Jonathan Walker was born March 22, 1799 on Cape Cod in Harwich, Massachusetts. His family were farmers, but at age 17, Jonathan went to sea. He learned to build and then captain boats. His travels exposed him to a variety of people and cultures which contributed to his abolitionist convictions: “I made up my mind that slavery ranked with the highest wrongs and crimes that were ever invented by the enemy of man…” He and Jane Gage, married in 1822, had nine children. They moved to Pensacola in 1836 but returned to Massachusetts because Walker did not want to bring up his children “among the poisonous influences of slavery.”
In 1843 Walker returned alone to Mobile, Alabama to build boats. A year later, he sailed to Pensacola to raise a copper-laden wreck. It was here, in June 1844, that he met four slaves who asked him to take them to freedom in the Bahamas. Three additional slaves joined them at their midnight rendezvous. Walker became ill on the voyage and his passengers were unable to navigate the boat. They were seized by bounty hunters. The slaves were returned to their owners and Walker was sent to Pensacola to await trial.
In November a jury found Captain Walker guilty of stealing slaves. Along with imprisonment, he was subjected to an unusual form of punishment. After a branding iron was made, Marshal Ebenezer Dorr “took iron from the fire, applied it to the ball of my hand and pressed on it firmly. The skin seared and gave way to the hot iron.” The letters S S had been branded into the heel of his right hand to indicate to the world that he was a “Slave Stealer”. Later the brand was reinterpreted by Northern abolitionists to mean “Slave Savior”. During his time in prison, he wrote a letter addressed, “Dear Wife and Children” in which he described his capture and punishment and also his concern for his family’s meager finances. This letter was circulated among abolitionists and reprinted in newspapers such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator and Cape Cod’s Barnstable Patriot. By the spring of 1845, friends in the North had raised funds sufficient to pay his fines and earn his release from prison.
After prison, Walker joined the abolitionist lecture circuit. He was hailed a hero by Frederick Douglass and the subject of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Man with the Branded Hand”. He would display his wounded hand to illustrate the cruel effects of slavery upon both “the body and soul of man”. Eventually he and Jane moved to Wisconsin where, as social reformers, they tried to establish communities where all assets were held in common. After two failed attempts, they moved to Muskegon, Michigan and became farmers. Sometime after his death in 1878, a monument was erected in his honor at the Evergreen Cemetery in Muskegon. Perhaps there is no better epitaph to Jonathan Walker’s life than the words of Frederick Douglass: “His example of sacrifice nerved us all to more heroic endeavor on behalf of the slave.”