Few people connect Washington Territory with slavery. However one incident in 1860 was a reminder that the peculiar institution reached the pre-Civil War Pacific Northwest. In the account below, historian Lorraine McConaghy describes the saga of Charles Mitchell whose attempted escape from slavery in a vessel sailing between Olympia, Washington Territory and Victoria, British Colombia, touched off an incident that had international repercussions.
In 1847, Charles Mitchell was born at Marengo Plantation on Chesapeake Bay in Talbot County, Maryland. His father was a white oyster fisherman named Charles Mitchell; his mother was a young black house slave whose name is unknown to us. We do not know anything about the relationship between Charles Mitchell senior and the house slave, but it may have been consensual or even loving since the boy was named for his father. In any case, slavery ran through the female line, and so Charles Mitchell was born a slave, despite his father’s freedom.
Slaves had been born, toiled, and died at Marengo Plantation for more than 150 years. Marengo had been named by the grandson of the plantation’s founder, Jacob Gibson, in admiration for a victory of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Gibson family presided over Marengo, and the plantation’s fields grew tobacco profitably until the soil was depleted. The land was then switched to wheat. In about 1800, there were three dozen slaves on Marengo Plantation; in the 1850 slave census, there were thirteen. Charles Mitchell’s mother was one of them, the personal servant of Mistress Rebecca Gibson; the two women had grown up together.
It is likely that the young black woman’s sister, parents, and grandparents, along with Charles, were all living as a family within the slave quarters. During the great cholera epidemic of 1850, Charles’ mother fell ill and died. According to Gibson family tradition, Rebecca Gibson asked the dying woman what she could do for her. “Take care of my Charlie,” was her reply, and Rebecca answered, “I will.”