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Smuggling Slaves into Georgia via the Flint River

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Smuggling Slaves into Georgia via the Flint River

Post by Samnell » Sat Mar 18, 2017 2:29 am

The United States Constitution absolutely forbade any law to prohibit the importation of slaves to the nation from abroad until January 1, 1808. In a deceptive (because the law was watered down incredibly before passage) show of near unanimity never matched on a slavery vote, and at Thomas Jefferson's urging, the Congress passed a law on March of 1807 to go into effect that very day and prevent the further introduction of slaves from abroad. The law looked in particular to slaves taken straight from Africa, but applied to any slave importation whatsoever.

That was easy to legislate, but much harder to enforce. For a good portion of the time, the United States lacked both the interest and ability. A unified strategy to find and prosecute violators was never articulated and the people on the ground who would have to police the situation were just the people least inclined to do so, usually. Maybe you could get a conviction in Massachusetts or Connecticut (but probably not Rhode Island), but you'll have to look for a good while to find a jury willing to do the job in South Carolina. The story often stops there, but there's a whole half century of legal and diplomatic wrangling about keeping slave imports from the US, letting some in, tweaking the laws, and arranging different ways to enforce them. For a good portion of this time, Old Glory is a flag of convenience to preserve slavers who would otherwise be liable for search and seizure by the Royal Navy which actually did take the job seriously. For the most part, smugglers are never caught. When they are caught, they usually get away with minimal to no punishment. This is the story of one of the latter.

I learned of David Brydie Mitchell's case from Don Fehrenbacher's *The Slaveholding Republic*, but he only gives it a casual mention and a footnote:
The most notable scandal ivolved David B. Mitchell, a former governor of Georgia serving as a federal Indian agent, who was accused of complicity in the illegal importation of about a hundred Africans from Amelia Island in 1817. Attorney General William Wirt, after investigating the charges, concluded that Mitchell had "prostituted his power...from mercenary motives. President James Monroe removed him from office. [Fehrenbacher, 152]
The Sources

Fehrenbacher leaves it there, citing DuBois' book on suppressing the tradeand Wirt's original report. I chased down both references. DuBois basically says the same thing as Fehrenbacher does and has the same citation back to Wirt's report to Monroe, which is in American State Papers, Class X: Miscellaneous, Volume II (pages 957-975) because the Senate asked for a copy. The Internet Archive's PDF respects the original page numbers, praise Clio.

The report is a bit of a mess, which Wirt himself sort of admits. He complains of having to sort through upwards of seventy documents. Some were sworn testimony, some not, some hearsay, many contradicting others. I found a single journal article on the affair, which sheds a little additional light. Shingleton looked at the same documents that Wirt did, so far as I can tell, but the meat of his paper is in wrestling it into a more readable narrative that he then uses to argue "see, sometimes slave smugglers got caught." He's useful in that he makes clear military involvement that is more ambiguous with Wirt.

The Story

David Brydie Mitchell was the Scottish-born governor of Georgia, serving his third term when James Monroe appointed him Indian agent to the Creek Nation. Mitchell looked at his governor's salary, $2,000, the Indian agent's salary, $2,000, and chose between them on the highest principle: Indian agents served at the pleasure of the president during good behavior but governors had to face re-election. He went with the tenure track job. (The last guy in this post held it from Washington's administration onward.) I have some conflicting sources on when Mitchell's tenure begins. He ceased being Governor on March 4, 1817, but his appointment dates to November 4. From context, it looks like he was serving as agent-designate or acting agent during the summer.

The Creek Agency is on the Flint River, a bit to the south of where the Walking Dead shoots. There's a historical marker. In 1817, this is off the beaten path. Before Mitchell went himself, he sent his son William and another guy, a Captain John St. Thomas, ahead to plant him some corn. (Thomas is "a relation by affinity," which I think means lived with Mitchell and was possibly related by marriage too.) These three are unhelpfully referred to by their titles in the Wirt report, as often as not. Mitchell pere is General Mitchell, Mitchell fils Captain Mitchell, and then Thomas is another captain. Thomas seems to have a commission in the US Army, but the others are Georgia militia.

Mitchell has some dealings with William Bowen, who is an agent of the Savannah and Augusta mercantile firm of Erwin, Groce, & Co. During the summer of 1817, he pays Bowen $10,000 to supply the Creeks with unspecified goods. Bowen delivered those goods to the Creeks at Fort Hawkins around July. That same summer, witnesses report conversations with Mitchell about importing slaves.
MAJOR JOHN LOVING states a conversation which he had with General Mitchell, to this effect: Loving informed the agent that he (Loving) was desirous of making a purchase of Africans at Amelia Island, or elsewhere, within the Floridas, provided the same could be done safely and legally. Upon these points the agent's opinion was requested; and he was further asked whether he would allow Africans to be introduced through the Indian country. The reply of the agent was, that he had been thinking of such a purchase himself, and that Loving might bring any Africans whom he might purchase through the Indian country, with safety, *to the agency, where he* (the agent) *would protect them.* Loving having stated that he expected to make his residence at Fort Hawkins, the agent suggested that the negroes might be removed, if Loving wished it, to the reserve, where he (Mitchell) thought they might be disposed of to advantage.
Fort Hawkins is a nearby military post, incidentally.

After that they got into the nuts and bolts of planning a route, which Loving took notes on. Loving later lost the notes -thanks, jerk- but remembered that it would take him from Amelia Island -Spanish territory in St. Mary's river, right on the Georgia border-, through Creek territory, and up to the Agency. This conversation took place in July of 1817, the same time that Bowen was transacting business.

We also have the word of a Thomas S. Woodward that soon after Mitchell's appointment (which could be November or could mean in the summer, I can't tell which) that a Colonel John Howard who asked him if he could go to Amelia and buy some slaves to import. Woodward refused because 1) It's illegal under US and Georgia law and 2) he doesn't have that kind of money.
Colonel Howard replied, that if the witness would go to that country, for that purpose, General D.B. Mitchell would furnish him with money, and draw a certain part of the profits, and that the negroes, if purchased, could be brought up through the Creek nation, by way of the agency, undiscovered, and then be disposed of to the best advantage
And in August, a Christian Breithaupt had a visit from one Jared E. Groce, the Groce of Erwin, Groce, & Co. Groce gave him an attaboy on a land purchase he'd transacted and told him that he knew a better way to make bank with a much quicker turnaround. Groce himself was tapped out, but together they could make a tidy sum. Breithaupt asked how and Groce hemmed and hawed a bit before getting down to it:
"Do you know what is carrying on in Amelia Island?"
Breithaupt got it and objected that the scheme would break the law and put them in personal danger. Groce said he a plan, but broke off when someone else came up to them and might overhear.

Let's roll back to July for a moment. That's the month that Loving gets the news he can smuggle slaves into the country with Mitchell turning a blind eye. It's also the month Bowen sells off his $10,000 of goods to the Creeks. Once he finished that off, he went to visit South Carolina, where he had friends, and passed through Augusta on the way. Augusta is home to Andrew Erwin, an Erwin of Erwin, Groce, & Co. Then he's at Savannah where he meets James Erwin, another Erwin of the aforementioned. He learns you can make a lot of money trading at Amelia Island and gets $25,000 from James to buy sugar and coffee.

Bowen went down to Florida and damned if sugar and coffee were just too gosh-darned high. He's all set to go home, but he misses his ship "accidentally". Damn the luck. While he's waiting for another boat, a ship full of slaves arrives at Amelia, 110 in the hold of a pirate named Aury. Bowen has that sugar and coffee money just burning a hole in his pocket, so he's "induced to change the subject of his speculation" and buys the people. The purchase takes place on October 18.

Bowen doesn't want to move all those people then and there, so he picks out the sixty or so best of the lot, boards the rest, and sets out by an Indian trail from St. Augustine to the Flint River. Bowen says he intended to go to West Florida, but got worried about the security of his human property. He strikes off into the wild and gets to about sixty miles south of the Agency before hitting the Flint. There he gets news of the Seminole War and is scared all over again. Also he ran low on food. So he just has to go to the Creek Agency, where he arrives in the first week of December

> having travelled, by chance, over the exact route which Loving states General Mitchell to have indicated to him

You can believe Bowen's lying or you can believe the men he hired to help him move the slaves. They understood themselves as engaged to move Bowen's slaves to the Creek Agency, which they did. On arrival at the agency, where per Bowen's story no one should have expected them, they built housing for the slaves on Mitchell's land and set them to work.

Mitchell wasn't in residence at the time, but came through on December 8. He spent the night and chatted with Bowen about the slaves. Bowen's raw nerves seem not to have been unsettled by that talk; he went back to Amelia in the company of a few other guys including a Creek named Tobler, to get the rest. Before leaving, he gave five of the people to James Long for his part in helping with their transport.

On the second trip, Bowen takes forty-two people upriver on the St. Mary's and calls at Drummond's Landing, on the Florida side. He sells four slaves to Captain Drummmond there, then sent the rest along with Tobler and a white associate, John Oliphant. Tobler went to the Creek Agency with a letter for Mitchell (full text on pages 961-2)
I have got the balance of the stock that I had left on Amelia, (say forty-two,) and am just starting 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.
Bowen had reason to fret now. He left Amelia the second time on December 21. Two days later, the Army and Navy moved in and took the island. A close call like that might get a nervous man out of the business, but Bowen must have been too nervous to change plans now. He heard that some of the slaves being held on the island got moved to the mainland in time and would still be for sale. Still more good news:
The channel through which Africans could be had being obstructed, they will rise considerably.
He wanted to go again, but just that moment Bowen was tapped out. It was also a shame that Captain Thomas hadn't come, because he would have made out really well.

Tobler went to the Creek Agency with more than Bowen's letter for Mitchell. He also had a fake bill of sale that declared the slaves his, bought legally in Georgia on December 4. Bowen claimed that he just had business he needed to attend to elsewhere in Georgia, but it looks like he set Tobler up as a fall guy if anything went down. Were the slaves actually his (Tobler's) property, then Bowen acted awfully weird when two white men passed the group and then met him at Drummond's. They told Bowen that the slaves would probably run into General Glascock's army. Bowen asked them to go back, catch up, and redirect the shipment to safety at the agency in exchange for their pick of a slave each for the trouble.

But that's illegal! General Mitchell would catch them! Bowen assured both men that he and Mitchell saw eye to eye. Everything would be fine. Wirt doesn't say if they took the deal or not. My count of the slaves has a few missing from the final disbursement and those could include the slaves the two witnesses selected. Either way, the second group arrived in January.

In between the two arrivals, Mitchell came through the Agency again. He had been in Creek country for a meeting and returned in the company of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, US Army. Gaines had responsibility for surveying tribal boundaries. Both men saw the first party of slaves. Gaines thought all these slaves of unclear ownership damned suspicious and asked Mitchell about them. Mitchell said something to the effect that they had best soon be moved out or he would have to take official notice and report them.

Long took the warning, however dubiously sincere, and moved his five slaves off Mississippi. Bowen did not. However seriously (not at all) Mitchell meant what he told Gaines, the general didn't buy it. He dispatched a Captain G.W. Melvin to keep a look out and be sure the slaves didn't get moved unless it was by someone in proper authority. By then the second group has joined the first at the Agency. Melvin gets there all of a day before Jared Groce arrives and takes 40-50 people off toward Alabama. Melvin asked Mitchell about that and Mitchell said that Groce had a bond to take the slaves out of the country.

Some time after Gaines became suspicious, but probably before the second shipment arrives at the Agency, a Gideon Morgan of Tennessee passes through the Agency. He calls on behalf of Andrew Erwin, asking if any of those slaves he's heard about are something he's got a financial stake in thanks to his son. If he did -Andrew seems to be legitimately out of the loop- then he wanted those slaves removed to somewhere safe or sold ASAP. To prove his authority he has a letter to Mitchell declaring he came concerned with Fort Hawkins and the Alabama territory business. If he needed anything from Mitchell, Mitchell should provide it at once and bill the firm
We will accept his drafts at any sight for any sum he may think proper to draw on us for.
That's a blank check. Out of the loop or not, Andrew Erwin must have suspected something and wanted it done with quickly. That he's willing to write such a thing for Mitchell suggests that he's got pretty strong suspicions and maybe wants to keep having them, but without getting any kind of legally accountable knowledge. Morgan encountered Gaines on the way to the agency and asked him for a passport through Cherokee territory. (A route which would probably not get him to Alabama, where the letter from Erwin would put him.) Just to get him home to Tennessee, you know? Gaines was suspicious and sent him to Mitchell rather than write the pass himself.

By this point, Mitchell is writing his superiors with the story that he didn't know anything about any of this and he's just holding the slaves to be sure they're not sold or until they can be exported, the latter of which he has to do under Georgia law. Georgia law reserves that authority to the governor alone, which Mitchell knows full well he's not, but maybe it holds up if you don't look too close. After that Mitchell is still willing to give the slaves to Morgan, but it doesn't appear that they then changed hands. Afterwards we have the group who leave in Groce's possession.

While the slaves are at the agency, the interested parties claim their shares. Mitchell's human property are marked with yellow cloth in the hair for the first shipment and red string around the wrist for the second. Damned odd for a guy who is just holding them in temporary custody. You could pass off his expenses in feeding and housing them under that rubric, but there's no reason he should mark some of them and not others unless they're to be split up. He also took some pains to keep them all separate from the slaves he held legally. Mitchell's official story does have him get suspicious. He says he accused Bowen of importing, but Bowen produced that fake bill of sale and Mitchell declared himself satisfied. He might not buy it entirely, but he couldn't prove that Bowen imported the slaves instead of someone else so what's a guy to do? Anyway, it would be easy enough to slip the slaves out of the country and then bring them back in somewhere like Alabama where high demand would keep prying eyes away. From the Creek Agency, coincidentally, you got to Alabama by going through Creek territory.

Mitchell's official explanation for himself doesn't reference the markings, of course, and omits the second shipment entirely. If not for Gaines setting a watch on the Agency, it might have gone by unnoticed. Or maybe not, because subtlety doesn't seem to have entered Mitchell's vocabulary. While all of this is going on, Mitchell accosts a General McIntosh and a federal marshal named Doyle asking if they would like to buy some slaves...which he otherwise asserts are someone else's property. They're game if Mitchell will execute the deeds himself, in his own name. Mitchell refuses, but says Bowen would do that for them.

At this point, two men named McIntosh come in. They're brothers and the report isn't always clear on which is which. I'm not sure that Wirt realized they were different men. McQueen McIntosh (great name) is surveyor and inspector at Darien, GA. His brother William is the port's collector. They've caught wind of this and move in with the intent to seize the contraband slaves. They arrive and meet up with Melvin, who has just been reinforced by some soldiers who had come with orders for all of them to help the McIntoshes.

This is February 3. Mitchell pere is absent from the agency, but Mitchell fils is present. The McIntosh party missed Groce and his forty slaves leaving by four days. Melvin clues them in and they take off after him. He's on the road to Alabama, twenty miles out. They come up and ask Groce who owns these slaves. Groce says he does. They say Groce is under arrest. Everyone turns around and heads back for the Agency.

McIntosh (one or both) hired a guy named Langham to escort and help them in their job. He "perfidiously hurried on to the agency" and warned Captain Mitchell that he'd best hide all those illegal slaves. Hide them he did, taking them off into the woods under the cover of dark. Melvin tipped him off again and McIntosh finds fifteen slaves hidden in huts in the woods. It's freezing that night, so they let the slaves stay indoors. McIntosh goes and tells Mitchell that they're seized. Mitchell shrugs it off as entirely proper. The next morning the slaves tell McIntosh that there's fifteen more of them in the woods who he didn't find. So he goes and gets those people too. They tried to run, but had no luck. That's thirty slaves in McIntosh's custody, plus the forty-odd Groce had. Once he's got all of those, Mitchell volunteers that he has eleven kids elsewhere that probably ought be given up as well. Then he follows along after McIntosh and tries to give him two or three more that he missed. McIntosh doesn't oblige.

I have no idea what to make of that. Maybe Mitchell was trying to do a clean break and show good faith?

This is all pretty damning by itself, but when the elder Mitchell left the agency for a while he asked William Moore, the blacksmith there, to fix his desk. It's either that or the younger Mitchell asked the blacksmith to find letters pertaining to Alexander Arbuthnot in his father's correspondence. Andrew Jackson executed Arbuthnot on the questionable grounds that he was a British agent. He would have been in Mitchell's papers because he'd done business with the Creeks. Either way, Moore found the correspondence with Bowen, including a letter about how to shut Groce up, and forwarded it to John Clark, who later became governor of Georgia.

Clark looked into it and seems to have gathered most of the statements Wirt draws on. He confronted Bowen in person with the Drummond's Landing letter. Bowen told him -I am not making this up- that he would deny the letter was his own except that his handwriting was so well known. All of the investigation plays out over a few years, but eventually Monroe decides it's sufficient and orders Mitchell's dismissal. John C. Calhoun, Secretary of War, writes his pink slip. He would spend some time in the next years attacking Gaines for interfering with him and trying to rehabilitate his reputation.

Which leaves the slaves. Wirt puts them at about a hundred, but Shingleton gives 110 as a hard figure. Of those, McQueen McIntosh delivers 88 to his brother. There's a separate note that groups of 32 and 59 eventually end up in state of Georgia hands, which brings the total accounted for to 91. The slaves Long got as part of his share, allocated before things heated up, would be another five. If the two guys who warned Bowen about the second shipment claimed their slaves, we might have 98. The remainder seem to have vanished. I suspect Mitchell and/or Bowen made a few private sales that didn't show up in the record. After some delay to comply with a mandatory period of public notice, Georgia sold the slaves for $34,736.18. The expense of housing them with people about Milledgeville in the interim and other liabilities brought that down to $27,571.82. Bowen sued to have the slaves restored to him. The court ruled against him.
I have a blog about nineteenth century America. It's theoretically educational!

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