Lost and Found in History

            As often happens in the writing life, authors may be immersed in a new book but recalled to another.  That was the case with Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master this week when I was interviewed by Rob Smith for his podcast welcometoolympia.com, which showcases stories from Olympia, Washington. 

            The free boy in question, Charles Mitchell, lived in Olympia from 1855 to 1860 when he escaped on a mail steamer to Victoria Island in what is now British Columbia.  Mitchell was 13, a child of mixed race, living in the household of James and Isabella Tilton, and owned by them.  Slavery was legal in Olympia because territories did not have the right to declare themselves slave or free.  James Tilton was the Surveyor General of Washington Territory, an important job mapping the new territory so that incoming settlers could claim land.  Tilton brought the young boy to Olympia from a plantation in Maryland owned by Tilton’s mother’s family.  Mitchell’s father was an unknown white man, and his enslaved mother died of cholera when the boy was three.  Tilton promised to educate Charles, to train him for a job as a ship’s steward, and to free him when he turned 18.

            When given the chance to be free before then, Charles didn’t wait.  He was encouraged and aided by free blacks in Victoria who visited Olympia and by James Allen, the cook on board the steamer.  Allen hid Charles in the lamp room, and although he was discovered on board before the Eliza Anderson docked in Victoria, he was brought off the boat through a writ of habeas corpus and declared a free boy by a British judge. This was his moment of fame.  And then he vanished into history, after a brief appearance in a school for boys.

            That was the story Lorraine McConaghy and I wrote in Free Boy, published by the University of Washington Press in 2013, an inspiring story of a young boy yearning for freedom and the Victoria blacks who engineered his freedom.

            But then what?  The Civil War began months after Mitchell escaped, and by its end in 1865, he would have been free.  Did he ever come back to the United States?  Did he ever find his father or family in Maryland?  Did he have a successful life?  Lorraine and I did not know when we finished the book.  We could only speculate about which of many Charles Mitchells he might have been in the Pacific Northwest. 

            In fact, Mitchell roamed farther than we thought.  Inspired by his story, a researcher dove into the mystery.  With only Mitchell’s name, race, place of birth, and approximate birth date, Thomas Blake delved into census tracks, voter records, city directories, pension applications, marriage and death certificates.  He found that:

  • Mitchell returned to the United States right before the end of the Civil War and enlisted in a California infantry company that was stationed at Fort Stevens at the mouth of the Columbia River, named after Isaac Stevens, the first governor of Washington Territory—and a friend of James Tilton’s.
  • After that Mitchell worked as a ship’s steward, a cook, waiter, and all-around crew member, the job he had been trained for, on ships based in San Francisco.
  • He married twice, first to a mulatto woman named Elsie L. Browne.  They had a son, Charles, born in May 1870.  She died in 1885; the fate of their son Charles is unknown. 
  • At the age of about 40, Mitchell married a young white woman named Sarah Frederick in Liverpool, England.  Mtichell brought Sarah back with him to the United States, along with his mother-in-law, and they had seven children, four of whom lived to adulthood.  Their household in San Francisco was variously described as white or mulatto. 
  • He broke both knee caps in falls related to his work.  He also broke both ribs in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, injuries that eventually earned him an invalid pension from the military.
  • He died in 1910 in the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, at the age of about 60. 
  • He has no known living descendants.  His one known grandchild died in 1999 in Paradise, California and had no known children.   

            In some ways, Charles Mitchell lived a fairly ordinary life.  He married, had children, and worked hard at physical jobs that left him partially disabled.  His adult life as a free man was not as dramatic as his brief moment of fame as a youth, but his work as a mariner took him around the world, and he briefly enlisted in the cause he had left Olympia for, the cause of freedom for youth like him.  His courage at 13 earned the right to determine his own life.

Harriet Tubman photograph

A startling new photograph of Harriet Tubman has been discovered, a portrait of her as a younger woman in her 40s.  When I wrote the young adult biography of Tubman in 1990, the available photos of her were pictures dating from 1894 and an early 1900s photo showing her with white hair, decades past her most active years as an underground railroad conductor and spy in the Civil War.

The new photo has emerged in an album kept by Emily Howland, an abolitionist in upstate New York.  Howland lived in Sherwood, not far from Auburn, where Tubman settled after the Civil War.  Cayuga County was a nest of abolitionists, including William Seward who helped Tubman purchase land there in 1859 for a home she shared with anyone in need.  The new photograph is an 1860s carte de visite, a small (typically 2 1/2″ x 4″) photograph mounted on a calling card handed out to family and friends, which suggests there might be more of the cards in existence.  They were particularly popular among soldiers during the Civil War, as described by Andrea Volpe in an article in The New York Times.  

The discovery of the new photograph was brought to my attention by Grace Bentley, my 98-year-old mother-in-law who lives in upstate New York.

Newport High School orchestra

Newport High School Orchestra Performs Free Boy: Secret Voyage

Tone Poem for Charles Mitchell’s Flight to Freedom on the West’s Underground Railroad

BELLEVUE, Wash. – Newport High School orchestra, the Newport Philharmonic, will be performing the world premiere of “Free Boy: Secret Voyage,” a piece commissioned by award-winning composer Tim Huling, at the All-Northwest Music Educators Conference, on Feb. 17 in Bellevue, WA.

The piece is inspired by the nonfiction book “Free Boy,” written by local authors Lorraine McConaghy and Judith M. Bentley, and was commissioned by the school with support from the Bellevue Schools Foundation and Newport’s PTSA.  The book is about a thirteen-year-old boy who is born into slavery and escapes from the Washington territory to freedom in Canada by way of the West’s underground railroad.

Newport’s orchestra conductor, Christine Gero, decided to embark on this project as part of the school’s music history unit on contemporary music.  The intent is to work with a living composer and create a piece of music with a Pacific Northwest hero as the inspiration for the work.  Gero began the unit by asking how many students have lived somewhere other than Bellevue, and nearly the entire class raised their hands.  Gero herself is also a transplant to the Pacific Northwest, so together she and her students are learning about the Pacific Northwest’s history through the book “Free Boy.”

“In some ways Bellevue is very global,” said Gero.  “A lot of people in the community were not born here, so this has been such a great opportunity for us to learn about this place we live in and its history.”

Throughout the unit, students have met the authors, historians and even gave input to Huling on the composition of the piece.

“To actually see the students getting to interact with historians, authors and a composer and hear not just about the past, but how it plays into the present – and how they are able to take part in that to create something that is hopefully lasting and meaningful – I think that has been exciting for everyone involved,” said Gero.

For more information about the All-Northwest Conference: www.nafmenw.org

For more information or to schedule a visit to see the orchestra rehearse please contact Christina Wilner at (425) 456-4

Walking Washington’s History

 

am working on a new book, a history of Washington told through the history of the state’s major cities.  I’m doing a lot of walking, early in the morning when the homeless are still huddled under blankets on benches, on rainy afternoons when awnings are welcome, and sometimes along a sunny waterfront.  I am visiting museums, historical societies, libraries, and coffee shops, talking to anyone I encounter.
Yesterday, a friend and I roamed Tacoma in the rain, finding solidity among the mists in stone statues.  Here are two with some historical significance.  The lion guards the entrance to Fuzhou Ting, a pavilion given by the city of Fuzhou and built at the Chinese Reconciliation Park on the waterfront east of Old Town.  The park recalls through art and words the expulsion of Chinese from the city once the railroads were completed and their labor was no longer needed.  The Goddess of Commerce is a new statue replacing an older one in the Old City Hall district.  She is replete with the symbols of commerce that have driven Tacoma’s economy, including crane earrings, not the peace cranes but the dock kind.