Last summer I was able to intern with the Maryland State Archives as part of a Comegys Bight Fellowship that I received from Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center. For my internship with the Archives, I worked in the Legacy of Slavery Department, and had the specific task of researching the forty-nine slaves that escaped from Sotterley Plantation during the War of 1812. During the War of 1812, the British Royal Navy invaded the Chesapeake Bay and exercised a policy of promising freedom to any American slaves that escaped to British vessels. Situated along the Patuxent River in St. Mary’s County, Sotterley Plantation was a perfect target for British raiding, and lost more slaves during the war than any other plantation in Maryland.
Most runaway slaves were typically young, healthy, males. The Sotterley refugees, however, represented a diverse population including both genders, and ranging in age from a one year old to a sixty-five-year-old. The Sotterley refugees also included seven distinct family groups: the Coursey, Seale, Munroe, Young, Thomas, Wood, and Hammer families. Once slaves made it on board a British vessel, they had essentially two options: they could either enlist with the British military, or be transported to Nova Scotia where they could safely maintain their freedom outside of the United States.
The slaves who enlisted with the British military were organized into units known as Colonial Marines and were paid for their service. Through my research, I found that four of the Sotterley refugees enlisted with the Colonial Marines: James Bowie, Joseph Wood, Perry Young, and Crowley Young. James Bowie and Joseph Wood both survived the war, and were granted land in Trinidad where they settled with the other members of the Colonial Marines. Perry and Crowley, however, did not survive the war as the ship musters for the H.M.S. Albion list Perry as dead on August 11, 1814, and the ship musters for the H.M.S. Severn list Crowley as dead on December 24, 1814.
Twenty-six of the remaining Sotterley refugees appear in the Nova Scotia records. Most notably, the Coursey, Seale, and Munroe families all settled on land in the Northwest Arm of Halifax Harbor, which they received from Henry H. Cogswell. Despite securing their freedom from slavery, the refugees did not secure their freedom from hardship. A letter from Cogswell to the Governor of Nova Scotia indicates that by the winter of 1815 the refugees had still not received any munitions of clothing. Furthermore, a map of the area from 1817 suggests the refugee’s land was in an area of “rocky and barren” terrain, meaning it was likely poor land for agriculture. Despite the adversity, at least one Sotterley refugee, Stephen Coursey, was still living in the area as late as 1827.
As part of my Comegy’s Bight Fellowship, I had the opportunity to travel to London to perform research at the British National Archives. The opportunity was an invaluable component to my research as it allowed me to look through the ship musters for the ships that transported the refugees away from Sotterley. The information contained in the ship musters not only revealed the fate of the four Colonial Marines, but also allowed us to track the escape of the other refugees to Nova Scotia.
Editor’s Note: Chuck was one of nine Comegys Bight Fellows who returned to campus last fall to share his internship experience. This summer, with the support of a number of major cultural and historical institutions, the Starr Center is sponsoring fully paid summer internships for Washington College students with the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, National Park Service, Mount Vernon, National Constitution Center, U.S. House of Representatives, and elsewhere. New institutional partners for 2013 include the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.