HACKETT, NELSON, fugitive slave; b. c. 1810; fl. 1840–42.
To slaves in the ante-bellum United States, the Canadas were virtually synonymous with freedom and heaven. Though slavery was abolished throughout the British empire only in 1833, Canadian law and custom had long since established emancipation: by statute in 1793 in Upper Canada, and through a judicial decision in 1800 in Lower Canada. In addition, the citizenry could generally be counted on to take action if the law would not; in 1837 Solomon Molesby (Mosely) and Jesse Happy, fugitive slaves accused of horse theft by irate owners, were forcibly rescued from Upper Canadian judicial authorities, who were thereby prevented from extraditing them. So in July 1841, when Arkansan slave Nelson Hackett left home atop a stolen horse and six weeks later crossed over into Upper Canada, he had every reason to believe that freedom would be his until the day he died.
Hackett’s freedom was short-lived, for his master since 1840, Alfred Wallace, determined to make an example of his handsome and articulate runaway. A wealthy merchant, Wallace was socially prominent and well connected in Fayetteville, Ark., and his influence extended to the state capital via fellow townsman Archibald Yell, the governor. Wallace and an associate, George C. Grigg, set out separately to pursue Hackett. In September, in both Windsor and Chatham, Upper Canada, Wallace swore out depositions against Hackett for the theft of his horse, as well as a saddle, coat, and gold watch. Grigg too swore out depositions, in Upper Canada and in Michigan. Wallace had Hackett arrested near Chatham and incarcerated in the Western District jail at Sandwich (Windsor). A charge of raping a “young lady of respectability,” allegedly Wallace’s adopted daughter, was dropped. Hackett confessed to the thefts but later denied them, claiming he had confessed because he had been “severely beaten over the head with a butt of a whip, and a large stick” during his interrogation.
Wallace set the wheels in motion for formal extradition proceedings. Before returning to Arkansas, he retained as counsel Sandwich lawyer and assemblyman John Prince*, and as collaborator Prince’s Detroit friend Lewis Davenport, of Fayetteville background and owner of the Detroit–Windsor ferry. Next, on 18 September 1841, Michigan’s acting governor requested the governor of the Province of Canada, Lord Sydenham [Thomson], to release Hackett to Michigan. On the 21st Wallace petitioned Sydenham through a justice of the peace at Sandwich, Robert Mercer, who added his personal assurance that the request “is all straightforward and not a pretence for merely getting [Hackett] back again as a Slave.”
Wallace’s campaign for extradition was set back by the attorney general for Upper Canada, William Henry Draper*, who had serious reservations about the motives and Michigan’s jurisdiction in such proceedings. Wallace persisted, and on 26 November a grand jury in Washington County, Ark., indicted Hackett for theft. The same day Wallace’s friend Washington L. Wilson, owner of the stolen saddle, petitioned for Hackett’s return. On 30 September Arkansas’s governor, Archibald Yell, had requested that Hackett be released to Lewis Davenport, who would supervise his transfer home. Countering this blitz was a petition from Hackett, drawn up by Windsor lawyer Charles Baby. He begged to remain in Canada for upon returning to Arkansas he would be “tortured in a manner that to hang him at once would be mercy.” This was to be Hackett’s sole legal action.
Canada’s administrator, Sir Richard Downes Jackson, reserved a decision, but in mid January 1842 the newly arrived governor, Sir Charles Bagot, authorized Hackett’s extradition. Implementation of the order was leisurely and secretive, in part to avoid a repetition of the violent rescue of Solomon Molesby. On the night of 7–8 February, Hackett, bound and gagged, was spirited across the Detroit River and lodged in the Detroit jail, where he languished for more than two months. In April the American lawyer and abolitionist Charles Stewart visited him; abolitionists hoped to use his case as a focal point in their campaign. They soon abandoned this idea, however, because of Hackett’s theft of the watch, which undermined their argument that he had merely stolen tools for escape. As well, they could find nothing out of order in the judicial proceedings. In Canada Bagot received approval from the British secretary of state, on these same grounds, for his decision to relinquish Hackett.
As soon as navigation opened in 1842, Hackett boarded a vessel, guarded by Arkansan Onesimus Evans, whom Wallace had sent to help Davenport. Aboard ship Hackett so impressed four New Yorkers that they helped him escape. Near Princeton, Ill., he wandered for two days in a forest, then was turned in by a man he had approached for food. In June 1842 Hackett was finally delivered up at Fayetteville.
Public reaction to the extradition continued strong. In June abolitionists in the British House of Commons asked questions about Hackett. In Canada, John Prince’s enemy Henry C. Grant, editor of the Western Herald, concluded that Hackett had been entrapped by Wallace in connivance with Prince, Davenport, and deputy sheriff John Mercer. Sparked by the reaction, William Dunlop, a member of the Legislative Assembly, put questions on the affair to the province’s Executive Council. The following month a legislative debate initiated by Dunlop on the official documents of the case put the issue into the context of international law and tradition and of moral rectitude, there being no exact law in force in Canada. Extradition proceedings between Canada and the United States were based on the ambiguous Upper Canadian statute of 1833 dealing with fugitive offenders, which made no mention of escaped slaves; most Canadian mlas doubted the act’s constitutionality. The government’s position, however, as voiced by Samuel Bealey Harrison* in October, was that the recent Webster–Ashburton Treaty, which had been signed in August, would put Hackett’s case “on a proper footing.” This was illogical, as the extradition had taken place before treaty negotiations began and was in defiance of the Canadian custom of refusing to surrender fugitive slaves.
To some the stolen watch told the tale: Hackett was a fugitive thief, and therefore eligible for extradition. To a few intimate with his case, neither the treaty nor the theft was the deciding factor. It was widely rumoured, the Western Herald reported, that the case and legal fees had cost Wallace $1,500, much more than Hackett’s market value, and that the “principal inducement” in getting him back was to “deter other slaves from running away” by demonstrating that there was “no security for them in Canada, and that if they ran away, they could and would be brought back.” This motive, widely suspected in Canada, was borne out by the testimony, later printed in Henry Walton Bibb*’s Voice of the Fugitive, of another slave who had escaped from Wallace. Hackett, the slave recounted, had not been tried upon returning to Fayetteville but was bound and repeatedly flogged, the first time before all the slaves. He was “then sold off to the interior of Texas.” Efforts to purchase Hackett by ladies’ auxiliaries of abolitionist societies in Bristol and Liverpool failed when no trace of the slave could be found.
Hackett was merely one of the countless fugitives from American slavery, yet his case provoked a public furore international in scope if brief in span. On the face of it, it was the stolen coat and watch that proved to be Hackett’s undoing, but the allegation that his extradition was achieved through bribery, intrigue, and a concerted effort on the part of his powerful owner to wreak vengeance on him sheds a truer light on the case. Subsequent British policy bears out this view. When the bitterly negotiated extradition clause of the Webster–Ashburton Treaty was finalized, fugitive slaves were protected from automatic surrender to their American owners in that extradition was carefully limited to criminals. Also, the 1833 law invoked by Hackett’s foes was proved ultra vires by article 10 of the treaty, which was specifically declared to fill a void and not to replace any existing law.
Ultimately, Hackett was returned to Arkansas in defiance of established policy, judicial precedents, civil rights guaranteed by custom, and popular views of justice and humanity. The combined resources of Wallace and his political and judicial contacts in the Arkansan slaveocracy, and of Prince and others in Canada proved so powerful that leading abolitionists despaired publicly that “Canada could no longer be looked upon as the slave’s asylum.” The practical consequences of the case proved to be the reverse. The publicity surrounding it brought the possibility of escape to Canada to the attention of others still in bondage, and until the end of the Civil War fugitive slaves flocked there in ever increasing numbers [see Henry Walton Bibb; John Anderson*].
Library of Congress, ms Division (Washington), Lewis Tappan papers, C22/30–31 (Charles Stewart to Tappan, 9 Aug. 1842, enclosing Nelson Hackett case); C113/133 (Tappan to John Scobie, 23 July 1842). PAC, MG 24, A13, 6: 97–99. PRO, CO 42/488: 214–47. Can., Prov. of, Legislative Assembly, App. to the journals, 1842, app.S; Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada (Abbott Gibbs et al.), 2: 361–63. G.B., Parl., Hansard’s parliamentary debates (London), 3rd ser., 64 (1842): 640–41. Brockville Recorder, 28 Sept. 1837. Montreal Gazette, 18 June 1842. Patriot (Toronto), 22 Sept. 1837. Voice of the Fugitive (Sandwich [Windsor, Ont.]), 18 June 1851. Western Herald, and Farmers’ Magazine (Sandwich), 30 June, 14 July, 18 Aug. 1842. R. W. Winks, The blacks in Canada: a history (Montreal, 1971). A. L. Murray, “The extradition of fugitive slaves from Canada: a re-evaluation,” CHR, 43 (1962): 298–314. R. J. Zorn, “An Arkansas fugitive slave incident and its international repercussions,” Ark. Hist. Quarterly (Fayetteville), 16 (1957): 140–49; “Criminal extradition menaces the Canadian haven for fugitive slaves, 1841–1861,” CHR, 38 (1957): 284–94.
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Cite This Article
Elizabeth Abbott-Namphy, “HACKETT, NELSON,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 4, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hackett_nelson_7E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Elizabeth Abbott-Namphy|
|Title of Article:||HACKETT, NELSON|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1988|
|Year of revision:||1988|
|Access Date:||June 4, 2023|