“General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Four

David B. Mitchell

Parts 1, 2, 3, American State Papers (pages 957-75, PDF), Shingleton’s paper (JSTOR)

It didn’t take long for David Brydie Mitchell to put his position as Creek Agent to work for him. He received his appointment from James Monroe on November 4, 1817. By December 8, the first shipment of contraband slaves from Amelia Island had arrived there. I have to this point worked entirely from the American State Papers, but last night discovered that one historian took it upon himself to do more than cite them and move on. Back in 1973, Royce Gordon Shingleton published his version of events in the Journal of Negro History. He had access to the original papers on which William Wirt drew for his report and adds some important information, whilst also wrestling them into a coherent narrative. From him I have it that Bowen set out for Amelia Island on October 18, prior to Mitchell taking up his post as Indian agent. That suggests that Mitchell may have stumbled on a scheme already afoot and insisted on buying in, but he could just as easily have learned about his appointment well in advance and participated from the start. It seems unlikely that the plan’s financiers would have such confidence in him to agree to make good any expenses he called on them for had he just popped in at the last minute.

Either way, Erwin, Groce, & Company of Augusta and Savannah fronted Bowen the $25,000 he used to buy 110 slaves and bring them into the United States in defiance of the 1807 ban on slave importation. Those slaves, in two groups, came and stayed at the Agency for some time. During that time, Mitchell fed them and he and the other partners marked out the ones they claimed for themselves. Mitchell’s share may have come for both services rendered and from a direct investment of embezzled funds meant to support the Creek Nation.

The matter came to the attention of John Clark, soon governor of Georgia, through the Agency’s blacksmith. He found letters in Mitchell’s desk about the business and sent them on. Clark appears to have done much of the subsequent investigation. However, Shingleton’s paper clarified for me the role of General Gaines in the matter. According to him, Mitchell passed through the Agency in early December to attend a meeting of the Creek chiefs. On the return trip through, toward the middle of the month, Mitchell came back to the Agency in the company of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Gaines had the job of surveying the boundaries of Indian territory. On seeing all these slaves, he became suspicious. Mitchell did keep slaves he legally owned at the Agency as well, but it seems he kept the imported people separate from them and that stood out to Gaines. Mitchell, as he would when defending himself later, insisted he didn’t know anything about them. Gaines thereafter sent men to make sure those slaves didn’t conveniently vanish.

Per Wirt in the ASP, a

Captain Melvin, of the fourth infantry, states the had observed fifteen of the Africans (the choicest of those brought to the agency by Bowen) building huts and clearing land at the agency, the plantation of General Mitchell

A few days later the Inspector of the Port of Darien, McQueen McIntosh, caught wind of this. He probably found out much like the federal marshal did, when Mitchell offered to sell him some of the slaves. They must have elected governors for their subtlety in those days. McIntosh went out to the agency aiming to seize the contraband slaves and found many of them four days gone toward Alabama with Jared Groce. McIntosh set off in pursuit and overtook Groce and the slaves on the road to Alabama. Groce claimed the slaves as his own, which prompted McIntosh to arrest him. They turned back for the Creek Agency.

McIntosh employed a man named Langham to escort him, but Langham

perfidiously hurried on to the agency for the purpose of giving notice of McIntosh’s approach and intention, enabling those who had charge of the negroes there to put them out of the way.

Mitchell himself had left the agency again, putting it in the hands of his son William. Melvin tipped McIntosh off to that and led him the mile and a half to their huts. McIntosh opted not to take them out of doors in the cold, which had hit the slaves hard, but went to the younger Mitchell and told him to consider the slaves seized. Mitchell fils agreed to that without objection, but didn’t volunteer any information about other slaves. Groce had forty-seven slaves with him. That accounts for sixty-two of the hundred and ten slaves, leaving forty-eight unaccounted for. Five of those probably went off with Long as his payment for helping with the transport, leaving forty-three to slip William Mitchell’s mind.

The slaves had not forgotten their fellows. When McIntosh came for them in the morning, he learned

from the negroes [Wirt’s emphasis] that General Mitchell’s overseer had the night before supplied a great many Africans with provisions, and taken them into the woods; that Captain Melvin himself fell upon their trail, and found about fifteen in the woods, who tried to make their escape, but were apprehended, and the whole thirty were brought to the agency; Captain Mitchell then delivered up eleven small Africans (children, I presume) from the huts in the yard.

Wirt clearly means the fifteen Melvin and McIntosh found in the huts and woods, respectively. So we can account for eighty-two, ninety-three with the children. As McIntosh took them off, William Mitchell followed him down the road a few miles. McIntosh had left behind “two or three” people. I don’t know what to make of this. McIntosh may have genuinely misplaced a few people or Mitchell might have tried to hand over a few more in a desperate bid to deflect suspicion. Regardless, McIntosh came to the Creek Agency expecting to collect fifteen contraband slaves and departed with forty-one.

Discussion of all this came into the letters between Bowen and Mitchell pere that William Moore found in the latter’s desk and sent on to John Clark. Bowen feared that Groce would spill the beans and wrote that he had gotten himself worked up to the point of incoherence, so they needed to do something to shut him up. A letter from Mitchell declaring Groce a bondsman engaged in removing the slaves might do the trick.

Wirt spends the rest of his report discussing the arguments Mitchell and Bowen made in their defense and reporting on Clark’s investigation of the affair. He goes on at considerable length and with diligence, but writes little new for it. To cut his long, rather circuitous story short, the parties told improbable lies, could not keep their stories straight with one another, and none of it withstood scrutiny. He couldn’t prove, to the standards admissable in court, that Mitchell profited from the importation and actively conspired for it, but the evidence supported his having an understanding with Bowen. Even if Mitchell and Bowen didn’t have some kind of arrangement, they clearly entered into one when the slaves arrived at the agency. He concluded:

that General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power, as agent for Indian affairs at the Creek agency, to the purpose of aiding and assisting in a conscious breach of the act of Congress of 1807, in prohibition of the slave trade-and this from mercenary motives.

The presidential inquiry wound down in February of 1821. Monroe reviewed the evidence, agreed with Wirt, and had Secretary of War John C. Calhoun write his pink slip.

That leaves the matter of what happened to the slaves. Wirt devotes some time to discussing whether or not responsibility for them fell to the president under new anti-slave trade laws passed in 1817 and pleads a lack of recent information on the question. According to Shingleton, eighty-eight of them passed into the hands of Georgian authorities for sale. State law required a public notice and period of delay before action, during which the Governor Rabun -Clark did not win the office until November- placed them in households around Milledgeville, the state capital, to provide for their maintenance until the waiting period ran out. They appear to have all passed into private ownership by August, grossing $34,736.18. Expenses reduced that to $27,571.82. Somewhere along the way, twenty-two of the slaves slipped through the cracks. Most probably they ended up just like the rest, but enslaved in Alabama.

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Odd Accidents: Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part One

David B. Mitchell

Gentle Readers, without meaning to I have gotten away from doing posts on events prior to the 1850s. Kansas remains my focus, but I want to write about earlier subjects more often than I have. This post goes to remedying that, though I can’t promise I will make it a regular feature. When I do these posts, I intend to put them in the new Deep Dives category. Enough about programming, let’s get into some history.

The United States outlawed the importation of Africans to the country, effective January 1, 1808. Many at the time took this as a banner antislavery achievement, pointing especially to the remarkable fact that the House of Representatives managed only five votes against the law. If one wants to find an antislavery consensus in the Early Republic, that makes for an appealing data point. In the broader context, the United States covered itself in rather less glory. The ban permitted the sale of people brought illegally into the nation. Judges and juries didn’t work that hard to convict slave smugglers. Except for the president, no one had a clear chain of command to the federal marshals, attorneys, and customs officials who might enforce the prohibition. Even had all that existed, the vast spaces involved and the presence of Spanish on just the frontier where one would most want to smuggle human cargo into the nation presented a serious logistical challenge to widely-scattered officials. Some pleaded for revenue cutters and naval vessels to patrol coastal waters. Others protested flagrant violation of the law, particularly in Louisiana after its purchase.

We have had to revise early estimates of the number of slaves smuggled into the nation downward substantially, but it would not do to overcorrect and assume that little to no smuggling took place after 1808. In the 1810s, probably a few thousand enslaved people did enter the United States in defiance of the law. Some of those came in the conventional way we imagine: a ship goes to Africa and comes back with a human cargo sold in port, but slavers had more subtle methods. Large operations existed on either side of the nation. Jean Lafitte and other pirates took the slaves they stole from Spanish slavers to Galveston Island and sold them to middlemen, including Jim Bowie, who took them overland through Spanish Texas to Louisiana for a tidy profit. Amelia Island, at the mouth of St. Mary’s river on the border between Georgia and Florida, housed a similar operation with far less overland travel involved. Both came to the attention of the United States, which eventually sent the Navy to suppress them, but before that many Americans happily wet their beaks in the trade.

David Brydie Mitchell resigned from his third term as governor of Georgia in March of 1817 to accept an appointment to the Creek Agency in western Georgia. Mitchell cited high principle as the main reason: he would earn the same salary in either post, but Indian agents served at the pleasure of the president during good behavior and so he could expect to collect that salary for rather longer than a governor’s two year term. He wanted tenure and got it, until his behavior came to official notice in a scandal that ended with his dismissal by James Monroe.

Documentation of the scandal comes mainly from a report (pages 957-75) of Attorney General William Wirt, which does not make for the most enchanting reading. Wirt himself complains of having to sort through about seventy documents full of claims and counterclaims, many of them inadmissable in a court of law and some not given under any kind of oath. They concerned men he did not know, some of whom others vouched for. As best he could determine, something like the following happened.

Mitchell took up residence at the Creek Agency, with his son and another man going ahead to plant corn for him. Shortly after Mitchell arrived, men began coming up to him and saying things, thinking aloud style, about how it would be nice to make money by importing slaves from Florida. Amelia Island was the main prospect, but really anywhere would do, so long as he could manage safely and legally. Mitchell thought that a capital idea and said that he’d considered the trade himself. It would be easy enough to bring the slaves in through Creek country to the agency. Mitchell and the other man, John Loving, then got to discussing details of the best route. Loving took notes.

Another man, Thomas Woodward, reported that another man, Joseph Howard, tried to hire him to go off and do the same thing. Woodward protested that it would break the law and anyway, he could not afford the upfront cost of buying the slaves on Amelia Island. Howard told him that Mitchell would front the cash in exchange for a share of the profits. Some Georgia financiers also got involved; one of their agents later talked.

In the main, the Mitchell affair begins with a Captain William Bowen. Bowen had worked for the man who held the Creek agency before Mitchell. Wirt says he doesn’t know much about any prior relationship Bown and Mitchell had, but Bowen claimed he got ten thousand dollars from Mitchell to use in buying things for the Creeks, probably in the spring or early summer of 1817. Apparently Mitchell apparently trusted him.

Bowen left the west for a visit to South Carolina and then called at the homes of some of those Georgia financiers. Somewhere along the way, he caught word that you could make a tidy buck trading on Amelia Island for coffee and sugar. Honestly, he only wanted coffee and sugar. Life handed him lemons when he learned that just then Amelia Island considered sugar and coffee too dear for the funding his backers had staked him. Bowen wanted to give up just then, but

By accident [Wirt’s emphasis], however, he is left by the vessel in which he had intended to embark; and, while he remains waiting for another conveyance, by another casualty (the arrival of a cargo of negroes in one of Commodore Aury’s privateers) he is induced to change the subject of his speculation

He bought the slaves, about a hundred of them. Some accident! Bowen arranged lodgings for about forty of them and took the sixty “most prime and able”with him across Florida. Bowen decided, or “decided” to settle with his new slaves in West Florida. He cites concern for the security of his property in making that decision. In other words, he realized that if he took them into the country straightaway he might get caught. Taking slaves between Spanish jurisdictions probably still broke a law, but not the famous slave import ban. All went well until Bowen suffered another coincidence. He got news at the Flint River, sixty miles downstream from the Creek Agency, of the Seminole War. Also, curiously, he had the forethought to arrange provisioning for the slaves he left behind but lacked it for the sixty or so slaves he had with him. So he just had to go to Mitchell’s agency “by chance, over the exact route with Loving states General Mitchell to have indicated to him.”

Wirt didn’t buy it and had witnesses who said otherwise. Moving that many slaves took more than one white man, so Bowen hired help and his help informed on him. The contraband slaves ended up on the south end of Mitchell’s field, “where they built houses for the negroes, and put them to work; a step certainly not deficient in boldness.”

Mitchell claimed absence when Bowen arrived, but returned in time to see him, the quarters, and the slaves. They talked things over and Bowen came away not at all alarmed by the agent’s return. He had frayed nerves right up until he didn’t. After the talk, Bowen went again to Amelia Island and came back with the remainder of his human merchandise. Those he took directly to Mitchell. The forty-two enslaved people left on Amelia got to come to the Creek agency with Bowen and his helpers, now including an Indian named Tobler. Along the way, Bowen resold four to a Captain Drummond. Accidents happen, you know? From Drummond, he wrote to Mitchell. Wirt includes the full letter:

I have got the balance of the stock that I had left on Amelia, (say forty-two,) and am just starging them under the care of Tobler. I believe I am narrowly watched, but think I have evaded discovery as yet. The risk of getting this lot through, I believe to be more -considerably more- than the first. A party was made up for the purpose of following me and Long, three days after we left St. Mary’s river. Mr. Clark, the collector, was at his mills, and some persons lodged information that they were gone up the river, and had crossed; he offered half to the inhabitants in that neighborhood to detect us.

More pressing still, the United States had seized Amelia Island on the twenty-third of December. Bowen wrote from Drummond’s Landing on Christmas day. In leaving the island on the twenty-first, he just barely missed them. All that said, Bowen remained a silver lining kind of guy:

The channel through which Africans could be had being obstructed, they will rise considerably.