David Ruggles and the New York Committee of Vigilance

David Ruggles (1810-1849) was New York’s most radical, infamous, and hated black abolitionist, and the chief operative of the New York Committee of Vigilance, an organization protecting free black New Yorkers from being kidnapped and sold to slavery, and assisting fugitive slaves from the South.

He was born on March 15, 1810, in Norwich, Connecticut as the oldest of 8 children. His parents were free African Americans who grew up during the Revolution and were well-respected in their mixed-race, mixed-class, uncommonly tolerant community. Ruggles grew up being exposed to stories about equality, justice, and freedom. It was impossible for him to accept the treatment of black people he experienced later in New York.

David Ruggles received an excellent education in a religious charity school. At age 15, he started to work as a seaman on steamships traveling between Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New York. He befriended and was influenced by a mariner from Bedford named Nathan Johnson, a civil rights and abolition activist. From him, Ruggles learned how to organize and mobilize.

When he was 16 or 17, he settled in Manhattan and opened a grocery business, first in Cortland Street. Later, he set up both his home and store in Lispenard Street. He joined the Free Produce Movement, selling only products which were not harvested or processed by enslaved people, and used a part of the store as a reading room and the first lending library for black people. His store became a go-to place for black people in need of help, especially fugitive slaves who had just arrived in the city.

He bought a printing press that he kept in his storage area, to publish anti-slavery pamphlets and materials. Around 1834 he closed the grocery store and opened a bookstore – the first black-owned in the US – selling anti-slavery and feminist literature. It was burned down by arsonists in 1835, but he re-opened it quickly. Ruggles made a lot of enemies and was also assaulted and arrested several times, as well as almost murdered and kidnapped more than once.

In this first half of the 1930s, Ruggles also worked as traveling agent and contributor for several anti-slavery newspapers, Samuel E. Cornish‘s and John B. Russwurm‘s Freedom’s Journal – the first black-owned and operated newspaper in the nation, the official publication of the American Anti-Slavery Society, The Emancipator,, and William Lloyd Garrison‘s The Liberator. Traveling enabled him to build a vast network of fellow abolitionists that he would use later to help fugitives slaves to escape. Ruggles wrote hundreds of articles over his lifetime, many of them about free black people being kidnapped and sold as slaves.

Although New York State had abolished slavery in 1827, New York City was a dangerous place for black people, escaped slaves from the South as well as free African Americans. The Fugitive Slave Clause in the US Constitution required the Northern States to return fugitive slaves. Many states and cities cooperated only reluctantly and unwillingly, but New York City was different. Whereas the antislavery movement flourished in Upstate New York and New England, NYC had closed economic ties to the slave South.

Representatives of Wall Street, the Democratic Party, and the conservative press protected their lucrative business with slaveowners by appeasing and collaborating with them. NYC police officers were paid to capture and return runaway slaves. None of them didn’t care if the captured person was indeed an escaped slave or a free black American. In the early 1830s, New York City’s black community was terrorized by an epidemic of kidnappings. Black people were stolen from the streets, docks, and workplaces. Black children were seized or lured away, to be transported to the South and sold as slaves.

Ruggles reported the abduction of Frances Maria Shields, a 12-year-old dark-skinned girl last seen wearing a purple and white dress. In addition, he alerted the public about John Robinson Welch, an 8- or 9-year-old boy, who disappeared from his home. There was also Thomas Bryan, a free Black boy who was jailed in Vicksburg, Mississippi, about to be sold to recoup his jail fees. Another free Black male, Thomas Oliver, was kidnapped and sold as a slave in New Orleans.

An informal but powerful network of politicians, judges, lawyers, police officers, slave traders, and slave hunters grew into what David Ruggles called the New York Kidnapping Club. The most notorious Kidnapping Club “members” were two police officers: Tobias Boudinot and Daniel D. Nash, supported by City Recorder Richard Riker and US Marshal Isaiah Rynders, fixer for the corrupt Tammany Hall machine, mobster, and gangster, infamous for his “chicanery, bigotry, racism, corruption, and violence“. Another player was a lawyer named Fontaine H. Pettis, who moved from Virginia to New York to represent Southern slaveholders in Northern cities and help them to re-enslave runaways. Lots of people made a lot of money by capturing fugitives and abducting free blacks, pretending they were fugitives, shipping them and selling them to the South.

In 1835, Ruggles, only 25 years old, established the Committee of Vigilance. It was the first organization that provided organized and coordinated help and a predecessor of what was later called the Underground Railroad. The Committee of Vigilance started with only five members: Ruggles, George R. Barker (a white businessman and lifelong abolitionist), James W. Higgins (a black grocer), Robert Brown (a white attorney), William Johnston (an English-born abolitionist and grain merchant). Later black abolitionist leaders joined: Ministers Theodore Sedgwick Wright, Samuel Eli Cornish, and Charles Bennett Ray as well as Thomas Van Rensselaer a former slave who had escaped from Slavery in Mohawk Valley NY 1819).

The Committee of Vigilance supported escaped slaves with shelter, transport, financial and legal aid. Their leading attorney was Horace Dresser, who argued most of the cases before Riker, and, against all odds, occasionally won, liberating individuals held in captivity by kidnappers. Committee members warned the community when a slave catcher had arrived in NYC, they gathered in front of the city jail and courtroom to support arrested suspected runaways, and they also did not hesitate to get personally involved and take on physical fights to free slaves.

David Ruggles constantly roamed the docks and boarded ships searching for black captives, slave traders and their helpers, and fugitive slaves in need of help. He called what he did “practical abolitionism”. One time he (with help of others) rescued three slaves brought illegally into the port. Another time he entered the New York summer residence of a Southern family who had brought three of their slaves with them and only left until ordered to do so, taking one of the slaves with him.  He also brought charges against slave-trader and ship captain Nathaniel Gordon, who at that time got away, but in 1862 became the only American executed for trading slaves. Ruggles also wrote and publicized tirelessly antislavery material and notices about kidnappings. He wrote hundreds of articles and published his own magazine called Mirror of Liberty, the first periodical published by a black American.

His home was not only the Committee’s operational central, but also a destination for many runaway slaves. Because once a suspected fugitive was brought to court, chances of being freed were slim, thus Ruggles made huge efforts to bring them into safety before they could be apprehended. Using the network of abolitionists including ship captains he had established as traveling newspaper agent, he sent them on coastal vessels or Hudson steamboats to Upstate New York or New England.

One of the hundreds of people David Ruggles helped was Frederick Douglass, then known as Frederick Bailey. Bailey escaped from slavery in Maryland and upon arrival in NYC in 1838. He was taken in by David Ruggles, who contacted Bailey’s fiancee Anna Murray, a free black woman, to come from Baltimore to New York. The couple was married in Ruggles’ home by Reverend James W.C. Pennington. Ruggles gave Bailey money and sent him to safety in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Frederick Bailey became the famous Frederick Douglass. In his memoir, Douglass called Ruggles an “officer of the underground railroad”, a term, that was not yet coined and became only used in the 1840s. It was Ruggles who inspired Douglass to join the abolitionist movement in the US instead of escaping to Canada. Douglass wrote of in his autobiography:

I became relieved […] by the humane hand of David Ruggles, whose vigilance, kindness, and perseverance I shall never forget […] I had been in New York but a few days, when Mr. Ruggles sought me out, and very kindly took me to his boarding-house.

He was a whole-souled man, fully imbued with a love of his afflicted and hunted people.
Frederick Douglass

David Ruggles was significantly more confrontational than other abolitionist leaders, considered difficult, self-righteous, and argumentative. He also embraced and encouraged counterviolence if necessary, in opposition to the American Anti-Slavery Society. His militance caused increasing tensions with other members of the Vigilance Committee, especially Samuel Cornish. After Ruggles caused a libel lawsuit against Cornish’s newspaper the Colored American, the disputes escalated and David Ruggles resigned from the Committee.

Under Ruggles’ leadership, despite conflicts, setbacks, and chronic financial challenges, the Committee of Vigilance had aided more than 800 fugitives and caused a shift in the abolitionist movement, making it a priority and responsibility to assist fugitive slaves and defend suspected ones, after being often reluctant to do so in the past. Moreover, the Committee of Vigilance catapulted the issue of fugitive slaves and the kidnapping of free blacks into the public consciousness and political sphere. It petitioned the legislature to provide legal protections for both groups.

Under anti-slavery Whig Governor William Henry Seward, voted into office by abolitionist Upstate New Yorkers, NYS passed several important laws, for which Ruggles had pleaded for years. The most important one mandated a jury trial for alleged fugitives, which prevented the Kidnapping Club from simply seizing their victims and putting them on a ship heading South, often in the middle of the night. The anti-kidnapping laws also required the claimant to cover court costs if the jury decided the accused was not a runaway and prohibited local judges (like city recorder Riker) to issue arrest warrants for fugitives. These laws made a crucial difference in New York. In 1842, the Committee of Vigilance reported that the incidents of kidnapping in the city had “gradually died away”.

David Ruggle’s organization, described by Albany abolitionist Stephen Myers as the “most efficient organization in the State” served as a model for other Vigilance Committees that were created, first in Philadelphia and Albany, and by 1842 in most cities and larger towns. The expanding network became known as the Underground Railroad.

David Ruggles’ constant struggle and frantic, fast-paced activism had exhausted both his finances and his health. He was destitute, nearly blind at age of 28 and had severe other health issues. IN 1842 his abolitionist friends David Lee Child and Lydia Maria Child helped him to move to the Northampton Association of Education and Industry in Florence, Massachusetts, an utopian community dedicated to racial, gender and economic equality, organized around a communally operated silk factory. There his condition improved after undergoing hydrotherapy. He established his own successful water-cure medical practice, and befriended and mentored Sojourner Truth. Unfortunately, he could not heal himself permanently and died on December 16, 1849, at the age of only 39.

Further Reading

Also check out the Resources page for more (online and offline resources)!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *