Thursday, August 11, 2011

Margaret Lee's Petition for Freedom, 1795 - A Friend of Friends Friday

On my summer travels I was able to spend two days reviewing late 18th and early 19th century court records in Washington County, TN. Much of the material was dry and of little use, but there were enough fascinating papers to keep me motivated.

One case struck me immediately - to the point where I photographed both documents in the file and started some quick research on the spot. It has haunted me since. One of the few blessings of my decision to publish all possible slave records from my family is that this is NOT a case related to my family. I'm sure as I work through the records I will find other especially tragic and troubling records. But none could be more explicit or horrifying than the case of Margaret Lee who in 1795 begged the Superior Court of Law in Washington County for her freedom.

The court records are owned by the Archives of Appalachia and I do not have permission to publish the photographs or a full transcription of the documents. Fortunately Loren Schweninger's The Southern Debate Over Slavery: Petitions to Southern county courts, 1775-1867 (University of Illinois Press, 2008) includes Margaret Lee's petition on pages 59-60 and is available on Google Books. It is embedded below.

Briefly, Margaret Lee's petition states that she was born in Boston, Massachusetts to Thomas and Descinda Lee (her mother's name could also be read as Lucinda) who "altho' of a Black hue, had the Happiness to be born free people" and that in about 1774 she was kidnapped from the town docks by Samuel Latin, chained, and thrown into the hold of a ship he commanded. She was taken to Maryland where Latin enslaved her. When she attempted to make the case that she was freeborn, Latin sold her to George Johnson who in turn sold her to Francis Hawkins who in turn sold her Dutch Boyles of Frederick County, Maryland who in turn sold her to Samuel Gammons of Sullivan County, Tennessee. During her 20 years of slavery Margaret Lee bore at least two children, Abraham and Maria, who are named in her petition and in the order to Samuel Gammons to appear before the Court.

It's not difficult to deduce that Margaret Lee was anything but compliant. Nor that the consequences to her demands for freedom had been repeated sales to new slaveowners. Her 1795 petition was dated September 18th. The order to Samuel Gammons to appear before the Superior Court of Law in Jonesborough on the third Tuesday of March, 1796 was dated the third Tuesday of September, 1795. There are no further records, which to me is the most horrible element of the case. Samuel Gammons does not appear in any Tennessee records that I could find. A free Margaret, Abraham or Maria Lee do not appear in any Tennessee census or United States census that I could find.

I've tried to find records that support Margaret Lee's story. A Thomas Lee appears as the head of family in the 1790 U.S. census living in Salem, Massachusetts. He and the other two members of his family are listed as "all other free persons" rather than white. He does not appear in 1800. The New England Historical and Genealogical Society's American Ancestors site contains records that could belong to Thomas Lee, but I no longer belong and could not access them. I could find no record of a Samuel Latin, though a Samuel Litton appears as in Harford County, Maryland records. A Francis Hawkins appears on the same 1783 tax list. A George Johnson and a Francis Hawkins appear in Queen Anne County, Maryland records, but these are such common names. A Francis Hawkins is also found in Charles County Records. I found no record of a Dutch Boyles in Frederick County, but suspect he was from one of the German speaking families settling the area at the time. Even as I speculate this, I found no record of him in my book of Frederick County Lutheran marriages. A number of people enumerated as Beall in the 1790 census are slave owners, as is a Daniel Boyle.

It would be easy to obsess over the tragedy of Margaret Lee. I've already spent days thinking about her, admiring her courage and hoping against all reasonable hope that she found freedom. I can only pray she found peace.

Source: Washington District, Territory South of the Ohio, Superior Court of Law and Equity, 1785-1811, 3:117, Lee Margaret in behalf of herself and her two children, Maria and Abraham (freedom),1795; Archives of Appalachia, Johnson City, TN.

The Southern Debate Over Slavery: Petitions to Southern county courts, 1775-1867 (University of Illinois Press, 2008)


  1. Very interesting post, hope you find some answers some day.

  2. I am so glad you found this. There's no telling when one of her descendants will use Google in one last exasperated search, and find your entry.


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