Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia minutes

Collection Am.3375

(0.1 Linear feet ; 1 volume)

Summary Information

Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia (Pa.).
Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia minutes
Date [inclusive]
0.1 Linear feet ; 1 volume
Finding aid prepared by Steven Smith.
Processing made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this finding aid do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. EAD encoding of this collection’s finding aid in 2020 was supported by a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and by the Young Friends of HSP.
The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia was the secret fund raising and electoral division of the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia, which was organized in 1837 by Robert Purvis, a dedicated abolitionist, to provide aid for runaway slaves. Like its sister organizations in other cities, this group provided the means necessary to assist runaways as they made their way north. The Vigilant Committee helped to make Philadelphia an important stop along the Underground Railroad. The records of the Vigilant Committee consist of one volume containing case records and minutes. The records are comprised of sixty-two entries, each of which describes the cases handled by the group between June 4, 1839 and March 3, 1840. In addition, the volume contains the minutes of the meetings held by the committee between May 1839 and July 1844.

Preferred citation

Cite as: [Indicate cited item or series here], Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia Records (Am .3375), Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

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Background note

The Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia operated between 1837 and 1852; it was the secret auxiliary of the Vigilant Association. The Vigilant Association was a group formed by Robert Purvis, an ardent abolitionist, in August 1837, to publicly promote antislavery ideology and “to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress.” The Vigilant Committee’s purpose was to appoint offices, raise revenue, and have resources readily available to assist runaway slaves while they stayed in or passed through Philadelphia. Such assistance could include food, clothes, shelter, transportation, medical attention, and legal fees.

Harboring fugitive slaves, however, was illegal and dangerous. Although Pennsylvania had expanded the rights of fugitives through the passing of Personal Liberty Laws and had passed laws to punish slave-catchers, abolitionists and fugitives could not depend upon the court system to deliver freedom to runaway slaves. In addition, not all northern citizens shared in anti-slavery ideology. They attempted to hinder escapes, reported acts of sheltering runaways, kidnapped runaways for rewards, and, at times, lashed out against those known to assist fugitives. In addition, there were laws that could be used against those assisting the runaways. To protect members and donors from possible reprisal from the slaves’ owners or agents, the acts and meetings of the Vigilant Committee were kept secret.

Considerable expenses could be incurred when assisting the runaways. Food and transportation were essential costs, coupled with additional expenses such as clothing, shelter, and medicine. Some of the expenses were met through membership dues. Members were to pay $0.25 upon joining, with the intention of contributing a minimum of $0.75 annually. Additional funds were sought from outside of the organization. To serve this purpose, in a meeting in 1839, Jacob C. White, who was then secretary, was given the role as the Committee’s sole agent responsible for collecting revenue from non-members.

At the same meeting during which White received his appointment, Purvis was elected president of the Committee. Purvis’s activities outside of the Vigilant Committee were well known throughout the city. This exposure made him a target of an angry mob during the race riot of 1842. Purvis was able to quell the mob long enough to escape without harm. Over the next decade, activists involved with the Vigilant Association included Charles Gardiner and William Still. The organization ceased to exist in 1852. That same year, a new Vigilance Committee was created during a meeting of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, with Purvis as head of the General Committee.

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Scope and content note

The records for the Vigilant Committee consist of one volume, divided into two sections. The first section is the “Record of Cases Attended to for the Vigilant Committee of Philadelphia by the Agent.” The section consists of nineteen pages and contains records for each of the sixty-two cases in which the committee assisted from June 4, 1839, to March 3, 1840. The entries are brief and typically contain a brief description of the slave, the slave’s destination, and the expense incurred.

The first two entries of this volume pertain to a legal case in New Jersey involving the imprisonment of a runaway. Most of the remaining entries deal specifically with the cases for which assistance was provided. A typical entry is from November 1839: “Two cases. One from Bal[timore] the other from Kent attended to by EH. Coates in the absence of agent. Exp carriage 4--.” The entry for case number 12 on July 29, 1839, gives a similar summary, but is unusual because it provides the name of the slave: “Woman from vir[ginia] stout make dark complexion at Burlington. Reported by Jos Parrish. Name Mary ann Tilman sent to NY, CV. expense, $3.17.”

The majority of the cases involved one runaway, although there were some that involved two or more, such as case number 40 from November 5, 1839: “Eight persons from vir[ginia]. a very interesting Family sent to Canada accompanied by the agent. Nothing was written, however, as to why the agent found the family to be of interest.

Almost all of the cases in which the Vigilant Committee provided assistance involved runaways from Virginia and Maryland. There was one slave who came from New Orleans and one from Delaware. The runaways were predominantly sent to New York and Canada. There were a few exceptions, such as those who were to be sent to Liverpool and Trinidad and another who was to be sent to Liberia.

The second part of the book contains the minutes of the committee’s meetings from May 31, 1839, to July 25, 1844. The entries are sporadic and irregular. They contain information about the committee’s proceedings, appointments, expenses, and fund raising. The wording of certain activities was cryptic, perhaps to conceal the direct objective of the organization. At the June 10, 1839, meeting, it was resolved “that those persons who entertain strangers of a certain description shall be compensated therefore.”

Contained within the minutes are reports similar to those describing the cases at the beginning of the volume. Although the case reports end in March 1840, the minutes reveal that the Committee continued to assist fugitive slaves. At the April 25, 1841, meeting, it was reported that eleven cases had been attended to since the previous meeting held on December 17, 1840. At the September 2, 1841, meeting, it was announced that thirty-two cases were attended to since the June 23rd meeting.

The committee met only two times in 1842, both in January. The group did not meet again until December 28, 1843. The meeting was called for the purpose of reorganizing the Committee and filling vacancies. The Committee also announced its resolution to “adopt more liberal & systematic measures to aid them [slaves] in their efforts to escape.” In so doing, the committee also resolved “that it is proper to revive and reconstitute without delay the Vigilance Committee of Phila.”

Minutes were taken for five more meetings, the last of which was on July 25, 1844, where it was voted that G.W. Bolivar be substituted in place of Robert Purvis and that Bolivar and two others “were appointed to a committee for the next three months.” The circumstances surrounding Purvis’s replacement are unknown. What transpired in the following three months is also unknown, for there are no further records of the Committee.

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Arrangement and description

The single volume of this collection is an original journal book. The book was intact and contained a separate page that was taped to one of the journal pages. Background information was derived largely from PMHB.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

 Historical Society of Pennsylvania , 2003.

1300 Locust Street
Philadelphia, PA, 19107


Gift of Leon Gardiner, 1933.


The volume had a section added to it at some point in its history. The pages in this section are larger than the rest of the text block and hung out over the edges of the binding. The spine had been replaced, but the sewing was broken and the new spine had come loose. The book was taken apart, and the sewing removed. Pressure sensitive tape was removed from pages taped into the book. Pages from the first section (the additional section) were washed and pages tipped on to others were seperated. Sections were formed and guarded, the text block resewn two-up, and placed into a new case. The original boards were soaked to remove the cover papers, and those papers are stored in a folio in a slipcase with the volume.

Processing note

Finding aid reformatted by Lindsey Schwartz, 2020.

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Related Materials

Related materials

At the Historical Society of Pennsylvania:

David Paul Brown orations (Am .034)

Pennsylvania Abolition Society reciords (Collection 490) -- See: Vigilance Committee of Philadelphia Accounts, 1854-1857 (microfilm reel 32).

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Controlled Access Headings

Personal Name(s)

  • Gardiner, Leon
  • White, Jacob C., d. 1872


  • African Americans--History--Fugitive slaves--19th century.
  • Slavery--Legal Aspects--19th century.
  • Underground Railroad.

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Alternative format

For a transcription of the minutes, see volume 92 of Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, pp. 331-350.

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Barome, Joseph A. “The Vigilant Committee.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. 92: 320-351.

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