It was a day Polly Mitchell likely remembered for the rest of her life. On April 11, 1825, William Norwood, who presided over the spring session of the Superior Court of Franklin County, ordered that Polly, a slave belonging to John Mitchell, be freed. This action reflected not only the court’s confidence in Polly’s character, but also the love of her husband and the support of prominent men in her neighborhood.
John Mitchell, a “free man of Colour resident within the … County of Franklin from the time of his birth,” was a blacksmith who accumulated property in the Hayesville area through hard work and economy. When he was a young man, Mitchell met Polly, a slave belonging to Eppes Moody, and made her his wife. When Moody decided to move to Alabama, Mitchell purchased Polly and lived with her “in great harmony.” Mitchell became concerned that if he died, his relatives might claim her as their property and sell her.
Because the law did not allow Mitchell to free Polly himself, in March 1825 he drafted a petition to the Superior Court, which had the authority to free slaves who had performed meritorious services. Mitchell pointed out his wife’s “industrious moral & honest habits” and said that everyone who knew her would agree with his views. To document this, twenty-one substantial citizens signed a statement in support of Mitchell’s petition. They included William Burlingham, Peter Foster, Charles Applewhite Hill, Francis Pugh, and Tolliver Terrell. They stated that “the conduct of the said Polly on all occasions so far as has come within our knowledge is beyond the reach of censure and we do most cordially unite with the said John Mitchell in praying the Honorable Court to grant the required relief, believing if merit is made the basis of emancipation that the said Polly is fully entitled to its benefits.”
John and Polly Mitchell, both of whom had been born around 1790, continued to live and work together on their farm, which in 1850 was comprised of 330 acres. They raised some livestock, including sheep and swine, and grew corn, tobacco, and vegetables. Two male slaves, Joseph and Gabriel, helped them.
Polly appears to have died prior to August 1857, when John Mitchell made his will. John Henry Hogwood, a relative, was to be the chief beneficiary of Mitchell’s estate. The slave Joseph was left to Hogwood, but the second slave, Gabriel, was to be sold. Mitchell’s granddaughters, Minerva E. and Martha Ann Mitchell, were to receive a tract of land for use during their lifetimes. Hogwood and his sister, Mary E. Hogwood, were to inherit the remainder of Mitchell’s land, his blacksmith and plantation tools, a wagon and cart, and household and kitchen furnishings. All of the beneficiaries would divide the proceeds of the sale of Gabriel and other property.
John Mitchell probably died soon after he drafted his will. He does not appear in the 1860 census of Franklin County.
Published in The Franklin Times on May 19, 2016.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The petition discussed in this article is located in a file of slave records in the Franklin County Miscellaneous Records, State Archives of North Carolina.