One hundred and seventy-one years ago this week, a strange trial — and the even stranger punishment doled out to the man convicted — captivated Pensacola and the nation.
In 1844, Pensacola was a leading city of the Florida Territory, which wouldn’t become a state for another year. Two decades before the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery still played a central role in the region’s social and economic identity.
On November 16 of that year, 45-year-old Jonathan Walker was tried and convicted by a federal jury, receiving a sentence normally reserved for livestock when a red-hot branding iron was pressed into the flesh of his hand. The crime? Slave-stealing.
Walker, an avowed abolitionist and a native of Massachusetts, first came to Pensacola in 1836, staying for five years before returning north “because he would not bring up his children among the poisonous influences of slavery.” However, business opportunities brought Walker back to the area in June 1844, sailing his own vessel from Mobile to Pensacola.
Weeks later, as Walker prepared to leave, he encountered seven men who “were disposed to leave the place.”
The men were slaves, and Walker agreed to help them escape. “I gave them to understand that if they chose to go to the Bahama Islands in my boat, I would share the risk with them,” Walker later wrote.
The men left Pensacola on June 22 and headed east, but Walker quickly fell victim to sunstroke, and became so delirious that he was unable to manage the boat. Despite his illness, the men managed to make it all the way to Cape Florida, near present-day Miami, before they were intercepted by two other vessels. By that time, word of the escape — and of a reward offered for the return of the slaves — had spread, and Walker and the other men were escorted to Key West.
After a hearing in Key West, Walker was transported to Pensacola aboard the steamship General Taylor, arriving at the Navy Yard on July 18. After being taken to the courthouse, Walker was imprisoned in the Spanish calabozo (“dungeon”) near Alcaniz and Intendencia streets, under the watchful eye of jailer Francisco Touart — incidentally the great-grandfather of the late Escambia County Administrator George Touart. Despite conditions that were described as “deplorable” by federal officials in 1821, the calabozo remained Pensacola’s primary detention facility until until 1875, when a new jail was constructed.
On November 14, Walker was taken back to court, where he was tried on four counts of slave-stealing and aiding and inducing slaves to run away. Two days later, he would receive his sentence. First, Walker was fined $150 plus court costs, and then he was placed in the pillory for one hour, where he was pelted with rotten eggs.
And then he was branded.
First, authorities, led by U.S. Marshal and Escambia County Sheriff Ebenezer Dorr, had to fashion a branding iron, shaped into an “SS” for “slave stealer.” At least one blacksmith approached by authorities declined, feeling that brands should only be used on animals. Eventually, blacksmith Pedro Yniestra agreed to craft the brand, though he refused to heat it in his own furnace.
Walker later recounted the events in a memoir:
After the branding, Walker was imprisoned once again, where he would languish for another seven months until a group of Northern abolitionists agreed to pay his fines and court costs, which totalled $596.05 — the equivalent of nearly $20,000 in today’s money.
Walker left Pensacola and spent five years lecturing on slavery in the north and out west, and wrote a memoir of his time in captivity, Trial and Imprisonment of Jonathan Walker, which was published in Boston in 1845. Around 1850, Walker settled in Michigan, where he became a blueberry farmer.
The bizarre story of Walker’s imprisonment and sentence in Pensacola resonated throughout the country and beyond. After Walker received a letter of support from the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Marshal Dorr seized the letter and forwarded it to John Branch, governor of the Florida territory. Dorr called the letter “further evidence of the interference of a foreign power with our institutions.” Governor Branch in turn forwarded it to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, accusing British abolitionists of “clandestinely cooperating with the authorities of Massachusetts in fiendish machinations against our domestic institutions.”
Unlike Dorr and Branch, Jonathan Walker would live to see slavery abolished in the United States. When he died in 1878, more than 6,000 people descended on Muskegon, Michigan for his funeral, and monuments were erected in his honor in both Michigan and Massachusetts. Much like the brand which was permanently seared into his hand, the story of Jonathan Walker remains forever seared into Pensacola’s history and the chronicle of our nation’s struggle with slavery.