Free Boy is the story of a 13-year-old slave who escaped from Washington Territory to freedom in Canada on the West's underground railroad. When James Tilton came to Washington Territory as surveyor-general in the 1850s he brought with his household young Charles Mitchell, a slave he had likely received as a wedding gift from a Maryland cousin. The story of Charlie's escape in 1860 on a steamer bound for Victoria and the help he received from free blacks reveals how national issues on the eve of the Civil War were also being played out in the West.
Written with young adults in mind, the authors provide the historical context to understand the lives of both Mitchell and Tilton and the time in which the events took place. The biography explores issues of race, slavery, treason, and secession in Washington Territory, making it both a valuable resource for teachers and a fascinating story for readers of all ages.
Lorraine McConaghy is a public historian at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle and the author of "Warship under Sail." Judy Bentley teaches at South Seattle Community College and is the author of "Hiking Washington's History," along with fourteen books for young adults.
One of those books that makes me appreciate the value of archives, historical records, and academia.
Read this after a local teacher asked for suggestions of middle school-appropriate historical fiction set in Washington. I was eager to learn about the history of the enslavement of Black people in my town (I live within walking distance of the site where the family in question lived).
The bulk of each chapter describes the lives of James Tilton and Charles Mitchell using a fairly factual, narrative-nonfiction-style approach. At the end of each chapter is a short passage in italics imagining specific scenes alluded to in the preceding text, which seems to be an attempt to give some life and emotion to the facts.
I appreciate that the two authors are coming at this from a scholarly perspective. They include an extensive bibliography (8 pages, and it's titled "Selected Bibliography"), and a four-page Methods and Sources section. Reading between the lines, I can tell that they probably felt that they'd have to fictionalize too much of the story of Charles Mitchell to make a book that would appeal to their target audience* if they focused exclusively on Charles Mitchell. Hence the inclusion of major sections about James Tilton, regarding whom there's a much more robust historical record.
As a person who is interested in history, and scholarship, and untold stories, and marginalized people, and midrash, and Olympia, Washington, I found the whole thing fascinating. I'm so glad I read it. That being said, I don't know that it will appeal to a wide middle grade audience.
I would love to read a version of this story with at least one Black author in the mix. Particularly if that Black author actually lived in Olympia. It was published in 2013, by two apparently White ladies from the Seattle area, and I can feel that it's already dated and also feels a bit distanced from Olympia itself. There are moments of what could be described as microaggression, and if I noticed a few of those (as a White lady myself), I'm sure BIPOC eyes would catch even more. The title itself is also problematic. Although the person in question is a kid, and based on historical record could be described as a boy, that word has historically been used as a slur toward Black people of all ages. I hoped that the authors would address this choice, but they did not, at least inside the book itself. When I picked up the book, based on the summary information available to me, I was under the impression that there was a sustained "underground railroad" in the West. This is not exactly the case. The authors state that as far as their research revealed, Charles Mitchell was the only person who was transported over the Canadian border for the purpose of escaping enslavement in Washington.
With those major caveats, I'm so glad this book exists. Without it, I would probably never have heard this story, or read this history. I highly value that these authors took the time to collect all this scholarship and put it into a form that is accessible to a wide audience.
Extra star because of how critically important it is for stories like this to be told in the wider culture.
*We shelve this in the Juvenile Nonfiction at my library, so that tells me that it was marketed to middle grade readers.
Charles Mitchell is a thirteen year old slave who worked for James Tilton, the Surveyor General in Washington Territory just before the Civil War. He arrived with his Master from Maryland and was treated well by the family in the sense that his Master was not cruel to him and even provided him with some education. Many people believed that Washington was a "free" state that supported abolition, however "Free Boy" is the true story of a child who was held in slavery in Olympia. Charlie's owner was described by local papers as his "benefactor" and "guardian", and that African Americans who were working on behalf of Charlie's freedom were seen as "ingrates and not law-abiding." I was fascinated by how many in the African American community risked their livelihoods to bring Charlie his chance of freedom. It's difficult to believe how someone like James Tilton, who was educated and considered a leader in the community, held such racial prejudices. In the end, Charlie arrived in Victoria, thanks to the Underground Railroad there. He eventually married and had three children, but died at the age of twenty-nine in a canoeing accident, before the birth of his fourth child. I gave this book three stars only because it is not my favourite reading genre. Although I appreciate the research that went into this book and learned a lot about the little known Underground Railroad in Victoria, I found the story quite "dry."
In the mid-late 1850s, there was at least one child being held as a slave in Olympia. Charles Gibson Mitchell, born into slavery in Maryland in 1847 or 1848 to free white man and a slave to an old plantation family down on its luck. (16-17) His mother died of cholera not long after. (18) The family had no need of a child slave and gave him to a relative, James Tilton. (20)
Tilton was a veteran of the Mexican American war. (6) As a reward for that, and for work on the Franklin Pierce campaign, he was awarded the job of Surveyor General of the Washington Territory. Tilton settled in Olympia and made a name for himself. Surveyed the land, was active in Democratic politics; appointed president of the University of Washington Board of Regent, worked for the territorial legislature a less than a block from where, in non-COVID times, I work. Lived blocks away. And he had a child as a slave.
By that time, British soil made one free. Blacks in Victoria knew about Charles Gibson Mitchell. They made a plan to liberate him. James Allen, a cook on the Eliza Anderson and William Davis offered to take him on board and to freedom. (36) All Mitchell had to do is come to the dock early in the morning and keep quiet in a little cubby hole while the ship plied the regular mail route between Olympia and Victoria.
On September 24, 1860, he was found by the U.S. Army searching the ship for soldiers deserting from Fort Steilacoom. (43). The Fugitive Slave Law obligated the captain, John Fleming, to return Mitchell to Tilton and it looks like Fleming really tried. (43-47). He locked Mitchell in the lamp room and tried to flag down passing ships to take him back to slavery. None stopped.
When he got to Victoria, there was a crowd of people waiting for Mitchell. (45). When he didn't get off the ship they stayed watch. Davis and Allen and attorney Henry Crease swore out a writ of habeas corpus and Chief Justice Davis Cameron granted it. (46-47). Sheriff William Naylor went to the ship, where the crew tried to deny them entry. When it came clear the Sheriff and the crowd would use force, they relented. (47).
Mitchell spent the night in jail. On Wednesday, September 26, 1860, Judge Cameron heard the case of (51) The Attorney General George H. Cary argued that under Lord Mansfield's seminal opinion Somsersett vs. Steuart (1772), Charles Mitchell was free the moment his foot hit British soil. (51-52). Fleming argued the sheriff had no right to come on to his ship. (52). The judge granted the writ.
Tilton was not a happy former master. He protested his loss strenuously. (53-54) Newspapers took it up and there was a big fight in editorial pages. (54-56). Her Majesty was unmoved. Mitchell attended the Collegiate School for Boys on Church Way, his tuition paid by the community. (76).
The book suggests Mitchell died at 29. Since that time, there's evidence he lived a long and full life. That he might be the Charles Mitchell who enlisted in the infantry, became a mariner, married Sarah Matilda Frederick in the parish church of Liverpool, and settled down in San Francisco. https://www.welcometoolympia.com/podc.... I hope this is true.
It's not a perfect book. Parts are fictionalized, marked with italics. In those sections, we see Mitchell fishing with Lewis Bush, son of George Washington Bush; we see Davis and Allen pull Mitchell into a barber shop off Main Street in Olympia and offer him freedom; we Tilton drinking and bitter about the south's lost in the Civil War; we see Mitchell going back to the plantation in Maryland and speaking with the woman who gave him to Tilton. These fictionalized pieces disturb me slightly, though I know they give the book a warmth that would otherwise be lacking.
Maybe they disturb me because they bring home that this enslaved person walked streets I walk. History isn't over.
This book leaves me with 2 different opinions. The 1st is that it's just too thin. There's not enough enough here for a book. An extended article in a magazine, perhaps? The other is that I still enjoyed it, and recommend it to anyone interested in a unique perspective on the plight of runaway slaves or the early history of WA territory. It's definitely an important story for us to understand, and to remember.
This slim volume details the true story of an enslaved boy, Charles Mitchell, who made an escape to Canada from Washington Territory with help from free men and women. This was a nice change of pace as I have been unaware of the history of the Pacific Northwest and am mostly familiar with the action east of the Mississippi. The authors stick close to the historical record, so much of Mitchell’s life is unknown. I did enjoy the addition of fictional segments to help flesh out the story.
Deeply appreciate how the authors surfaced this history of potentially the one and only instance of an enslaved person self-liberating in the Pacific Northwest. I enjoyed the history written and the italicized portions that fictionalize potential dialogue aligned with it. I felt it could have been more clear in the beginning that they were taking those liberties but it is written in the methodology at the end.
Fascinating, scrupulously somewhat fictionalized account of an enslaved 13 year old who escaped slavery from Olympia Washington in the 1850s. I say "scrupulously fictionalized" because the authors make it clear, by putting text in italics, where they are imagining what might have happened, and where they are drawing directly on the existing historical record.
Would have liked more depth but the author used was 'fact' were available. Makes me wonder how other slaves were treated in WA territories. Plan to read another book by co-author, Judy Bentley on Hiking Washington History. Great way to tie exercise and family fun with history.