A new book tells the story of one boy's journey through the Northwest underground railroad.
The following is an excerpt, edited for space, from “Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master” by Lorraine McConaghy and Judy Bentley (University of Washington Press, $18.95).
For the last two or three years, a number of black ingrates around here have been constant in their endeavors to bring about a rupture between Charlie Mitchell and his benefactors, holding out the delightful prospect of becoming a free boy by running away from his master and making his escape to Victoria … — Olympia Pioneer and Democrat, Sept. 28, 1860
A light-skinned black boy hurried along the muddy streets of Olympia, Washington Territory, a hatbox hooked under one arm. The yells of teamsters on Front Street, the crack of whips and the rattle of wagons faded away as Charlie Mitchell ducked quickly into an alley. Charlie leaned into the shadows on the wall and closed his eyes. He needed quiet, and he needed time to think
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Charlie was 13, a slave belonging to the surveyor-general of the territory, James Tilton. It was market day, and he’d been sent to pick up parcels for Mrs. Tilton. Two black men had approached him on the street in front of the milliner’s.
“You, Charlie Mitchell,” the big man whispered, passing close on the sidewalk, looking hard at him, sideways. “In here.” He grabbed the boy’s elbow and steered him into the empty barber shop and the backroom. It wasn’t the first time Charlie had been back there — he knew what was coming.
With a hand on Charlie’s shoulder, the taller man looked at him squarely: “Listen to me! You’re a slave, Charles Mitchell, and you don’t have to be. You got a choice. You don’t have to stay here in this town, this country. You come down to the dock, by the Eliza Anderson,” he nodded toward the bay, “just before first light, tomorrow morning. Jim here’s the cook, and he’ll be watching for you and hide you on board the steamer. You stay good and hid because when you get to Victoria, all our friends will be waiting for you. You set foot on that dock on Vancouver Island, and you’re free.
“But you gotta decide tonight. We won’t come back again. This is too dangerous.” The big man released his grip and left quickly. …
He leaned hard against the wall and stared straight up into the bright September sky. What did it mean to be a slave? He worked for the Tilton family, but it wasn’t a job he was paid for or could quit. He belonged to the Tiltons; they didn’t beat him, didn’t starve him, but he did what he was told to do. He ate in the kitchen and went to school with half-breed kids. He wasn’t a Tilton, wasn’t an Indian but he wasn’t really black, either. He was a slave because his mother had been a slave; he was born that way. As far as he knew, Charlie Mitchell was the only slave in Olympia, maybe in all of Washington Territory, but the Tiltons never called him a slave. They just called him Charlie. …
Charlie pushed off the wall and walked back to the wooden sidewalk. Mrs. Tilton would be mad if he forgot anything or if he was late. He walked fast down the noisy street, first to the bookseller whose clerk fetched a bundle of books just in from San Francisco, then on through town, picking up packages. Everyone called him “Mr. Tilton’s Charlie.”
Charlie carried the parcels home to the fine frame house with a view of the bay and the mountains.
That night he lay awake on his mat in the attic above the kitchen, thinking about the only home and family he knew, good food to eat, a warm place to sleep. He thought of Mr. Tilton’s promise, that when Charlie turned 18, he’d be free to go, free to make his own way. If it was true, that was more than four years to wait.
In the chilly dark morning, Charlie tiptoed downstairs and carefully stepped over the creaky floorboard. He paused one more time at the door, listening. There wasn’t a sound in the house …
Chapter 5: Stowaway
In the early morning, Monday, Sept. 24, 1860, the steamship Eliza Anderson hugged the long dock that stretched into the bay in Olympia. The crew was busy getting steam up in the boiler and loading the mail and cargo for the run north to Steilacoom, Seattle, Port Townsend, Bellingham Bay and Victoria. James Allen, the ship’s cook, was down in the galley getting breakfast ready for the passengers, expected to board within an hour.
Allen worked fast, mechanically, listening intently for any sound of Charlie Mitchell. Every chance he got, he climbed up the companionway and glanced uphill into the chilly fog. Allen was a black man whose home was at Victoria, and he had a good job as the steamship’s steward, but he was also a conductor on the tiny Puget Sound underground railroad. He had never in his life done anything like this. He was a man of conviction, risking his own freedom and livelihood to free another. But he could only do so much. The rest was up to Charlie.
The night before, Charles Mitchell had made the decision that would change the rest of his life. In the Tilton home, he knew his place and what to do and what not to do. He knew Olympia, knew the people. But he had decided to take a chance. Before first light, he slipped away from the Tilton home, making his way down the hill to the steamboat landing. Charlie listened to birds calling in the morning air, overlaid by the muffled shouts of men down in the ship’s cargo hold, the steady pulse of pistons in their cylinders, and the sigh of escaping steam. …
When the coast was clear, Charlie ran down the dock and jumped on board. Allen hurried him down into the steamer’s galley, then shoved him in an open, low pantry and slammed the door. The pitch-dark pantry smelled of potatoes and onions. Charlie lay down to fit the cramped space, and his eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light, shining through the crack around the pantry door: a jug of water, some food wrapped in a linen dish towel, a blanket, a container to pee in. Then just plank walls, like a coffin. …
William Davis and James Allen had told him he had to be patient and wait in the dark for many hours, for nearly two days. Allen would check on him when he could, but Charlie had to wait until one of them opened the pantry door and told him it was OK to get out. He would be scared and uncomfortable, they said, but at the end — in Victoria — a whole crowd of people would welcome him, and take him home. And that’s where he would find his freedom, whatever that meant.
As Allen finished making breakfast, passengers began to board, crossing the gangway to the steamer. Among the passengers on this run were Washington Territory’s acting governor, Henry M. McGill, and his son, a boy of seven years. …
From his dark hiding place, Charlie heard the distant thumps and bangs of heavy trunks coming aboard and then the crash of closing hatches. The steam engine’s rhythm pulsed through the ship’s timbers as the steamer slowly moved away from the dock. Charlie’s journey had begun. …
The Eliza Anderson chugged along at about six knots, a little more than six miles an hour. Passing through the channel, the ship made its first stop at Steilacoom, east of McNeil Island, at about 9 a.m., discharging and loading passengers and cargo. The survey had just been completed to build a military road to link the forts at Steilacoom and Bellingham, and sections of the trail were in use. But in 1860, travel by water was still much easier and faster than travel by land. After stopping at Steilacoom, the Eliza Anderson headed north, threading between the islands and the mainland. In the day cabin, the passengers relaxed in their chairs, reading their books or glancing through newspapers, Olympia’s Pioneer and Democrat, the Port Townsend Northwest or the Victoria Colonist.
At noon, the passengers were called to lunch and sat at tables in the dining cabin, where two waiters served them. Hidden in the warm, dark pantry, Charlie Mitchell ate some bread and drank a little water. The Eliza Anderson continued north, rounded Point Defiance and headed up the east side of Vashon Island, past Alki Point into Elliott Bay. The steamer docked with a jolt at the tiny settlement of Seattle. Desertion from Fort Steilacoom was common, and Puget Sound ships were routinely searched for runaway soldiers, trying to escape life in the United States Army. But on Sept. 24, 1860, the searchers instead found Charles Mitchell.
The Fugitive Slave Law obligated authorities in every state and territory to return runaway slaves to their owners, wherever they might be. Once he had been discovered, Mitchell became the responsibility of the ship’s captain. When the captain confronted Charlie in the cramped space of the galley, he recognized the boy. Capt. John Fleming had been a dinner guest at James Tilton’s home in Olympia, and he remembered seeing Charlie there and regarded the boy as Tilton’s property.
Fleming decided to teach Charles Mitchell a lesson, making him work to earn his passage on the steamer and then taking him back to Tilton where he belonged. … So when the Eliza Anderson steamed away from Seattle, Charlie was hard at work under first mate Woodbury Doane’s vigilant eye. Overnight, he slept under lock and key, and on the next day, Sept. 25, Charlie swept floors, made beds and filled oil lamps, perhaps even doing the dirtier job of shoveling coal. …
Rob McGill sat on a chair and stared at Charlie Mitchell. The little boy’s eyes followed Charlie’s competent hands as he filled the oil lamps and trimmed their wicks, getting them ready for the cabins.
“I know you,” the boy said. “You live near us, with the Tiltons … Your clothes are real dirty. So’s your face.”
Charlie looked down at his shirt and pants. “Yup, I reckon they are. Shoveling coal’s dirty work.”
“Why did Mr. Doane talk to you so mean-like? He was plenty mad. Ain’t you scared?”
“It don’t matter. I don’t pay him no mind. I got friends here and I got people waiting for me, going to come to meet me.”
Confiding in the little boy, Charlie accidentally revealed his plans. Rob McGill innocently told his father, who informed Captain Fleming.
Chapter 6: “Wrongfully Detained”
As the Eliza Anderson steamed up to the wharf in Victoria on Tuesday, Sept. 25, a crowd gathered, members of the town’s black community and whites who supported their goals — “philanthropic free blacks and English humanitarians,” as the Pioneer and Democrat sarcastically described them. These men and women had welcomed other blacks from the United States, but never one so young and alone.
Charlie could not see them; he was locked away. Four hours earlier, he had once again stood before the infuriated captain, who now realized that his cook and one of the passengers had been part of a conspiracy to aid the flight of the fugitive slave. Captain Fleming commanded the first mate to lock Charlie into the ship’s lamp room until the Eliza Anderson left Victoria. …
Passenger William Davis stepped off the steamer and rushed through the crowd, everyone asking him questions, him not saying a word until he got to William Jerome. His news spread quickly: “The boy can’t get off the steamer; they’ve got him locked up!”
Jerome hurried off with Allen and Davis to the law offices of Henry Crease. They had to figure out a way to get Charlie off the ship, and Crease would help them. …
Captain Fleming also walked off the Eliza Anderson, leaving Doane in charge of Charlie. The first mate glared at the milling crowd on the dock and warned them loudly that he “would break open their heads if the attempt was made” to free the boy, according to the Pioneer and Democrat.
Meanwhile, Crease listened quietly to the three men asking for help and agreed to take Charlie’s case. He questioned them closely in the presence of his secretary, who drafted a transcript of what each had said. Cease asked the three men to swear by their signatures, under oath, that they had spoken the truth. Both Davis and Allen could sign their names; William Jerome made an X mark on the document. …
Crease took the affidavit to Chief Justice David Cameron who issued a writ of habeas corpus that would free Charlie from the steamer, place him in official custody and guarantee him due process under English law.
That afternoon, Sheriff William Naylor and a Victoria police officer walked through the waiting crowd and approached the Eliza Anderson. They tried to serve the writ on the first mate, but he would not accept it. Then Captain Fleming returned and both officers indignantly protested that British law had no force on an American vessel. But Sheriff Naylor threatened to break into the lamp room and free Charlie himself, and many in the crowd on the dock murmured angrily in support of the sheriff. Fleming quickly consulted with acting Governor McGill and told him that he feared a riot and bloodshed. McGill reluctantly instructed Fleming “to permit the sheriff to take the negro.”
Charles Mitchell stepped off the Eliza Anderson onto the wharf. Most on the dock cheered; some hissed and booed. He walked up the wharf under the protection of the sheriff to spend the night in the Victoria jail, with a court date scheduled for the following morning. …
Chapter 7: “A Righteous Decision”
On Wednesday, Sept. 26, young Charles Mitchell appeared before Justice Cameron. The case was listed as Regina vs. Fleming, in re Charles, a slave, where “Regina” meant Queen Victoria, monarch of the British Empire. …
Cameron sat high above the courtroom and gazed out across the crowd. This was not an everyday case. The gallery was thronged with spectators. Attorney General George H. Cary stood and moved that the writ of habeas corpus be properly filed, and then he read the sworn affidavits of Davis, Jerome and Allen … Captain Fleming, Cary argued, had exceeded his authority in locking up Charles …
Tempers flared when barrister George Pearkes read aloud Fleming’s strongly worded protest that the Victoria authorities had no jurisdiction on board the Eliza Anderson. Cameron gaveled for silence and insisted that Fleming be heard. Following the spirit of the Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Law, Fleming described Mitchell as “the property of James Tilton,” a runaway who should be “returned to his master.” … The sheriff’s seizure of the boy, Fleming maintained, was a violation of international law. …
Justice Cameron cleared his throat, looked down at Charles Mitchell and declared that “no man could be held as a slave on British soil” and that Mitchell’s “arrest by Captain Fleming was illegal.” Cameron continued, “There being no charge, warrant or commitment against him, I order that the said sheriff do discharge the said Charles from his said custody forthwith.” The courtroom erupted with cheers — and a few hisses. The daybook kept at the Victoria jail briefly noted, “A negro set at liberty.”
Charles Mitchell was finally set free and left the courtroom, walking into his future. …