A group of manuscripts associated with New York legal cases in 1808 and 1818, respectively, which include testimony from free black men that were called as witnesses. The documents, totaling 28 pages, are mainly contemporary copies of court depositions for the cases, one of which involved horse theft and the other violation of a U.S. trade embargo.
This material provides historical evidence of the lives of a few free black men whose history leading up to the U.S. Civil War is sparsely recorded. According to the first U.S. Census (1790), free African Americans made up less than 1 percent of the population. New York, where these two cases are based, freed all slaves who served in the Revolutionary War in 1785 and in 1799, passed a law for gradual abolition.
One segment of the documents includes 11 depositions from witnesses in a U.S. Supreme Court case heard in New York concerning the actions of the Brig James Wells, a ship seized by the U.S. government for violating the 3d section of the Embargo Act of January 9, 1808, in making a voyage to St. Bartholomews instead of St. Mary's in the state of Georgia. Stephen Griffith, the claimant, blamed poor weather and the leaky condition of the ship for the itinerary change. The ship, which carried 1,272 barrels of flour, sailed from New York on February 26, 1808, bound for St. Mary's “with a bona fide intention of going there and without any intent of going to any foreign place.” But he was compelled against his will to enter the port of Gustavia, on the Island of St. Bartholomews, in the West Indies, where he was “obliged by the leaky and shattered condition of the vessel to unlade the cargo, which was greatly damaged, and he could not afterwards obtain permission to carry it away again but was compelled to sell it there.” The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, finding that despite the evidence presented, there was no evidence that attempts were made to make port in the U.S. This case is often cited in legal research about administrative law and the burden of establishing a clear and present danger.
Among those called to testify about the voyage was Abraham Cummings, a black man from New York, who signed on in January 1808 as the ship cook. He was onboard the ship for three months, and recalled that seven days into the voyage, they faced squalls and began leaking so badly that all hands were called to assist. “One man was so badly frozen as to be unable to do duty and two were slightly frost bitten. The men complained of the pumping among themselves, and one man refused to do duty.”
John Rose, identified as “a free man of color”, shipped as a mariner on the Brig James Wells. According to his testimony, the vessel leaked from the outset and was beset by cold weather and squalls: “The weather continued very cold and there was much ice and snow on deck so that the deponent’s feet were frost bitten and he was unable to wear shoes and in a great measure disabled to do duty the remainder of the outward passage.”
The materials also include affidavits of two different notaries who said it was not common to mix white and black sailors on a vessel. William Williams, a notary who makes up the papers for the master of vessels, testified: “It is not uncommon for masters of vessels to prefer having their crews all composed of black men, and that they generally prefer having them all black or all white as otherwise they are more likely to disagree on the voyage and that they sometimes take part of each but not by choice.”
Several witnesses were called to testify about the practice of boring holes in the bottom of vessels for the purpose of letting in water to cleanse. The holes are then plugged and the water is pumped out. This is repeated from time to time in order to keep the hold of the vessel sweet and clean. Joseph Bayley, New York physician and health officer of the port of New York, testified: “This measure has been more commonly directed at the quarantine grounds with respect to the West India vessels than others as the cargo they carry are often the worst kind to make vessels filthy.”
The documents for the second case in this group include a 14-page appeal to the New York State Supreme Court concerning a decision about a stolen horse, estimated to be worth $250. The case was filed by Nathaniel Skinner against Adrian Martense and was heard by the Kings County Circuit Court on May 20, 1818. Notably, two black men, Titus Rosevelt and Francis Young, were called as witnesses for the plaintiff: “Titus Rosevelt, a black man being sworn as a witness for the plaintiff, testified that he was brought up and lived with the plaintiff until the latter part of last summer - that the plaintiff raised a very tall (word) or bay horse, which was unruly – that in or about August 1816 the plaintiff put him with Palmer Bucklee, a livery stable keeper at Brooklyn to break to the harness…”
At issue in the appeal that was sent to Supreme Court Justice William Van Ness (1776–1823) were the instructions provided by the lower court judge to the jury. The plaintiff, who lost his case, alleged the court improperly instructed the jury not to consider his witnesses because they testified to “matters of opinion” while the defendant’s witnesses “testified to facts within their own knowledge…that the defendant must have a verdict unless the jury believed his witnesses were perjured.” This document is handwritten on 8 ½” x 14” paper bound with a vellum paper scrap.
Some general toning to all the material, with creasing from prior folds. The manuscripts are legible and otherwise in very good condition. Item #73840