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.
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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