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William Mitchel was determined to save his wife and willing to face the British navy to do it.
“Sometime in July,” 199 years ago, Mitchel escaped from his master’s farm in Calvert County, according to Maryland state archives. He joined forces with the British during the War of 1812 with the hope of freeing his bride, Mary, too.
The war lasted from 1812 to 1815. In St. Mary’s and Calvert counties, royal forces pillaged homes along the shores of the Patuxent River. During this time, at least 755 slaves escaped from Maryland. An estimated 4,000 escaped nationwide. About half made their homes in Canada’s Halifax, Nova Scotia. Others settled in the Caribbean, Europe and Africa.
While they were stateside, the British enlisted the help of the enslaved, and promised liberty and a chance to settle in British territories to anyone who wanted to fight alongside them or simply sail the Atlantic toward freedom.
That’s how the British met Mitchel.
He had worked on Anne Dare’s Calvert Farm, according to state archives. But Basil Simmons, a neighbor of Dare’s father, said he saw that Mitchel was “employed by the British, had a black musket and acted as in office over the British sailors.” A Charles County resident, Zachariah Sothoron, said he saw Mitchel near the shore in Benedict with British troops. About 4,500 of them, arriving in a fleet of ships, frigates and schooners, were preparing for the Battle of Bladensburg.
But Mitchel refused to march.
Sothoron overheard Mitchel saying to a British officer, “He had been promised the privilege of staying that he might get his wife, and that he would have her that night at the risk of his life.”
Mary was on a south Calvert farm, and Mitchel did what he’d set out to do, rescuing her and their two daughters, Harriet and Sidney, as well as his wife’s brother, according to state archives. They moved to a black settlement town in Nova Scotia called Preston, and built a hut on a half-acre of land that Mitchel cleared.
Making a choice
This was an era when mothers and sons were loaned out like garden tools. Blacks often had no last names, and well-to-do families listed everything they owned on inventories, including human beings. There was “Ditto’s youngest child, Susan,” and “Negroe Jane age 72.” Slaves were counted in Charles County records among horses and oxen, “old blankets” and tea cups. A chair was worth more than a cook or field hand who’d outlived their prime.
The war and its promise of freedom captured their interest.
Sotterley Plantation sits on the Patuxent shore in Hollywood. Slaves likely saw the British in combat “up close,” according to state archives. Their vantage point would have given them a glimpse of the first battle of St. Leonard Creek. That’s when five men decided to help some 44 others escape, said Jeanne Pirtle, education director at Sotterley Plantation.
Sitting in an office on the plantation, where a 19th-century slave cabin still stands, Pirtle studied copies of documents.
The men were Peregrine Young, James Bowie, Joseph Wood, Ignatius Seale and Cornelius (possibly known as Cornelius Wildman) — five black men between the ages of 19 and 25, each worth between $500 and $800, according to state and plantation archives. That was top dollar for the Plater family, who owned them.
Pirtle pointed at each one of their names, studying their jobs and value to the Plater family.
Seale was a blacksmith. Young, perhaps, worked as a manservant, laying out the master’s clothing and tending to his needs.
They had friends and family at Sotterley and on nearby plantations, Pirtle said.
“They knew who was where and what was where,” Pirtle said. “They encouraged people from other plantations to go with the British,” she said.
Only 16 slaves stayed behind.
“Being free weighed against leaving family or friends who may not have had that opportunity,” said Jeremy “Jay” Hunter, an actor from La Plata who played the role of Peregrine Young in a play called “The Choice” that was presented at Sotterley this spring.
“It really opened my eyes to the dilemma that many African-Americans faced,” Hunter said. His character was miserable at the plantation, but Elcie, another character, decided to stay. She was a house slave, and felt “the masters treated her fairly well.”
“I sympathize with Elcie’s situation,” Hunter said. “I think fear would have played a large factor in my concern for my family.”
There was also trepidation for the unknown. Others may have been too sickly to make the trip. Some slaves, Hunter said, may have felt a sense of loyalty to their masters.
Three major families from Sotterley made the four-month trek to Nova Scotia. Their surnames were Seale, Coursey and Munroe. Several members of the Young family also settled there.
Their move was a factor in the Platers’ falling into debt and selling the plantation in 1822.
Destiny, likewise, proved grim for Peregrine Young, along with relative and fellow Sotterley escapee Crowley Young. They died while serving with the British Corps of Colonial Marines. According to state archives, they were the only Sotterley refugees killed in service to the crown. Wood and Bowie settled on the island of Trinidad, another British territory.
History of the war is decorated with similar stories — slaves-turned-warriors making their way through densely wooded shorelines, leading British officers to big houses and storage places, looting, burning, marching and fighting, setting loved ones free along the way.
During the Napoleonic wars, the British learned the value of teaming with local forces. Those tactics worked well along the Chesapeake — blacks worked on and near those waterways, said John Weiss, a researcher based in London. He has studied African-Americans and their quest to find new settlements during the War of 1812.
“Slaves on the water’s edge might have had news before their masters saw it in the papers,” he said.
As complicated as the war had become, some in British government frowned upon arming blacks, believing it could stoke tensions that weren’t part of the war’s larger purpose of defining territory and enforcing rules of commerce. British army officers tended to be more socially elite, Weiss said, and less passionate about equalizing across racial lines.
Naval officers, often of the middle to upper-middle class, bent the rules, partly, Weiss said, because abolitionism was intensifying in England, and “there can be no doubt that a large proportion of them were very much anti-slavery.” They also wanted to disrupt the American economy.
So, with authority from the British navy, freed slaves returned to plantations, confronted overseers, destroyed property and took other slaves with them aboard ships buoying promises of freedom before their feet could touch the decks.
Later, in St. Inigoes, seven or eight of George Loker’s slaves had their sights on the sea.
British forces had arrived on a frigate the morning of Feb. 19 or 20, 1815. They launched a barge carrying about a dozen men, including a freed slave from another farm, toward land. Someone tried to hide Loker’s slaves in the woods, but a mob threatened to burn the landowner’s home if he didn’t release them.
The threat was compelling enough. Refugees boarded the Havannah and set sail for Nova Scotia.
But that wasn’t the end. Loker, who’d served in the St. Mary’s militia, rented a schooner a few days later and brought along five other slave owners to pursue the ship.
British Capt. William Rowan Hamilton said he would release the slaves if they wished to return.
The passengers, instead, transferred to the Orlando, which took about 30 people to freedom. At least five from Loker’s estate are listed among those who arrived in Nova Scotia.
When slave owners wanted to come onboard to claim their human property, British captains often said, “You’re welcome to come talk with them. You can’t use any force. And if they’re willing to go with you, they can,” said Weiss.
That, Weiss said, forced “a conversation between equals.”
In Calvert, slaves Phyllis Caden and Minty Gurry were leveling a field of their own.
Minty had parted ways with her husband, Joe. An owner, Maya Davis, the state archives said, later claimed that the two women had married in a Methodist church.
“Minty did take Phyllis’ last name,” said Kirsti Uunila, a historic preservation planner for Calvert County. But it could have been to create the assumption that they were sisters.
The owner did say that Phyllis and Minty “had an intimate relationship,” Uunila explained, but it was so far in the past that “we can’t prove that” they were married.
In July 1814, Minty escaped, along with two other slaves, from Susannah Rawlings’ farm (the same farm from which William Mitchel rescued his wife). She later was spotted “awashing” with British troops, according to the testimony of a Calvert resident, George Ireland. State archivists suspect she may have been working as a washerwoman for royal forces.
Minty is listed as “Menty Caden,” age 28, on the rolls of Black Refugees who settled in Nova Scotia between 1815 and 1818.
“I was thrilled to see Minty had made it,” Uunila said. “I haven’t been able to find Phyllis.”
The War of 1812 was a conflict where “African-American people are hardly ever mentioned,” Davis said. She has spent years with a team at the state archives searching for records to tell their stories. They’ve read court depositions, runaway slave ads and plantation inventories, and they’ve collaborated with scholars from Canada and England.
It hasn’t helped reclaim all the history; during the war, the Calvert County courthouse was burned — with the help of Frisby Harris.
Owner William Harris may have hired out Frisby to Dr. John Beall, also of Calvert. Frisby escaped on July 16, 1814, and aided royal forces “in their work of plunder and wasting,” according to Harris’ claim. On the day of his escape, Frisby helped loot Harris’ tobacco and furniture. The British also carried off 13 hogsheads of tobacco and burned down the manor house.
Frisby eventually was seen “acting as an officer,” also burning the jail in Prince Frederick on July 19. His rank of corporal “suggests that he was among the soldiers who remained on the Severn,” a frigate that also ferried away Sotterley’s slaves, state archives suggest. But “Harris’ whereabouts after the War of 1812 are currently unknown.”
“You just wish that you could put all the puzzle pieces together,” said Wayn Hamilton of Nova Scotia. His father’s ancestry dates back to the Black Refugees from the Chesapeake region. Hamilton is not sure which plantation they worked on, but he’s looked at land records and archives.
He said he also believes he has family ties in West Africa, where some blacks went after they’d initially settled in Nova Scotia. “We’re always discovering little pieces of history,” Hamilton said. But tracing roots before 1818 “remains sketchy.”
Knowing a small part of your heritage is probably like somebody who has a bit of amnesia, Hamilton said. “There are pieces and fragments of memory, but it’s not complete.”
When he was a boy, his family would tell him, “Know thyself,” Hamilton said. Today, he’s resolved, “I’ve got to carry this forward as much as I can.” But he admits the quest to make connections that would fill in his family tree is exhilarating and exhausting.
“Here in Nova Scotia, everybody’s just trying to get the daily bread on the table,” said Hamilton, whose professional work also focuses on African-Nova Scotian affairs. But “we have some lay historians who know enough to be able to tell the story.”
Filling out the family tree
Churches help keep the stories alive.
Pastor Lennett J. Anderson is the 19th pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, which was built in Halifax in 1845 alongside a graveyard with tombstones dating back to about 1813. He’s a descendent of the Black Refugees.
“They came in search of a better land,” Anderson said.
Some built modest homes, and census records prove the survival of Sotterley’s liberated families.
But winters were harsh. Some say natives taught the families to dig holes in the ground to find warmer places to spend the night. Archives say exposure to severe elements made some freed blacks look older than they were and that, by December 1815, they had not received new clothing, which was particularly needed for the Canadian cold.
It’s like “they were placed here to die,” Anderson said.
In the decades since then, there have been issues with poverty and tensions, some said, as other Canadians wanted land that had been owned by the refugees and their descendents. In many cases, Anderson said, those black families “did not move.”
But, through it all, there has been success.
Les Oliver knows that his ancestor, Moses Oliver, escaped from a plantation owned by Col. William Lyles of Prince George’s County in 1814. Oliver married a woman named Adeline. Maryland archives say that the Olivers, along with several other slaves, accepted the British offer of “immediate emancipation.” The couple moved to Nova Scotia.
“Moses would be my great-great-great-grandfather,” Oliver said. (In a separate conversation, excitement in Anderson’s voice seemed to spill from the phone after he learned recently that Moses also might be his ancestor.)
Les Oliver’s mother discovered Moses’ story as she searched through records, trying to piece together family history, Oliver said. “And it actually was Maya Davis, through the archives, who managed to find Adeline.”
Information that Oliver has about Adeline includes an owner’s claim to be reimbursed for her. “That’s the dehumanizing aspect about slavery, is that you reduce people to a value,” he said.
But the Olivers went on to establish a legacy. Moses “bought a fairly substantial tract of land” in the Lucasville community of Halifax, Les Oliver said. Part of it “is still in the family.” And, while his great-grandfather and grandfather were groundsmen at a local college, Les Oliver’s father graduated from there. Les Oliver graduated from the school, as well, and worked there as a professor. His family has included a physician, a senator and a reverend.
Oliver, now a retired professor of computer science, wants to write about other branches of his family tree. Thankfully, he said, “Moses and Adeline got us so well started.”