Jonathan Walker (abolitionist)

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1845 Daguerreotype of Walker's branded hand by Southworth & Hawes.

Jonathan Walker (1799 in Harwich, Massachusetts – May 1, 1878 near Norton Shores, Michigan), aka "The Man with the Branded Hand", was an American reformer who became a national hero in 1844 when he was tried and sentenced as a slave stealer following his attempt to help seven runaway slaves find freedom. He was branded on his hand by the United States Government with the markings S.S. for "Slave Stealer".


During his youth in Massachusetts, Walker learned to sail and became captain of a fishing vessel. In early 1837, he went to Florida and became a railroad contractor. The condition of the slaves interested him, and in 1844 Walker aided several of them as they attempted to make escape in an open boat from the coast of Florida to the British West Indies. After doubling the capes, Captain Walker fell seriously ill; the crew, being ignorant of navigation, would all have been drowned if a wrecking sloop had not rescued them and taken Walker to Key West. From there, he was sent in chains aboard USS General Taylor to Pensacola, where he was put in prison, chained to the floor, and deprived of light and proper food. Walker later wrote about the degrading conditions inside the jailhouse and the brutality shown toward slaves there.

Put on trial in federal court, Walker was convicted, sentenced to be tied to a pillory and publicly branded on his right hand with the letters "S. S." for slave-stealer", as well as imprisoned and heavily fined. But to some he was "slave savior". United States Marshal Eben Dorr, who also traded slaves, executed the branding with a hot iron.[1] Walker was then returned to jail, confined eleven months, and released only after northern abolitionists paid his fine.[citation needed]

For five years after his release, Walker lectured on slavery in the northern and western states. He moved to Michigan about 1850 and lived near Muskegon until his death in Lake Harbor. He is buried (with his wife who predeceased him by seven years) at Evergreen Cemetery in Muskegon.[2] Their two youngest sons (born in 1843 and 1848) predeceased their parents, but two sons and five daughters survived both parents. A monument was erected to Captain Walker's memory on August 1, 1878.

Walker was the subject of John Greenleaf Whittier's poem "The Man with the Branded Hand".[3] Whittier heard about Walker after reading a book about him called Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker.[4] The poem praised Walker's actions.[5]

A plaque commemorating Walker was erected in the lawn next to the Harwich, MA Historical Society.

Another Rev. John Walker (1786-1845) was a Presbyterian minister and abolitionist in Pennsylvania and Ohio who founded Franklin College.[6]


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