THE ADVOCATE 295
VOL. 77 PART 2 MARCH 2019
A ND MISCELLANEA
By Ludmila B. Herbst, Q.C.*
HABEAS CORPUS AND THE ESCAPE OF CHARLES MITCHELL1
A dramatic series of events unfolded on Victoria’s waterfront in September
1860, involving not only well-known members of the colony’s fledgling
bench and bar, but also a group less often remembered: the city’s then considerable
black population and its new addition, an escaped slave named
Charles Mitchell was born in 1847 in Maryland. His mother, whose name
is not known, was a black “house slave” and lived with her parents, Charles
and other family members on the Marengo Plantation by Chesapeake Bay.
She died of cholera when Charles was three. His father was a white oyster
fisherman also named Charles. Although the elder Charles was not a slave,
apparently the young Charles was, caught by laws providing that a child
born to a female slave inherited her status.
Charles’s mother had been the personal servant of Rebecca Gibson, whose
family owned the plantation. Perhaps out of good intentions—the two
women had apparently been close—Rebecca Gibson sent Charles with
James Tilton and his family to Washington Territory in 1855. James Tilton
had just been named that territory’s surveyor general, due to take up residence
in its capital, Olympia. The Gibsons and the Tiltons had historically
By 1860 there were perhaps only 30 African Americans and arguably two
slaves in Washington Territory, counting Charles. Whether by that point he
should be counted as a slave is not without doubt, but is likely the case.
Though Charles attended school and church, and on one version of events
was being trained for paid employment, Tilton referred to him as a “slave”
* Ludmila B. Herbst, Q.C., is the assistant editor of the Advocate.