The Harris Family’s Tale of Woe on the Erie Canal

By Tiffany Santulli ’13

In 1850 terror swept through the African American population with the updated installment of the Fugitive Slave Act. Now all citizens were required to aid in the capture of any fugitive slaves they encountered, or face heavy fines or even jail time. While this law was directed toward runaway slaves, free black people still had a great deal to fear. Anyone could accuse them of being a runaway slave and if they were brought before a judge the law worked against them because the court would receive more money if a black person were declared a slave rather than free. The threat of the Fugitive Slave Act forced many free black people in the lower free states, such as New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to abandon their homes and push northwards to escape the scope and reach of slave bounty hunters and accusatory neighbors.

One of these black families who fled was the Harris family. Catherine Harris, William Harris, and their three year old daughter left their home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and headed north towards Canada. In Albany, New York, the Harris family boarded a ship to travel on the Erie Canal during the chilly month of October. Little did this family know that this journey would ruin their lives.
harris family
The moment the Harris family boarded the ship they were tormented by the boat’s crewmen and by two fellow passengers, Cowell and Cluney, who said that slave catchers were soon going to board to drag the family to the south in chains. At one point during the journey, while the Harris family sat in the hold of the boat, the mischievous crewman started a great raucous and Catherine, in a fit of fear, jumped off the ship into the cold water with her daughter in her arms. Catherine was pulled from the icy water but her daughter was lost. The next morning, William was told that the authorities would board the ship and take him away to cut off his head. Instead of facing this fate, William went into the hold of the ship to his wife and slit his throat with a razor. William did not cut deep enough, though, and so he cut his throat deeper with a shoe knife but it was still not sufficient enough to kill him. Bleeding and in agony on the floor, the ship continued on, refusing to stop to get him help. Eventually, William was thrown from the ship onto the tow path and he followed the boat as he and Catherine, who was still on the ship, beseeched the Captain to stop but the boat continued on without him. After twenty miles of following the ship, William collapsed from exhaustion and blood loss. A Good Samaritan by the name of Captain Valentin R. Ogden came across William and brought him to a doctor in Syracuse. William survived his injuries and would rejoin his wife in Syracuse, but their daughter was forever lost, due to their time spent on the Erie Canal among relentless tormentors who threatened the Harris family with their greatest fear: slavery.

Special thanks to Professor John M. Rudy whose thesis paper ‘“Preachers of Sedition” Syracuse and Freedom, 1851-1861’ was the inspiration for this article.


“Testimony in the case of Harris, against Webster, Cowell, and Cluney, charged with assault and threatening Harris, while on board a canal boat.-Before Police Justice House.” Syracuse Standard (Syracuse, NY), 28 October 1850

“An Outrage.” The Daily Sanduskian (Sandusky, OH), 1 November 1850.

Jackson, William Henry. Erie Canal at Little Falls. 1880-1897. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C.

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