Enoch and Deborah Harris, c. 1850. Enoch was a veteran of the War of 1812 in Ohio, and they moved to the Michigan Territorial frontier in the 1820s. Credit Kalamazoo Valley Museum. Featured Image
This was the 1850s and Mr. Brown, an African-American, was one of many victims of some of the earliest and harshest anti-immigration laws in America — laws created by white people in Midwestern states determined to keep free black people out.
The river William Brown crossed was the Wabash River, which runs along much of the border between Illinois and Mr. Brown’s home state, Indiana. Sheriff Watts was enforcing an 1853 law created by Illinois whites to add teeth to the state’s 1848 Constitution, which barred African-Americans from entering the state. Senator Stephen A. Douglas (the “Little Giant,” best known for his debates with Abraham Lincoln) strongly defended the State Constitution’s ban by arguing in 1850 that without it, Illinois would be filled with “old and decrepit and broken-down negroes” — a version of the “dumping ground” theme that’s been used by white politicians for so long.