from, the party to whom such service or labor shall be due, his, her, or their agent or attorney, may apply to any court of record therein, or judge thereof in vacation, and make satisfactory proof to such court, or judge in vacation, of the escape aforesaid, and that the person escaping owed service or labor to such party. Whereupon the court shall cause a record to be made of the matters so proved, and also a general description of the person so escaping, with such convenient certainty as may be; and a transcript of such record, authenticated by the attestation of the clerk and of the seal of the said court, being produced in any other State, Territory, or district in which the person so escaping may be found, and being exhibited to any judge, commissioner, or other office, authorized by the law of the United States to cause persons escaping from service or labor to be delivered up, shall be held and taken to be full and conclusive evidence of the fact of escape, and that the service or labor of the person escaping is due to the party in such record mentioned. And upon the production by the said party of other and further evidence if necessary, either oral or by affidavit, in addition to what is contained in the said record of the identity of the person escaping, he or she shall be delivered up to the claimant, And the said court, commissioner, judge, or other person authorized by this act to grant certificates to claimants or fugitives, shall, upon the production of the record and other evidences aforesaid, grant to such claimant a certificate of his right to take any such person identified and proved to be owing service or labor as aforesaid, which certificate shall authorize such claimant to seize or arrest and transport such person to the State or Territory from which he escaped: Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be construed as requiring the production of a transcript of such record as evidence as aforesaid. But in its absence the claim shall be heard and determined upon other satisfactory proofs, competent in law. Approved, September 18, 1850.

Shadrach Sale Advertisement

Sale this Day
Advertisement of sheriff’s sale of Shadrach Minkins, 1849
Courtesy Gary Collison


Lewis Hayden Picture


New York Tribune Telegraph

ITEM #29577
March 6, 1851
Washington, D.C., Vol. V. No. 218 p. 39

By Telegraph to the New York Tribune

Boston, Thursday, February 27 1, P.M. yesterday George Lunt, United States District Attorney, was arrested by Deputy Sheriff Coburn upon a writ brought by Alexander P. Burton, of Salem, the man arrested in that city a few days since and brought to Boston upon the charge of being an aider and abettor in the rescue of Shadrach, charging that Lunt maliciously, and without any just and probable cause, under oath, made a complaint in writing before Benj. F. Hallett, Esq., one of the Commissioners of the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Massachusetts, against the said plaintiff. Damages are set at $10,000; and Mr. Lunt was required to give bail for that sum, which he did.


A writ was issued about a week since for the arrest of Copehart, Attorney of Debree, the alleged owner of Shadrach, but he has thus far escaped the officers. Men are employed to find him, and are to be rewarded if they succeed. The case will come before the court of common pleas in Salem on the third Monday of March next.

A writ of attachment has first been served by Deputy Sheriff Coburn upon the goods and the estate of George F. Curtis, United States Commissioner, and Patrick Riley, Deputy United States Marshal, for $10,000 damages. This suit was brought on behalf of Shadrach, the alleged fugitive, alias Frederick Minkins, laborer. The suit charges that defendants did arrest and cause to be arrested, and did then beat and ill treat, the said plaintiff.

The defendants are held for trial in $10,000 each, to appear the April term of the court of common pleas. Several other Government and State officers will be arrested shortly. The ground upon which these suits are brought is, that the Fugitive Slave law is unconstitutional and that the officer prosecuting acted without authority.



Minkins’ Letter from Canada

ITEM #23681
April 10, 1851
Rochester, New York



A LETTER FROM SHADRACH. - We give below a copy of a well-written letter from Shadrach to a friend in this city. We have been requested to state that the rumors in regard to the probability of his return to this city, are without any foundation in truth. - Commonwealth.

"MONTREAL, Feb. 28th, 1851.

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 the 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 greatful servant. FREDERICK MINKINS.










Vigilance Committee Account  (website currently under construction). 

(Unable to put into this format) 



Local Fitchburg, MA  newspaper article:



Sentinel and Enterprise


Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006



Pages A1 to A2


Underground Legacy by J.J. Hughes

LEOMINSTER -- Local contractor Peter Phillips bought an old house at 21 Franklin St. about three years ago with the intention of building condos on the property.

He initially thought he might have to tear down the structure to begin the project.

But what he learned about the house's past changed his plans, and also changed him to some extent.

"It has a real significance in terms of the Underground Railroad," Phillips said Wednesday while standing on the porch of the light green, two-story cottage-style house. The Underground Railroad was a secret network of escape routes that fugitive slaves used to reach free states or Canada, with the assistance of abolitionists.

Phillips said he used to be "your average Joe" as far as having an interest in history.

But he became fascinated by what he learned about the house, in which his daughter Bobbie Jo now lives.

Phillips dropped his plans to build the condos, and has contacted the Massachusetts Historical Commission in hopes of getting the house registered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Phillips learned from Mark Bodanza, a Leominster attorney who is also a history buff and has done extensive research on the house, that a fugitive slave named Shadrach Minkins stayed there in 1851 before fleeing to Canada.

Minkins became involved in a monumental criminal case the year after President Millard Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Bodanza said during an interview Wednesday.

Minkins worked at "The Eagle Tavern" in Virginia and fled his master, John DeBree, who owned the establishment, Bodanza said.

Minkins made it to Boston -- by ship, Bodanza believes -- where a constable from Norfolk, Va. named John Caphart caught him.

Caphart had a warrant for Minkins' arrest, and took him to a court in Boston on Feb. 15, 1851, according to Bodanza.

A crowd consisting of hundreds of freed slaves stormed the courthouse on that winter day and rescued Minkins, Bodanza said.

They took him to Dorchester, then to Concord, and then to 21 Franklin St. in Leominster, then the home of a radical abolitionist named Frances Drake and her husband, Jonathan, according to Bodanza.

Drake was part of the Garrisonian abolitionist movement, and multiple runaway slaves had stayed at her house, according to Bodanza.

"I would challenge anyone to come up with something more important historically in Leominster," Bodanza said.

Bodanza argued Drake is a more important historical figure than the famed Johnny Appleseed.

"Her harboring Shadrach Minkins is probably the most important historical event to happen in Leominster," he said. "The irony is that nobody knew that."

Minkins stayed in Leominster for roughly a day, then moved on to a house in west Fitchburg -- probably via the Fifth Mass Turnpike -- Bodanza said.

The runaway slave escaped the United States through Vermont, and made it to Montreal, where he opened a restaurant, according to Bodanza.

He made a purse and send it to Drake, and the purse is now at the Leominster Historical Society, Bodanza said.

Bodanza called Drake a "courageous" woman, who could have faced fines and possible jail time for helping slaves.

"This lady's story deserves to be told," he said.

Phillips showed a reporter and a photographer around the house Wednesday morning.

Much of the architecture in the house is original, dating back to before the 1840s, Phillips said.

The front room served as the "parlor" where Drake met with fellow abolitionists, Phillips said.

A square, roughly two-foot-wide section of the floor in the front room may have been a trap-door leading to the basement, Phillips said.

But historians from the state historical commission who have visited the house are skeptical as to whether it was in fact a trap door, he said.

An elderly woman lived in the house for many years and didn't do much to take care of it, according to Phillips.

Phillips bought the house after she died.

When Bodanza heard Phillips had purchased the home, he urged the builder not to redevelop it.

"He was very thoughtful and had an open mind and did some of his own research," Bodanza said. "I think he was genuinely interested."

Phillips hopes at least part of the house --primarily the parlor -- can become a museum.

Getting the house listed on the National Register of Historic Places could help garner money to restore the house back to what it looked like during the abolitionist movement, Phillips said.

Betsy Friedberg, the National Register Director at the Massachusetts Historical Commission, wrote Phillips a letter dated June 14, stating her staff feels the property is eligible to be listed on the national register.

Once the MHC nominates the property to be put on the register, it will be reviewed by a state board, according to the letter.

If the board approves the nomination, it will then be sent to the national register in Washington, D.C. for another review, according to the letter.

Phillips said he is "optimistic" the house will earn a place on the national register.

For now, he is holding off on all plans to redevelop the property, other than fixing minor problems with the house in order to keep it in livable conditions.

"As a contractor, I want to build things," Phillips said. "But I was really interested to see the history here. I do like conservation, and I'm getting to like it more and more."