Isaac Brown, a Maryland slave from the Chesapeake Bay area of Calvert County, was accused of shooting his master Alexander Somerville in October 1845. He was jailed in Prince Frederick (along with one of his daughters who officials hoped might give testimony against her father). It could not be established in court that Brown had done the shooting. He was stripped of his clothing, his hands and feet were tied, and he was whipped with a cow-hide – 100 lashes on 2 different occasions. He was then sold to slave trader Samuel Harris then quickly resold and sent to Hope Hull Slatter’s slave pen in Baltimore in Dec, 1845. Slatter had the largest slave trading empire in the U.S. and there are vivid descriptions of him and his pen.
Brown, along with 169 other slaves was taken to New Orleans aboard the ship Victorine and sold to a Louisiana planter in Jan 1846. Because of his severe scarring from being whipped – which suggested he was an unmanageable servant – it was not easy to sell him, so Slatter gave him to a master on a trial basis. If Brown was satisfactory then he could be paid for. Very quickly thereafter, Brown escaped to Philadelphia and assumed the name Samuel Russell. He then wrote a letter to Calvert County under his real name and address in the hope of letting his wife and 11 children (who were all free) know where he was.
His letter was discovered by his old master Alexander Somerville who was enraged that the man who he believed had shot him was now free. Somerville contacted Governor Pratt who, after having requisitioned Governor Shunk of Pennsylvania, sent officials to Philadelphia who arrested Brown for attempted murder and being a fugitive slave. This caused a huge stir in Philadelphia and newspapers across the country covered the story for a month. Brown was under arrest in Philadelphia for much of May 1847 before being temporarily released from jail with the legal expectation that he would return to court on Monday morning, at which time he would almost certainly be extradited back to Maryland. Instead, Isaac Brown, who was now joined by his wife and nine of his children, were whisked away by abolitionists and underground railroad conductors, through New York, Boston, Syracuse, Buffalo and Detroit. An interesting side note was that Somerville and the slave traders who lied were charged with conspiracy because they knew all along that Brown was not a fugitive from Maryland. He was a fugitive from Louisiana – but that was not the point.
With Canada in full view, the Browns were frustrated in their attempt to flee from Detroit as slave-hunters were patrolling the docks. Charles H. Stewart, a celebrated lawyer and member of The Michigan State Antislavery Society, Hiram Wilson, a missionary to African Canadian refugees, and Rev. Samuel Young from New York City who bravely accompanied the family on their circuitous underground railroad route, gave comfort to the terrified family. It rained incessantly for several days and it continued with a heavy downpour on Sunday morning, July 25th, 1847. Although it added to his discomfort, perhaps the weather would diminish the vigilance of the slave hunters as well as ferry boat owner Lewis Davenport, who was a known enemy of runaway slaves. This morning Isaac travelled alone to the foot of Griswold Street, hoping to throw off any observer who might be looking for a black couple with a large group of children. They could come later, under the watchful eye of the Reverends Young and Wilson. The ploy worked and the trip on the steam-powered ferry United, described on a sunnier day as “a pretty little steamer, gaily painted, with streamers flying, and shaded by an awning”, was uneventful. Sheltering himself against the rain, Isaac climbed the banks on the Windsor side.
Somerville and Governor Pratt of Maryland unsuccessfully tried to get Lord Elgin, the Governor of the Canadas, to have Brown extradited back to Maryland in August 1847. The slave hunters who went to Montreal to see Lord Elgin were rebuffed by the officials and threatened by a hostile group of local people.
Brown, his wife and 9 of their 11 children came to Canada together, settling first in the Dawn settlement near Dresden. Keeping the name – Samuel Russell – that he had chosen for himself in freedom, the former slave became a doctor in nearby Chatham, specializing in herbal medicine. Samuel Russell regularly advertised his medical practice in the Anti-slavery newspaper The Provincial Freeman. The final public record appeared in the 1864-65 County of Kent Gazetteer in a section identifying Professionals which listed Samuel Russell, Chatham, doctor. For a more extensive look at the remarkable life of this Chatham doctor, see author Bryan Prince’s One More River to Cross, Dundurn Press, Toronto, 2012.
Contributed to the Chatham-Kent Physician Tribute by Bryan Prince Author of A Shadow On The Household ; I Came As A Stranger: The Underground Railroad and One More River To Cross