Chronicling Washington’s Civil War Past

Lorraine McConaghy’s heart sank when, as a historian for the Museum of History and Industry, she was assigned to plan the local exhibit to complement the 2008 traveling exhibition, Lincoln, the Constitution and the Civil War.

“Like everyone else I believed the conventional wisdom: basically there is no Civil War history in Washington,” she reflects.

Not to be deterred, and armed with her research instincts fine-tuned through a doctorate in history from the University of Washington, McConaghy set out exploring starting with the presidential election of 1860.

“Even though residents of Washington Territory were not able to vote, I thought if there was any public sentiment about Civil War issues, it would come out in the newspaper coverage of the presidential election of 1860 – Lincoln, Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell.”

So she scrolled through microfilm reels of the Olympia Pioneer and Democrat, the leading newspaper in the territory’s largest town. “What I found was tremendous controversy. It was great. I knew I wouldn’t be a complete failure.”

Not only was she not a failure, she uncovered a little-known facet of Washington history and published a young adult book about a young slave and his master living in Olympia.

“While I was looking for election coverage something else caught my eye: a small article about a fugitive slave case in Olympia. One fact led to another; one question led to another. They just cascaded into this amazing story,” says McConaghy.

She pulled on that research thread until the story of the slave, 13-year-old Charlie Mitchell, was unraveled, written and published by University of Washington Press. Eighty-four-page Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master is aimed toward middle school readers, but it’s attracting adult readers as well and giving historians a new perspective on slavery and the importance of the Civil War to Washington history.

The Social Studies faculty at Bellevue middle schools is using two chapters in its curriculum: one describing life and political environment in the territory, and the other telling of the choice Mitchell faced, according to Patricia A. Shelton, a social studies instructional technology curriculum developer for the Bellevue School District. Mitchell could stay in Olympia with the James Tilton family, who brought him as a child from Maryland when they moved here. Or, he could escape to Victoria, BC through Washington’s tiny Underground Railroad.

Because Free Boy was well-researched and documented, teachers can use it to help students learn to how to put historical events in a broader context social context. They’ll explore who lived in the territory and why and what life might have been like for different social groups (farmers, Native Americans and women, for example). Then they’ll explore the Dred Scott decision and what it meant for the young slave. (Lessons and primary documents may be download on the BlackPast.org website).

Free Boy is also supplementing the Washington State Museum’s current Civil War exhibit, “Civil War Pathways,” which McConaghy curated.

The slave owner, James Tilton, was a politically ambitious surveyor who campaigned vigorously for Franklin Pierce in the election of 1852. Free Boy describes Pierce as a northerner willing to uphold the constitutionality of slavery to preserve the union and avoid civil war. When Pierce won, Tilton was rewarded with an appointment to Washington Territory as surveyor-general, a powerful position in establishing boundaries, and making an orderly grid in the wilderness for the building of homesteads, roads, canals and railroads.

Although the U.S. Congress essentially banned slavery in Washington Territory, it was not illegal to bring your slaves – your “property,” as it was called – into the territory. Mitchell was technically the slave of Tilton’s cousin who owned a failed plantation in Maryland. She could not afford to keep Mitchell, orphaned by his slave mother’s death, and gave him to Tilton. The Tilton household moved west to Washington Territory in 1855, when Charles Mitchell was 8 years old.

For five years, Tilton ran his household and established himself among the territory’s elite without public concern about his slave. He even was appointed founding president of the University of Washington Board of Regents in 1861.

But when 13-year-old Mitchell fled to Victoria on the steamer Eliza Anderson, in September 1860, a legal battle ensued and attitudes toward slavery became part of the public record. Law required a fugitive slave in Washington be returned to his owner, but Mitchell had made it to Victoria, a colony of Britain that banned slavery.

For awhile Mitchell was the news, but as quickly as the issue flashed into public consciousness, it faded and slavery receded into a forgotten chapter in Washington Territory history.

McConaghy co-authored Free Boy with Judy Bentley, a well-published young adult writer and instructor at South Seattle Community College. They were determined to tell Mitchell’s story as best they could while staying close to the standards of historical research. But slaves don’t leave the kind of paper trail a prominent and vocal community leader does. Primary sources tell a lot about Tilton, but little about Mitchell. The authors were committed to rebalancing the ledger.

They did learn that Mitchell likely attended the Sunday classes for mixed-race children at Episcopal Church in Olympia and he did chores for Tilton’s wife. Once free in Victoria, Mitchell lived with a black family and attended the Collegiate School for Boys, which educated the sons of the city’s leading families. After 1861, Mitchell nearly vanishes from public record. Using italics to indicate conjecture based on their research, the authors flesh out what probably happened to Mitchell, while documenting what they could verify with primary documents. They did learn whom his parents were, a white seaman and a black slave, and that be he was born on the Marengo Plantation in Maryland.

McConaghy and Bentley suspect he moved back to Maryland following the Civil War to visit his Aunt Becky, but then returned to Victoria a few years later. He probably died at age 29 in a canoe accident while transporting cedar shingles across the bay near Victoria. If it is the same Charlie Mitchell who escaped slavery, he left behind a wife and four children near Victoria.

Mitchell’s story opens a flood of questions about Washington Territory during the Civil War era.

“There was no black community to speak of in Washington Territory in 1860, and it would be difficult to make the case for a community in 1870,” said Quintard Taylor, UW Bullitt Professor of American History and author of The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle’s Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era. Taylor is president of BlackPast.org, an online research resource for African American history.

In 1860, Washington Territory, included present-day Washington, most of Idaho, and parts of Montana and Nebraska. The 1860 U.S. Census reported only 39 blacks and 11,564 non-Indians in the entire area. By the 1870 census there were only 207 blacks out of a total population of 23,955.

“I’ve taught classes here (UW) that had more than 207 students,” Taylor says. “And the UW now has nearly twice as many students enrolled as there were people in the entire territory in 1870.”

In 1860, most of the non-Indians in Puget Sound were centered around Vancouver, Olympia, Seattle, Port Townsend and the British Crown Colony of Victoria, with travel primarily by steamer. There was a U.S. Army base at Fort Steilacoom charged with protecting settlers from Indians.

McConaghy’s research identified several major public issues for settlers: the 1855-56 Treaty War with local Indian tribes that eventually ended with the hanging of Nisqually Chief Leschi; heated political controversy between territorial Democrats and Republicans, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott Decision, which essentially said any person of black ancestry, either slave or free, could not become a citizen, the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and the Civil War.

Washington settlers fought on both sides of the Civil War. Isaac Stevens, the territory’s first governor, and Tilton, a close friend, were Democrats who advocated revision of the Constitution to protect slavery and avert civil war. But when the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter, Stevens left Washington to fight for the Union, which caused a rift with Tilton. Stevens died on the battlefield at Chantilly, Virginia.

On the other side, Territorial Governor Richard Gholson – a slaveholder – resigned to work for the secession of Kentucky, his home state. Two other friends of Tilton, Capt. George Pickett and Edmund Fitzhugh, fought for the Confederacy in Virginia. Pickett had built Fort Bellingham in what is now Bellingham and commanded the U.S. troops on San Juan Island during the Pig War. He later resigned his commission to join the Confederacy and lead the disastrous Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, earning a prominent place in U.S. history.

The newspapers of the day were staunchly partisan and full of spit and fire. When Lincoln won the presidency as a Republican, Tilton lost his political appointment as surveyor general. The Republican-minded Olympia newspaper Washington Standard wrote of ‘dissatisfied Southern office hunters and ambitious politicians, in the territory”. Other newspapers goaded Tilton to leave Washington Territory and join his “Confederate friends.”

Most territorial settlers rejected secession and advocated military force to suppress the rebellion; however, the issue of slavery was more divisive. Some settlers considered slavery a property-rights issue or an economic necessity. And the prevailing racial attitudes among settlers viewed non-whites as ‘less-than’ and in need of either protection or domination. Certainly very few settlers advocated going to war to emancipate slaves, according to McConaghy.

Abolitionist sentiment appeared stronger in the Crown Colony of Victoria, where blacks made up about 20 per cent of the population in 1860. Many thrived as successful businessmen and shopkeepers and were able to attend the best schools. Some of them also devised the conspiracy of the tiny Puget Sound Underground Railroad to free Charles Mitchell.

By the time the Civil War ended Washington politics solidified around the new Union Party, made up of Democrats and Republicans who had supported Lincoln’s war party. Tilton and Mitchell had become footnotes in history, until unearthed by McConaghy and Bentley to remind us that issues of the Civil War era were played out in Washington.

One Response to Chronicling Washington’s Civil War Past

  1. Stephen Wood, P.E. graduated UW 1974 BSCE says:

    I think it is ironic to think that a Blackman, George Bush, for whom Bush Prairie is named south of Olympia, was a good reason to account for Washington becoming an American State. Mr. Bush arrived at Tumwater Falls with gold hidden in his wagon with which he started the first flour mill in the territory. He and a partner helped many settlers in the south Puget Sound area. The reason he came to Olympia was because he was turned away from going with the white pioneers to the Willamette valley. This because of his race. I hope if history is taught in public schools, that George Bush becomes more well known

    I like your article but please include Oregon in this area commonly known as the Oregon Territory. The name Oregon comes from the name of the Columbia River which the native Indians called the lands of the Oouligan. This is a greasy fish which Lewis and Clark called a candlefish and which provided protein in the form of grease for many inland tribes. There are well known Grease Trails in Canada formed by centuries of carrying the grease over the mountains.

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