Thornton Blackburn

On the Run: Chasing Freedom

Image 3.1 Bounty notice for Thornton’s arrest. (Smardz Frost, 2007). 

Tentative Freedom

While Thornton and Ruthie were now technically in a free state, they were forced to make crucial decisions about where to go and who to trust. The Fugitive Slave Act ruled that they could be caught, sent back to their owners and severely punished (Smardz Frost, 2007; 155). Although Thornton and Ruthie could no longer think of themselves as enslaved people, legally they were not free. They would now be considered fugitives or escaped slaves.

Image 3.2 Route from Louisville to Jeffersonville. Esri, 2014 National Geographic Society, i-cubed.

From Jeffersonville, Indiana they took the steamboat Versailles to Cincinnati, Ohio. A popular stopping point for escaped slaves, Cincinnati was filled with slave catchers hoping to earn a reward by bringing the shackled fugitives home, so it was important for the couple to keep moving (Smardz Frost, 2007; 119).

There is little evidence Thornton and Ruthie received outside help on their journey in 1831. The Underground Railroad only came into full force in the 1850s, becoming a crucial network which facilitated the movement and safety of escaped slaves. The lack of support in the 1830s meant Thornton and Ruthie would have been almost entirely self-reliant during their journey (Smardz Frost, 2007; 135).

North to Detroit

From Cincinnati, the couple took a stagecoach 300 kilometres north to Sandusky, Ohio. Once in Sandusky, they took a second stagecoach further north and arrived in Detroit on July 6 (Smardz Frost, 2007; 140). It seems that the couple intended to end their journey in Detroit, where there was a small but thriving population of free Black people. Because Michigan was a free territory, Thornton was able to find work with a local stonemason.

Image 3.3 Route from Jefferson to Detroit. Esri, 2014 National Geographic Society, i-cubed.


How might the Fugitive Slave Act have threatened the couple’s security or limited their opportunities as they moved north?

Created in 1793, this law guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave in any state where they could be found, even in the North. Judicial and legal officials were required to assist in the recapture and detainment of fugitives.

A resistance network of stations and safe houses to help slaves escape North to freedom that was developed in the 1850s.

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