For nearly all of her 30 years, Eliza Winston had followed orders like a good house slave. But this time, she obeyed only part way.
The frail Southern woman who owned her kept ordering her to sneak out the back door and hide in the woods behind the rented summer vacation cottage on Lake Harriet.
Winston was torn. Rumors swirled that anti-slavery forces from the fledgling state of Minnesota might “slave-nap” her. Minnesota’s 2-year-old state Constitution forbade slavery, but scores of southerners routinely traveled to Minnesota for summertime trips, with slaves in tow. The Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling, issued just three years earlier, said slaves remained property even if passing through so-called free states.
“I have always been faithful and no master that I ever had has found fault with me,” Eliza would soon testify to a Minnesota justice of the peace.
She had 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. Winston had even packed “a good supply of clothing in my trunk … suitable to what we supposed the climate would be.”
She figured some of her fellow servants alerted Mary Christmas, her master’s wife, about the plans to bolt. “So whenever anyone was seen coming, my mistress would send me into the woods at the back of the house,” she said. “I minded her, but I did not go very far hoping they would find me.”
The Christmases had come to Minnesota in the summer of 1860 to escape the heat of their Mississippi plantation and the yellow fever spreading through their swampy Issaquena County.
Charles Christmas, a wealthy planter, brought along Mary — described as invalid, feeble and sickly — and their 5-year-old daughter, Norma.
Winston checked in with the family as a nurse on July 12, 1860, at the Winslow House. The five-story, lavishly decorated limestone inn catered to rich, heat-dodging southerners in St. Anthony across the river from modern-day Minneapolis.
Ads touted the medicinal magic of St. Anthony Falls’ soothing springs within view of the Winslow — springs that were actually just drainage from a nearby marsh. But the marketing worked. The southerners came in droves with their slaves, providing just the kind of free-spending tourist dollars needed for the new state’s economy. The Christmases, with Winston along, later rented the Lake Harriet cottage.
The trip to Minnesota was also just what Winston needed to win her freedom. She had been passed down from her original owner in Memphis to his son-in-law, a Mr. Gohlson.
When the younger owner “got badly broken up in money matters,” Winston testified that Gohlson “pawned me to Col. Christmas for $800 and died before he could redeem me.”
That wasn’t her only bad luck. She married a free black named Jim Winston, who had struck a deal with Christmas to buy his wife’s freedom for $1,000. They planned to move into a house Jim owned, under Gohlson’s name, in Memphis. But first, Jim was asked to lead a two-year journey of emancipated slaves to the new nation of Liberia.
When he returned, Jim planned to pay off the balance of the $1,000 he owed Christmas. But Jim fell sick and died in Liberia and his widow’s freedom continued to elude her.
The Christmases would dangle promises, but she didn’t trust them.
“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,” she said. “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.”
When Eliza arrived in Minnesota, the state was scarcely populated. St. Paul was the bigger twin with 10,000 residents, with more people than St. Anthony (4,700) and Minneapolis (3,400) combined. Fewer than 100 of these residents were black, according to a 1857 census.
Those low numbers might have been a factor behind why the new Minnesota Constitution, and the young state’s powerful anti-slavery Republicans, banned slavery.
“In an area lacking a large black population that might compete with white laborers for jobs, the issue of emancipating slaves seemed mostly theoretical, founded on lofty principles that had little effect on the average Minnesotan,” according to Winston scholar William D. Green, who wrote about her case in Minnesota History magazine. “Yet, the threat that abolitionists posed to lucrative southern tourism amplified the state’s conflicting attitudes toward slavery.”
When a court order was issued to bring Eliza to a hearing, 20 gun-toting abolitionists joined authorities on a trip to Lake Harriet, where they found the slave in question hiding in plain sight.
They asked if she wished to remain a slave or be free. “I wish for my freedom,” she said. “But don’t tell my master or mistress that I said so.”
A quick hearing was held at Hennepin County’s courthouse where the new Vikings stadium is now rising. Tourism interests had sent some rough laborers to pack the courtroom, elbowing for seats with Minnesota’s leading abolitionists.
A 29-year-old judge, Charles Vanderburgh, a partner of Winston’s anti-slavery lawyer, promptly ruled that she was free to go because the 1857 state Constitution said: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the state.”
His ruling went against the feds. Supreme Court justices in 1857 denied freedom to Dred Scott, a slave who lived at Fort Snelling in the 1830s. Justices insisted, 7-2, that slaves were property even when traveling in states barring the practice.
As he left the courtroom, Christmas asked Eliza to go with him “and not to do wrong” before handing her $10.
“I told him I was was not going to do wrong, but that I did not wish to go with him.”
Pro-slavery mobs, organized by hotel owners and tourism boosters, tried to ram down doors at her supporters’ homes to snatch Winston back and return her to her owners amid fears that southern tourists would quit coming to Minnesota.
Some reports say she was scuttled up to Ontario via the Underground Railroad, winding up in Detroit. Others doubt she got that far, and a St. Cloud newspaper said she remained in the state.
Leaving no written record or photographic images, Winston’s life has been lost to history since she won her freedom in Minnesota. Some accounts say she returned to the Christmas family.
Within eight months, the Civil War erupted and the slave-to-free story of Eliza Winston was drowned out by the roar of cannons. The Winslow House, with no more southern tourists, was soon torn down.
Curt Brown’s tale on Minnesota’s history appears each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org .