Yellow and Red Strings: Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Three

David B. Mitchell

David Byrdie Mitchell, late governor of Georgia and present Indian agent, had looked to all the world like a guilty man. Letters and sworn statements, albeit some of the latter hearsay, implicated him in a slave smuggling ring. He didn’t personally bring in contraband slaves, in defiance of the nation’s 1807 ban on importing people, but his employee at the Creek Agency did. That man, William Bowen, had written letters to Mitchell discussing the business in candid terms. Bowen got seed money from the firm of Erwin, Groce, & Company. He took that money to Amelia Island on St. Mary’s river, a well-known smuggling hot spot just outside the United States. He claimed to have gone for coffee and sugar, but finding them too expensive bought human merchandise. He took his slaves into Georgia via the St. Mary’s and Flint Rivers up to Mitchell’s agency. There they awaited sale and/or transport elsewhere, probably to Alabama Territory.

Mitchell tried to defend himself. He insisted, truthfully, that Bowen brought the slaves to the Creek Agency while he was away. On receiving news of the slaves, “a SMALL parcel of African negroes” numbering only sixty, Mitchell went back and accused Bowen of importing them. Bowen produced a fake bill of sale to prove that he bought the slaves off a privateer in Georgia, which still left him in defiance of the law. Mitchell then, he says, told Bowen that he needed to get those slaves out of the country. The Indian agent also took time in his statement (page 964) to gripe about the insufficiency of state and national laws against importation, ultimately he

reflected upon the facility with which such an order could be evaded, by just carrying them over the Spanish line, and re-introducing them; and believing, too, that the negroes were actually intended for the use of the parties interested, who, I have no doubt, are large land-holders on the Alabamaby purchase at the recent sales, and not for sale, I declined detaining them.

In Mitchell’s version, all that has come and gone. He did not detain the slaves, so they moved along into Alabama or wherever. Wirt noticed that right off, calling Mitchell out for implying that no contraband slaves remained at the agency. Instead, his explanation to the Secretary of War looked forward to future events. If this happened again, Georgia’s former governor would like advice on how to handle it. Mitchell wrote all of this in a report to the Secretary of the Treasury on the same Christmas day that Bowen wrote to him, with about sixty slaves in residence at the Agency and forty more coming.

Wirt broke it down. At the time of Mitchell’s writing, December 25, 1817, he knew

  1. That those Africans had been unlawfully brought into the United States, and that Bowen’s tale of the purchase in Camden county, from the owner of a privateer who had brought them in, even if true, would not have altered the case. He must, consequently, have known that, under the act of Congress of 1807, neither Bowen, nor those for whom he acted, nor any person claiming under them, could have any right or title whatever to those negroes or to their services.
  2. That certain mercantile houses in Savannah and Augusta were interested in them; and, if Bowen had not previously informed him, the letter of Erwin, Groce, & Co. by Colonel Morgan, and the visit of that gentlemen to the agency, could not have left him in ignorance of the fact that the house of Erwin, Groce, & Co. was one, at least, of those houses.
  3. He knew that these Africans were intended for Alabama, and to be settled on the lands of those gentlemen in that Territory.
  4. General Mitchell must have known that to carry them  to Alabama was as clear a violation of the act of Congress as to carry them into any one of the United States; for General Mitchell is a man not only of uncommon intelligence and acuteness, but, as it appears by these documents, a lawyer by profession; and his talents, which are manifest, leave no doubt that he was a lawyer of distinction.

Mitchell also tried to claim that he needed to place a bond on the slaves under a confused interpretation of Georgia law on exporting slaves clearly invented for the purpose of excusing himself. Even if that law applied, the responsibility for such bonds lay with the governor.

A business this involved has many stakeholders and they all looked to their investments. A Jared Groce, as in Erwin, Groce, & Company, took forty-seven slaves across the Creek Nation under Mitchell’s passport. James Erwin, as his father Andrew testified, had gotten notes from Bowen for half the slaves. Taking out the five slaves given to Long for his part in the affair, that matches up awfully well.

Mitchell didn’t do all his looking the other way for free, of course. A John Lambert, who worked at the agency as a gardener, swore that he fed the slaves out of Mitchell’s pantry and that he saw Mitchell, his son, Long, Bowen, and others divide up the slaves. The elder Mitchell’s “part was distinguished from the others by a piece of yellow ferret or tape tied in their hair.” John Oliphant, who had helped bring the slaves to the Agency, reported that Bowen and Mitchell gave the slaves regular examinations and that

thirty or thirty-five of said negroes had a red flannel string tied around their wrists, which the witness understood, was to distinguish General Mitchell’s from Mr. Bowen’s”

The difference in marking reflects the two consignments of people. Oliphant speaks specifically of the second group, whereas Lambert left his position at the Agency before they arrived.

Mitchell seems to have gotten his share of the slaves for more than services rendered. Rumors, deemed credible by a federal marshal, circulated that he embezzled money meant for the Creek nation to buy himself a share. That Mitchell tried to sell him some of the slaves may have put the question on the marshal’s radar. He declined unless Mitchell would write out proper deeds for them in his own name, which Mitchell refused. If they wanted that, then they should talk to Bowen. The Creek Agency had nothing at all to do with the smuggled slaves, except that Bowen proved he had not smuggled them and so held the slaves legally. If we departed all good sense and took Mitchell at his word, then that still makes him a man trying to sell someone else’s people.

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