Charlotte Williams Hemenway: Runaway Slave Aboard the Ship Plato

Carolyn Ravenscroft, Archivist

Except of letter written by Capt. Jonathan Smith to Zilpah Smith, July 29, 1816. DAL.MSS.021

Excerpt of letter written by Capt. Jonathan Smith while in Baltimore to his wife, Zilpah Smith, July 29, 1816. DAL.MSS.021

The story of Charlotte Williams Hemenway, a runaway slave (or indentured servant), captured and jailed in Baltimore, MD in 1816 is one that you have probably not heard.  In fact, if it were not for a brief mention of her tale in a letter written by Captain Jonathan Smith (1780-1843) to his wife, Zilpah Drew Smith, found in the Smith McLaughlin Collection, her story might have been lost. The following is an excerpt from that letter, dated July 29, 1816:

“…I am going to tell you a romantic tale that will rather surprise you as it is founded on facts, I suppose that you recollect the boy that I shipped to go in the Plato after the war, that I told you left me in Baltimore, if you recollect his name was Charles Hemenway, that same person was discovered to be a girl & was put in jail for a runaway where she now is. [1] I have been before a Justice & gave my opinion that she was free, & there is Quaker here that is endeavoring to get her out of jail. She says that her name is Charlotte Williams Hemenway. You may depend that I was not a little surprised to see him metamorphed, he had made one voyage from here to the West Indies. I hope that the poor thing will get clear for she is in a bad [torn page]. It is really funny that I should ship a woman for a man, I will look out better for the time to come…”[2]

Capt. Jonathan Smith House, built 1822. 18 St. George Street, Duxbury, MA

Capt. Jonathan Smith House, built 1822. 18 St. George Street, Duxbury, MA

There is not much to go on in this story to help ascertain Charlotte’s origins or even whether she was black or white. There are clues that could lead to either conclusion. In an earlier letter, written June 15, 1814, Smith mentioned the slaves he saw in Charleston, SC. His opinion of them was not very high. Not knowing the make-up of his crew, I can’t say whether he was more open minded when it came to freedmen as sailors, but had Charles/Charlotte been of African descent, it seems probable that Smith would have mentioned it to his wife. On the other hand, indentured servitude was not as wide-spread in the early 19th century as it had been during the colonial period. If Charlotte were merely a white servant, she would have been able to blend easily into Baltimore – making it far less likely that she would have been caught. It is also curious that a Quaker would trouble themselves with an indentured servant. So, the jury is still out, but my best guess is she was a runaway slave or, according to her, being mistaken for one.

Whatever her heritage and reason for bondage, there is one thing that is perfectly clear, Charlotte Williams Hemenway was a remarkable woman – both clever and brave.  To have disguised herself as a man and shipped out on the Plato, an 87 foot vessel, for weeks without her true sex being revealed is the stuff of adventure stories.

My hope is that this article will find its way onto the computer screen of someone who has more information on Charlotte Hemenway , perhaps a researcher or descendent,  and we will learn the rest of her story.

[1] Plato was a ship built in Duxbury in 1811. The master carpenter was Charles Drew (brother-in-law of Capt. Jonathan Smith). It was owned by Reuben Drew (another brother-in-law), Charles Drew, Jonathan Smith and Joshua Magoon.  It was used as a merchant vessel, making frequent voyages to European markets.  After the Drews sold her, the Plato became a whaling vessel and wrecked in 1842 off of Montauk, NY.

[2] I have transcribed the letter with corrected punctuation and spelling. The original writing can be seen in the photograph accompanying this blog article.

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