The Public Record: Jonathan Walker
by Maxwell Chase…
I think it’s important for the people of Pensacola to know the story of Jonathan Walker. Please explain.
Before the start of the Civil War, Jonathan Walker was a slave sympathizer who became a national symbol for the abolitionist movement when he helped seven slaves escape from Pensacola.
Born and raised in Harwich, Mass., Walker grew up in an area that was against slavery. In 1836, he relocated his family to Pensacola in search of work in the southern states. The Walkers moved back to Massachusetts just five years later after Jonathan decided he did not want his children witnessing the harsh realities of slavery.
On June 4, 1844, Walker returned to Pensacola on business. He sailed from Mobile, Ala. aboard his own vessel intending to raise a copper-laden shipwreck for scrap. Upon arrival, Walker was approached by several slaves who appealed to him for help. They planned to escape Pensacola and head for the British West Indies where slavery had recently been outlawed. Walker agreed to take them on his boat as long as they understood the dangers of such a mission. They agreed, and on June 22, he set out along the coast of Florida along with seven slaves in search of freedom.
The slaves were discovered missing shortly after they left, and search parties were sent out. A reward of $1,700 was posted for the recovery of Walker’s ship. After days of sailing, Walker became ill as a result of severe sunstroke. The other passengers knew nothing of sailing and found themselves at the mercy of the Gulf. They were eventually found by two wrecking sloops on July 8 and taken to Key West.
The eight men were returned to Pensacola in chains, and Walker was taken to jail to await trial. Since Florida was a territory and not a state, federal marshals had jurisdiction. Five months after his arrest, Walker was charged in federal court. The jury quickly found him guilty on four indictments of slave stealing. He was sentenced to a heavy fine, an hour on the pillory and was forced to have his hand branded with the letters “SS” to signify “slave stealer.”
With no previous cases, authorities had to fashion a brand, but the first blacksmith they approached declined. A metalworker named Pedro Yniestra consented to make the item, but refused to heat it in his own furnace. U.S. Marshal Ebenezer Dorr IV ordered a fire to be built within the courthouse to heat the brand; he then carried out the sentence.
After the branding, Walker was sent back to jail where he was held for several more months. A group of abolitionists from the North paid his court fines, and Walker was released on June 16, 1845.
Word of the case spread, and for the next five years, Walker used his notoriety to travel the country and lecture on the horrors of slavery.