February 4th, 2013

By Kerry Lippincott, Executive Director

The year is 1857. James Buchanan is president. In Dred Scott v. Sandford the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans are not citizens and slaves can not sue for their freedom. For the fourth year, the debate over whether Kansas will enter the Union as a free or slave state is fought with the ballot box and on the battlefield. Over a two-day period in Savannah, Georgia 436 men, women and children are sold in the largest slave auction in United States history. And in Geneva two African Americans are kidnapped with the intent of selling them into slavery.

In the fall of 1857, dry goods clerk Napoleon VanTuyl tells Daniel Prue (son of a fugitive slave) and John Hite (a freed slave who had moved with his mother from Washington, D.C. to Geneva) that he can get both men jobs as waiters at his uncle’s hotel in Cincinnati, Ohio. With the promise of well-paying jobs, Prue and Hite leave with VanTuyl for Ohio.

However, within a week of their departure John Prue receives a letter from his son stating VanTuyl’s real intent. Somewhere between Columbus and Cincinnati, Prue had overheard VanTuyl talking with another passenger about his plans to sell his traveling companions into slavery in Kentucky. Prue escaped and made his way back to Columbus where he wrote to his father.

In Geneva local jeweler and abolitionist Edward Barnard heard Prue’s story and got the state involved. Authorized by the governor, Genevan Calvin Walker heads to Ohio (with Hite’s former employer Robert Lay) to get Prue, find Hite and seek the arrest of VanTuyl. The pair found Prue working in a livery stable in Columbus. A few days later they discover that Hite was sold for $800 to a Benton W. Jenkins who resold Hite to a judge. Upon hearing the story Jenkins is persuaded to refund the judge’s money. Hite is found in a Louisville slave pen and sent to join Pure in Ohio.

Walker’s next task is to find Van Tuyl, who is wanted in Kentucky and New York for the kidnapping of a free black person and selling him into slavery. Rumor had it that VanTuyl fled to New Orleans after selling Hite. By March 1858, VanTuyl is found in New Orleans and brought to Louisville where he was supposedly held in the same pen that held Hite a few months earlier.

Though found not guilty in Kentucky, VanTuyl is brought to Canandaigua to stand trial on the charge of entrapment. On April 11, 1859 VanTuyl is convicted and sentenced to two years in Auburn Prison. Within a year he is dead.

What happened to Prue and Hite? Prue returned to Geneva and served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Wounded during the war, Prue would live off of his military pension. Once freed, it is unknown what happened to Hite.

For more information on local African American history, see Make a Way Somehow: African American Life in a Northern Community, 1790-1965 by Kathryn Grover.