Shedding light on a truly obscure historical incident, a hybrid account of “the first, last, and only known fugitive slave to travel the tiny Puget Sound Underground Railroad.”
A single-passenger “Underground Railroad” isn’t the only reach here. Filling in a scanty documentary record with substantial amounts of invented dialogue (“I don’ wanna leave here. Why I gotta go?”), imputed actions and outright speculation, the authors present a double portrait: of James Tilton, surveyor general of Washington Territory, and of Charlie Mitchell, a mixed-race child in Tilton’s household who may well have been the Territory’s only enslaved person. Born on a failed Maryland plantation around 1847 and taken by Tilton as a favor to a relative, Mitchell arrived in Olympia in 1855—not so far from Victoria (a boomtown on the southern tip of Vancouver Island) and freedom. In 1860, he fled to Canada, sparked a kerfuffle recorded in court documents and newspaper articles, and then, aside from a few tantalizing census records, dropped from history. Along with a broad analysis of Tilton’s typically (for his class and times) paternalistic racial and political views, the authors fill in the blanks with details of his experiences as a soldier in the Mexican War and later (futile) attempts to run for office. They also include references to larger events, the area’s general history and its loose community of free African-Americans.
An intriguing piece of scholarship, despite the unnecessary inventions (and lack of footnotes). (afterword, bibliography) (Fiction/Nonfiction blend. 11-14)