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.