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.
He redealt the cards himself. He trusted the black men from Victoria who approached him in Olympia and said, “You don’t have to live this way. You can be free. If you come to Victoria, we’ll welcome you into our community.” And he remade his life.
That was the impetus — to encourage kids now who are stuck in tough circumstances that there is a future that they can make. Judy Bentley had written several young adult biographies that I admired, so we talked, and she thought this was a great story, too.
What is your sense of Charles Mitchell’s life?
Think about it. When [Mitchell] was 3 years old, his mother died of cholera—a horrible death. His white father, an oyster fisherman on Chesapeake Bay, was not part of his life. Slavery inhered in the female line, so, since his mother was a slave, he was a slave regardless of his father’s situation. And his grandparents and his aunt lived on the Marengo Plantation in Maryland, and he probably had an aunt and uncle, and cousins there. He left that family behind to go to the Pacific Northwest. It was a cruel deprivation of family for this little boy.
The imbalance of power between the master and the slave that existed during life, endured after death, so the archives are packed with information about James Tilton, the master, but they’re impoverished with information about the slave. It’s very difficult for us to see into his life.
We also know that Charles Mitchell was literate. He was educated in Olympia and there’s one reference that he went to an Indian school there. But in Victoria, he went to the [prestigious] Boy’s Collegiate School. .
Was there a Pacific Northwest Underground Railroad?
I call it a very tiny Puget Sound Underground Railroad. It was William Jerome ,who saw Charles Mitchell in Olympia — a black child in a white family — and thought perhaps he could deliver and free him. Victoria was 25 percent black in 1850 and 300 of the families there had come from California and were very aware of slavery in the United States and that the Crown Colony of Victoria was free.
Did you find evidence that this underground network in the Northwest helped other slaves?
No, not yet. Archy Lee in California is as close as it gets. He was free really because California was a free state. He was brought there by his master and ought to have been free when he reached California, but instead the master hired him out and kept his wages. He eventually fled to Victoria
It’s not that long ago that you and I thought there was no Civil War here to talk about. But now we know there was. 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.
How many blacks were living in Washington Territory in the late 1850s?
I would estimate two or three dozen among twelve thousand settlers. Some black settlers came directly from Africa on whaling ships. Manuel Lopes, the first black in Seattle whose name we know, was a Portuguese-African who came here from the Cape Verde Islands on a whaling ship and is buried at Port Gamble. There were a number of sailors from coastal areas and free blacks like the elite George Washington Bush family of Bush Prairie.
Is there anything you’d like to add about your hopes for the book and the significance of this story of Charles Mitchell for Washington citizens?
It’s important to know that we have some kind of legacy of actual slavery and we certainly have a strong legacy of anti-black sentiment. Our first three governors — Stevens, McMullen and Gholson — were pro-slavery, pro-states’ rights, hyper-expansionist Democrats.
James Tilton also ran as a frank white supremacist in 1865 in his campaign for election as delegate for Washington Territory. There was no getting around the rhetoric of his campaign: “This is a white man’s government for white men’s progeny.” Judy and I argue that his racial attitudes were shaped in the Mexican War and hardened by his fury at Charles Mitchell’s “ingratitude” because this boy turned away from, what seemed to Tilton, a paternal, loving, decisive guardianship.
For Charles Mitchell, it was crystal clear that he was a slave and he took the risk on Sept. 24, 1860, to get down to the Eliza Anderson dock in Olympia and let the cook hide him on board in a conspiracy to take him from Washington Territory to the Crown Colony of Victoria.
It’s important not to forget that we had this history. We have no battlefields, but we had fistfights and duels and vandalism — disagreement about ideas.
In your view, we study history to better understand the present, and how things got this way.
What I do is to help make the present make sense because, if you don’t understand the past, then the present is chaotic. And if the present is chaotic, you can never make better choices for the future. So it’s very utilitarian and simple-minded, but it’s very powerful.
I hope that teachers can use this book and the blackpast.org site in their classrooms and get their kids thinking about what it means to remake their lives. You don’t have to play the hand you’ve been dealt. You can deal yourself another one.