Right now, our intrepid volunteer and board member, Ed Zeigler, is working on rehousing part of our collection of county indictments. This morning he found an interesting one.
The indictment is for three men, John Dyer, Howell Rockyfellow, and Fisher Wilson (aka Wilson Fisher). They were accused of attempting to kidnap an African-American man named Robert Waters with the intent of selling him into slavery.
The court papers say that the men were planning on taking Waters into New Jersey to be sold as a slave. New Jersey had passed a gradual abolition law in 1804. That law freed children born after it was passed, but those children had to work unpaid apprenticeships for their mothers’ owners until the age of 21 for women and 25 for men. People held as slaves in 1804 remained slaves until 1846, when a new law converted their status to “apprentice for life.”
So it would not have been legal to sell to sell a kidnapped black person in New Jersey. It’s possible that New Jersey was just the first stop for the men, or it could be that didn’t know the details of New Jersey’s laws. It’s also possible that if they were willing to kidnap someone they were also willing to illegally sell him.
I looked around for more information on these men. The folder doesn’t give us a verdict. I checked the Norristown Herald for May 7, 1816 and the case isn’t mentioned (to be fair, almost no local history is in the Herald from these times). Ancestry was a little more helpful. I managed to find a Howell Rockafellow who was born in New Jersey in 1792. It’s possible he might be the right man. I also found a record of a Robert Waters. It’s a citizenship affidavit for American seaman. Of course, I can’t be at all sure it’s the same man.
As a final note, Ed pointed out that it’s interesting that the kidnapping charges were county charges. Kidnapping did not become a federal crime until 1932 (after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping).