Continuing the story of Charles Nalle and his escape from slavery:
Charles’ travels as the family coachman had allowed him to mingle with all kinds of people over the years, both black and white. It’s unknown exactly when it happened, but one of the people he met was a young Northern tutor named Minot S. Crosby, the son of a New England Congregationalist minister. Crosby was traveling through the South, supporting himself as a tutor to wealthy families. For a time, he had tutored the son of one of Blucher Hansbrough’s neighbors.
Unbeknownst to the planters, Crosby was also an ardent Abolitionist. Like a secret agent behind enemy lines, he found time to speak with the enslaved, passing along information about the Underground Railroad. His employers would have been furious to find out that young Crosby was in contact with Harriet Beecher Stowe and other New England Abolitionists, as well as more local agents. They would have killed him.
Charles and his brother-in-law James Banks decided to escape together. Banks was a big man and had been a blacksmith for most of his life. Banks was not owned by Hansbrough, he lived on a neighboring plantation. Charles went to Blucher and asked to visit his wife one last time. He told him that Kitty was having problems with her pregnancy and may not survive. He begged to be allowed to see her. Blucher had his family in the Washington area look for Kitty to find out if that were true.
Around the small world of Culpepper County, the state of Virginia was gearing up for the inevitable war between the North and South. Politics in Washington had deteriorated between slaveholding states and free. Congressmen were coming to blows on the floor of Congress over the issue of slavery, while on farms and plantations, people were escaping north in greater numbers, as Southern slaveholders tried to hold on to a way of life that was unsustainable. Charles Nalle probably knew little about that, but he knew his window of opportunity was shrinking. In the Quarters, people whispered that Blucher was on the verge of losing the farm and had spoken to others about selling most of his slaves to raise capital. It was now, or never.
Charles spoke to his siblings about escaping. His brothers had married and were fathers. They did not want to leave their families and chose to stay put. But they encouraged Charles to go. In the fall of 1858, Blucher received word from his contacts in Washington that Kitty was indeed doing poorly. He decided to be magnanimous and allow Charles to have a one-week pass to Washington. He would be allowed to go with James Banks, and the two would take the baggage car of the local train to Washington. Blucher had to go to Richmond on business, so Charles and James would be watched by Hansbrough relatives who would be on the same train.
The two men, with their meager luggage, and all-important travel passes, boarded the baggage car, and headed north to Washington. When they got there, the Hansbrough contacts were supposed to keep an eye on them, and make sure they went to their wives, but Charles and James blended into the crowds, gave them the slip, and never came near their families. They did not want to give law enforcement or their owners any indication of their wives’ involvement in their escape. They were able to contact one of the many representatives of the Underground Railroad, as given to them by Crosby, and go into hiding.
When it became obvious that Nalle and Banks had escaped, Blucher Hansbrough was furious. He rushed back home from Richmond. The first thing he did was question Charles’ family, who feigned ignorance. In retaliation, he sold all three brothers “down the river,” further South, where slavery was much harsher, and conditions more dire. They were never able to be found again. Charles would carry that guilt for life.
Kitty was suspected of aiding the escape and was arrested and put in the DC slave pen. She was pregnant, and ill. She would have been sold herself, had it not been for the aid of an Abolitionist lawyer named Chester Alan Arthur, the son of a Baptist minister. He was able to prove her innocence and get her and her children out of Washington City. Arthur would go on to have a successful career and in 1881 become the 21st President of the United States.
In the meantime, Charles Nalle, James Banks and another fugitive named Perry, boarded a boat in Georgetown and travelled north to Philadelphia. There they were spirited along by agents, both black and white, waiting until it was deemed safe to proceed further north.
The men traveled various escape routes north, and eventually ended up in the home of Stephen Myers of Albany, NY, a former steamboat steward, a black man who introduced himself proudly as an “Agent and Superintendent of the Underground Railroad.” Could Charles Nalle and James Banks finally be free?
Stephen Myers was also publisher of “The Northern Star and Freeman’s Advocate,” an important African American newspaper. He was incredibly well-connected and valuable as a conduit for freedom and helped hundreds of people make their way to freedom. There in his Albany home, he gave the men options. They could go west through Syracuse and eventually on to Canada, or they could stay upstate. Perry decided to go on to Canada. Nalle and Banks wanted to stay in the area, so they could eventually reunite with their families.
There was a small, but strong black community in the area, with black churches, schools and communities established in Troy, Albany, Saratoga, and beyond. Solomon Northrup, the hero of the true story “Twelve Years a Slave” lived with his family in Saratoga Springs. It was from there that he was kidnapped and transported into Southern bondage.
Troy was home to several important black Abolitionists, including Henry Highland Garnet, one of Troy’s most prominent ministers. Harriet Tubman had a cousin living in Troy. The Capital Region was an important nexus for the Abolitionist Movement in New York state. The Hudson and Mohawk River cities became important routes on the Underground Railroad as roads to freedom in Canada.
Charles Nalle’s New Life in Upstate New York
Both Nalle and Banks had skills that would help them make their homes in the Albany region. Stephen Myers was able to get blacksmith Banks a job as a smith and shoemaker in West Troy, which is today the city of Watervliet, just across the Hudson. To separate them, Myers sent Nalle due east to Rensselaer County, to Sand Lake, a small town not too far from the cities of Albany or Troy. There he found work as a teamster for a man named William Scram. Sand Lake was also home to Minot Crosby, who had fled the South and relocated there.
Sand Lake was small, but it was a busy place. It was a mill town on the Wynantskill Creek, a fast moving body of water which powered grist, lumber, paper and textile mills. It was also a busy Underground Railroad town, with enough of a black community to hide fugitives in plain sight, Charles Nalle among them. While living in Sand Lake he met a local man and unemployed lawyer named Horace Averill.
The Troy Daily Times, writing in 1860, characterized Mr. Averill as a “a penny-a-liner shyster lawyer, awhile seventh-rate reporter for a seventh-rate newspaper.” The paper went on to note that Averill was best known for his involvement in an embezzlement scheme in New York City, one that had led to his incarceration in the infamous Tombs prison.
Charles Nalle didn’t know any of this, and because he could neither read nor write, he needed someone to do it for him. He was taking lessons from Minot Crosby and was perhaps overheard somewhere speaking to Crosby about dictating letters. Averill befriended him and offered to write letters for him.
Nalle thought he had met an honest and true man, a friend indeed. He dictated several letters to be sent to Kitty, telling her that he was well, and was living in Rensselaer County. Kitty had really been seriously ill, but had recovered after giving birth, and with the help of Abolitionists, had moved north to Pennsylvania with the children. Charles wanted to be reunited, free, with his family.
Averill asked a lot of questions while he was writing letters to Kitty and others, and by the time they were done, he knew all about Nalle’s life, his birth, legal status, marriage, and how he had escaped and his journey north. He praised Nalle for his courage and promised that the letters would find their way to Kitty. Charles Nalle was pleased and felt a little less alone and lonely for the first time since arriving in Sand Lake.
In the early spring of 1860, Charles decided to leave Sand Lake, and moved fifteen miles away to Troy. Troy was a larger city, and at the time, one of the wealthiest cities in America. The city’s position on the Hudson River, near the convergence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, had made it a bustling city of Irish immigrants, black folks and people from Canada, the Great Lakes area and New England. Troy was a manufacturing town, with large iron and steel factories producing everything from horseshoes to bells to stoves. The textile factories and laundries along the Hudson churned out millions of detachable collars and cuffs, employing thousands of workers, and a great many wealthy factory owners and successful merchants.
Troy was also hotbed of abolitionist activity, with a great number of people sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause. The prosperous city had a small black community that included successful store and small business owners, outspoken ministers, and others, who with many of the city’s leading white citizens, were members of abolitionist groups. Charles was able to rent a room in the home of a black grocer in Troy named William Henry, himself one of the leaders of an Abolitionist group. James Banks was also now living in Troy. Nalle was sure he would be reunited with his family soon, and they would make their new lives there, surrounded by new friends and a community.
His expertise with horses landed him a job as a carriage driver for Uri Gilbert, one of Troy’s most prominent citizens. Gilbert was a major manufacturer of stagecoaches, omnibuses and railroad cars which were sold throughout the Northeast, including in New York City, Boston and Philadelphia. He was one of Troy’s richest men, and lived on Second Street, across from the private Washington Park. As coachman for the Gilbert family, Charles Nalle had a prestigious position, a good job, and in the anti-slavery Gilbert household, an ally.
But there was a snake in the grass, a snake named Horace Averill.
Unbeknownst to anyone, when he mailed Charles’ letters to Kitty, he also sent a letter to Blucher Hansbrough in Virginia. Hansbrough wanted Charles Nalle in chains, dragged back to the plantation. Horace Averill had some pro-slavery sympathies, but more than that, he saw Charles Nalle primarily as a source of income, and he was prepared to cash in. The Fugitive Slave Law not only made in right and proper for Averill to turn in a runaway, it made it lucrative.
Back in Culpepper County, Hansbrough hired an agent, one Henry J. Wall, a professional slave catcher from Stevensberg, Virginia. He was carrying warrants for both Banks and Nalle. He arrived in Troy in April of 1860, and soon found Nalle, working for the Gilberts. Wall wired his employer, who headed north himself to take possession of his stolen property. Wall then went straight to the U.S. Commissioner, who, because of the Fugitive Slave Act, had no choice but to make out orders of arrest.
Somehow, James Banks found out about the slave catcher, and he was able to take off and leave Troy before Wall got there. But he was not able to warn Nalle. Wall and a Deputy United States Marshall named Holmes headed for the Gilbert house to make the arrest.
Around 11am on April 27th, Charles Nalle was out running an errand for his employer. He had been sent out to buy bread at the bakery, which was only a couple of blocks from the house.
He never made it.
The story concludes tomorrow - the Great Escape and its aftermath.
My name is Suzanne Spellen. I've been many things: a writer, historian, preservationist, musician, traveler, designer, sewer, teacher, and tour guide; a long time Brooklynite and now, a proud resident of Troy, NY.