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.