That's what can happen when a community legend takes on a life of its own. It can lead public, professor and publisher alike along a path into false premise.
An unusual example of this strange form of "historical gossip" arose in Calhoun County from the "Crosswhite affair" of 1847 in Marshall.
In that locally famous case, chiefly white townspeople helped a family of fugitive black slaves to avoid capture by their legal owners from Kentucky.
This article is based on an original paper which formed the basis of an article in Michigan History in early 1989. It's an attempt to get rid of the "gossip."
Several writers have repeated a claim, first made in 1872, that the federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and thus the U.S. Civil War were the traceable results of this particular case; however, the assertion never has been substantiated (1). The predominantly white citizens of Marshall - a community which lost a strong bid to become Michigan's capital city and which experienced a series of economic "busts" leaving it perpetually a "small town" - perhaps found solace in considering their founders socially advanced, unbigoted and in step with events of profound consequence; such a consideration perhaps has helped to promote the town's current "tourist image" as an historic site.
Still, while the claim can be questioned, it can't be
disproved entirely. In fact, there may have been
justification for the legend's growth. Although the
Crosswhite case indeed seems to have been just one of
several incidents which, in sum, contributed to pre-war
factional conflict, it retains an unusual and dramatic
place in Michigan's annals.
In 1843, 44-year-old Adam Crosswhite, his wife Sarah and their four children escaped from their master, Francis Giltner of Carroll County, Kentucky. After traveling along the clandestine Underground Railroad through Indiana and southwestern Michigan, they settled in Marshall's "Nigger Town" of some 50 blacks, many of them also escaped slaves from Kentucky. Crosswhite found enough work to secure a financial hold and to put money down on a cabin on the town's eastern edge. There, a fifth child was born (2).
The attitude of village residents toward the national black plight also may have been a lure to black settlers. Marshall supported two successful newspapers, the Statesman and the Expounder, which both continually published strong anti-slavery material. In 1842, the village had been the site of a meeting of the Michigan Anti-Slavery Society (5), which published its weekly newspaper, the Michigan Liberty Press, in nearby Battle Creek. Erastus Hussey, editor of that journal, published in an 1848 edition that "No one pretends to deny that each sovereign State has a right to enact laws to regulate all matters within its jurisdiction, when those laws do not conflict with the laws of the United States; and with these laws the citizens of other States have no right to interfere, except by moral suasion" (emphasis added) (6). Such an attitude was exemplified by what occurred in Marshall at the Crosswhite cabin.
The flight of fugitive slaves northward was nothing new to Kentuckians. For years, Marshall had been on the route of the Underground Railroad, which wound its way from Niles in Michigan's southwest to Detroit and Canada in the east. It was a route Giltner's agents were compelled to trace as their employer acted to recover his human property. Giltner had meant to sell the Crosswhites' oldest child, who had been likely to fetch several hundred dollars at the slave market (7). The combined value of the others was a further spur to action.
Kentucky masters had taken to hiring private agents to track down escaped slaves. One of these was Francis Troutman, a young, level-headed lawyer, grandson of Crosswhite's previous owner and the nephew of Giltner (8). In the guise of a schoolteacher seeking a place to settle, Troutman followed the Crosswhites' trail to Marshall in December 1846. He hired a local deputy sheriff, Harvey Dixon, who, posing as a census taker, talked to the Crosswhites in their cabin to identify them positively (9). Using Dixon as an emissary was a cautious move, as Crosswhite might have recognized Troutman and fled. Further, employing Dixon was a sign of Troutman's legal caution, for federal law demanded, in planning a fugitive's arest, the presence of a legal authority and a warrant; Troutman prepared a blank warrant to take - with the fugitives when arrested - to a local justice of the peace for approval (10).
In late January, Giltner's son David and two others, Franklin Ford and John S. Lee (11), joined Troutman in Marshall. Before dawn one morning, either Jan. 26 or 27, they and Dixon went to Crosswhite's cabin and attempted to arrest the family. One source claims that Crosswhite, firing a warning shot to summon aid, successfully held the agents at bay and that no violence or force was used (12), another that the agents broke into the cabin and brandished a gun at a black neighbor while gathering up the children - although Troutman claimed he produced the gun in self-defense when a Crosswhite friend threatened him (13). Clearer is the fact that "Nigger Town's" residents awakened and gathered in support of the Crosswhites, in some instances brandishing knives and clubs (14).
By breakfast-time, news of the fracas had spread to the awakening town center (15). The four white Kentuckians had stood their ground, for Troutman believed himself legally in the right. It's easy to forget that, by the law of the day, he was indeed in the right; any action limiting a master's right to his slave property was illegal under a 1793 federal law demanding the return of fugitive slaves to their owners (16).
Eventually, the Kentuckians faced a crowd of some 150 to 300 blacks and whites. Most were curiosity seekers, but some were ardent in their support of Michigan's own status as a free state, one that shouldn't bow to Kentucky's dictates - particularly as a freeborn child was involved (17). On the other hand, Troutman saw the crowd as abolitionist in tone, with its members expressing personal opposition to slavery in any form (18). With the arrival of banker Charles T. Gorham and such other prominent citizens as George Ingersoll, Jarvis Hurd, O.C. Comstock Jr., Asa B. Cook and John M. Easterly, a spontaneous town meeting developed outside Crosswhite's cabin. The subsequent debate on moral and legal grounds continued for several hours, the crowd jeering the Kentuckians, offering suggestions both ribald and threatening (19).
Gorham contended that none of Marshall's citizens - the Crosswhites included - would be taken away by force, and "that public sentiment was above the law" (20). His concern and that of the others may indeed have been motivated primarily by parochial anger, for few Northerners would hold that any Southern slave state had the right to foist its principles - no matter how constitutionally bound - on the free states of the North (21); but such men as Gorham and Ingersoll also had intense humanitarian concerns which they were to demonstrate repeatedly, in calls for famine relief for Ireland and in efforts to galvanize interest in the new Free-Soil Party that opposed the expansion of slavery into U.S. territories (22).
Gorham and his compatriots also could not have been unaware that Marshall for eight years actively had sought the designation of Michigan's capital (23). Thus, as potential pace-setters for the North, Gorham told the Kentuckians that the Marshall crowd's action served "as a warning to others and a lesson to you" (24). There also was the implicit threat of mob violence. "There is a great deal of danger in making the attempt to take them (the Crosswhites)," Gorham told Troutman. He was right: Insults had been hurled, weapons produced and tarring and feathering had been suggested. Yet Troutman, unmoved, soberly sought his antagonists' names. Gorham glibly demanded that his be set down in capital letters; thus his name led the agent's list of crowd leaders (25).
Crosswhite was advised to press charges against Giltner's men. It was a shrewd legal turnabout. The deputy sheriff - who had arrived in Troutman's employ - bowed to the crowd's obvious wishes and arrested Troutman and his party for assault, battery and housebreaking. A two-day trial followed before a local justice of the peace, Randall Hobart (26), whose partiality in the matter is suggested by his own published humanitarian expressions, echoing those of Ingersoll and Gorham (27).
With Troutman diverted, Ingersoll and Cook plotted to get the Crosswhites out of Michigan; the family was smuggled out of Marshall in a cart and transported by rail from Jackson to Detroit (28). The Crosswhites thereupon crossed to Canada, "where the protection refused them in a Republic, will be extended to them under a Monarchy," as the Michigan Tribune snidely reported a few days later (29). The Crosswhite family returned to Marshall several years later (30), although their reasons for doing so have not been documented.
Troutman, fined $100 by Hobart, led his chagrined posse back to Kentucky. There, with Giltner's support, he began a campaign of legal revenge designed to portray Marshall's citizens - thus Northern citizens - as flagrant violators of an inadequate and unenforceable federal law (31). A resolution demanding redress from Michigan citizens was prepared, approved by the Kentucky legislature some months after the incident and forwarded to the Michigan legislature. A report, allegedly prepared by Troutman, was given in the U.S. Senate on Dec. 20, 1847, calling for new slave-recovery laws; this was referred to its judiciary panel and printed for Senate use the following year (32).
Meanwhile, Giltner sued Gorham and several other leaders of the Marshall crowd for the value of the escaped slaves. The case was heard in federal circuit court in Detroit by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John McLean, a former Kentuckian whose views of slavery nonetheless coincided with Northern Whigs of the day - so much so that his name was suggested to lead a presidential ticket with Zachary Taylor (33). McLean, however, had a surprise for the anti-slavery forces of Michigan, for he considered the case bound by the letter of the law.
"From the evidence," McLean told the jurors, "it seems that many of the most orderly and respectable citizens of Marshall were found at the house of Crosswhite. And so far as they may have been induced to go, to protect the rights of the colored persons in question from an illegal seizure, their motive is not to be condemned. But when they were informed, by the principal agent, Troutman, that the seizure of the negroes was only for the purpose of taking them before a justice, to prove that they owed service to Giltner, there was no excuse for opposition founded in law or in conscience. That man is a dangerous citizen, who follows his conscience in violation of the legal rights of others" (34).
Ultimately, McLean adopted a purely legal position. He told the jury: "This, gentlemen, is an important case. It involves great principles, on which in a great degree depend the harmony of the states, and the prosperity of our common country. The case has acquired great notoriety by the action of the Kentucky legislature, and of the senate of the United States. It is the first one of the kind which has been prosecuted in this state. ...