Book chronicles history of child slave in Olympia

Staff writerAugust 28, 2013 

He arrived in Olympia in the spring of 1855, an 8-year-old black slave to James Tilton, who journeyed from Indiana to serve as surveyor-general of the Washington Territory.

One of few black residents in the small frontier town, young Charles Mitchell was most likely the only slave in Olympia and in the territory.

Five years after setting foot in Olympia, Mitchell’s distinction grew greater. Aided by three black men from the British Crown Colony of Victoria, Mitchell stowed away on the steamship Eliza Anderson bound for Victoria, which made him the first, and last, known fugitive slave to travel to freedom on the Puget Sound Underground Railroad.

His Sept. 24, 1860 journey aboard the steamship almost ended badly. He was discovered in the ship’s pantry room in Seattle and held captive by the ship’s captain, who intended to return him to his master in Olympia.

But a contingent of free blacks in Victoria some 300 strong had other plans. The three abolitionists who convinced Charlie to flee Olympia retained an attorney on his behalf, and secured a court order, setting the young teen free.

Back in Olympia, Tilton was furious at the news. But his attempts to recover his slave failed. Tilton’s life, seemed to spiral downward in the aftermath of the incident. A white supremacist by nature, his slave’s flight and the outcome of the Civil War left Tilton a humbled and embittered man, eventually stripped of his territorial patronage job.

The once proud and powerful war hero of the Mexican War of 1847 also lost a race for territorial delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1865. He took his family back East, but returned to the Washington Territory in 1867 to help survey a route through the Cascades for the Northern Pacific transcontinental railroad. He moved back east in the mid-1870s, and eventually served as a public works inspector in Washington, D.C., where he died in 1878 at the age of 60.

What ever happened to Charlie Mitchell? That’s a harder question. There’s no clear record of his maturity into manhood. There is, however, a newspaper account of black man named Charles Mitchell who was last seen on Feb. 13, 1876, departing the logging community of Sooke on the southern tip of Vancouver Island near Victoria with a white man in a canoe laden with shingles.

Five days later, the canoe and some of the shingles washed ashore 25 miles southeast of Sooke. But there was no sign of either man.

The intertwined lives of James Tilton and Charlie Mitchell are described in rich detail in a recently published book entitled “Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master.” It’s co-authored by Lorraine McConaghy, an author and public historian at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, and Judy Bentley, an author of 14 books for young adults and a teacher at South Seattle Community College.

While they can’t prove it beyond a doubt, they are certain the missing Mitchell in 1876, who left behind a pregnant wife and three children, is the former servant who hauled firewood and ran errands in downtown Olympia for Tilton’s family.

One of the challenges the two authors faced in telling the story of the intertwined lives of Tilton and Mitchell was giving equal weight to each. Tilton was a public figure with an extensive paper trail while Mitchell lived a life of anonymity, except for his time as a fugitive slave.

“We didn’t want to take the inequality from life into death,” McConaghy said.

To add to Mitchell’s life story, they added snippets of creative non-fiction, set in italic type, to try to capture milestone moments in his life, including his decision to flee Olympia, his one night in custody in a Victoria jail cell before the judge set him free and his attempt later in life to reunite with his aunt in Maryland.

The authors take some artistic license not typical of most biographers, but each account is thoroughly researched and well-executed.

How McConaghy found Mitchell’s story is interesting, too. In 2007, she was researching Washington territorial newspapers to prepare a museum exhibit on the effects of the Civil War on life in the Pacific Northwest. She found a story chronicling Mitchell’s flight from Olympia in a 1860 edition of the Pioneer & Democrat published in Olympia.

She was fascinated by the story. Joined by Bentley, their exhaustive research of Tilton the master and Mitchell the slave formed the foundation for the book.

To learn more about the discovery of this unusual Olympia story, visit blackpast.org and click on the “Free Boy Project” icon.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444 jdodge@theolympian.com

Authors Lorraine McConaghy and Judy Bentley will be at the State Capital Museum Coach House in Olympia 1 p.m., Sept. 7, to discuss their new book “Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master,” which explores the story of a 13-year-old slave who escaped from Olympia in 1860 to freedom in the British colony of Victoria. Autographed copies of the book will be available for sale.

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