Black History Month: The Story of Peter John Lee
History books can sometimes paint the pre-Civil War era to be rather cut and dried, with Abolitionists in the North promoting freedom and the South continuing the tradition of slavery, but it is far more complex than it seems. A quick glance at the history of slavery here in Rye highlights the nuances of this period, with no case more documented and contested than the kidnapping of Peter John Lee, a free man living and working in Rye and Greenwich in the 1830s.
Peter John Lee was a black man employed by Seth Lyon, Esq., a justice of the peace. He had been employed by Lyon for at least a few months, and had been working in and around the Buyrum (Byram) area of Greenwich and Rye for a number of years. He had a wife and child. He was a respected man by all accounts and a dedicated employee.
At the time, an entire industry existed for men who were willing to serve as slave kidnappers, luring freed slaves and fugitives into their custody and returning them to slavery or prison. One particularly aggressive and feared group of kidnappers, known by blacks and Abolitionists as the New York Kidnapping Club, worked throughout Westchester. Peter John Lee fell victim to their trap, and despite the community efforts in Rye and the surrounding area, he never again gained freedom.
On the 20th of November, 1836, an acquaintance of Peter John Lee persuaded him to cross the border from Connecticut into New York. While we don’t know the reason he gave the Lee, it was innocuous enough for Lee to follow. This acquaintance was paid $1.50 for his service, and as one kidnapper shook Lee’s hand, the others chained him, forced him into their custody and transported him back to the south. It was believed that Lee fled Virginia, along with more than a dozen other slaves, a few years prior to this kidnapping, although this fact was never confirmed.
The facts of the kidnapping, on the other hand, were very clear. Lee’s kidnappers were Tobias Boudinot and Daniel D. Nash, both officers in New York, along with John Lyon and a Virginia man named Edward R. Waddy. It was Waddy who returned Lee to Virginia and imprisoned him, but these injustices could never have been carried out without the help of New York authorities. Newspapers covered both the event and the subsequent trial, bringing attention to the dangers freed slaves faced.
Unfortunately, cases such as this were not uncommon at the time, when laws surrounding slavery were unclear and contradictory. According to Tobias Boudinot, he had a valid warrant in New York, requested by the state of Virginia, to capture any escaped slaves and return them. Governor Marcy, the New York governor at the time, developed Southern sympathies in an effort to protect his state’s textile industry, which relied heavily on Southern cotton plantations. He complied with orders and provided the means necessary to carry out kidnappings, despite the fact that many towns, including Rye, were counted among the Abolition communities.
A complicated trial ensued with Nash as the defendant. He was charged with libel and with kidnapping a person with the intent to force him into slavery. He built a defense around his belief that he had probable cause to carry out this kidnapping and the jurisdiction to do so under the law. He also claimed that there was no evidence of intended malice, a defense that many, both attorneys and active citizens, argued against.
While the jury charged Nash with $1,500 in damages, the court either did not or could not go to the lengths necessary to bring Lee home to his family, to the freedom of the Northern states.* As outraged as people were to see these events unfold, the laws at the time did not adequately protect the individual at greatest risk, the freed slave. In the years following this trial, many activists sought change in the laws for future cases and in the 1838 election, Governor Marcy was replaced, in part for his Southern sympathies.
The most famous Abolitionist to get involved in Peter John Lee’s case was a man named David Ruggles. Ruggles lived and worked in New York City in the 1830s after growing up as a free black man in Connecticut. In addition to assisting slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad and selling and publishing Abolitionist papers, he was an integral leader in the fight against kidnapping in the area. Ruggles wrote a letter, pictured above, on behalf of Peter John Lee in an effort to get the facts of the kidnapping accurate and publicized. He helped many fugitive slaves by offering legal assistance in order to give them a fair trial.
While Peter John Lee’s unjust treatment was never rectified, his experience added fuel to the fire for the Abolitionist movement by making public the vulnerability and mistreatment of free men. It took a gradual shift in power to give the Abolitionist movement the support it needed to protect citizens, throughout the Northern states and here in our hometown. As Black History Month comes to a close, it is important to remember the stories of the many individuals who contributed to positive changes. We hope you will share the story of Peter John Lee.
*One recent source indicates that many years later, Peter John Lee escaped again and made it to Canada, assisted along the way by many Abolitionists.
Interested in the sources behind this story? Contact the Rye Historical Society for more information about Peter John Lee. Contact Rye Historical Society