In 1860, Charles Mitchell, an African-American who was only 14, escaped to Victoria, Canada on board the inland steamship Eliza Anderson. Mitchell had been held as a slave by a prominent local U.S. citizen, James Tilton, who had brought him from Maryland, where his mother had been held as a slave for Tilton's aunt. According to an article published in 1907 by the Washington Historical Society, this was the only reported instance of a master/slave relationship in the Washington Territory.
From 1853 to 1860, Tilton was the surveyor-General for the Washington Territory, a position which doesn't sound like much today, but in that time was critical as it was his job to mark out and map all the legal boundaries in the region. Tilton also was the adjutant general for the Washington Territorial Volunteers during the wars with the Native Americans in 1855 and 1856. He is sometimes referred to as "Major" Tilton, it may be that was on account of his rank with the volunteers.
Let's go first to the Victoria-published British Colonist for September 26, 1860:
Shortly after the Eliza Anderson had reached her wharf yesterday, it became noised abroad that a slave, who had escaped from one of the towns on the Sound, was on board, and was being kept in close confinement by the officers of the boat, with a view of returning him to his owner.The city of Olympia was the territorial capital. The dominant newspaper in the Puget Sound region was the Olympia Pioneer and Democrat. In those days, newspapers made no pretense to be "fair and balanced", and the word "Democrat" in a newspaper's name was an indication that it would be either supportive of slavery or at least not too critical of it.
H.P.P. Crease, Esq. [(1823-1905)], immediately waited upon Chief Justice [David] Cameron [(1804-1872)], and applied for a writ of habeas corpus, which his lordship granted, and made returnable at 10 o'clock this morning. The writ was handed to Sheriff Naylor, and that officer, accompanied by Sergt. Carey, of the police force, went on board the Anderson, and demanded the alleged fugitive. The officers in charge of the boat stated that Capt. Fleming being on shore, they did not feel justified in taking any steps in the matter. Capt. F. soon made his appearance, however, and declined delivering the fugitive up until he had consulted with Acting Governor [of the Washington Territory, Henry M.] McGill [(1831-1915)], who is in town.
The Sheriff then requested that the room in which the slave was confined might be pointed out, which was done, and Sergeant Carey left to guard the door. Capt. Fleming and Gov. McGill subsequently consulted authorities, and having arrived at the conclusion that the slave could not be held, consented to deliver him up; and at four o'clock, Sheriff Naylor again visited the steamer, and securing the prisoner, took him to jail.
The fugitive proves to be a mulatto boy, about 14 years of age, who has been living with Surveyor-General Tilton, in Washington Territory, for the past five years. The boy says he was born in Maryland, is a slave, and came to the Sound with the Surveyor-General. He seems to be a bright, intelligent lad, and has received some education.
The case will be heard in the Supreme Court Room, before Chief Justice Cameron, at 10 o'clock this morning.
Let's continue the story with the British Colonist from the next day, September 27, 1860:
... a large number of white and colored citizens were attracted to the Supreme Court Room to hear the decision of the Chief Justice in the case of the mulatto boy, Charles, who was taken into custody the day previous under a writ of habeas corpus, while on board the U.S. Mail Steamer, Eliza Anderson. When Judge Cameron took his seat on the bench, Mr. Attorney General [George Hunter ] Cary moved that the writ be filed. He read two affidavits, one from W. Davis and the other from W. Gerome, on which the writ was granted. The affidavits alleged that the boy Charles was a slave belonging to Major Tilton, of Olympia, W.T. That trying to make his escape to obtain his liberty, he had gone on board the Eliza Anderson, but that the Captain had placed him in custody in order to take him back to his master.The news story on the case by the Olympia Pioneer and Democrat, September 28, 1860 provides a guide to the pro-slavery philosophy and propaganda of the era. (I have added some paragraphs for readability but otherwise reproduced all material as it was originally published, including the portions in italics. Spelling errors should be assumed to be mine however):
[Cary] then argued that if there were any doubts about the right of the Court to discharge the boy on the ground that he was found on board the steamer, that no doubt could now exist to liberating him, inasmuch as he was now on British soil, and within the Court. Numerous authorities were cited to show that slavery was repugnant to British law; that when the slave touches British soil he is free; that the Court had jurisdiction over any vessel, whether British or foreign, within our waters; and he therefore claimed that Charles be set at liberty. The Sheriff's return to the writ was then read, stating that he found Charles in the lamp-room, and had taken him into custody.Victoria BC, as sketched on Sept. 8, 1860, by SarahCapt. Fleming, of the Eliza Anderson, appeared for the defense, and said that as this case would probably be brought under the notice of the United States Government, he would only enter a protest against taking the boy out of his custody. The protest alleged that the boy was a slave belonging to Major Tilton; that he tried to escape by secreting himself on board his vessel, and that he had placed him under arrest to return him to his owner, and he held it was a violation of international law to take him from on board an United States mail steamer.
Crease, wife of HPP Crease, the lawyer who filed
the successful habeas corpus petition for Charles Walker
The protest was record, when Judge Cameron decided that the law was clear; that no man could be held as a slave on British soil; that there was no doubt about the jurisdiction of the Court in this case; and that the arrest by Capt. Fleming was illegal; and that he therefore ordered Charles be forthwith set at liberty.
The decision was met by considerable applause and a few hisses. The boy was then welcomed to liberty by his colored friends. It was a righteous decision.
Fugitive Slave Case
The people of Victoria, especially the black element and their sympathizers, have been greatly exhilarated at the escape of a boy from this side, who it appears was sworn to by some negroes, who knew nothing of the facts, as being a slave of Gen. Tilton, Surveyor-General of this Territory.
Not deeming it necessary to enter into a lengthy detail of the causes which let to the escape of the negro boy Charley, we will endeavor in as brief a manner as possible, to present the circumstances and influence by which the boy was surrounded, and the arguments used to wean his affections from those who have been to him a father and mother, rather than master or mistress, as stated in the affidavit of the Victoria blacks, at whose instance the warrant to search the Anderson was issued by Chief Justice Cameron.
For the last two or three years a number of black ingrates about here, who have lost not only that respect of our citizens which was due to them as niggers, but were the depised of people of their own color, have been assiduous in their attentions to Charley, and constant in their endeavors to bring about a rupture between the boy and his benefactors, by holding out enticements to him of so flattering a nature as might well be supposed could not be resisted by a boy of his age.
The delightful prospect held out to him of profitable employment when once he should become his own master; the feasibility of becoming a "free" boy, by running away from his master and making his escape to Victoria, and his degraded condition while a "slave," all tended to inflame his mind, but, until the arrival of a flashy looking darkey here week before last, from Victoria, were insufficient to alienate his affections from his former benefactors.Inept but showy George E. Pickett (1825-1875)The dashing appearance of this "colored individual," added to his tamperings, at once decided Charley, and on Monday morning he concluded to haste for the land of freedom. For this purpose he was stowed away by the aforesaid darkey, and his presence on board was not discovered until the steamer's arrival at Steilacoom or Seattle, while the vessel was undergoing a search for a missing soldier. Being questioned by Capt. Fleming as to where and how he aboard, Charley revealed all, and was set to work to pay for his passage, as well as to learn him a lesson in smuggling himself aboard a vessel without the knowledge or consent of the officers.
was stationed in the Puget Sound region in
the late 1850s. In addition to fame, deserved
or not, for Pickett's Charge, in a lesser known
incident of history, in 1859, on San Juan Island,
Pickett's braggadocio escalated local tensions
between the United States and the British Empire
over the shooting of a pig. Pickett was apparently
a friend of James Tilton, as Pickett named his son
Nothing more was thought of him until the Captain's attention was directed to the boy's probable intention of effecting his escape by his Excellency Gov. McGill, who happened to be on board with his family, which latter gentlement had received an intimation of Charley's purpose through his little son, and it was then, and when within four miles of Victoria, that he was placed "in close confinement by the officers of the boss, with a view of returning him to his owner."
Within half an hour after arriving at this port of universal equality, a rabble of "philanthropic free blacks" and "English humanitarians" had assembled to set a bond boy free. Great was the rejoicing but short was the triumph. Capt. Fleming, who had anticipated nothing of this sort of rescue, happening to be absent, the Anderson was in charge of her first officer, a gentleman in no way well-disposed to the free blacks of Victoria.
With a few menaces and many maledictions upon their heads, "philanthropists and humanitarians" were sent scampering up the wharf. The promise to "break open their heads if the attempt was made to break open the vessel's state rooms," which had been threatened by some of the mob, appeared to have a soothing effect upon the ardor of the crown, and the "breaking doors" was not attempted. By this time the Captain had returned.
Prior, however to his arrive aboard, a negro employed aboard as a cook, this dandy negro steward of whom we have before made mention, and a Victoria negro named Jerome, (if we are not mistaken in the name,) had joined in an affidavit whereby they swore "that a negro boy, a fugitive slave who had made frequent attempts to escape, was then on board the Anderson, detained there against his will."
Here the Pioneer and Democrat repeated some of the material reported in the Colonist (omitted for brevity).
Thus far the Colonist is correct; but it is decidedly in error in saying that "Capt. Fleming and Gov. McGill subsequently consulted authorities, and arriving at the conclusion that the slave could not be held, consented to deliver him up; and at 4 o'clock, Sheriff Naylor again visited the steamer, and securing the prisoner, took him to jail."After reprinting the protest of Captain Fleming to the Victoria court, the Pioneer and Democrat continued:
On the contrary, not only Capt. Fleming but Gov. McGill protested from first to last against the legality of the proceedings or the detention of the boy, but denounced the whole affair, from beginning to end, as a violation of international law, and as an insult to the flag which should have secured respect not only for the vessel, but for the property and passengers on board. He denies the right of a British court of justice annulling any engagement which is legal by our laws. He denies its right of annulling the relationship existing between guardian and ward, such as existed between Gen. Tilton and the negro boy Charley, who is a minor: and he very much questions the propriety of issuing a writ of habeas corpus upon so frivolous testimony as was produced before Justice Cameron.
The witnesses before him testify that "the boy is a slave of Gen. Tilton." The truth is, he is not and never was. The witnesses swear "Charley has made frequent attempts to escape." The facts are, he is welcome to any additional liberty he supposed to be invested with, and it is hoped he will stay away.
But it is not true that he has ever before made such attempt. It is is his first, though his opportunities for effecting his escape have been innumerable. And lastly, the Governor protests against search being initiated upon American vessels being engaged in the merchant service between here and Victoria, under the pretense of ascertaining whether they are in the slave trade, under any circumstances. It is only owing to the absence of a proper naval force that his conduct on that occasion has warranted the British journals in proclaiming our Governor's assent to the recent outrage. Had there been a United States vessel of war there at the time, the affair would not have been so terminated. But, under the circumstances, we had to succumb to superior force.
Before leaving Victoria Capt. Fleming filed the following protest against the action of Chief Justice Cameron, which he requested be filed with the proceedings in the case. As the whole affair will be submitted at once for the consideration of our government, we defer comment, only wondering what the next act of British aggression may be to which our citizens must quietly submit, and what the next insult our government will as submissively pocket.
The history of the boy is this: He was born of a slave girl belonging to an aunt of Gen. Tilton, in Talbot county, Maryland.Back in Olympia, on September 30, 1860, Surveyor General Tilton wrote a letter of protest to Acting Governor McGill, which must have been intended to be passed along, as McGill of course had actually been in Victoria during the whole affair. Modern readers will note that Charles is unequivocally described as a "slave" by Tilton, even though just 2 days before the Pioneer and Democrat had tried to portray him as simply a ward.Like Charles Mitchell, FrederickHis father is some white man unknown to the family, but supposed to have been an oysterman named Mitchell. His mother was the waiting made of the eldest daughter of the lady, (who was a widow). The girl died of cholera some ten years since, and upon her death bed the sorrowing mistress asked her what she could do to gratify her? The girl answered -- "Missus take care of Charley."
Douglass (c1818-1895) was also born
a slave in Talbot County, MD.
This image is from 1856.
This the young mistress promised to do, and in furtherance of her pledge, about six years since placed the boy with her cousin, Gen. Tilton, then en route for what was known would be a free State, with the understanding that the boy was to be raised in such a way as to enable him to succeed in the best manner possible for one of his color and mixed race, and to place him in such a position, and bestow upon him such an education as would secure him the ability to maintain himself when grown, and he was then to be set free. All this was frequently explained to Charley, and during the past five years the family of Gen. Tilton, including Mrs. Tilton, and during her life time, his daughter, have endeavored to instruct the boy in the ordinary branches of an English education, and sent him to school, both at the garrison of Fort Steilacoom and at Olympia.
The boy was constantly told that the General intented to bring him up as a steward upon a steamer, and the family have always treated him as one of themselves. His parents on the mother's side having belonged to and been faithful servants of the mother's side of Gen. Tilton's family, they were connected by these ties known to all southern people, of common interest and protection, -- where the dependent has the full share in the prosperity of the protector, and is insured maintenance even in the adversity of the protector.
For a year or two past Charley has been tampered with by the worthless free negroes of Victoria, who have succeeded in enticing him to forego the advantageous which his benificent mistress had secured for the son of her attached and faithful servant and friend.
The Olympia Pioneer and DemocratThe family of Gen. Tilton hope the boy may never return to them, as his services have lately not been equivalent to his expenses, and by his own act he has released them from the condition under which he was brought out here; they hope his new English friends will carry out the intention of his benevolent mistress with regard to his education, and thus make himself as a freeman, and thus further the design had in bringing him to the Pacific coast. He is naturally intelligent, and retains one quality for which all of his mother's people were remarkable -- honesty. As with most mulattos, he lacks stability, and has not the faithfulness and gratitude which distinguishes the pure African, and was remarkable in his mother's people for the several generations they have been held to service in Maryland.
threatened war over the Charles Mitchell
fugitive slave case. The newspaper would
soon get all the war it wanted. Shown here
is the proclamation issued May 10, 1861,
by Henry M. McGill, acting governor of the
Washington Territory calling up the militia to
maintain the Union government, published
in the Pioneer and Democrat May 17, 1861.
This is one of the rare cases in which supposedly kidnapping or negro stealing is equally acceptable to the stealer and the , and the good of the kidnapped is the only thing sought for by the boy's mistress or her friends.
With regard to the legality of the acts by which our neighbors at Victoria arrogate the right to board an American mail steamer and seize a person held to service under our laws, we are clear that the Colonial authorities and their negro constituents or masters have added another to the arbitrary and illegal acts by which they evince their hatred to the United States and its institutions. But this is a matter with which the U.S. Government will deal.
As a citizen of the United States and of Washington Territory, I beg to call your attention to an act or acts of the British authorities of Victoria, Vancouver Island, by which a slave Boy belonging to my relative R.R. Gibson, of Talbot County, Maryland, and for the last 5 years hired and employed by myself, by arrangement with the owner, was taken from the Mail Steamer, plying between this port and all the ports of Pugets Sound.
On the 24th of Sept. the slave secreted himself on board the Mail Steamer "Eliza Anderson" and on the 25th as the steamer touched at port of Victoria, was boarded by the civil authorities there and the slave forcibly taken therefrom.
I therefore respectfully request that you bring the case before our Government at Washington City, to the end that the owner or the slave may have justice and the flag of our country be vindicated and relieved from the assumption of the right of search, thus made and enforced in this case.
slaves in Elgin County, Ontario.
1. The power of the writ of habeas corpus operated quickly to free Charles Mitchell.
2. James Tilton, the surveyor-general, and owner of Charles Mitchell, quickly sought the assistance of federal authorities in an attempt to recover his property.
3. The Olympia Pioneer and Democrat, although obviously edited by a well-educated person, spouts out some of the more common myths about slavery. You can pick them out for yourselves, but some of the more obvious ones include the legend as slaves as family, slaves as better off being slaves rather than free, and slaves were naturally not inclined to run off, and only the intervention of some "flash negro" would cause any change.
4. One wonders if indeed the father of Charles Mitchell was indeed some mysterious white oysterman. It's possible this was a standard tale to cover up the true paternity of a slave coming from the master or the master's family. There are of course many examples of this.
5. It seems clear that at least some education had been given to Charles Mitchell, this we know from the account in the Colonist. So we can't wholly discount the more detailed but suspect description of his background in the Pioneer and Democrat. It's quite possible that as an orphan child Charles would have been favored and even loved by his owners. Slavery was not uniformly cruel. But is was always wrong, and that was well-recognized in 1860 by the Colonist, when it said that the result was righteous.