A Little-Known Story of Slavery in Washington Territory

Storyteller and Speakers Bureau presenter Eva Abram shares the rarely told story of Charles Mitchell, a runaway slave in Washington Territory.

It may seem safe to assume that residents of Washington Territory sided with the North during the years building up to the American Civil War. The tale of Charles Mitchell, however, demonstrates that such a distinction was much less clear-cut.

Born a slave, Mitchell was brought to the Washington Territory in 1853 with James Tilton, his owner and a surveyor. With tensions around slavery already high, a war nearly erupted between Canada and the U.S. when Mitchell made a break for freedom.  Meanwhile, the incident ignited a firestorm of public opinion – both for and against Mitchell’s return – in Washington Territory, raising moral and legal questions across the area. In the end, Mitchell was returned to the Tiltons, at least until the end of the Civil War.

Mitchell’s story showcases how ideologies, attitudes, and laws fluctuate with the movement of people from one region to another. Where we live and where we came from affect our worldviews, and this rare, documented case offers a glimpse into Washington’s cultural history and evolution.

An alumna of Freehold Acting, Eva Abram shares the story of Charles Mitchell as part of Humanities Washington’s Speakers Bureau, sparking conversation with audiences across the state. Her presentation, Slavery in the Northwest: The Charles Mitchell Story, explains Mitchell’s role in Washington’s history, and examines both its immediate and long-term implications. As a graduate of the University of Washington, current resident of Seattle, actress and storyteller, Abram communicates the details and relevancy of these events with vitality and vigor.

Abram recently spoke with Spark about her presentation.


What: Slavery in the Northwest: The Charles Mitchell Story, with Speakers Bureau’s Eva Abram
When: May 7, 2014 at 11:30 a.m.
Where: Harbor Place At Cottesmore , 1016 29th St NW, Gig Harbor
Cost: Free


Humanities Washington: You have been performing as an actress and storyteller for the past several years. What do you find uniquely compelling about sharing histories through live performances?

Eva Abram: The situations people lived through and what inspired them to act are what compel me to bring these stories alive. I often feel as if I am a vessel through which people from the past speak. Their words, desires, sufferings and achievements are expressed and made relatable though my work. We, as human beings, need to find something to relate to in order to connect with others from the past and present. Sharing histories through live performances allows me to create a space and place in which audiences can make the necessary connections to build compassion and understanding. I believe my appearances promote thought and consideration of whatever topic being put forth.

HW: How did you first learn about Charles Mitchell, and what led you to start sharing his story?

Abram: The very first time I came across Charles Mitchell was when I was at the Tacoma Public Library while researching someone else. I made a note of the Mitchell case; that note got lost among my files. It wasn’t until the Museum of History & Industry did an exhibit on the Civil War that I met Charles again. One day I happened into the museum to see the exhibit and our esteemed public historian, Lorraine McConaghy was in the lobby. She promptly dragged me over to the poster that talked about the Mitchell story. At that time I had completely forgotten that I’d met Mitchell before. It was through Lorraine’s introduction that I decided to write a presentation about this historic event. I am ever grateful to Lorraine for the introduction and her valuable and generous assistance on the project.

HW: The tale of Charles Mitchell includes great examples of how ideologies spread geographically as people move. In what ways can we use this as a tool of inspiration for spreading activism and raising awareness?

Abram: Given our ability to travel freely our geographical boundaries are barely a consideration when it comes to spreading ideologies. With today’s computer technologies, ideologies can travel while we stay put. This relatively recent development (compared to Mitchell’s time) has proven to have a tremendous effect on the spread of ideas across the country and around the world at light speed.

As with anything, this ease of movement of ideas can be a double-edged sword. It is up to us to use these tools in ways that bring people together and counter those who strive to divide us. We can choose to use these abilities to activate positive change in every aspect of our lives.

Our various ways of electronic communications can be used to share ideologies, garner support and raise awareness for social justice issues. I believe this is vital to the growth and success of the people of the nation. Specifically, issues of poverty, racism, access to resources, inequality between races/sexual orientation, environmental racism, legal justice issues (disproportionate incarceration of minorities) and equal education all need to be addressed and are being addressed through electronic mediums….

It would be beneficial for organizations with similar objectives to establish a blanket network to demonstrate unity while spreading ideologies, optimism and inspiration.

HW: These days, Washington is well-known for being a liberal state. How do you believe the Civil War-era turmoil the territory experienced impacted its current social climate?

Abram: The fact that Washington is a liberal state today leads many to conclude that Washington has always been so. My presentation of the Mitchell case helps us understand that Washington’s past and present are more complicated. We’ve already acknowledged that pro-slavery ideas traveled with people coming from the South and East. There were very few people of African descent in the Northwest, so there was little concern about ‘The Negro Problem’ as experienced by people in the South. As the African-American population increased in counties throughout Washington, we note people and businesses applying Jim Crow practices that heretofore had not been in place here.

It is easy to assume that because Washington was considered Free Soil territory during slavery times that the inhabitants were anti-slavery. This isn’t necessarily the case. Generally, people didn’t want to deal with the issue of slavery. I think the people of that time were essentially no different from us today in terms of facing difficult issues. If we can avoid dealing with conflict, we generally do, until we have to face the problem. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Tilton was able to have Mitchell in his household and not suffer any consequences for it.

As we learn more about the role Washington residents played in the Civil War, we become aware of the varied positions Pacific Northwest people held on the issue of slavery…. Our current social liberalism may have developed from Civil War times; however, our liberalism may be tenuous. It lies generally in the Western part of the state. The voting patterns in the last four presidential elections illustrate that our state is split into liberal and conservative; the Western one-third of the state is considered ‘Blue’ (liberal) while the remaining Eastern two-thirds is ‘Red.’

I doubt whether people today think about Washington’s role in the Civil War or where past residents stood on the War when they form their opinions, but perhaps Washington state’s general reputation as liberal is one consideration as people choose where to live and take part in civic life….

HW: What do you hope current and future generations will take away from Charles Mitchell’s story and apply to their own worldview?

Abram: I hope people listen to this story and recognize the importance and value of freedom. I want people to recognize that every human being desires freedom. This story is a reminder not to take freedom for granted. If we can imagine for an instant our physical and mental freedom being taken away, we can get an inkling of the desire slaves had to be free….

I hope people realize that young people played important roles in our history…. Young people participated, willingly and unwillingly in our history, from slavery times to the Civil Rights Movement and beyond and we need to honor that fact….

I hope this story inspires future generations to get to know others who are different from them in some way…. We never know whose lives may affect ours or whose lives we may impact with our actions and decision-making. We must seek out new experiences especially if we live in a homogeneous area. One of the valuable aspects of Humanities Washington is that we bring experiences to people around the state, including those areas (that) are not a diverse culturally.

Lastly, I hope the Charles Mitchell story helps current and future generations realize the importance of history. For future generations to know and acknowledge that history impacts our current decision making is critical. It underscores the value of history and hopefully makes us more cognizant of who we are and what goes into the formation of our ideas and decisions.

James Baldwin captured this when he said, “History does not refer merely or even primarily to the past. The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it with us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways and history is literally present in all that we do.”

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