Nathaniel Gordon: The Only Slave Trader to Be Tried and Executed in the United States for Engaging in Slave Trade

Nathaniel Gordon was a slave trader who, in 1862, became the only person in U.S. history to be executed for being engaged in the illegal trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Nathaniel Gordon: The Only Person Tried and Executed in the United States for Engaging in Slave Trade
An 1862 illustration of Gordon’s execution by Harper’s Weekl

Born in 1826 in Portland, Maine, to a slave trader, Gordon ventured into the maritime industry. Over time, he became involved in the transatlantic slave trade, importing enslaved Africans into the US, an activity that had been illegal for over half a century but was not rigorously enforced.

As the 19th century progressed, the United States became increasingly divided over the issue of slavery, leading to legislative and societal tensions.

Nathaniel Gordon: The Only Person Tried and Executed in the United States for Engaging in Slave Trade
Before Gordon’s birth, the government had taken legislative steps to address the transatlantic slave trade. Acts such as The Slave Trade Act of 1794, The Slave Trade Act of 1800, the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, 1807, and the Piracy Suppression Act of 1819, amended in 1820 to declare participating in the slave trade to be piracy as well, demonstrated the nation’s evolving stance against Slavery.

A shipowner by profession, Gordon faced scrutiny in 1848 when his vessel, Juliet, underwent inspection for evidence of slave trading. Despite being released, suspicions lingered, hinting at covert voyages from Africa back to Brazil, where slavery maintained its legal foothold.

In 1851, Gordon led the Camargo on a voyage from Brazil to Africa, carrying 500 Africans. He skillfully avoided naval patrols but was pursued by a British man-of-war. Upon reaching Brazil, Gordon disembarked the Africans and, to erase evidence, set his ship on fire.

Following the Camargo journey, Gordon, commanding the Ottawa, undertook another slaving expedition to Cuba, transporting Africans, of whom only approximately 25 percent endured. Upon reaching Cuba, Gordon, once more, set fire to his ship to eliminate evidence.

In 1860, Gordon’s actions eventually caught up with him when his ship, the Erie, was intercepted off the coast of Africa by the U.S. Navy. The vessel was found to be carrying 897 enslaved individuals, which he loaded from the west coast of Africa, crammed in deplorable conditions. The discovery triggered a legal process that would set a precedent in American history.

The vessel was seized and sailed to Liberia, the West African colony founded by the American Colonization Society for the resettlement of free blacks from the United States. Upon arrival, the cargo was unloaded, and subsequently, the ship would head back to New York. There, the ship would be auctioned off, and Nathaniel Gordon, and his crewmen would stand trial.

By November 1860, his four crew members had been found guilty of willingly serving on a slave ship, though they were cleared of participating in the slave trade. Each faced a $1 fine and received a prison sentence of approximately ten months.

The district attorney in New York offered Gordon a $2,000 fine and two-year sentence in exchange for information about his financial backers. However, Gordon, confident that he wouldn’t face any severe consequences, rejected the deal.

Gordon’s fortune drastically shifted when Abraham Lincoln assumed the presidency and appointed an ambitious new district attorney, Edward Delafield Smith. The 34-year-old Smith perceived the Gordon case as a platform to establish his reputation and set an example for all future slave traders.

In a historic verdict, Nathaniel Gordon was found guilty of slave trading. The judge, recognizing the significance of the case, sentenced him to death. This decision marked the first and only time an individual in the United States was executed for engaging in the slave trade.

Following Gordon’s conviction, his advocates appealed for a pardon from President Abraham Lincoln, who steadfastly declined to consider one. He went as far as refusing to meet with Gordon’s supporters, expressing, “I believe I am kindly enough in nature and can be moved to pity and to pardon the perpetrator of almost the worst crime that the mind of man can conceive.

On February 21, 1862, Gordon was executed. The morning before, he had attempted suicide with strychnine poison, but medical intervention revived him enough for the execution. His final words to the executioner were, “Make short work of it now, Bill. I’m ready.

Uzonna Anele
Uzonna Anele
Anele is a web developer and a Pan-Africanist who believes bad leadership is the only thing keeping Africa from taking its rightful place in the modern world.

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