The National Archives at New York City

Fugitive Slave Case: A Slave Named Stephen Pembrook

Of all the bills that made up the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was the most controversial. It required citizens to assist in the recovery of fugitive slaves, and it denied a fugitive's right to a jury trial.

Under the Fugitive Slave Law, an accused runaway stood trial in front of a special commissioner instead of a judge or jury. These commissioners were paid $5 if an alleged fugitive were released. They received $10 if the fugitive was sent away with the claimant.

This exhibit details the 1854 case of the slave owner Jacob Grove and a fugitive slave named Stephen Pembrook.

According to the case file, a petition was filed by Jacob H. Grove of Washington County, Maryland, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland. Grove claimed to be the lawful owner of Stephen Pembrook and reported him as a fugitive.

In May 1854, Pembrook fled with his two sons, Robert and Jacob. They made it to New York City, where they had family including Pembrook's brother, a pastor of an African American Presbyterian Church.

Once the escape was determined, an arrest warrant was issued in New York City. Eventually all three were apprehended in New York and arrested as fugitive slaves.

The petitions in the case state that Pembrook, who was 42 or 43 years old, had been enslaved for more than 18 years to Jacob H. Grove. Pembrook is described this way: "about five feet and six or seven inches in height, dark in colour, has bad teeth, and that one at least of his front teeth is gone."

The second case involved Pembrook's sons, Robert and Jacob, who were owned by a David Smith also of Washington County, Maryland. The petition describes Robert, who was about 20 years old, as "about five feet six or seven inches in height, of a dark colour, and that he has a scar on the lower part of the back of his neck." Jacob, meanwhile, was 18 years of age and "five feet four inches in height." Also, according to the petition, he "stoops."

After a short hearing, and based on depositions of Grove and a few others, the court decided that Stephen Pembrook and his sons should be returned to Jacob H. Grove and taken back to Maryland.

This story is particularly interesting in the way Stephen Pembrook later regained his freedom. His brother's church, through the donations of parishioners, purchased him for $1,000 and brought him back to New York. His sons, unfortunately, remained in slavery.

The Documents

This case represents one of the eight Fugitive Slave Case files, 1837 - 1860, available at the National Archives at New York City.

Select documents from these files have been digitized and can be found in the Online Catalog. The documents include affidavits, petitions, powers of attorney, case file covers, depositions, and certifications of the receipt of fugitive slaves.


In the Matter of the Petition of Jacob H. Grove: Petition of Jacob H. Grove, 05/25/1854, U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, RG 21, Records of District Courts of the United States.

Petition
In the Matter of the Petition of Jacob H. Grove:
Petition of Jacob H. Grove, 05/25/1854
National Archives Identifier: 278352

Deposition
In the Matter of the Petition of Jacob H. Grove:
Deposition of Augustin A. Biggs, 05/25/1854
National Archives Identifier: 278353

Deposition
In the Matter of the Petition of Jacob H. Grove:
Deposition of Jacob H. Grove, 05/25/1854
National Archives Identifier: 278354


In the Matter of the Petition of David Smith/In the Matter of the Reclamation of Robert and Jacob Pembrook alleged Fugitives from Labor: Petition of David Smith, 05/24/1854 - 05/26/1854, U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York, RG 21, Records of District Courts of the United States.

Petition
In the Matter of the Petition of David Smith:
Petition of David Smith, 05/24/1854
National Archives Identifier: 278360

Deposition
In the Matter of the Petition of David Smith:
Deposition of Augustin A. Biggs, 05/24/1854
National Archives Identifier: 278361

Deposition
In the Matter of the Petition of David Smith:
Deposition of David Smith, 05/24/1854
National Archives Identifier: 278363

Order
In the Matter of the Petition of David Smith:
Order, ca., 05/24/1854
National Archives Identifier: 278362


Other Resources

More information on Fugitive Slave Cases and related research topics can be found here:

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