Slavery bitterly divided North against South and neighbor against neighbor throughout the early history of the United States. While slavery was debated in legislatures, newspapers, and churches, countless slaves moved to escape their bondage to a life of freedom. One such incident in the early 1840s became an international controversy, all stemming from the daring escape of one slave from Arkansas to Canada.
The story began with Alfred Wallace, a planter and land speculator as well as an early Fayetteville store owner. His Washington County plantation was a spacious expression of his material success. In June 1840, he bought Nelson Hackett to serve as a butler.
There were few slaves in Northwest Arkansas, as the mountainous region was not fit for widespread cotton or tobacco cultivation. However, there were a handful of plantation owners in the region who owned slaves and used slaves as much for various household tasks as they did as a representation of their wealth.
Little is known about Nelson Hackett except for the harrowing tale of his escape from bondage and the sensation that his case caused. Nelson Hackett was born around 1810, the exact date and location are unknown. Nothing is known about his family or his childhood. As was typical for all slaves, all the dignities and details that make life so precious did not exist for slaves, as their owners so often dismissed their concerns as men and women and treated them as nothing more than property. All that is known about Hackett is that he was well-dressed, intelligent, resourceful, and had an unquenchable thirst to live as a free man.
Hackett detested his life as a slave and quietly plotted his escape. His opportunity came in mid-July 1841 when Wallace left on a brief trip. Hackett, quickly took a coat, Wallace’s gold watch, saddled Wallace’s fastest horse, and fled as quickly as he could. Dodging slave patrols in northern Arkansas and Missouri, he soon made it to free territory. From there, he rode even further into the perceived safety of British Canada as many escaping slaves before him had. The entire journey took six weeks.
Wallace found out about the escape once he returned. He was enraged that he had been so fooled. Wallace spared no expense in tracking down Hackett. His capture became an obsession. He hired investigators who were soon able to track Hackett down to what is now Ontario, or what was then called Upper Canada.
Wallace’s agents produced several affidavits insisting that Hackett was a thief and demanded that British authorities extradite him. Arkansas Gov. Archibald Yell joined in the call for formal extradition – calling for international transport of a man whose only crime was a supposedly stolen watch and coat. In November 1841, Wallace had Hackett imprisoned in the town of Sandwich, near the Michigan border. The story leaked out and immediately created a storm of controversy across Canada, Britain, and the United States. Slave owners and abolitionists alike furiously debated the matter. Accusations that Wallace had bribed officials and lied about being robbed swirled. Wallace supporters insisted that fugitive slaves should be returned. For Wallace, the matter was one of retribution, and he spent far more than he ever paid for Hackett. Abolitionists in the North, Canada, and as far away as England attempted to buy Hackett’s freedom. One abolitionist newspaper in Maryland defended Hackett, stating, “The true reason this case has generated so much excitement is because HE IS A MAN.”
Slavery had been outlawed throughout the British Empire in 1833, including Canada. Abolitionists were shocked when the British governor general of Canada, Sir Charles Bagot, agreed to have Hackett sent back to Arkansas. There was no support in Canadian or British law for extraditing a criminal suspect or an escaped slave in this way. Hackett would receive no refuge in Canada, though the law otherwise would have granted it.
Hackett was transferred to a jail in Detroit, Michigan, in February 1842, bound and gagged. He was held for two months while Michigan abolitionists again tried to appeal to the courts to have him freed. Wallace hired two men to transport Hackett back to Arkansas. When they reached northern Illinois, Hackett escaped once again. After several days of searching, he was turned over by a local farmer after Hackett came to his farm asking for food.
When Hackett returned to Washington County in June, he was savagely beaten in front of Wallace’s other slaves. He was repeatedly tortured from wanting to be a free man. What happened afterward remains uncertain. Some records suggest that Hackett was sold into slavery in Texas, but there is little information to confirm this. Though attempts to buy Hackett’s freedom continued, once he disappeared and all traces of him lost, the efforts slowly faded.
Little is known about his ultimate fate. Records for African-Americans, both free and slave, were very poorly kept in the nineteenth century, with sometimes no record at all that an individual even existed. The Arkansas man who so yearned for freedom at all costs and whose trials caused so much controversy simply disappeared, slipping away into the mysterious shrouds of time and memory. The British were unwilling for another such incident to occur. As American and British diplomats negotiated the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in the fall of 1842 over the Maine border, a clause was included stating that fugitive slaves would not be extradited. Though Hackett’s attempt to reach freedom in Canada failed, thousands more escaping slaves flocked to Canada in the years afterward.