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William Harris and Caroline Harris

William Harris and Caroline Harris (fl. 1850.) were two of the first freedom seekers to seek refuge in Canada following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. Biographical information on the couple is limited. Contemporary newspaper accounts from 1850 state that William was born enslaved in South Carolina and had recently escaped captivity. A 1972 article about the case by writer Elinore Horning states that William had lived in Philadelphia since 1843, where he married Caroline, a mixed-race woman in 1843. Both contemporary sources and Horning agree that the Harrises had a three-year-old daughter, born in 1847, whose name is unknown, and that she traveled with them in their efforts to escape to Canada following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act. The federal law was controversial because it empowered former slave owners to recapture formerly enslaved African Americans who had escaped to freedom in northern states that had abolished slavery. The Harrises’ story found nationwide news coverage because they were violently assaulted by a boat crew on New York’s Erie Canal within a month of the Fugitive Slave Act’s passage on September 18th, 1850. Their story is one of the few documented accounts of the conditions freedom seekers faced along the Erie Canal, which was part of the Underground Railroad, a civil disobedience movement which helped enslaved African Americans find freedom in the Northern U.S. or Canada, where the British Empire had abolished slavery in 1834.

Historian Patrick McGreevy notes that many freedom seekers traveled along the Erie Canal as stowaways or with abolitionists as part of the Underground Railroad by 1850 in addition to the Harris family (McGeevy p. 191). Supporting this, historian Judith Wellman found that Canadian newspapers reported a general increase of business along routes leading to that country from New York because of the 1850 Act. Wellman also highlights one instance were sixteen armed freedom seekers passed through the city of Utica on a canal boat the same month as the Harris family (Wellman et al. pp. 166-167). By October 1850, the Harris family had reached Upstate New York. They received help from locals in the state capital, Albany, to pay for their passage north pretending that William was born free. Local newspapers variously described what happened next as an “inhuman outrage”, and “another phase” of the “detestable” Fugitive Slave Act (New York Tribune, The Plaindealer).

On Monday night, October 21st, 1850, the crew of the canal boat the Harris family traveled on learned that William was a fugitive slave and sought to harass him. Harris defended himself with a dirk after being awoken by the crew. The crew subjected him to verbal abuse from outside his room, including the claim that his former owner was on board. On either Tuesday evening or Wednesday, Caroline, fearing for her life, jumped into the canal with her daughter. Caroline was brought back onto the boat. Her daughter drowned.

After Caroline was back on the boat, the abuse of the Harrises did not end. The crew threatened to kill William, leading him to slit his own windpipe. William spent the entire night lying on the floor. Horning suggests that, at one point, the crew played a game of cards next to him (Horning p. 27). However, William did not bleed out and awoke in the morning. On this day —either the 23rd or 24th— the crew decided to abandon William on the bank of the canal around East Syracuse (then called Lodi). William, with Caroline still on board, would follow the boat for several miles before collapsing.

After some time, passersby noticed William and attempted to rescue him. Startled and likely fearing for his life, William jumped into the canal outside of Syracuse. The entire length of one boat floated over William before its captain, a man by the name of Ogden, rescued him.

William had his wounds treated by Dr. Hiram Hoyt of Syracuse. Horning writes that Caroline was found roughly 25 miles away in the town of Montezuma and was reunited with William by an African American man by the name of Rev. Kisle. It is unknown what happened to the Harris family after this, other than that they continued to Canada. The 1871 Ontario census contains three entries for a U.S.-born African American man by the name of William Harris, but there currently is no evidence that the fugitive attacked on the Erie Canal is one of them. As for the crew that assaulted them, one member was remanded to jail, a man named Cluney. The captain, Harwell Webster, and an oyster merchant named Silas Cowell were released on their own recognizance (Horning, p. 28).

 The tragedy that fell on the Harris Family was covered in papers as far away as Ohio and Kentucky within two days of its original publication in the New York press, a sign of the growing national interest in the fate of self-liberated African Americans in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act. Most papers which published articles about the assault on the Harrises’ denounced it as a consequence of the Act, highlighting the success of abolitionists in relaying news stories that supported their cause. Additionally, the Harris family’s story suggests that the Erie Canal was not only an artery for trade, but also a route on the Underground Railroad where African Americans seeking freedom clashed with other Americans who violently opposed them.

Online Resources

The Erie Canal. 2022. “Steel barges at Canastota.” The Erie Canal. 



Government of Canada. 2023. “Census Search”. Canada. 



Wellman, Judith, Jan DeAmicis, Mary H. Gordon, Jessica Harney, Deirdre Sinnott, and Milton Sernett. 2022. We Took to Ourselves Liberty: Historic Sites Relating to the Underground Railroad, Abolitionism, and African American Life in Oneida County and Beyond. National Park Service.



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


Horning, Elinore T. 1972. “The Harris Harassment.” York State Tradition 26, no. 4 (Fall): 26–28.


Madison County Whig (Cazenovia, NY). 1850. “Untitled Article.” October 30, 1850.


McGreevy, Patrick. Stairway to Empire: Lockport, the Erie Canal, and the Shaping of America. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2015.


New York Tribune (New York, NY). “Outrageous Conduct of a Boat’s Crew.” October 26, 1850.


The Plaindealer (Roslyn, NY). “General News.” November 1, 1850.


Maxam A.B. Daniels

1895 photo of the Erie Canal in Canastota, NY. The Harris Family would have traveled through the town while heading toward Syracuse (The Erie Canal).

Key Events

Early 1800s

William Harris is born enslaved in South Carolina. The exact location and date is unknown.

Before 1843

William Harris escapes enslavement and moves to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Exact date is unknown.


According to a 1972 article by writer Elinore Horning, William Harris marries a woman named Caroline in Philadelphia.


William and Caroline Harris have a daughter, their only known child.

September 18th 1850

The Fugitive Slave Act is signed into law by U.S. President Millard Fillmore, prompting many African Americans including the Harris family to seek refuge in Canada.

October 1850

The Harris family is assaulted by the crew of a boat they were traveling on via New York’s Erie Canal. William and Caroline continue to Canada, while their daughter drowns in the canal because of the attack.