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The man with the branded hand: one hundred and seventy years ago, a man with Michigan ties endured one of the most extraordinary criminal sentences in American history.

Picture a Michigander holding up his hand not to show the shape of the Lower Peninsula but, rather, a mark seared into his flesh by a federal marshal as penalty for being a freedom fighter. That man was named Jonathan Walker.

Walker was born in Harwich, Massachusetts on March 22, 1799. At age 17, he went to sea, abbreviating any formal education. He married Jane Gage in 1822, the year his thoughts began turning to the problem of American slavery. In early 1835, he corresponded with a Philadelphia philanthropist who had purchased more than 100,000 acres in Mexico as a haven for former slaves. Building his own sloop, Walker sailed it from New Bedford to Matamoras to aid in the relocation effort. The Mexican War intervened in his plans, and the haven collapsed. Instead, he temporarily moved his extensive family to Pensacola, Florida. The marriage would produce nine children, three of whom were named after abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison, Lydia Maria Child, and William Wilberforce. Walker worked to support them as a carpenter, mechanic, sailor, and shipbuilder.

In the fall of 1843, he left his family behind to work in the shipwright business in Mobile, Alabama. Learning of a salvage opportunity near Pensacola, he sailed there in his own craft on June 2, 1844. After the project fell through, he conversed "with three or four persons who were disposed to leave the place." They made arrangements for a voyage to Nassau in the Bahamas aboard Walker's 30-foot, schooner-rigged sailing vessel.

On the evening of June 22, the captain and seven sailors-- African-Americans escaping from slavery--set out from Pensacola harbor. They managed to escape detection and navigate all the way down the west shore of Florida, around the Everglades, and within 50 miles of Cape Florida at the tip of Key Biscayne near present-day Miami. From this point, it was just a short passage over to the Bahamas--and freedom for the crew. However, early on July 8, their boat was hailed by two wrecking vessels out of Key West, larger ships manned by up to 20 hands each. As soon as the other captains discovered the reason for Walker's voyage, he and the seven fugitives were detained and taken back to Key West.

On July 9, Walker appeared before a magistrate and, unable to post bail, was committed to jail. Set at $ 1,000, his bond equaled the reward offered by the slaves' three masters for Walker's capture. The following day, he was taken aboard a steamer and placed in irons for the journey back to the Florida panhandle.

After a 10-day voyage, Walker arrived in Pensacola and was jailed again--this time with a $10,000 bond. When his trial convened on November 14, the U.S. Attorney for West Florida charged Walker with four felony violations of territorial law. The jury required only a few hours in a one-day trial to find the accused guilty on all counts. They recommended a sentence of standing in the pillory for one hour (and being subjected to pelting from bystanders with "unmerchantable eggs"), 14 days' imprisonment, and a fine plus court costs. The jury also imposed an uncommon punishment authorized by the territory's criminal code: "any person convicted of stealing a slave [shall] be branded on the right hand with the letters S.S."--for "slave stealer." Because of Florida's status as a territory, federal law enforcement would help carry out his sentence.

On November 18, after being publicly pilloried, Walker was brought into the courtroom and seated in the prisoner's box. U.S. Marshal Ebenezer Dorr IV tied Walker's right arm to the railing. Taking a specially prepared branding iron, Dorr--himself a slaveowner-- took about 30 seconds to imprint an SS onto Walker's open palm.

Unable to pay his court-imposed financial obligations, Walker sat in jail for the next six months. On June 16, 1845, with all fines, costs, and fees finally paid and the remainder of his sentence satisfied, Walker finally earned his freedom and was allowed to book passage on a ship sailing north. He arrived in New York City to a hero's welcome from the abolitionist community. The Boston Emancipator promoted his sacrifices by publishing a representation of his hand based on a daguerreotype that distinctly showed the letters SS.

Inspired by the image, poet John Greenleaf Whittier penned "The Branded Hand." It began "Welcome home again, brave seaman!" Succeeding lines spoke of "the iron of the prison," "the fiery shafts of pain," and the "tyrant's brand." Whittier repudiated the SS as being a mark of shame, instead characterizing it as the "highest honor." He then predicted that unborn generations would "tell with pride the story of their father's branded hand."

Walker published a narrative of his ordeal--titled "Trial and Imprisonment"--in September 1845, written while sailing from Florida, and he spent the next several years on the antislavery lecture circuit. His memoir of the trial and imprisonment featured the SS engraving and denoted the cause: "for aiding slaves to escape from bondage." Abolitionist author Maria Weston Chapman penned the preface, avowing "I had long known his character as a man of the strictest veracity and the highest conscientiousness." In his memoir, he sought to put his "simple ungarnished statement of the case" before the American public. The account of the branding lasted all of a hundred words. As to the author's feelings, he wrote simply, "The pain was severe while the iron was on, and for some time afterwards."

"Trial and Imprisonment" also featured Walker's argument that his sentence did not pass constitutional muster. As a territory, Florida's laws had to remain consistent with the U.S. Constitution and not impose cruel or unusual punishment. Walker contended, therefore, that the law "under which I was punished is void." Fie denied, "in toto," infringing upon anyone's rights or trespassing upon anyone's property, for the reason that none of the three slaveowners "had any more right" to the men who had sought their freedom from bondage than Walker had. "Under God, they had a right to themselves," he opined, "which they had never forfeited. One American-born citizen being the property of another American-born citizen is ridiculous in the highest degree."

In 1853, the Walker family moved to Wisconsin, where he and Jane advertised for supporters to form an abolitionist community. After slavery divided the nation in the 1860 election and incited a civil war the next spring, the Walkers put down roots in Michigan-- either following their son Lloyd, who had enlisted in the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters, or to pursue investment property.

In 1863, they bought a small farm five miles outside of Muskegon in Lake Harbor (then Norton Township, now the city of Norton Shores). On April 26, 1864, a 65-year-old Walker set out from Grand Haven on yet another expedition to aid the formerly enslaved. His heart had gone out to "the newly emancipated" behind Union lines near Fort Monroe, Virginia, who had need of training and assistance in their new lives. Bearing a letter of introduction from the governor of his home state, Walker offered his expertise in teaching farming skills. Bureaucratic red tape and a lack of cooperation from the troops overseeing the former slaves hindered his involvement. After several months of valiant effort, he came back to Michigan.

Walker's remaining years centered on tending his fruit trees, selling strawberry plants, and occasionally writing about his life's work on behalf of the oppressed. His wife preceded him in death in October 1871, and he likely remarried two years later. Toward the end of that decade, his age had begun to inhibit his ability to make a living. Muskegon resident Henry H. Holt, a former lieutenant governor of Michigan, then launched an appeal for funds to support the aged abolitionist. Poet Whittier became a donor, writing Holt that his old friend "should not be forgotten in the woods of Michigan."

Thirty years after the branding, Reverend James J. McLaughlin of Allegan vouched that the SS was still visible on the septuagenarian's right hand. Jonathan Walker died on April 30, 1878, and was buried in the Lake Harbor cemetery next to his first wife.

The story of the branded man survived his death. Soon after Walker's interment, Reverend Photius Fisk, an abolitionist from Boston and a former U.S. Navy chaplain, learned that no one had come forward to erect a suitable monument to the memory of his old friend. He offered to do so at his own expense. A committee of Walker's friends in Muskegon, consisting of Judge M.L. Stephenson, Reverend F.E. Kittredge, Joshua Davies, William Jones, and Daniel Upton, met to accept the proposed monument and arrange for its unveiling. The committee also decided to relocate the abolitionist's remains from their rural location to Evergreen Cemetery in Muskegon.

An obelisk--chiseled from Maine granite--arrived in due time and was placed over the new gravesite. The committee selected August 1, 1878, commemorating the day of passage of the British Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, as the day on which the reception and unveiling of the monument would occur.

On that date, some 6,000 interested observers from the community, region, and as far away as Chicago gathered for the ceremony. A tribute letter from Frederick Douglass was read aloud: "I knew Jonathan Walker, and knew him well ... a true man, a friend to humanity, a brave but noiseless lover of liberty ... who possessed the qualities of hero and martyr." The next day's Chronicle published an account of the events, expressing pleasant surprise at the large turnout. The story concluded: "The great doctrine of human equality is so deeply imbedded in the hearts of the Northern people, and the maintenance of the principles involved in this doctrine have cost so much suffering, and blood, and treasure, that any circumstance that calls to mind the days when to advocate human equality meant peril and suffering, touches a chord that readily responds."

The 10-foot-tall marker impressed attendees. On one side was inscribed the following text: "This monument is erected/ to the memory of/Capt. Walker/by his anti-slavery friend/ Photius Fisk/chaplain of the/United States Navy." A portion of Whittier's poem festooned another. On the eastern face were the words "Capt. Walker's Branded Hand," along with a carving based on the famous photographic image.

Frederick Douglass' letter challenged history to find, among the pantheon of Americans who had fought slavery, that "Jonathan Walker is not less entitled to grateful memory than the most honored of them all. 'S.S.' meant at the South, Slave Stealer, but was read by the North and all civilized men everywhere as Slave Saviour. His example of self-sacrifice nerved us all to more heroic endeavor in behalf of the slave."

Those who remembered Walker through the years remained grateful. A plaque in his honor was located in front of Brooks Academy on Routes 124 and 39 in Harwich, Massachusetts. It contains a brief biographical sketch along with two images depicting the branded hand and the Muskegon monument. Beginning in 1955, the Greater Urban League of Muskegon chose to bestow the Jonathan Walker Award on those citizens who worked to improve race relations.

In 1921, Evergreen Cemetery became the site of yet another Walker reinterment. After falling into some disrepair, his monument--and grave--were relocated close to the main entrance at Irwin Street. A Michigan historical marker for the cemetery that also mentions the Walker story stands nearby.

In 1998, the Jonathan Walker memorial was refurbished and rededicated in a ceremony that attracted a number of the man's descendants. A separate monument to Jane Walker was also unveiled. A large boulder with a plaque denoting it as "a gift of New England friends and admirers," it marks her life span and her own role as an abolitionist. A modest stone continues to mark her grave in Norton Cemetery in Norton Shores.

On October 19, 2013, Walker earned his highest honor when he was accepted into the National Abolition Hall of Fame in Peterboro, New York. Support from proud family members proved a key to Walker's induction. As one wrote, "Having an ancestor who helped to shape America is a humbling thing. Now that we are coming up to the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War that defined America, I can only think of his important contribution to the freedom and liberty that so many now enjoy. America is not done yet in its evolution and we can be glad for the sacrifices of those who went before us."

The sacrifice of the man with the branded hand lives on.


About 25 miles southeast of Syracuse, New York is the village of Peterboro: home to the National Abolition Hall of Fame and Museum, founded in 2004 near the site of the inaugural meeting of the New York State Antislavery Society and close to the Gerrit Smith Estate National Historic Landmark. Jonathan Walker was inducted into the hall in a ceremony held in October 2013.

Walker joined a select and diverse group of freedom fighters who have achieved this honor. They include John Brown, Lydia Maria Child, Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley Foster, William Lloyd Garrison, Jermain Wesley Loguen, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Myrtilla Miner, Lucretia Mott, Wendell Phillips, John Rankin, George Gavin Ritchie, Gerrit Smith, Lewis Tappan, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and Theodore Dwight Weld.

Descendants John and Matthew Hoh of North Prairie, Wisconsin presented Walker's nomination, with supporting nominations provided by Bill Ketchum of San Diego, California (great-great grandson), Joan Reamer of Portland, Oregon (great-great granddaughter), and Robert Walker of Madison, Wisconsin (great-great grandson).


Named by his father for one of the preeminent American abolitionists, Lloyd G. Walker followed in the family line by fighting for freedom in the Civil War. He enlisted with the rank of sergeant and was assigned to Company B of the 1st Michigan Sharpshooters at Grand Haven on December 19, 1862. Walker was 21 years old at the time. Wounded twice, he served honorably until discharged on July 28, 1 865 at Delaney House in the District of Columbia. He died in 1931; his grave is located in Fernwood Cemetery on County Road 420 in Gladstone.

Jack Dempsey is the president of the Michigan Historical Commission and an award-winning author
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Title Annotation:Jonathan Walker
Author:Dempsey, Jack
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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