In antebellum America, working aboard sailing vessels was a common occupation for free blacks in the North. Throughout the slave states, many ports prohibited black sailors from coming ashore, fearing that they would corrupt and entice their slaves. In some cities, black sailors were kept in jail as long as the ship was in port.
In December 1851, the brig Billow arrived at Galveston from Boston, and was delayed in port by bad weather. On board were 4 free black sailors from Massachusetts: Anthony Hayes, Levan Smith, William Brown and Jacob Thompson. A slave named Frank, the property of George Delesdernier, was standing on the wharf, and they asked him to get some whiskey for them and bring it on board. They told Frank that they could take him North, and their abolition friend in Boston could get him over to Canada, where he could be his own man and live just as he pleased. They were experienced at this, they had already smuggled a slave and his wife from New Orleans.
They told Frank that he would need to go into town and steal some good clothing, so that Bostonians would not recognize him as a runaway slave. He went into the store of Sterns & Lynch in Galveston, hid behind some bales until they closed at night, then took clothes and snuck out the back door and back to the Billow. The sailors hid Frank among the cargo and brought him food until the Billow left.
As the Billow was leaving port in early January, the First Mate discovered Frank, and asked him why he was aboard: didn’t he know that the officers and crew could be sent to the penitentiary for taking a runaway slave? The Captain sent Frank back to port in the ship’s boat, escorted by Anthony and Levan. While they were away, the officers searched the Billow, discovered the stash of clothing, food and other items, and realized that their crew was involved.
The Billow returned to port, and the 4 black sailors were arrested for slave-stealing. They appeared in Court before Judge Constantine Buckley. The 1850 Census records that Judge Buckley owned 4 slaves, aged 30, 25, 20 and 2.
Frank was compelled to testify against the 4 sailors. They were convicted, and in accordance with Texas law were given an option: since free black persons were not recognized as citizens, each of them must either pay a fine equal to the value of the stolen slave, or be sold into slavery. Since they had no money to pay the fine, they were put up for sale on the 26th of January. Samuel Quarles of Mobile bought Anthony, Levan and William for $1200 total, and John Fortney of Galveston bought Jacob for $365.
Both buyers were acting as speculators, expecting to either resell or rent their new property at a profit. Large-scale slave-owners rented out slaves, usually on a seasonal or annual basis, and took out insurance in case they were injured or died. Delesdernier had a slave who he rented out to work as a fireman on the steamboat Farmer, stoking the boilers for the engine. When the Farmer was “blown to atoms” on March 24, 1853 during a race from Houston to Galveston, this unnamed slave (unknown if it was Frank) was among the ~30 dead. Former Texas Governor George Wood escaped death by moving to the other steamboat before the race.
The sale at Galveston was news across the country. William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper The Liberator condemned the sale, and Southern newspapers praised it as just and lenient.
The Massachusetts legislature considered a resolution that the Governor pay a ransom for the 4 sailors, but the politicians could not come to an agreement. Samuel Quarles sent them an offer for the 3 he had bought, but nothing came of this. Quarles had recently spent a large sum to recover a fugitive slave who had escaped to Boston, and wanted his money back.
What was the fate of those in this tale?
Judge Constantine Buckley drowned in the Brazos River on December 19, 1865 at the age of 50, when his horse was spooked and threw him in the river.
George Delesdernier was a sea Captain, who had used his boat to transport soldiers from Galveston to the battle of San Jacinto in 1836. He moved his family from Maine to Galveston aboard his ship, loaded with the lumber to build his home. He died in Galveston in 1879 at the age of 70, seventeen years after his youngest son George was killed at the battle of Gaines Mill in Virginia.
Samuel Quarles died in Mobile on December 15, 1859 at the age of 67, leaving an estate valued at $38,000 (1.2 million in 2019 value). He died without a will, so there is no record of how many slaves he owned. His funeral cost $114, including $5 for washing and dressing the body, and $5.25 for 7 yards of black crepe.
John Fortney enlisted in the Confederate Army at Galveston in January 1863, after the Confederate naval victory on January 1st which drove the Union occupiers from the island. There is no further record of him.
The Billow was captured at sea on August 12, 1864 by the Confederate raider Tallahassee, which captured or destroyed almost 50 Northern merchant ships that summer. The Billow’s crew was sent back to shore aboard another ship; the Tallahassee cut off the the Billow’s masts and set it adrift. It was found by a Northern ship and towed into New York harbor.
What of the 4 free men sold into slavery?
There is no record of Levan, Jacob or William after they were sold, so they may not have lived to see Emancipation.
Anthony Hays lived to see freedom after 13 years of slavery. In 1867, he enrolled as a voter in Mobile, and in the 1870 Census he is living there with a white family at the age of 80, with his occupation listed as sailor. There is no record of his death, and no evidence that he ever returned to Massachusetts.