Black Lives and the Law in Washington Territory

“Black Lives and the Law in Washington Territory” tells the story of a boy who was a slave in Olympia in the 1850s.  Free Boy, A True Story of Master and Slave recounts the relationship between James Tilton, Surveyor-General of the territory, and Charles Mitchell, a boy owned by his cousin in Maryland.  The boy’s mother had died in a cholera epidemic, and Tilton’s cousin thought she was sending the boy to a free territory–except that it wasn’t.

This talk looks at the doctrine of partus in colonial law affecting the status of children born to slave women;the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854,and the Dred Scott decision of 1857, all relating to the status of slavery in territories; and finally the ruling by a Victoria judge that made Mitchell “a free boy.”

Tilton protested to the governor of Washington Territory and then to the U.S. Secretary of State, without success, that the freeing of the boy from the steamer Eliza Anderson, where he had stowed away, was a breach of international law.  Six months later, the United States moved beyond compromise and the rule of law to civil war.  Mitchell was a free boy years before the war would determine the fate of others held in bondage.

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