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“The Freeing of Runaway slave, Charles Nalle”

Scott Christianson

This is the recap by Frank Robinson, of a presentation  by Scott Christianson, at the April 10th,  2011 CDHS monthly meeting.


Scott Christianson is an author, scholar, and human rights activist, specializing in American history; he has also held positions in the criminal justice system. His latest book is titled Freeing Charles, 18 year effort; it concerns an 1860 event in the local area.
Charles Nalle was a slave owned by Blucher Hansborough of Culpeper, Virginia (actually, he was also Hansborough’s half brother.). Charles was married to Kitty – itself a privileged situation for a slave – but she was on a nearby plantation – it was common to keep slave families from living together. When Kitty’s owner died, his will freed her; but Virginia law required freed slaves to leave the state. Kitty went to Washington, DC, still slave territory, in order to remain near Charles. Then, in October 1858, aided by a local white agent of the Underground Railroad, Charles managed to escape north. In consequence, his brothers were “sold down the river,” (that is, to the deeper south, where slavery was rather harsher), and were never heard from again; and Kitty was put in the DC slave pen on suspicion of being involved in the escape. (She ultimately got out through the efforts of a young civil rights lawyer named Chester Alan Arthur.)
The best course for an escaped slave was to flee to Canada, because under the draconian Fugitive Slave Law (part of the Compromise of 1850), even free states were not safe for them. But Charles, hoping to connect up with Kitty and their children, stopped in Albany, and later in Troy (in 1860, an industrial mecca and the richest U.S. city). There he was betrayed by one Horace Averill (who gave his name to Averill Park), and grabbed in the street by a Federal Marshal and a slave-catcher up from Culpeper.
While Nalle was being held in an upper floor of a Troy edifice, Harriet Tubman – who just happened to be visiting Troy – got wind of the situation and rushed to the scene. Disguising herself as an old woman, she managed to get to Nalle, and signaled him to exit through the window. A large crowd had gathered below, and a great melee ensued, the upshot being that Charles was brought down from the window and hustled across the river to Watervliet.
But that wasn’t the denouement. Charles was re-arrested in Watervliet. Then Tubman and a crowd of blacks and whites together also crossed the river and stormed the building where he was being held for the second time and, through gunfire, liberated him a second time. Ultimately, money was raised to buy his freedom for $650. That was in effect his fourth liberation, making him the only person to be freed from slavery four times.
Charles Nalle died in 1875. His son John grew up in Washington, DC, becoming a prominent educator. After his retirement in 1932, John visited Troy, and was surprised to be greeted as a celebrity; apparently, his father had never related the dramatic story, which had not been forgotten in Troy and Watervliet. Indeed, the Nalle rescue has been called the greatest event in Watervliet’s history. An historical marker noting the event stands today outside the McDonald’s on Broadway in Watervliet. 



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