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Tue Dec 28, 2021, 09:57 PM

Rachel, a Negro Woman v. James Cameron, Sheriff (1839-Iowa)

X-posted from the Iowa group.

Iowa's First Test Case of Slavery

The first known case testing the legality of slavery in the Iowa territory was heard in 1839. The case was Rachel, a Negro Woman v. James Cameron, Sheriff. Chief Justice Charles Mason of the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court - who also sat as district court judge in Des Moines County - presided over the case in Burlington.

The legal proceedings began on May 2, 1839, with the filing of a petition for a writ of habeas corpus by Thomas S. Easton of Burlington. Easton claimed that he was "the owner of a certain negro woman named Rachel aged about 45 years and a slave for life to your said Petitioner." He had purchased Rachel - "a plain Cook, Washer, and Ironer" - at a slave auction in New Orleans on June 27, 1835, for the sum of $385. Easton's petition alleged that Rachel was "wrongfully, illegally, and fraudulently held in custody and detained" by Burlington's mayor, David Hendershott.

Judge Mason issued a writ of hebeas corpus, and on May 6, Hendershott appeared Hendershott appeared in court and swore that he was not illegally detaining Rachel. He asserted that Rachel "voluntarily remains with me of her own free will and accord as she of right lawfully may according to the constitution and the laws of the land". Rachel herself appeared in court to confirm Hendershott's testimony.

Undeterred, Thoman Easton on May 7 filed another legal action - this time for "replevin" - claiming that Rachel was his "proper goods and chattel" and demanding her return from Hendershott. The same day the sheriff, James Cameron, took Rachel from Hendershott pursuant to a writ issued by the court clerk. But before the sheriff could deliver Rachel to Easton, Rachel petitioned Judge Mason to issue a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that she was not Easton's property, and that the sheriff was unlawfully detaining her. She signed the petition with her mark.

Judge Mason ordered that Rachel be brought before him "forthwith". All of the parties appeared in open court to present their arguments, following which Judge Mason adjourned court until the next morning. When the court reconviened at 9:00am, on Wednesday, May 8, 1839, Easton had agreed to dismiss his writ of replevin. Judge Mason thereupon ordered "that the said negro woman named Rachel be discharged from custody". Easton was ordered to pay court costs of $2.43.

While the record is silent on the reason for Easton's change of position, Judge Mason at the hearing evidently made known his legal opposition to slavery and his intention to rule against Easton, who then agreed "voluntarily" to dismiss his case. Certainly, this was the essence of the case as reported by the local newspaper: "It has been decided by Chief Justice Mason, at the present term of court, that Slavery cannot exist in Iowa. This case settles the question, at least for the present"

Outside In: African-American History in Iowa: 1838 - 2000

(page 62)


https://www.amazon.com/Outside-African-American-History-Iowa-1838-2000/dp/0890330131

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