Troy played role in Underground Railroad rescue of slave

When those fascinated by 19th century American history hear the phrase, “the town that started the C

When those fascinated by 19th century American history hear the phrase, “the town that started the Civil War,” they immediately think of Oberlin, Ohio, and the 1858 rescue of fugitive slave John Price.

According to author Scott Christianson, the city of Troy and Charles Nalle’s escape from arrest two years later deserve to be mentioned in the very same breath.

“It’s an extraordinary historical event that until recently was not very well known,” said Christianson, who will talk about his book documenting Nalle’s story, “Freeing Charles,” at the 2010 Underground Railroad History Conference Friday through Sunday at Russell Sage College in Troy. “It occurred between the ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry by John Brown and the beginning of the Civil War. The rescue of Charles Nalle further incited the secessionist movement in the South, and proved to be one of the central grievances it held against the Union.”

‘Underground Railroad History Conference’

WHERE: Russell Sage College and Rensselaer County Historical Society, Troy

WHEN: Friday through Sunday

HOW MUCH: Workshops are $40, $25 for seniors and $15 for students; reception and Sunday bus tours are $10.

MORE INFO: 432-4432 or

In the case of John Price, a group of Oberlin residents consisting of both white and black people physically took Price out of the Cuyahoga County Jail away from federal officials and smuggled him into Canada.

The event was immortalized in Nat Brandt’s 1991 book, “The Town That Started the Civil War.”

In Christianson’s book, published earlier this month by the University of Illinois Press, he details the life of Charles Nalle (pronounced nahl), focusing much of the attention on his life in Troy, particularly his apprehension by slave catchers and his subsequent rescue by the residents of Troy.

Nalle had escaped from slavery in Culpepper, Va., in the fall of 1858 and made his way to the Troy area. Hired on by wealthy Troy resident Uri Gilbert as a coachman, Nalle seemed safe and secure in his new life before Blucher Hansbrough, his slave master and also his half-brother, hired a slave catcher with the intent of tracking down Nalle and taking him back to Virginia.

More info

— Author Scott Christianson will be at the Rensselaer County Historical Society on Saturday night from 5:30-8 p.m. signing copies of his book, “Freeing Charles.” With him will be artist Mark Priest, who illustrated the cover of Christianson’s book and will also have a series of Charles Nalle images on display.

— This year’s Underground Railroad History Conference, the ninth annual put together by the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region and its organizers, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, will begin with registration at 8:30 a.m. Friday morning. A series of lectures and workshops will be held throughout the weekend both at the RCHS and various sites on the campus of Russell Sage.

— Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, will be the keynote speaker on Saturday morning at 9:15, and Rhonda Y. Williams of Case Western Reserve University will offer a special lecture Friday night at 7 p.m.

On April 27, 1860, while on an errand for Mrs. Gilbert, Nalle was arrested by the slave catcher with the aid of a federal deputy marshal, and taken away in handcuffs to the Troy jail at First and State streets.

“An accused slave had no legal right to speak up in court during that time, so all they had to do was prove that he was a fugitive slave,” said Christianson. “Well, the determination was made pretty quickly that Nalle would go back to Virginia as a slave. He had no defense.”

He did have friends, however, and one of them was Harriet Tubman, who had escaped from slavery in 1849 and then dedicated her life to helping others secure their freedom via the Underground Railroad.

“She just happened to be in Troy visiting a cousin, and when a crowd of whites and blacks was raised protesting Nalle’s arrest she was right in the middle of it,” said Christianson. “Even though she was only in her 30s at the time, she made herself look like an old woman and talked herself into the room on the second floor where Nalle was, telling the officials she was there to offer prayer with him.”

Tubman didn’t wait for the Lord to act, and instead took matters into her own hands.

“When the time came for him to be removed, a melee broke out and she physically intervened in the fracas, not allowing Nalle to be taken away,” said Christianson.

“There were no shots fired, but there was a struggle with a lot of pushing and pulling, and the people, the citizens of Troy, black and white, eventually got Nalle away from the federal marshals, the Rensselaer County sheriffs and the Troy City police. They placed him in a boat in the Hudson River and pushed it off-shore. He was rowed to the Watervliet side, then called West Troy, and everybody thought they had won. People were jubilant.”

Unfortunately, officials on the West Troy side of the river were waiting for Nalle and he was arrested again. The happy rescuers, observing this from the east bank of the river, weren’t to be outdone and hurried into boats, Tubman in tow, and made their way to West Troy, where they went into a brick jailhouse, picked up Nalle and took him away. This time shots were fired, and, while no one was killed, there were a handful of injuries.

Nalle was whisked away further west, to Niskayuna, and also spent time hiding in Schenectady and Amsterdam. Eventually Nalle’s friends in Troy raised enough money and purchased his freedom for $650.

Four rescues

“He’s the only slave in history, I contend, that was rescued four times,” said Christianson. “He was saved by the Underground Railroad, then twice rescued by force by his friends in Troy, and then rescued again by a bill of sale. It’s an amazing story, and one the people of Troy can be very proud of.”

Christianson is a town of Bethlehem native who now lives in Sand Lake. After graduating from Bethlehem Central High School and the University of Connecticut, he got a doctorate in criminal justice from the University at Albany.

He was a reporter for the Albany Knickerbocker News and has been a contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, Mother Jones and Newsday. He was also executive assistant to the state director of criminal justice before resigning that position and becoming a full-time writer.

He has written several books on crime and punishment, and received the 1998 Robert F. Kennedy Book Award for “With Liberty for Some: 500 Years of Imprisonment in America.”

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