Tubman and the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850


Text of Fugitive Slave Bill (Fugitive Slave Act), "as penned by the Senate and House of Representatives, Sept. 12, 1850, and approved Sept. 18, 1850 by President Fillmore." Source: Duke University Libraries Digital Collections.

Harriet Tubman carried out her missions to the Eastern Shore under the threat of the newly passed Fugitive Slave Law or Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The law required fugitive slaves to be returned to their owners and deployed local police and citizens of free states to enforce the Federal law. Section 7 of the law is clearly directed to abolitionists, Underground Railroad stationmasters and conductors, and any citizens who might participate in a rescue mission. The repercussions were serious:

“. . . [they] shall 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.”[1]

Along with the threat of jail and fines under the Fugitive Slave Law, Tubman faced numerous obstacles leading runaways to freedom: the always present fear of slave catchers and those unsympathetic to the abolitionist cause; inclement weather including rain, snow, and ice; the difficult terrain of rivers, creeks, marshes, and forests; lack of food and appropriate dress for the runaways; and illness.[2] Despite the passage of the law, and the hardship and danger, Tubman continued her mission to liberate her family and friends.


[1]“Fugitive Slave Act 1850,” The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy, Yale Law School, accessed May 21, 2018, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/fugitive.asp.

[2]Kate Clifford Larson, Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero (New York: Ballantine, 2004), 102-104.