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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Slave Patrols in the President's Neighborhood

This article is part of the Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative. Explore the Timeline

Thomas Smallwood detailed the circumstances of his enslavement and life as a free Black man living in Washington City in his autobiography published in 1851. As a result of laws preventing enslaved people from learning to read and write, firsthand accounts such as these are both rare and important to reference while reconstructing the history of slavery in the President’s Neighborhood. Thomas Smallwood was born into slavery in Prince George's County, Maryland, on February 22, 1801.1 His enslavers, Reverend John B. Ferguson and the reverend’s wife, taught him how to read and write.2 Smallwood recorded in his narrative that his literacy amazed the white people living nearby.3 In fact, they were so astounded, his neighbors invited Smallwood into their homes to recite the alphabet and spell words like "baker" and “cider.”4

By the terms of the will bequeathing Smallwood to the reverend’s wife, Smallwood would have been freed in 1831. While the reverend paid $500 to “interested parties” to free him earlier, Smallwood continued to work for the Fergusons to pay off the debt.5 Although legally free, Smallwood paid the reverend an additional $60 a year to start hiring himself out when he turned twenty-five.6

Once a member of American Colonization Society, Smallwood rejected their mission and became a conductor on the Underground Railroad in the President’s Neighborhood with his wife Elizabeth and Reverend Charles Torrey.7 Smallwood came into contact with Washington City’s early police and recorded their treatment of Black people. He shared these perspectives about the police through newspapers and his narrative, writing for the Albany Weekly Patriot on June 6, 1843:

Don't let the people forget these scoundrels! They have established a new branch of business;--it is, to station themselves in the streets, near the meeting houses of the coloured people, and watch if any are later than ten o'clock in returning home, to compel them to pay fines if they are free, or else send them to the work-house. If they are slaves their masters must pay, or they are whipped, for the CRIME of attending on the public worship of GOD, a few moments later than ten o'clock!8

An article written about Smallwood in the Daily Herald from 1843

Daily Herald (New Haven Connecticut), Dec 6, 1843, p. 3

The early urban police force serving Washington City developed as a slave patrol, enforcing legal codes that restricted the movements of both enslaved and free Black people. Patrols came in many forms, such as citizen volunteers, formal police forces, guards, and state militias, their organization and compensation varying between states.9 Regardless of their name, Gladys-Marie Fry states these patrols were a “fundamental part of the evolving system of control of the Blacks socially and economically.”10 Slave patrols formed across the southern colonies to prevent slave insurrections, an ever-present terror for white slave owners, using violence to control and intimidate both enslaved and free Black people, making it more difficult for them to travel, gather, or escape to freedom.11 These colonial laws from Maryland formed the basis of Washington City’s slave codes and informed the practice of their early police forces, helping to preserve slavery in the President’s Neighborhood. Rowdy demonstrations at the White House during President John Tyler’s administration prompted Congress to formalize the night watch, increasing slave code enforcement; however, patrols never fully prevented enslaved individuals from using their own agency to resist and evade these police forces, as in the case of Thomas Smallwood, who helped ferry approximately 159 enslaved individuals out of Washington to freedom. While these early police forces were dissolved in 1861 and restructured into the modern Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, many slave patrol practices were engrained in the white conscious through centuries of violent enforcement.12 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President John Tyler.

Established in 1661 to catch runaway slaves, murderers, and thieves, constables in Maryland started performing the role of slave patrollers in 1723.13 It was ordered that justices of the peace and county courts "appoint the constable of every hundred, where the said justices, at their discretion, shall think proper and expedient, to suppress the assembling and tumultuous meeting of negroes and other slaves.”14 Every month, constables were required to check places where enslaved people were suspected to gather, and if any were found on another plantation without their owners’ permission, “were required, to whip every such negro on the bare back, at his discretion, not exceeding thirty-nine stripes.”15 To execute this law, constables were empowered to deputize as many citizens as they needed to join their slave patrols.16 As a supplement to this law in 1751, the colony made it a capital crime to be involved with the planning and execution of a rebellion.17

In her study of slave patrols, Sally E. Hadden found that the “systematic use of violence against African Americans” in white Southern culture was an integral part of patrols’ efforts to control enslaved persons and maintain slavery, working in tandem to supplement masters’ violence on plantations.18 As punishment for crimes such as being off their plantations at night, or riding a horse during the day without permission, justices of the peace could immediately order the whipping of enslaved people, crop their ears, or brand their check with an “R”.19 As a stipulation in the law, the punishment could not be so severe as to prevent them from working.20 Though not directly stated in the law, such severe punishment likely would have been considered an interference with enslavers’ ability to extract labor from their work force, thereby creating a financial loss and an infringement of their rights as property owners.

While patrollers could practice almost unbridled violence against enslaved people, their victims were not allowed to resist or retaliate against patrollers in Virginia or Maryland.21 In fact, if a Maryland patroller killed a resistant enslaved person while they enforced the law, the public was required to pay for the patroller’s court fees.22

Congress claimed legislative jurisdiction over the District of Columbia in 1801.23 However, Maryland’s slave code passed before cessation were still in effect in Washington County, which included the settlements of Georgetown and Washington City.24 As a result, Maryland’s constable-led slave patrol laws served as the legal foundation for policing in the new capital city, and with its other slave codes, formed Washington City’s slave code with additional laws passed by Congress, the local corporate government.

Nineteenth-century map of Washington, D.C. wards (c. 1835)

Library of Congress

On May 3, 1802, nearly two years after Gabriel’s Rebellion in nearby Virginia, Washington City claimed the power to create its own "night watches, or patroles" in its first act of incorporation, establishing the power to appoint constables to the city’s wards in order to enforce its laws in a supplemental charter enacted on February 24, 1804.25 Comprising Washington City’s early police, these constables and patrols were empowered to enforce a May 4, 1812 law “to restrain and prohibit the nightly and other disorderly meetings of slaves, free negroes and mulattoes.”26 Those found violating the law were punished based on their condition of servitude. Enslaved people were whipped a maximum of forty times or served a prison sentence of at most six months.27 Free Black people were fined a maximum of $20, or sent to a workhouse for at most six months if they could not pay the fine.28 Patrols were specifically empowered to take violators into custody and punish them physically or economically.29

In 1827, this act was modified to prohibit all meetings and impose a 10 o’clock nighttime curfew.30 Like colonial slave codes intended to prevent insurrection threats, these laws restricted the movements of free Black people in Washington City, requiring them to first receive permission from a white person in order to gather or travel freely. Under this act, free Black people needed to first obtain permits from the mayor before having an assembly at their own residence, stating in their requests when and where the gathering would be held, and how many people would be there, imposing a $10 fine for unpermitted gatherings.31 Free Black people in the city were also required to obtain a pass from the justice of the peace to travel after curfew.32 Initially, an exception was made for those who might be returning home, for example, from church or errands, but was later repealed.33 Violators of the curfew law were fined $10 and put in lock-up overnight.34

These ordinances bore similarities to Maryland’s slave patrol laws and those passed in other southern towns, which appeared first as curfew ordinances passed between 1803 and 1833 in the Carolinas and Virginia.35 As was the case elsewhere, Washington City’s slave patrol was required to punish enslaved individuals in order to intimidate Black people and prevent prohibited travel or gatherings, setting a nearly identical thirty-nine upper-limit for lashings and similarly compensating constables fifty cents for punishing them in this way.36

That said, it is unclear how well these laws were enforced in Washington City. According to Richard Sylvester, the force of constables was “quite small” and prior to 1842, “discharged their duties in a sort of ‘go-as-you-please’ style.”37 Additionally, these constables served during the day, meaning curfew laws and those restricting night-time travel in Washington’s slave codes were much more likely to be enforced when night patrols were mustered; however, these patrols were called irregularly and only in response to an emergency, such as a possible slave insurrection or outbreaks of rioting.38

The first such patrol was called after the British invaded Washington on August 24, 1814, burning the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings, as well as the Navy Yard.39 Writing to President James Madison at 7 am on August 27, 1814, Mayor James H. Blake reported that he patrolled the city throughout the night, and that there was a relative calm and residents were starting to return to the city.40 Blake exercised Washington City’s power granted in its charter to create a night watch, calling for citizens gathered at McKeowin's Hotel to form a patrol to protect the city against the specter of a slave revolt that might take advantage of the militia’s retreat from Washington and join the British forces.41 He was accompanied by Vice President Gerry Eldridge’s son, Gerry Eldridge Jr., and members of Congress.42 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President James Madison.

Washington City experienced a series of riots during the 1830s, following the 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion, also known as the Southampton Insurrection. This was also a period of extensive economic, social, and cultural growth for the city’s free Black population. This fostered resentment with the city’s white, working-class population, and fueled the 1835 Snow Riot.43 In response to the Snow Riot, Mayor William Bradley issued a proclamation on August 12, 1835 “requiring of the Police the utmost vigilance and activity in preventing any assemblage or meeting of colored persons, bond or free, and also preventing any of that description of persons from going abroad after 10 o’clock at night.”44 Police were instructed to deputize as many citizens as needed to prevent rioting.45 By August 14, a citizen guard assembled at the jail and White House, targeted by a white mob on the hunt for free Black man named Beverly Snow after destroying his restaurant, and based on their suspicion that Black people there had been circulating abolitionist papers like the Emancipator.46 Letters were sent to President Andrew Jackson’s cabinet, threatening to destroy federal buildings unless Black employees were fired from their departments, prompting those buildings to receive protection as well.47 Finally, after three nights of citizen patrols, President Andrew Jackson called in marines from Fort Washington, who, combined with bad weather, ended the mob’s rioting and threats.48 Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of President Andrew Jackson.

Drawing depicting the location of the Snow Riot (1835) in a local newspaper

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.)

After the Snow Riot, changes were made to Washington City’s ordinances on October 29, 1836. This new act, referred to in Thomas Smallwood’s 1843 complaint against the police, prohibited all meetings after 10 pm.49 To enforce the new law, the city made it “the duty of any police constable of any ward to enter into the house or upon the premises where such unlawful assemblage may be held, and use and employ all lawful and necessary means immediately to disperse the same.”50 This law left an open-ended possibility for constables to use violence while conducting warrantless searches in the homes of Black people, a violation of private property rights harkening back to colonial slave patrols.

While it is unclear if they were summoned by a mayor’s proclamation, after rumors of a possible insurrection in September 1840, Washington’s constables were once again on night watch with “several discreet and respectable citizens, patrolling the streets and minutely examining suspicious person and places, where such disorder and danger were presumed to exist.”51 According to the Baltimore Sun, the only arrests made in this pursuit were a “very small number of colored persons” violating curfew.52 The paper described members of the patrols as “commendable” and expected them to continue their night time patrolling until the city established a regular watch.53

Calls to establish a regular, permanent night watch had previously been considered by the city council in 1837, but were ultimately rejected, possibly due to lack of funds.54 The need for night patrols arose again in September 1839 when groups of people in the Third Ward woke residents up at night with yelling, pounding on homes, and turning over carts outside.55 However, it was not until this rowdy behavior arrived at the White House during President John Tyler’s administration that the city’s informal, episodic slave patrol developed into a professional, regular night-time police force called the Auxiliary Guard.56

President John Tyler

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Tyler had an adversarial relationship with his own Whig Party in Congress after succeeding President William Henry Harrison, the first president to die in office. Tyler became so unpopular over his August 16, 1841 Bank of United States’ re-charter veto that he was burned in effigy by a mob of drunken demonstrators outside the White House who also threw stones at the building and fired guns.57 When a drunk printer, also referred to as a painter, threw a stone at President Tyler through the fence as he walked on the White House Grounds, Congress decided the recent series of demonstrations near public buildings and elected officials necessitated the establishment of a regular night patrol.58

Congress established Washington’s first permanent night patrol on August 23, 1842, for the "protection of public and private property against incendiaries, and for the enforcement of the police regulations of the city of Washington."59 The city’s mayor appointed the guard’s captain, who in turn selected fifteen officers for the force. Struggling in the past to raise the funds to make this transition like other southern cities, Washington’s night guard was made possible with Congressional appropriations from the United States Treasury to pay this professional force.

John H. Goddard became the force’s first captain, headquartered at the Washington D.C. Center Market’s scale-house, located roughly at the midway point between the White House and the Capitol Building on Pennsylvania Avenue. This building served as a guard house, lock-up, and had a whipping post.60 As a nod to earlier incidents of night patrols’ disorderly conduct, a rule was established that being drunk on the job even once would result in firing.61 The guard worked from 9 pm to 4 am, and according to Richard Sylvester, was a small but “effective” group.62

Center Market c. 1880-1883

Library of Congress

The Auxiliary Guard immediately began enforcing Washington’s slave codes. According to Smallwood, Auxiliary Guard members John Little and William Cox, identified by Sylvester as members of Captain Goddard’s first guard, were “active in this business” of lying in wait to arrest Black parishioners for breaking curfew as the returned home from church services.63 The city’s white population was roughly three and one-half times as large as its Black population in 1840, but in their first two weeks, the guard reportedly arrested eighteen white people and twenty-eight Black people, including two enslaved persons who were whipped.64 According to Sylvester, these enslaved persons would have been whipped by officers either at the guard’s headquarters or nearby Judiciary Square.65 Where constables and irregular patrols may have been limited before, the over-representation of Black residents in the Auxiliary Guard’s early arrests shows their pre-occupation with actively enforcing Washington city’s slave codes as a formalized slave patrol, restricting the movements and liberties of the city’s Black population.66

The Smallwood family planned their efforts to help enslaved individuals escape based on the schedule of the curfew bell and the night watch’s schedule, aware that the guard left their posts at 4 am.67 Using strategies such as these, the Smallwoods and Reverend Charles Torrey successfully freed 159 enslaved persons through the Washington Underground Railroad between March 1842 and June 1843 before the Smallwoods were forced to escape to Toronto in October 1843.68 Before leaving the city, Thomas Smallwood had an encounter with Goddard and his watch that was indicative of their policing methods based in slave patrol practices, and Smallwood’s ability to evade them:

[M]y house was surrounded early on the night preceding the morning I was to start with my family, by the watch, and Goddard, their Captain at their head. I was seated in the front door when a police man with whom I was acquainted came to me and said, "Thomas I have been instructed in consequence of information that you intend starting for Canada with some slaves to come and search your house[”], I invited him to do so, after doing so he left the inside of the house but did not leave the premises until searching the house a second and third time, the last of which the blackguard Goddard came in and said, "Smallwood, I understand you are going off to Canada and intend to take slaves with you." He then proceeded to examine those in the house as to whether they were chattels or free negroes; there were ten or twelve persons present in the house at the time preparing to leave for Canada the next morning, and take a final leave of such beautiful scenes of republican freedom. It is true that I had another slave woman concealed in my house and for whom I for sometime had been trying to make a way of escape, but I had no intention of taking this woman or any other slaves with me, for I had made arrangements with confidential friends to take and keep her until a way of escape could be made. But to get her out of the house unperceived was a matter of great importance. However, that was speedily accomplished by some females, who took her through a back door into the garden, and concealed her in some corn.69

Shortly after escaping to Canada, Smallwood returned with Torrey to Washington for one last attempt to rescue four families with another free Black man named John Bush, living just outside the city.70 However, their plans were thwarted when Bush and ten enslaved people were captured by Captain Goddard.71 Smallwood fled back to Canada while Torrey continued to free enslaved persons through the Underground Railroad before being arrested and sent to a Maryland prison where he died in 1846.72

Goddard became Chief of Police in June 1858, and the following year was restored to his role as Captain of the Auxiliary Guard, having been replaced in 1854 when Mayor John Towers took office.73 Goddard led the city’s daytime and nighttime forces until they were officially dissolved on September 1, 1861, and replaced with the Metropolitan Police, nineteen years after he was appointed captain of the Auxiliary Guard.74

The Metropolitan Police, the District of Columbia’s modern police force, was created by Congress on August 6, 1861.75 The law restructured and expanded the existing police force, allowing a maximum of one hundred fifty patrolmen to serve under ten sergeants appointed to each of the newly formed police precincts, and all reporting to one superintendent.76 President Abraham Lincoln selected the first commissioners for this police force, summoning Commissioner Zenas C. Robbins to the White House for an exploratory mission to study New York’s police system, which had been recently reformed with influence from the system in London.77 Click here to learn more about the household of President Abraham Lincoln.

It is unclear how much influence New York or London’s policing practices ultimately had on the District of Columbia’s modern police force. However, it is quite likely that at least during its early years this new force continued to reflect its slave patrol heritage dating back to colonial Maryland and Virginia. According to Sylvester, “One of the first instances of breach of discipline which was called to the attention of the Board was that of a sergeant, who was arraigned for accepting twenty dollars for the arrest and return to his master of a fugitive slave.”78 Officers likely engaged in this behavior before the police force modernized as well, Smallwood similarly accusing Auxiliary Guard member John Little of being a “negro hunter,” suggesting he might have been a fugitive slave catcher like the sergeant.79 For a brief period, the Metropolitan Police also would have been responsible for enforcing Washington’s slave codes against its Black population, laws that were in place until slavery was formally abolished there in 1862. It is also probable that the Metropolitan Police recruited former Auxiliary Guard members and constables, officers who would have been trained to enforce slave codes with violence if necessarily required by laws that composed policing practices throughout the region for over a century.

Most importantly, the system of violence and control that helped to maintain slavery in the Chesapeake region for two centuries had become part of southern white culture, meaning it could not be expunged overnight through the restructuring of a police force. The legacy of slave patrols in the President’s Neighborhood continued to influence the evolution of D.C.’s modern police force and its treatment of the city’s growing free Black population after the Civil War.80