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Michael Pierce: “The Nelson Hackett Project”

CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies Presents LEGACIES & LUNCH

Speaker: Michael Pierce, Associate Professor of History at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville

About The Nelson Hackett Project: An Introduction

Sometime in the middle of July 1841, Nelson Hackett fled both Arkansas and slavery, setting off an international dispute that would ensure that Canada remained a safe refuge for those escaping bondage in the United States.

There are conflicting accounts of Hackett’s departure. Alfred Wallace, who claimed to own him, accused Hackett of leaving Fayetteville while Wallace was away and of stealing a racehorse, saddle, coat, gold watch, and 100£ of silver and gold coin on the way out of town. Abolitionists later disputed Wallace’s version of Hackett’s escape. What is not in dispute, though, is that Hackett’s flight took him across the state of Missouri; through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan; across the Detroit River; and into Canada West (now the Province of Ontario), where the last remnants of slavery had been abolished in 1834.

Arriving in Canada West, part of the recently restructured Province of Canada, on September 1, 1841, Hackett thought that he had found freedom. But Wallace had put a man on his trail and, after finding Hackett’s destination, personally traveled to Canada. Wallace found Hackett in the town of Chatham on September 6, beat him, had him imprisoned, and demanded his extradition back to Arkansas on charges of theft. Hackett’s detention and a formal extradition request from the Arkansas governor set off an international conflict. The state of Arkansas and supporters of slavery insisted that he be returned to face trial, while black and white abolitionists throughout the Atlantic world called on Canada to give Hackett his freedom. The conflict was settled by the governor general of the Province of Canada, who declared that the fugitive’s guilt and the need to discourage such men from putting down roots in the province required him to return Hackett to Arkansas.

In February 1842, Nelson Hackett became the first fugitive from slavery that Canada sent back to the United States, making abolitionists fearful that slave owners would fabricate claims of theft to secure the return of runaways. When Hackett arrived back in Fayetteville in early June 1842, there was no trial as the state of Arkansas had promised. Instead, Wallace had Hackett publicly whipped and then sold him to traders. Accounts of Hackett’s fate differ, most suggesting that he was taken to Texas to be worked to death but others leaving open the possibility of another escape.

The abolitionists, though, refused to let Hackett’s extradition set a precedent. Led by Lewis Tappan and Gerrit Smith, these abolitionists met with Lord Ashburton, the British foreign secretary who had recently negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty to regulate relations between the United States and Canada. Lord Ashburton assured Tappan and Smith that the British would interpret the extradition section of the treaty in such a way as to prevent the future return of enslaved people like Hackett. The British abided by Lord Ashburton’s promise, and Canada refused to return any more people escaping slavery. Thus, Nelson Hackett’s flight and extradition helped ensure that Canada would remain the promised land for slavery’s fugitives.

Read more about Hackett on the CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas here: https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/nelson-hackett-4910/

Michael Pierce, an associate professor of history at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, will discuss a research project related to an enslaved man—Nelson Hackett—who fled Fayetteville, made it to Canada, and then became the only fugitive that Canada returned to bondage. The Hackett episode prompted the mobilization of abolitionists who lobbied British officials to prevent another such occurrence and thus safeguard Canada’s status as a refuge for fugitives.

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About Legacies & Lunch

Legacies & Lunch is a free monthly program of CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies about Arkansas-related topics. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Legacies & Lunch will be available on Facebook Live.