160 years ago, Marshall residents united to save a family from slave catchers
In the 1840s, a black family fleeing slavery found refuge in Marshall, Michigan. Only a few years later, after settling into their new home, relatives of their former owners arrived to capture and return them to Kentucky.
But the town of Marshall, including the sheriff and prominent white and black citizens, stepped in to protect the family.
This week marks 160 years since Giltner v. Gorham, the case between the Kentucky slave owner Francis Giltner and the citizens of Marshall he sued for their successful efforts to shield the escaped family.
Sandra Clark, director of the Michigan Center joined Stateside to share the story of the Crosswhite family’s escape from slavery, and the Michigan town they came to call home.
When Adam Crosswhite and his wife Sarah learned that Giltner planned to sell one of their four children, they decided to escape. They traveled on the Underground Railroad through Indiana, eventually ending up in Marshall, Michigan.
The family could have continued on to Canada for true safety, but decided to stay in Marshall. Clark believes the Crosswhites were likely met with a warm reception there, as Marshall was home to several abolitionists and other African-American families.
“This is the 1840s, so the pressure on fugitives from slavery is not as great as it would be in the decade right before the Civil War,” Clark said. “It (Marshall) is a relatively safe place. There are sympathetic people, and probably other people that they knew there.”
Just a few years later, Francis Troutman — Giltner’s nephew — traveled with a group of slave catchers to Michigan to capture the Crosswhite family.
“One morning, they go to the Crosswhites' house,” Clark said. “They break in the door and announce that they are here to take them back to Kentucky.”
Then the residents of Marshall, both black and white, showed up.
As a crowd gathered at the home, Adam and one of his sons snuck out the back door to find the town’s sheriff and ask for his help.
“Mr. Troutman pleads with Ms. Crosswhite to please come back. And he even, according to all these accounts — hers and his — he finally says, ‘Well if you and your husband want to stay, just let me take your children back,'” Clark said.
The sheriff arrives and arrests Troutman and his men for breaking and entering and causing a disturbance with members of the crowd. There is a brief trial for the Kentuckians, and during this time, the Crosswhites are able to escape to Canada.
Later Giltner decides to sue banker Charles Gorham and a list of other Marshall residents who protected the Crosswhite family for the "value" of his slaves. Giltner won the case and was awarded $4,800, which would be close to $138,000 today.
Prominent Michigander and abolitionist Zachariah Chandler came to the Gorham's aid and helped pay a large portion of the fine.
After the Civil War, the Crosswhite family decided to move back to Marshall, where Adam would live out the rest of the years.
Gorham and Chandler both went on to serve in political office and later helped found the first iteration of the Republican Party.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry.
This segment is produced in partnership with theMichigan History Center.