Shadrach Minkins, Fugitive

by Sandra Merville Hart

Shadrach Minkins was about twenty-eight years old when he escaped slavery in the home of John DeBree in Norfolk, Virginia, in May of 1850. It’s likely that a schooner took him. He arrived in Boston that same month. Shadrach went by the name of Frederick while there.

Not long after his arrival, Minkins spotted William H. Parks, a white man who had worked with him in Norfolk. Instead of turning him in, Parks gave him a job. Then Minkins was hired by upscale restaurant, Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern, where he waited tables.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring slaves to be returned to their owners even when in a free state, passed on September 18th, and this eventually affects Minkins.

Many citizens were outraged by the law, including folks in Boston. In October, a community of African Americans established the League of Freedom to rescue fugitives. Another group, The Committee of Vigilance and Safety, was formed by mostly white citizens with the same goal.

John DeBree hired a slave catcher John Caphart to bring Minkins back to Norfolk. Caphart, a man known for his violent history, arrived in Boston on February 12, 1851. Minkins was arrested at the Cornhill Coffee House and Tavern three days later and taken to the courthouse.

Six lawyers offered to represent Minkins. One helped him write his name.

Between 100 – 150 people, many of them black, crowded the courtroom within thirty minutes. Hundreds more gathered outside. A charge of about twenty black men broke through the outer and inner doors and took Minton away.

His rescuers hid him in various locations, including the home of Reverend Joseph C. Lovejoy. Minton made it to Leominster and then traveled along the Underground Railroad. He arrived in La Praire, Quebec, Canada four days later.

Minton wrote a letter thanking his friends in Boston. He signed the letter as Frederick Minton.

His story has a happy ending. He met and married Mary, an Irish woman, and they had four children. Minton returned to his former name of Shadrach Minton. In Old Montreal, he owned barbershops, inns, and restaurants.

One of the characters in Byway to Danger, Book 3 in my “Spies of the Civil War” series, has a station on the Underground Railroad in Richmond.


“Fugitive Slave Act,” American Battlefield Trust, 2022/06/20

Newby-Alexander, PHD, Cassandra L. Virginia Waterways and the Underground Railroad, History Press, 2017.

“Rescued from the Fangs of the Slave Hunter: The Case of Shadrach Minkins,” National Park Service, 2022/06/20

“Shadrach Minkins (d. 1875),” Encyclopedia Virginia, 2022/06/20