When word spread in Victoria, British Columbia in September 1860 that a young slave was held against his will on a ship in Victoria Harbour, the Black community took action.
Charles Mitchell, then 13, escaped to Victoria on board the Eliza Anderson from Olympia in Washington, where he was the slave of surveyor-general, James Tilton.
Armed with a writ, the sheriff and a police constable boarded the vessel, demanding the slave’s release. After the ship’s captain conferred with the governor, Canadian authorities removed Mitchell from the vessel and the court set him free the following day.
Mitchell’s escape and the assistance he received from free Blacks that reveal how national issues on the eve of the Civil War were being played out in the West are recounted in a new book, Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master, co-authored by Lorraine McConaghy and Judy Bentley, who is a teacher at South Seattle Community College.
The public historian at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry, McConaghy said she stumbled on Mitchell’s story while searching for regional links to a travelling exhibit.
“It was my responsibility in 2008 to root a national travelling exhibition – Lincoln, the Constitution & the Civil War – in the local experience,” she said. “It seemed that all my life, I’d heard that the Civil War was irrelevant in the Pacific Northwest; the settlers came west to avoid the war, to leave behind its disagreements and to busy themselves planting orchards and panning for gold.
“But it was my job to find the local story and I reasoned that even though Washington Territory settlers couldn’t vote in the presidential election of 1860, the dramatic contest among Lincoln, Douglas and Breckenridge would have interested them. So I turned to the microfilmed newspapers and the heated debate was fascinating. As I was reading along in the fall of 1860 running up to the election, I saw an article in the Olympia Pioneer & Democrat entitled ‘Fugitive Slave Case’. I immediately assumed it concerned Ohio or Delaware, but was absolutely astounded that it concerned a slave who had run away from his master. I was hooked and wanted to know more and more.”
McConaghy said it took four years to research the biographies of Mitchell and Tilton and engage in broader research to provide the context for the Antebellum, Civil War and the early Reconstruction history.
“The most difficult aspect of the work was that the power imbalance that existed in life persisted after death,” she said. “The archival record for Tilton is very rich and full while for Mitchell, it’s very thin and uncertain. Judy and I made the decision to try to rebalance the story. So our book is a conventional historical biography, but each chapter ends with an italicized section that is speculative and fictive scene based on our best research that gives Charles Mitchell characterization, motivation and personality.”
The biography explores issues of race, slavery, treason and secession in Washington territory, making it both a valuable resource for teachers and a fascinating story for readers of all ages.
“Charles Mitchell was only 13 when he remade his life,” said McConaghy. “He was brave, determined and he took a tremendous risk to escape to Victoria. We think his story is important for young people who may feel that they are trapped by circumstances and also as a contribution to the Civil War-era history of the Pacific Northwest.”
McConaghy also said that University of Washington professor Dr. Quintard Taylor’s web-based free content reference centre – BlackPast.org – will host a feature of the primary documents she and Bentley worked with, including inquiry activities.
“That will make Free Boy more useful to educators and students,” she said.