Utica Rescue

On December 29th, 1836, a dramatic scene occurred in the office of Judge Chester Hayden, the First Judge of the County whose office was on lower Genesee Street. 

Mr. Christian Miller arrived in pursuit of, and with a power of attorney from the executor of the estate of John Geyer, of Woodstock, Shenandoah County, Virginia, to arrest Harry Bird and George, two runaway slaves who had resided in Utica since about September 1st. They were arrested by constables Chase and Osburn on Wednesday evening, and on Thursday morning were taken before Judge Hayden for the investigation of the claim of Mr. Miller.”

According to Judge Hayden, Mr. Miller addressed the slaves, alleged to have escaped, as Harry Bird and George – they, however, denied the names given them by Mr. Miller, as well as all knowledge of him or his companion.

After a short time, Alvan Stewart, Esq. appeared as counsel for the blacks, and inquired whether Judge Hayden considered them in his custody. Hayden replied that he did not, and that they were brought before him without process, charged as fugitive slaves, and were in the custody of the claimants. 

Mr. Stewart then rose and proceeded to speak generally on the subjects of slavery and kidnapping. Stewart contended, that, as in this, all men were presumed free. Though slaves were liable to arrest under the act of Congress, it was to be presumed that these persons were not within its provision, and were consequently illegally arrested, and should be discharged without further detention.

At the request of Alvan Stewart, Esq., counsel for the defendants, the examination was postponed until half past six o’clock p.m., and in the meantime they were permitted to occupy the back room of Judge Hayden’s office. 

The office at this time was very nearly filled with a dense crowd. The persons arrested were then withdrawn into an adjoining room, connected with the office, for the purpose of getting them out of the crowd. It was now near twelve o’clock; Mr. Miller asked permission to occupy that room with the fugitives until the appointed hour in the evening, Judge Hayden consented.

During the whole day considerable excitement prevailed and men and boys frequently collected in the streets. About six o’clock in the evening, a crowd assembled around the door and on the stairs of Judge Hayden’s office, and symptoms were exhibited by a part of the assemblage of an intention to attempt a rescue.

Several persons were engaged in endeavoring to keep open a passage down the stairs. Just before half past six in the evening, a signal was given and the lights were extinguished. A door of the rear office, which had been left locked, was forced open by breaking the lock and a number of Negroes and white men made a rush for the room in which the prisoners were confined, the door of which was burst open. 

After a severe struggle with the officers and citizens who were on guard, they succeeded in rescuing the fugitives, who have not since been heard from. The rioters were armed with clubs about eighteen inches long, and evidently prepared for the occasion.

Was there a "Second" Utica Rescue?

An article in the Utica Observer Dispatch dated May 29, 1936 titled “Son of Fugitive Slave Tells of Negro Race's Love for Gerrit Smith” lends to the belief that there may have been a second Utica rescue in addition to the 1836 documented rescue. 

William H. Howard, the son of slave Henry Howard, stated that his father, who had come to Utica in the early 1840's, was living in Clinton and had hardly been here a year when the roundup began. “My folks were hidden for a short time in the home now owned by Charles Rogerts in Clinton. That was one of the stopping points on the ‘underground railroad.' Of course it was not underground at all. My father was one of the first colored taxpayers in Oneida County.”

According to William Howard, “Bleecker Street was buzzing with excitement. Southerners making a round up of fugitive slaves had just arrested ‘that Nigger and were going to try him' as someone was quoted. Over on Broad Street society folk were stirred up about the matter.” His father Henry, who had run away from Maryland and a harsh master, watched outside the court room. Court was held on Bleecker Street up over a store. “I better make tracks out of here,”

Henry Howard was thinking to himself as the trial progressed. “I better get myself away from these parts or I'll be going back to Maryland myself.” Just when it looked as if the southerners “had it all proved up” that Henry Howard should go back down South, the people in the court room, who happened to be mostly abolitionists, jumped out of their seats and began milling around the room. 

In the riot which followed Henry Howard was rushed out of the court room and over to Peterboro where Gerrit Smith arranged for his transportation to Kingston, Ontario, where he was kept out of sight for nearly a year. He did not go alone because Howard and a number of other fugitive slaves rode on the same trip, dodging the southern gentlemen who were combing the North Country for fleeing slaves. 

That's the way William Howard told the story of his father's escape from this country. William Howard, who in 1936 managed a rooming house on Broad Street, was shown the old building on Bleecker Street where the trial took place. 

Henry Howard, age 23, appears in the 1850 U.S. Census as head of household including wife Jane Howard ( 28 ), and children Mary (5), Frances ( 3 ), and Delia ( 1 ). William Howard appears in 1860 U.S. Census.