It was in Mr. Sullivan´s American Studies class, during our investigation of the Underground Railroad in Suffield, that we came across a very interesting slave case involving Suffield. In John Hooker´s memoir: Some Reminiscences of a Long Life: With a Few Articles on Moral and Social Subjects of Present Interests, 1899, he mentions a special case that came upon him in 1845. At the time he was living in the town of Farmington, Conn where he had begun the practice of law in 1841. A man named Rev. Mr. Hemingway of Suffield sent John Hooker a letter, requesting him to travel up to Suffield and help him look up some evidence in an important slave case in Virginia.
Apparently, a large number of slaves in and about Fincastle, in the western part of Virginia, had brought suits, claiming their freedom. These slaves were the descendants of a Negro woman named Flora, and of her two daughters, all them dead, that had always claimed to be free women. They were arguing that hey had been kidnapped from Connecticut soon after the Revolutionary war. The protesting slaves had no idea about Connecticut, but the name of Suffield had kept coming up by tradition as that of the place where Flora had lived.
The child followed the condition of the mother, under the settled rule of slave law. If Flora and her daughters were free, all the descendants were legally entitled to freedom. The slaves were allowed to sue as paupers, under a merciful provision of Virginia law, and the state relieved them of all the ordinary costs of a suit.
John Hooker traveled up to Suffield to visit Mr. Hemingway and with him made inquiry among the very old people of the neighborhood. They found that the neighborhood had a clear recollection of the following facts: a man named Hanchett, a previous captain in the Revolutionary army, owned a small country tavern just outside of Suffield, within the town of Southwick, Massachusetts. Hanchett was a desperate character and responsible for much of the terror in the region. It was suspected that Hanchett stood behind the kidnapping. Also, Hooker figured that a respectable black man named Exeter, had lived in Suffield with his wife Flora and their two little daughters.
“These cases were before this court in 1847, and are reported in 4 Gratt. 58. They were four actions for freedom brought in 1825, in the Circuit court of Montgomery country All the paupers were descendants of a woman named Flora, who, they alleged, was a freewoman in Connecticut, and abducted from thence with her two infant children; and that they had been brought into Virginia, without the oath being taken by the claimant of them which was then required by the statute. The defendant in one of the cases was the administrator of James Charlton; and the other defendants of James Charlton; and the other defendants claimed under Charlton, from whom they derived those of the paupers who were in their possession.”
– 12 Gratt. 484, 53 Va. 484 (Va.), 1855 WL 3486 (Va.))
– Supreme Court of Appeals of Virginia. UNIS & als. v CHARLTON`S adm´r & als.–Four Cases. Aug. 24, 1855.