Typically, genealogists seek out loose papers associated with known legal cases – for the rich details they may contain. In this instance, the trail runs the other way – a random loose paper pointed to a fascinating case and offered a slavery law mini-tutorial, to boot.
Loose papers are always a wildly unpredictable research adventure! When the box arrives at your desk, you wonder – will the case be in there? Will I find the number, recognize the name? Will I be able to unfold the papers without tearing them? And finally…. will I be able to read, understand, and interpret them?
A few weeks ago, as I researched Insolvency Petitions (Montgomery County, MD), I ran across a single piece of paper. I would have passed it by, but the defendant had a surname of very personal interest.
It had nothing, whatsoever, to do with insolvency – here’s an extract of the document (2):
“To the Honorable Judges of the County Court of Montgomery County, sitting as a Court of Equity.
Humbly complaining, showith unto your honors, your Orator, George Hunter, a man of Color, that your Orator, a native of Virginia was acquired by marriage by a certain William M. Offutt (whom your Orator prays may be made a party in this his bill of complaint) was by the said Offutt introduced into this State Several years since; that by the neglect of the said Offutt duly to record your Orator, according to the Act of Assembly in such case made and provided, your orator has become justly entitled to his freedom and has now filed a petition in the County Court for Montgomery County to be released from the servitude in which he is unjustly detailed, and admitted to the blessing of liberty. But now so it is, that the said Offutt …[is] fraudulently devising and designing to cut off your orator from all hope of gaining his freedom, hath resolved and determined (as your orator is credibly informed and verily believes ) to sell and dispose of your orator in [?] far distant and strange land where by your orator will be separated from all his witnesses who can testify to his just claim to freedom…May it please your honors to grant to your Orator, the State’s most gracious writ of injunction to be directed to the said Offutt… from removing your Orator from Montgomery County aforesaid or molesting or harming your orator in any manner so as to impede your orator in his petition aforesaid…
Clement Cox for the Complainant
Filed 29 May 1824”
Remarkable! A man of color, a native of Virginia, was seeking an injunction against the white man who acquired him by marriage and brought him to Maryland. It naturally raised questions.
What was the Act of the Assembly on which Hunter’s bill rested?
And what did the Act say? What was the “neglect” to record?
And, most importantly, what happened to Hunter?
I was able to piece together most of the story in relatively short order. (It’s gratifying when you don’t have to work too hard to find the answers – like a mini-vacation.)
On the last day of 1796, the General Assembly passed a law prohibiting the import of slaves into Maryland.
Acts of 1796, Ch. 67 (3)
“BE it enacted, by the General Assembly of Maryland, That it shall not be
lawful, from and after the passing of this act, to import or bring into
this state, by land or water, any negro, mulatto or other slave, for sale, or
to reside within this state; and any person brought into this state as a slave contrary
to this act, if a slave before, shall thereupon immediately cease to be the
property of the person or persons so importing or bringing such slave within this
state, and shall be free.”
There were admittedly a number of exceptions to this general ban. Of particular relevance is the one in Section 8:
“VIII. And be it enacted, That it shall and may be lawful for any citizen and
resident of this state, or in the right of his wife, in land lying in any one of the adjoining
states…to remove and bring such slave or slaves within this state…; and provided also, that a list of such slave or slaves… be delivered, in writing, and signed by the owner… to the clerk of the county into which such slave or slaves shall be brought to reside, within three months thereafter…”
George Hunter’s petition specifically argued that Offutt failed to file the required list. This single piece of paper may have been an early salvo fired by Hunter in his fight for freedom but it was far from the last. (4)
Later that year, Hunter filed a second petition in Washington County (the portion of the District of Columbia that had been ceded by Maryland and where Maryland law applied) seeking an injunction to prevent his transport back to Virginia. (5) This time, Hunter accused Offutt and others of devising “treacherous plans” to thwart him, as he simultaneously pursued a case in circuit court. The petition was granted. But we know from subsequent events that his case must have failed on the merits in Washington County, as well as in Montgomery County.
William M. Offutt did take George Hunter back to Virginia and sold him to man named Hill for “valuable consideration.” (6) Hill then sold Hunter to a Mr. Fulcher. Hunter filed a claim of assault and battery against this latest owner, and sued to recover the freedom he claimed under Maryland law. Although the lower court in Richmond initially found for Fulcher on technical issues, Hunter’s appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia was granted.
In March of 1829, the Supreme Court of Virginia court unambiguously upheld the right of Hunter to his freedom obtained under the 1796 Maryland law. The concurring opinion said it most succinctly…..
“The law of Maryland, having enacted, that slaves carried into that state for sale or to reside, shall be free; and the owner of the slave here, having carried him to Maryland, and resided there with him for twelve years, thus becoming himself a citizen of Maryland, and voluntarily subjecting himself and the slave to the operation of her laws; I think the right to freedom vested, and could not be divested by bringing him back afterwards to Virginia.” (7)
I am struck by the irony that it was the Virginia court that gave full effect to Maryland law in the case of George Hunter – but very grateful.
And grateful, too, for the educational side-trip occasioned by the randomly loose paper.
(1) This picture is actually of a box of probate records, but you get the idea.
(2) MONTGOMERY COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT (Insolvency Papers) George Hunter v. William M. Offutt, bill for an injunction, 1824, Box 2, MSA T940-2. There were several clearly labeled and numbered packets of Equity Cases in the Insolvency Papers box, which I brought to the attention of the staff. The Hunter petition, though, was left in the box in which I found it.
(3) Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, 1796, printed by Frederick Green, Printer to the State, Annapolis, 1796, reproduced in William Hand Browne, Edward C. Papenfuse, et. al. eds., Archives of Maryland, 215+ volumes, (Baltimore and Annapolis, Md., 1883-), 105: 249-250 (hereinafter cited as Archives of Maryland). This series is ongoing and available on line at http://archivesofmaryland.net/ where volumes, collectively or individually, can be searched electronically. This particular act is at Volume 105, p. 249-250
(4) I don’t know what action, if any, the Montgomery County Equity Court judges, took upon receipt of this bill. Given that the ultimate outcome was discovered, I will leave that question unanswered for now.
(5) Race and Slavery Petitions Project and the Electronic Resources and Information Technology Department of University Libraries at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, “Digital Library on American Slavery,” Database, University of North Carolina Greensboro (http://library.uncg.edu/slavery/ ; accessed 19 February 2012), Petition 20482401, filed by George Hunter, 27 December 1824, direct link to abstract is http://library.uncg.edu/slavery/details.aspx?pid=4254.
(6) Hunter, pauper, v. Fulcher, 28 Va. 172 (1829), LexisNexis Academic (access through participating libraries: 19 February 2012.)
(7) Ibid., concurring opinion of Carr, J.