Before the Civil War, many well-heeled Southerners traveled to Minnesota to escape the summer heat. In July 1860, Richard and Mary Christmas, a wealthy Mississippi couple, checked into St. Anthony’s tony Winslow House with their 5-year-old daughter Norma in tow. Eliza Winston, one of more than 150 slaves they owned, accompanied the family to care for mother and daughter.
As Curt Brown explained in the Star Tribune this week, Winston soon "befriended a free black barber and his wife, Ralph and Emily Grey, and together they plotted her attempt to gain freedom with leading local abolitionists." Their effort stirred strong feelings on both sides of the slavery question in the new state, whose Constitution banning slavery stood in conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, upholding slave ownership rights even in states that prohibited slavery.
Winston’s case landed in a Minneapolis courtroom on Aug. 21. Citing the state Constitution, Judge Charles Vanderburgh ruled that she was a free woman. That evening, pro-slavery mobs gathered outside the homes of Winston's supporters to demand that she be returned to her owners. But Winston apparently was already on her way to Ontario, with the help of the Greys and other abolitionists. Some accounts say Winston lingered in Minnesota for a time. Others say she ended up in Detroit. Still others say she eventually returned, voluntarily, to her owners' plantation in Mississippi.
Minnesota newspapers covered the case in great detail. This account appeared on the front page of the St. Cloud Democrat, a weekly newspaper published by Jane Swisshelm, a noted abolitionist and women's rights advocate, on Sept. 6, 1860.
The Minneapolis "Slave" Case.
The Democrats have been as unfortunate in their attempt to make capital out of the case of Eliza Winston as they were in that of Henry Sparks
. After all their charges that Eliza was persuaded to leave her master by "Abolitionists;" after the dirt-eaters
of St. Anthony and Minneapolis, headed by McLean of the Winslow House, had offered indignities and threatened violence to the person of Mr. Babbitt and others, it turned out that Eliza, when she left Mississippi, was fully determined to assert her freedom as soon as she reached the free soil of Minnesota. If there is any shame left in these miserable toadies, we should think they would not now dare to look an honest freeman in the face.
We have before us an extra from the office of the Minneapolis Atlas, giving the full facts of the whole case. From this it appears that no citizen of Minnesota, from first to last, had any agency whatever in prompting the woman to assert her rights. It was her own idea possessed before she left Mississippi, to assert and secure her rights in Minnesota, unless her master would give her free papers, which he refused to do. Having thus determined, she applied for aid, when it became apparent to her that she would be compelled to resort to our courts to secure and maintain her liberty. After having satisfied themselves that the woman was anxious and determined to get her liberty if possible, Messrs. Babbitt and Bigelow, applied to Judge Vanderburgh for a writ commanding the Sheriff to bring her before him, in order that the facts in the case might be inquired into. The writ was served, the woman brought into Court, and there informed that she was free to go where and with whom she chose.
The following affidavit of Eliza gives the full particulars as to the manner in which she became free. We bespeak a careful reading of it by men of all parties:
STATE OF MINNESOTA,
ELIZA WINSTON being duly sworn, deposes and says:
My name is Eliza Winston, am 30 years old. I was held as the slave of Mr. Gholson of Memphis, Tennessee, having been raised by Mr. Macklemo, father-in-law of Mr. Gholson. I married a free man of color who hired my time of my master, who promised me my freedom upon the payment of $1,000. My husband and myself worked hard and he invested our savings in a house and lot in Memphis, which was held for us in Mr. Gholson's name. This house was rented for 88 per month. My husband by request, went out with a company of emancipated slaves to Liberia, and was to stay two years. He went out with them because he was used to travelling, and it was necessary to have some one to assist and take care of them. When he returned, my master was to take our house and give me my free papers, my husband paying the balance due, in money. My husband died in Liberia, and my master Mr. Gholson got badly broken up in money matters, and having pawned me to Col. Christmas for $800, died before he could redeem me. I was never sold. I have always been faithful and no master that I ever had has found fault witn me. Mr. Macklemo, my first master, always treated me kindly and has tried to buy me of Col. Christmas, a good many times. When Mr. Gholson married Mr. Macklemo's daughter, I went with my young mistress.
I became the slave of Mr. Christmas 7 years ago last March. They have often told me I should have my freedom and they at last promised me that I should have my free papers when their child was seven years old. This time came soon after we left home to come to Minnesota. I had not much confidence that they would keep their promise for my mistress has always been feeble and she would not be willing to let me go. But I had heard that I should be free by coming to the North, and I had with my colored friends made all the preparations which we thought necessary. I had got a little money and spent it in clothes, my colored friends gave me some good clothing, and I came away with a good supply of clothing in my trunk; sufficient to last me two years and of a kind suitable to what we supposed this climate would be. The trunk containing this clothing was left at the Winslow House when we went to Mrs. Thornton's, I taking only one calico dress, besides an old washing dress.
After I got to St. Anthony, I got acquainted with a colored person and asked her if there were any persons who would help me in getting my freedom. I told her my whole story and she promised to speak with some persons about it. She did so, and a white lady living near met me at the residence of my colored friend. I also told her my story, and she told me there were those who would receive me and protect me.
I thought I had a right to my clothes because they did not come from my master or mistress, and I purposed to carry away at different times when I should not be suspected, some portion of them. I fixed upon the coming Sunday when I would leave my master, but before the time came Col. Christmas and his family went out to Mrs. Thornton's, and, as I understood, were not coming back to the Winslow House to stay any more, I thought some one of the servants had made my master suspicious, and that he went away on that account.
On the day I was taken by the officer, some men came out to Mrs. Thornton's, and I heard them tell them that persons were coming out to carry me off.
So whenever any one was seen coming, my mistress would send me into the woods at the back of the house. I minded her, but I did not go very far, hoping that they would find me. I was sent into the woods several times during the day, as was the case, at the time when the party came who took me away. I had on my washing dress and I went in to change it before going with the officer. My mistress asked me why I went off in this way; she said she would give me free papers; I asked her why she did not in St. Louis. She said over again and again that I must not go in this way, but that they would give me my free papers. I told her I had rather go now. When my master came into the court room he came up to me and gave me ten dollars. When I was told I was free my master asked me if I would go with him, and told me not to do wrong. I told him that I was not going to do wrong, but that I did not wish to go with him. I have been Col. Christmas' slave for more than seven years, and I have always been faithful to him and done my best to please him and my mistress. The latter has always been feeble, and I have waited upon her and taken care of her and the child. During all this time owing to the poor health of my mistress, I have been closely confined, have had scarcely any time to myself or to see the other slaves, as most house servants can have, but I have never fretted or complained, because I thought if I did my very best they would, perhaps, give me my freedom.
Since my husband died I might have married very happily with a free colored person, but Col. Christmas would not let me marry any one but one of his plantation hands, and I would not marry any but a free person. I thought if I could not better myself by marrying I would not marry at all, and I knew it would be worse for me if I married a slave. I wanted my master to give me free papers so that I could go back to Memphis where I could get employment as a nurse girl, and could earn from ten to fifteen dollars a month, and could marry there as I desire to do, but I despaired of getting my freedom in this way, and although I am sorry I must sacrifice so much, still I feel that if I cannot have my freedom without, I am ready to make the sacrifice.
I will say, also, that I have never received one cent from my property at Memphis since my husband died.
It was my own free choice and purpose to obtain my freedom, and I applied to my colored friend in St. Anthony, without solicitation on the part of any other person. I have nursed and taken care of the child of my mistress from her birth till the present, and I am so attached to the child that I would be willing to serve Col. Christmas if I could be assured of my freedom eventually, but with all my attachment to the child, I prefer freedom in Minnesota, to life-long slavery in Mississippi.
ELIZA H WHISTON.
Subscribed and sworn to before me, this 24th day of Aug, A. D., 1860.
J. F. BRADLEY, Justice of the Peace
The five-story Winslow House, St. Anthony, stood on the east bank of the Mississippi River.