FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — Nelson Hackett, who lived with his slave owner in Fayetteville in the early 1840s, is the only known slave to make it to freedom, only to be extradited back to the United States.

As part of the University of Arkansas’ Nelson Hackett Project, historians and university professors collaborated to research Hackett’s every known move.

The project was funded by a Chancellor’s Innovation Grant and is part of the innovative public scholarship and engagement series called ‘Arkansas Stories of Place and Belonging,’ based at the University of Arkansas Humanities Center.

“This is the first project that actually tried to focus on Hackett himself. That focused on his life in Fayetteville, his journey to Canada, his extradition and his fight for freedom,” said Dr. Michael Pierce, an associate professor with the university.

Historians, like Dr. Pierce and fellow associate professor Dr. Caree Banton, describe Hackett as the most famous person from Arkansas in the 19th century.

“[Nelson Hackett’s journey is] really a global story that puts Northwest Arkansas on the map,” said Banton.

He lived in Fayetteville with Alfred Wallace, who claimed to have owned “a certain negro boy named Nelson about 24 years of age,” according to a bill of sale at the Washington County Archives.

It was the summer of 1841, sometime in July, when Hackett is said to have left the northwest corner of Arkansas in search of his freedom.

“He travels at night hiding 360 miles through slave country. He crosses the Mississippi River north of Saint Louis in a town called Marion, sitting up near Quincy, Illinois. Then, he travels another 600 miles across the free states of the North, and he crosses into Canada,” Pierce said.

Hackett made it all the way to Chatham in what’s now Ontario, Canada, about 50 miles east of Detroit.

“The miles and miles of slave territory that Nelson Hacket crossed,” Banton continued, “crossing a whole national border into Canada… that sheer will and desire.”

While his escape from bondage was successful, it didn’t last long.

“Leaving Fayetteville, he took a hat, a coat, a gold watch, a chain, a horse,” Pierce said. These items are ultimately what ended up costing Hackett his freedom.

They were said to have belonged to Wallace. The historians said Wallace had Hackett tracked all the way into Canada and then he traveled to Chatham himself where he confronted Hackett and had him arrested for theft.

“Fugitives were in charge of stealing themselves. They were the property, right? They were the mahogany. They were the bale of cotton,” Banton said.

“We’re guessing… that Nelson Hackett was trying to reconnect with a family member, a loved one, and Alfred Wallace, the guy who owned him, knew it, and they knew where to go,” Pierce said.

Wallace demanded his slave be sent back to him in the U.S. to stand trial. The historians said Canada refused without extradition papers from Arkansas.

Pierce described this time as a particularly fraught period between the British Empire and the U.S. with issues of slavery at the center of that friction.

“[Wallace] comes back to Fayetteville, has Washington County grand jury publicly indict Nelson on charges of theft and Alfred Wallace’s old friend, Archibald Yell, governor of Arkansas at the time… makes a formal request to the Canadian authorities for extradition,” Pierce said.

With the extradition papers, the governor-general of the Province of Canada decided to return Hackett to Arkansas.

“He was the only enslaved man or enslaved person from the U.S. that the British authorities in Canada sent back to slavery,” Pierce said.

Hackett was brought back to Fayetteville in the summer of 1842 where he was severely punished for his escape. According to Pierce, his beatings were public as a way to send the message to fellow slaves that, “If you escape, we will go up to Canada and we will go a thousand miles and we will spend an immense amount of money and we will get you back here.”

The most detailed account Pierce recalled hearing is that Hackett was whipped on five or six separate occasions. He said on one occasion he was given 125 lashes, which “is really enough to kill a person.”

“If you were an enslaved man and you had the stripes on your back, if you had the scars from repeated beatings, you were sold to be killed, to be worked to death,” said Pierce.

Pierce said after he was publicly lashed, Hackett was sold to a slave dealer in what at the time was the Republic of Texas.

It’s speculated that he worked to death, but it’s also rumored that he may have broken free again.

“Lots of enslaved Africans fled slavery down into Mexico as well and so if he escaped, that’s a possible route a historian might consider,” Banton said.

Nelson Hackett’s story goes far beyond one man’s fight to live a free life.

“He brought a very basic question to life, ‘Are we, as human beings, entitled to freedom?'” Banton said.

“What Nelson Hackett does in 1841 is put into motion the events that allow black people to escape,” Peirce continued, “[his] story allows us to make sense of the coming of the Civil War in a new way.”

The historians said it was the escape of the enslaved that put into motion the sectional crisis and contributed to the Civil War.

“Through his actions, he put into motion the events that led to Canada saying never again. No more Black people, no more enslaved people will be returned to bondage, and in that way, he helped make Canada this haven for those people who were trying to escape bondage,” Pierce said.

“It was black people who voted with their feet, who took freedom in their own hands. They were not waiting on Abe Lincoln to come and save them. They took freedom into their own hands, and it forced other people to take actions to either pass laws or to get on board or to do whatever,” Banton said.

That action Banton alluded to is the abolition of slavery in 1865.

“We can look at someone like Nelson Hackett and say, if he can do that and travel all those hundreds of miles just to breathe free air, we can accomplish our wildest dreams as well,” Banton said.

While what happened to Hackett remains unclear, one thing that is certain is that his name will live on in Fayetteville.

In September 2022 the Fayetteville City Council voted to change the name of Archibald Yell Boulevard to Nelson Hackett Boulevard.

Britin Bostick, the long-range planning and special projects manager for the planning division with the City of Fayetteville said the street name will officially change once improvements that are currently underway in the area are finished.

A plaque that details Hackett’s story will also go up on the Fayetteville Square in the flower bed in front of the Bank of Fayetteville. Bostick said the Black Heritage Preservation Commission will decide when it officially will go up.

“It will get to take up space in a place that was once slavery, where Hackett’s name and body was once enslaved. He can now be seen and read in this liberated light.” Banton said.

Click here to read more about Nelson Hackett’s journey to freedom, subsequent recapture and extradition back into bondage.