The Enslaved Who Escaped to Freedom
Daniel Dangerfield, an enslaved African American, grew up south of Leesburg in Loudoun County, and frequently was hired out by his owners, French and Elizabeth Simpson. He worked as a mill boy at Aldie Mill, and later as a farm hand, before he made a successful escape to Pennsylvania. His ensuing capture and trial would lead him to be Loudoun County’s most well known escaped slave.
Once Dangerfield reached Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, he started his new life by adopting the name Daniel Webster. He found work as a laborer, and likely made friends among other African Americans and Quakers in the area. He also married and had two children, but although settling into his new life, he must have always been concerned for his freedom.
There was cause for his concern, because his former owner heard that Dangerfield was in Harrisburg and went searching for him in 1859. Dangerfield was caught and sent to jail, and his trial was held in Philadelphia on April 5th. African Americans and whites alike rallied around him, packing the courtroom and waiting outside. Respected Quaker abolitionist Lucretia Mott sat with Dangerfield in the courtroom during his trial, which lasted for three days and at one point stretched through the night for fourteen hours. Four white Loudoun men testified against him, while two free men of color from Harrisburg testified in his defense. Public sentiment was clearly on his side, and U.S. Commissioner Longstreth, hearing his first case, released Dangerfield on the opinion that there was not enough proof of his identity. Public opinion, including that of his own family, may also have led the commissioner to find in favor of the defendant.
Black and white abolitionists celebrated the release of Dangerfield. He was “placed in a carriage and drawn through the streets by a thousand colored men.” This was followed by an antislavery rally in Philadelphia, which drew angry Southerners to the city. Fearing re-arrest, Dangerfield left for Canada the following week. The entire incident deepened the divide between North and South, with white people in Loudoun County infuriated that black men’s testimony had been accepted over that of white men.