Slavery in the Dragoons: Colonel Stephen Kearny, Captains John Burgwin and Captain Robert H. Chilton and Lieutenant Ben Allston

In 1845, while riding steadily along the trail, passing caravans and immense herds of buffalo, the homeward bound dragoons came closer to their destination with each beat of the horses’ hooves. On August 7 they knew that civilization was near when an escaped slave wandered into the dragoon camp. Wrote Lieutenant Henry Turner, “he confessed that he ran off from his master & that it was his object to get if possible into New Mexico; that he had been treated badly by his master, he was willing to encounter any danger or privation rather than return.”[i]

Here we witness a heart breakingly common example of the great societal problem that afflicted the nation since its creation: the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Concerning the escaped Arapaho woman and her children enslaved by the Sioux, and previously found by the dragoons, Col. S. W. Kearny’s sense of justice, along with that of the majority of Americans, dictated that she be set free and returned to her people. Those views, however, did not in Kearny’s mind extend to the case of an escaped slave of white men. For him and many citizens, the man was the property of his owner, the law required that he should be duly returned to his master upon the troops’ reaching the Missouri settlements—just as Dodge had returned to his owner’s family the African-American slave who had been captured by the Pawnee. Two days after being captured by the dragoons and put into the service of an officer, the man somehow escaped again. That Kearny may have had a change of heart is suggested by the lack of any attempt on his part, this time, to pursue the runaway. Indeed, the only dragoon pursuits that day were not of humans, but of buffalo.[ii]

[i] Turner, Journal, 76.

[ii] Turner Journal, 77; Franklin, South Pass, 31.

  1. S. L. City U.T.

March 28, 1854

My dear Mother [Adele Allston]

Your last letter dated Dec. 20th pasan was received two days ago and I proceed with much pleasure to answer it. I send by this mail a letter I wrote before I went again to the South to attend the trial of these persons which were given up by their Chief. In was under the impression that I would not return in time to send by the California Mail. But here I am safe and sound returned and in time to write to you. I am very glad of it because I know how anxious you would be obliged to wait so long a time for any news from me. The date of your letter is Dec. 20th . Three months have elapsed since it was written, what is the cause of this time must be some irregularity in the Mail from thus Georgetown to Independence else why should all of your letters be so late in arriving. From what you say it seems that my letters are also late in coming to hand. Would that they not so late going. My letters have reached St. Louis in some cases just a month after they were written, and it current, it should not take them a month to go to you from there. I am now making preparations to leave the City to move to continuing the march to California. All the troops are doing the same. We will leave the City take up an abode in Rush Lake [sic] Valley until the middle of May probably when we will take up the line of march to California. Whether we will all go together to California is a question that has not yet been determined—time will show. The troops are to be scattered over an immense extent of Territory and this point is as central as any in California.

Now a short description about the trial of trial of the Indians. We took down five Indians five Indians, including a squaw who was [giving immunity and] made states evidence which left four and Ka-Wah brought one more to meet us at Nephi. The Grand Jury found an indictment against three of the Indians and let the other two go. There were many witnesses who went to prove the fact of their having been engaged in the affair, but the evidence of the squaw was damning. She said that all were there and participated in the massacre and that one of them was who saw the party coming down to the river and told his followers saying “there come the Americans come let us kill them.” The testimony was quite strong, and convincing and yet the jury though sworn to determine according to law and evidence found them guilty of manslaughter—and they have been sentence to imprisonment for three years. The verdict of the jury occasioned great disgust and ill feeling on our side. It was said and with a great deal of reason judging from the facts that Brigham Young the mouth piece of God as they term him, and as he has taught them to believe was the morning spring the motive power of the whole affair. There are grounds for this belief and I for one believe it to be a fact. It would be necessary for me to go into the particulars of the facts which gave use to this conclusion, but suffice it to say that all of us (who were down there) believe it to be so. His reasons are to us unknown and will not know theirs. No reasons however strong could sanction such a thing for a moment.

Lt. Mowry was associated with the district Attorney in the prosecution of the case and he has reported the whole case. You will therefore see the whole in full. A Copy has been sent to the Pres[ident] and to [Attorney] Gen. [Caleb] Cushing besides that indented for the Pres.

This I think will bring on some trouble and excitement in connection with his [unintelligible] speech of which I with you some time since and which has been reported & doubtless published by this time—perhaps you are now reading it.

The Indians in Nephi were very friendly to us, and to the Col. treated them with great leniency and kindness.

Theophilus [a slave] is behaving very badly and shamefully and I am afraid I shall be obliged to sell him. He has given me a great deal of trouble and annoyance. He has said that he was free and owed me no allegiance. And on the morning on which I left for the South I told him to report to Capt. Ingalls who would send him out to Rush Valley, I wished to punish him and took this method of doing it. The rascal took it into his head to run away after I left the City went to the Gov and showed as the Gov says free papers, and asked for employment. But thanks to Capt. Ingalls he was recovered and is now at Camp. I feel no inclination to have him any where near me again. I am disgusted with him. Mr. Perry has offered me a thousand dollars for him or says he will take him through to Mier [?] and there hire him out for me until I return. I do not know what I will do, but I am pretty well persuaded that I shall not take him through to California with me—for not only would he there leave me but I would be very much troubled by him—between here and there—In would sell him without further thought were it not that the whole family belong to me and I do not like to hurt their feelings.

—————-

There has been no change in my orders & etc, as yet through I should be at all surprised to find orders returning me to California when I get there. I shall probably go to Oregon to deliver some of these men to their posts. I shall thus see portions of California and Oregon. I consider myself very fortunate in having to come on this trip. Every day I realize its importance to me.

Col. Steptoe’s Commission as Governor of the Territory has at length arrived. I do not know whether he will accept or not though I think it more than likely that he will. I like the Col. very much and if he accepts this Commission I do not know but what I will resign if I an get the [position of] Surveyor General of the Territory. It is something I have thought of for a long time, and can come to     a very definite conclusion. Whether the Surveyor Generalship in the    by which it is held is sufficient inducement for me to give up my present profession. Another question presents itself to me, what             and fortunes here in case trouble should come with the Mormons which unless the kind and over ruling province does not remove Brigham Young from his Stewardship, seems to me inevitable. If Brigham Young should die, there would be trouble in the Church itself, and although a successor might be selected without division of the Church (and I do not think one could be) this new President [James Buchanan] would not command the people as he does now. If we should ever be at war with the people, they would make a desperate struggle (being united and considering every interference that the government or its officers might make in their customs, beliefs, and supreme pleasures, as a direct willful and malicious persecution, and being situated here in the midst of the Rocky Mountains where Rocks. Caves, & Canons would make afford them protection from a much superior force. All things would make their defense most desperate. I must end dear Mother for the present. I am going to attend a wedding this evening; a Mormon girl and a gentile. The girl is the daughter of Elder John Taylor now in St. Louis editing a paper and who was in prison with Joe Smith when he was murdered. The Community in general are very much opposed to it but I do and see how they are going to better themselves. They have issued an ordnance against Women leaving the City. Give my love, etc.

I do not know whether you know I or not but our friend, that good woman McKnight whom you met at Carlisle is dead, she died last July. It has as matter of course thereon thrown the family deep sorrow. Her loss to them can never be replaced. I sympathize with them deeply for you know I was intimate with and liked the whole family very much. I cannot now write much more. It will puzzle you very much to finish this letter, but I hope that it may produce feelings of pleasure when you have accomplished the task. I doubt not that it will in part. Adieu again my dear, dear Mother. Hoping to hear from you every day now for the Mail for this month is not yet in. I remain yours very affectionate yours, Ben Allston

It was not unusual for some officers serving in the Antebellum Army to own slaves. Indeed, the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision of 1857 arose when a deceased officer’s slave sought to obtain his freedom. These letters were written by Captain Henry Smith Turner, USMA 1834, of the 1st Dragoons who accompanied Brig. Gen. Stephen W. Kearny and two companies of Dragoons on out to California and briefly assumed command at the 1846 Battle of San Pascual. He resigned from the Army in 1848. On April 4, 1849, Turner wrote to Lt. John Love from St Louis inquiring about Burgwin’s property and his efforts to block James Schaumburgh from gaining a commission in the 1st Dragoons. (Schaumburgh, a 2d lieutenant at the time of formation of 1st Dragoons, resigned his commission under a cloud in 1836, was reinstated in 1844, but dropped in 1845). In 1849, Lt. John Love, the acting regimental adjutant at Ft. Leavenworth, and was involved in, among other things, settling the late Captain John Burgwin’s affairs.

The first letter below concerns Captain Burgwin, an officer in the 1st Dragoons from North Carolina and an 1830 graduate of the Military Academy. He owned a servant who was named Horace. Captain Burgwin seems to have brought Horace with him when he went to conquer Santa Fe with the Dragoons in 1846. Burgwin died from wounds suffered in the Taos Mutiny on 7 February, 1847.

The second letter sent by Turner to Lt. Love concerns a female slave that he was about to purchase in Booneville, Missouri on behalf of Captain Robert Hall Chilton, 1st Dragoons. Captain Chilton, USMA 1837, was at th time commanding B Company at Fort Kearney. Turner arranged to have the slave sent to Ft. Leavenworth and requested that Love see that she be shipped west to Fort Kearney. Chilton, a Virginian, would resign from the army on 29 April 1861 and later served as a General in the Southern Confederacy.

In 1854, a young 1st Dragoon lieutenant and his slave arriving at Fort Leavenworth had no way of knowing what awaited them out west. Benjamin Allston, from South Carolina, West Point class of 1853, and Theophilus, his personal slave, were bound for the Pacific Coast. Allston wrote home frequently. His letters mention his fellow officers but, not surprisingly, never the names of his enlisted men. He does, however, briefly mention Theophilus in several letters.

During this trip they were to spend the winter in Salt Lake City, and tensions between master and slave commenced. Theophilus, soon after arriving in Salt Lake, sought his freedom. Writing to his mother, this is what Ben had to say of the behavior of his man servant:

“Theophilus is behaving very badly and shamefully and I am afraid I shall be obliged to sell him. He has given me a great deal of trouble and annoyance. He has said that he was free and owed me no allegiance. And on the morning on which I left for the South I told him to report to Capt. [Rufus] Ingalls who would send him out to Rush Valley, I wished to punish him and took this method of doing it. The rascal took it into his head to run away after I left the City went to the Gov and showed as the Gov says [his] free papers, and asked for employment. But thanks to Capt. Ingalls he was recovered and is now at Camp. I feel no inclination to have him any where near me again. I am disgusted with him. Mr. Perry has offered me a thousand dollars for him or says he will take him through to Mier [Mexico] and there hire him out for me until I return.] I do not know what I will do, but I am pretty well persuaded that I shall not take him through to California with me—for not only would he there leave me but I would be very much troubled by him—between here and there—I would sell him without further thought were it not that the whole family belong to me and I do not like to hurt their feelings.”

Private William Antes mentions that Ben’s personal slave was with him on an expedition in which he escorted convicted murderers in Utah. Other than this brief reference, Theophilus disappears from all mention by either Allston or by another. During the Civil War years, a slave named William attended to Allston and replaced Theophilus.

Did Allston, who was in need of funds in 1854, sell his slave, send him back to the plantation in South Carolina, or keep him? In 1854-56, a number of slaves entering into California with their masters were granted their release by civilian courts. By 1857, the law changed and slaves serving as personal servants remained as slaves (see, e.g., Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) 60 U.S. 393; Ex Parte Archy (1858) 9 Cal. 147).

………………………………………………………………………….

` Near St Louis
April 4, 1849

D[ea]r. Love

Please give me the history of Burgwin’s boy Horace since the death of his master. I have just rec’d a letter poor B’s father on the subject and in reply I have promised to obtain information from you and [shall] communicate it to him. Write to me on this subject by return mail.

I suppose you are all practising for the redoubtable Schumburg[h]. I cannot think that this outrage is really comsummated, as I understand old Zack [Taylor] has taken action action on the matter.

Did you get the sash?

In haste,
Yours,
H. S. Turner

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Near St. Louis
Sept. 10, 1849

My Dear Love,

I’ve some time since a letter from our friend Chilton at Fort Kearney, requesting me to purchase for him a negro woman. I have now the prospect of complying with his request after many unsuccessful efforts. In the event of my succeeding I am directed by C. to send the woman to you, to be forwarded to Fort K. I learned but a few days ago that there was at Booneville a woman for sale achievig the descripion required by C. and I have written to a friend there to buy her and have requested him to ship her to you at Fort Leavth. Should she arrive of course you will have been informed of C.’s wishes in relation to her.

As from your sincere friend,
H. S. Turner

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