Jonathan Walker was born in Harwich, Massachusetts, in 1799, and grew up in a seafaring family. He started his own career as a sailor when he was a teenager, eventually becoming a captain and owning his own shipping business. In 1844, Walker moved with his family to Florida, where he established a farming and shipping business. Florida was a slave state at the time, and Walker became increasingly involved in the abolitionist movement. He used his ships to help enslaved people escape to freedom in the North, and he also supported anti-slavery activists in other ways, such as providing them with food and shelter.
In June 1844, Walker was caught helping seven enslaved people escape and was arrested on charges of piracy. He was tried and found guilty, and the judge ordered that he be branded on his right hand with the letters “SS” for “slave stealer.” He was also sentenced to a term in a federal penitentiary. Walker’s branding and imprisonment drew widespread attention and outrage, and many people saw him as a hero for his efforts to aid enslaved people. After he was released from prison in 1847, he moved with his family to the Bahamas, where he continued to work for the abolition of slavery and the rights of Black people.
In the Bahamas, Walker worked as a farmer and a schoolteacher, and he also became involved in politics. He served as a member of the House of Assembly and helped to establish the Free Church of Scotland in the Bahamas, which was a haven for former slaves. Walker returned to the United States in 1869, settling in Muskegon, Michigan, where he continued to work as a farmer and became active in the local Republican Party. He died in 1878 and was buried in the city’s Lakeside Cemetery.
Despite his controversial branding, Walker’s story has come to be seen as a symbol of resistance to slavery and oppression. In 1900, a monument was erected in his honor in Harwich, Massachusetts, and in 2012, the state of Florida officially pardoned him for his conviction on charges of piracy.