The Little Slave Girl in Ossining and the Grandfather who Freed Her.   Leave a comment

The 2013) film, “Twelve Years A Slave” won an “Oscar” as “best film” of the year was based on a book by Solomon Northrup a free black man and musician from Saratoga, NY who was kidnapped and sold into slavery while on a trip to Washington DC. The book was originally published in 1855 to great success but it became forgotten over the years. However it was not the only book about slavery  written from the point of view of a former slave.

This is the story of a free black man and his fight to free his six-year old grand-daughter who was found to be in bondage in 1857 in of all places, the Village Sing Sing, NY just 30 miles north of New York City. It  begins in early 1800 when an African boy from Sierra Leone, originally named “Tallen” and then, John Bull and subsequently, Dimmock Charleton was  taken away from Africa aboard a Spanish slave ship. However, a British ship, HMS Peacock intercepted the slaver and the young African  became a cabin boy on the British ship and was given the name, “John Bull.” Technically speaking, he was not a slave but an impressed sailor. At that time, impressment of sailors for British ships was quite common but the difference between an impressed sailor and a slave was quite slim.  It so happened that on February 24, 1813–during this war an American schooner, Hornet, sank the Peacock. Survivors were brought to the United States. John Bull, for whatever reason, was taken to Savannah, Georgia by an American Naval Officer, Lt. William Henry Harrison (not the Harrison who was later President). There he was given over to Judge Thomas Charlton, who agreed to take charge of the boy until Harrison could find out from his superiors what should be done with him. Later, when Harrison wrote to Charlton, telling him to send the boy to him but Judge Charlton falsely reported that the boy had died of a fever. However the judge (from whom received his name and surname) had actually sold him. This was the first in a sequence of transactions over a number of years, by which Dimmock Charlton was sold and bought by various people. All counted from his capture in 1800, to his self-purchased emancipation in 1857, he served as a slave for forty-five years.

Somewhere along this dark path Dimmock Charlton married, had children and subsequently grandchildren and one of these was a child named Ellen who was owned by a family named Kerr. It seems that in April of 1857 Miss Louisa Kerr brought Ellen with her from Savannah to Ossining. Possibly Miss Kerr was not aware that slavery in New York was abolished 30 years before in 1827 or she knew but ignored the New York manumission law which stated that it was illegal to bring slaves into the state and that any such slave was to be immediately released from bondage.

Apparently, Dimmock Charlton who had bought his own freedom some years earlier from his master, Benjamin Garman, knew about his granddaughter Ellen’s presence in Ossining and went to the Westchester County Court, then located in Katonah, NY, with a lawyer team comprised of John Jay and Charles E. Whitehead to seek her immediate release from the custody of Louisa Kerr under a Writ of Habeus Corpus. The judge, William A. Robertson, then ordered a local Constable, Zeno Hoyt, residing in Bedford to find Ellen and bring her and Miss Kerr into court to testify. Mr. Hoyt found them living in Ossining in the home David A. Griffin a local farmer.

At trial, Miss Kerr’s testified that Ellen was “one of a large family of slaves belonging to my brother and sister; I cannot say in whom in particular the title to her is vested.” She further said that “Ellen,” said Louisa, “was valued at $400; her light complexion increased her value; slaves of that complexion usually make clever servants.” And it was reported in the New York Tribune “seemed at times greatly affected” over Ellen. She had become “attached to her” and wanted to keep her, and had already started to educate her. She didn’t want her to be returned to slavery, but at the same time, did not want the family to “lose her whole value; my brother having thrown off $50, and being in embarrassed circumstances, could not afford to throw off any more.” She hoped to raise the $350 her brother wanted for Ellen’s liberation.
In another part of her testimony, Louisa Kerr said that she knew about Ellen’s grandfather: “I long since heard of his having been on board the Peacock when taken by the Hornet, and I believe that part of his story is true.”

In doing so, she provided confirmation of the story, “Enslavement of a British Subject: Forty-Five Years in Bondage,” printed in the August 10, 1857 issue of the New York Times. In addition to the Times article, his story it was also told in an 1859 booklet entitled “Narrative of Dimmock Charlton, A British Subject” and it included the name of one of the men whom he said had once owned him named Kerr (given in the Times as Carr).

In any event, after hearing all the testimony, Judge Robertson declared Ellen to be free, instead of about turning her over to her grandfather, gave temporary custody to Constable Hoyt. Dimmock Carlton did eventually get custody, however. In the following years, he took her to Canada, and they also resided in Boston and Philadelphia. He also went to England, where he was able to find a former sailor, Thomas Trethowan, aged 61, a native of Kenwen, near Truro, in the county of Cornwall who remembered him from his service on the Peacock, and provide additional confirmation of Dimmock’s presence aboard the British ship and his subsequent capture.

Source: Narrative of Dimmock Charlton, a British Subject, Taken from the Brig “Peacock” by the U.S. Sloop “Hornet,” Enslaved while a Prisoner of War, and Retained Forty-Five Years in Bondage. Philadelphia: The Editors, 1859.

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted May 7, 2014 by ossininghistoryjournal in Uncategorized

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