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Slavery? Yes, it did happen here. As did escapes.

As a new book documents, slavery, the underground railway and much more are part of the state's history.
Lorraine McConaghy

Lorraine McConaghy

Judy Bentley

Judy Bentley

When we think of the cruel legacy of slavery and the bloody Civil War that ended the South's so-called peculiar institution, it’s unlikely that images of the verdant, sparsely populated Washington Territory soon come to mind. But settlers brought the seeds of the war with them, and the issues of slavery, race, secession, and civil liberties divided communities and loyalties in the Pacific Northwest. 

Seattle MOHAI public historian Dr. Lorraine McConaghy and co-author Prof. Judy Bentley detail a fascinating story of this era in Washington Territory in their new book Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master (University of Washington Press). Free Boy recounts how, in 1860, a group of courageous free blacks arranged for the flight of 13-year-old Charles Mitchell aboard the steamer Eliza Anderson to freedom in the Crown Colony of Victoria.

James Tilton, the surveyor-general for Washington Territory, “owned” Mitchell who was likely a wedding gift to the Tiltons. Tilton brought Mitchell along when he moved with his family from Indiana to Olympia in 1855.

In addition to her work at the Museum of History and Industry, McConaghy also teaches at the University of Washington. Her other books include Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers, Warship Under Sail, and New Land North of the Columbia. She is a recipient of the prestigious Robert Gray Medal from the Washington State Historical Society. McConaghy also planned the Washington Territorial Civil War Read-In, an ambitious project of the Washington State Historical Society to recruit hundreds of citizens to research and document the Civil War era territorial experience from 1857 to 1871, an effort to uncover stories that have been buried and forgotten.

Free Boy co-author, Prof. Judy Bentley, teaches at South Seattle Community College and is the author of Hiking Washington's History, along with fourteen books for young adults.

McConaghy recently discussed Free Boy and her eye-opening research on Washington Territory during the Civil War era.

Robin Lindley: How did you find the story of young Charles Mitchell’s escape from slavery in Washington Territory to freedom in Canada?

McConaghy: In 2008, the Museum of History and Industry hosted a traveling exhibit from the Constitution Center in Philadelphia called “Lincoln, the Constitution and the Civil War.” My job as the museum’s public historian is to root a traveling show like that in the local experience so that it’s relevant to our visitors and makes sense regionally and locally. 

I had been told all my life that there was no Civil War to talk about in Washington Territory, but [as I read] it was very clear that people in Washington Territory had strong opinions on states’ rights and slavery.

I was blown out of my chair when I read the Olympia Pioneer and Democrat on microfilm from September 1860 and saw a little article headlined “Fugitive Slave Case.” I thought they were reporting news from the east about the Underground Railroad [but] it was about a boy fleeing Olympia for Victoria. I couldn’t believe it. I’d never known that there was a slave or any slaves in Washington Territory, let alone one so young who had fled on this tiny Puget Sound Underground Railroad. 

No one had ever mentioned this to me, or that there were advocates of slavery publishing their views in the newspaper. As I read, I found treasonous organizations in Washington Territory and many officers resigning their commissions in the Army and Navy and even the governorship of the territory to go south. It turned out this was a big story.

As you studied this Civil War history, how did you decide to write about the Charles Mitchell story?

I thought it was a story for young people. Here was a boy who didn’t accept his fate. No one knows his exact age. He was born in 1847, but in the 1850 slave census, there was no birth date given but only a hash mark. So he was twelve and a half or thirteen when he ran away.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 4, 3:52 p.m. Inappropriate

I had no idea that Victoria was 25% black in the middle of the 19th c -- fascinating!

sandik

Posted Thu, Apr 4, 10:40 p.m. Inappropriate

I wonder if Charles Mitchell has descendants. Perhaps the book details this.

rathe

Posted Thu, Apr 4, 10:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Slavery was alive and well long before white and black people got here. The last slave freed by the Quinault's was Old Dan and they give a date of 1905 in their book "Land of the Quinault". I called the tribe and asked if this was the correct date and they weren't interested in commenting about it. So there's a good chance that slavery lasted for years after the Civil War here in the Pacific Northwest.

Oregon has an interesting racial history, see for yourself here

http://www.ode.state.or.us/opportunities/grants/saelp/orraciallaws.pdf

Djinn

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 12:12 a.m. Inappropriate

The pro-Confederate, white supremacist Knights of the Golden Circle had their “castles” in Washington and Oregon, and other more moderate pro-secessionists were also here. We shouldn’t pretend that everybody here was Lincoln’s friend. There was lots of opposition to the Civil War in Washington Territory during Lincoln’s presidency that translated into vehement attacks on him as president. Democrats called him “King Lincoln, the Fiendish Ape” whose arrogance sent hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths for nothing. These are our newspapers, our settlers – their opinions.

It's not all that different today. There is a huge and truly savage plurality of Ayn Rand fascists -- many of them also racist bigots -- lurking just beneath the allegedly-"progressive" gloss given the state by Seattle and Bellingham.

One example is the Republican coup in the state Senate, which has not only forever doomed tax reform but – by its opposition to women's reproductive rights (as manifest in how it killed the Reproductive Parity Act) – is already turning Washington into a de facto red state.

Another example is the two anti-transit-user votes that have rung the death knell for Pierce Transit. The hatefulness demonstrated by the associated on-line debates revealed a depth of racism and socioeconomic malice I haven't seen since I was a civil rights worker in the South. Yes, indeedy-bob: if Nathan Bedford Forrest has been reincarnated anywhere in the United States, it's no doubt in Tacoma and its environs.

The entire state will soon follow. Given the Republican landslide guaranteed in 2016 by Obama the Orator's concluding transformation to Barack the Betrayer – particularly his newly declared war on Social Security and Medicare recipients – come 2017, the Evergreen State will be the Ever-red State, as malevolently reactionary as Michigan or Wisconsin.

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 5:31 p.m. Inappropriate

wow! your really smart, can I be your friend. I will think just as you wish and always say your the best.I promise to not be a fascist or read ayn rand whatever is needed.Please.

tjp

Posted Tue, Apr 9, 11:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Loren --

How can any arrangement in the 2013 State Senate "forever doom tax reform"? Who doomed your education and ability to think critically? Not the State Senate -- what happened to your mind?

Ayn Rand had her faults. She was not a fascist. Don't use big words until you look them up.

simorgh

Posted Thu, Apr 25, 4:38 p.m. Inappropriate

" by its opposition to women's reproductive rights (as manifest in how it killed the Reproductive Parity Act) –"

Does this "Parity act" give the baby a fair chance to not be killed? If so I am for that type of "parity".

tjp

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