Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Discover the Pacific Northwest's underground railroad

Excerpt: "As a territory, Washington was in limbo concerning slavery...... a local chapter of the Knights of the Golden Circle agitated for the interests of slave states and slave-owners.

Discover the Pacific Northwest's underground railroad
 February 18, 2013

The folks back East are getting a lot of mileage out of the word "sesquicentennial" these days. Between 2011 and 2015, events marking the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War are taking place at historic sites from Pennsylvania to Louisiana to Missouri.

But don't think for a minute that the Civil War - and events leading up to it - had no bearing on the development of the Pacific Northwest. Some books are coming out this spring that will reveal interesting true stories about the impact that war had on the people living here, thousands of miles away from the storied battlegrounds of Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg and Appomattox.

The first to appear in bookstores is "Free Boy: A True Story of Slave and Master," which is also the story of Washington Territory's own tiny Underground Railroad (and a misnomer, actually, as the covert operation took place entirely on the waters of the Salish Sea).

This is an account of 13-year-old Charlie Mitchell's bid for freedom in 1860. Top-notch regional historians Lorraine McConaghy and Judy Bentley partnered up to piece together the historical evidence and write the book, which is geared to teen readers but should appeal to a much broader audience, as well.

Charlie was a slave belonging to James Tilton, surveyor general of Washington Territory. Before moving from back East to Olympia to assume his duties, Tilton had accepted the child from his Maryland cousin Rebecca Gibson, who had promised the child's dying mother (one of her slaves) that she would look after the boy. Gibson was an ambivalent slave-owner, and she felt duty-bound to get Charlie away from the slave culture and away from a cholera epidemic that was sweeping the Eastern Seaboard.

Tilton assured her that he would look after the boy and see that he was trained to perform some kind of trade. There was some suggestion that Tilton would free the boy when he reached the age of 18, although Charlie himself may not have been privy to that conversation about his future.

As a territory, Washington was in limbo concerning slavery. There may have been a few other slaves in the region - the Dred Scott decision permitted it. And there was at least some support for slave ownership - once Lincoln was elected president, a local chapter of the Knights of the Golden Circle agitated for the interests of slave states and slave-owners.

On the other hand, there were sympathizers for the abolitionist cause also.

And just to the north, in bustling Victoria, British Columbia, hundreds of free blacks lived under British rule, which had abolished slavery in 1833. Many in that community were committed to extending the opportunity to live free to others with their skin color.

"Free Boy" does a good job of providing historical context and then tells the harrowing story of young Charlie's bid for freedom. This book demonstrates that the debates that took place during the Civil War affected real lives right here in the Pacific Northwest.

Barbara Lloyd McMichael writes a weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

Read more here: http://www.bellinghamherald.com/2013/02/18/2878633/discover-the-pacific-northwests.html#storylink=cpy