Submitted by Terence Walz, 12 April 2020
William Henry Ringgold, also known as Thomas H. Ringgold, had a dramatic story to tell. It may or may not have begun in Maryland or Washington, D.C. in 1817 or 1821 as the “natural son” of an enslaved African American woman and either a well-known Maryland planter and former congressman or a U. S. marshal for the District of Columbia, but his more certain history begins on October 22, 1845, when an advertisement appeared in Washington City’s Daily National Intelligencer:
$100 reward. – Ran away from the subscriber, on Sunday last, a bright mulatto boy, about twenty-four years of age, by the name of WILLIAM HENRY RINGGOLD, about 5 feet or 6 inches high, well made, with straight black hair curling on his neck and temples. No marks recollected. I will give $50 if taken in the District, or $100 if taken out of it, and placed in some jail, so that I get him again. – JESSE BROWN, of Brown’s Hotel.
Jesse Brown was the proprietor of Brown’s Indian Princess Hotel, Washington’s most elegant and popular place to stay. In 1843 he had refurbished the hotel to accommodate a larger clientele and make its amenities more agreeable.[i] It was staffed by male and female servants, some of whom were enslaved, and was hugely popular among Southern politicians. Henry Clay kept apartments in the hotel for years.
According to his story, which was recalled some forty years later by people familiar with the saga and as culled from unspecified legal documents,[ii] William was one of these hotel servants, as he was enslaved by Brown since he was eight years old and had grown up in the hotel working for him. He had become, the Springfield News and Comment reporter related in 1884,
… the favorite servant among congressmen and other distinguished people who frequented the place. Calhoun, Webster, Clay, Benton, and Cass were waited on by him. He often carried McConnell, the drunken Alabama congressman, up to his bed on his back.[iii] He was frequently called to the room of Drumgoole of Virginia, who had killed his man in a duel and was continually haunted by the remembrance, and invariably found him pacing his room in great agitation.[iv] His wife[v] had the honor of washing the congressmen’s dirty clothes, including those of Sawyer, Ohio’s uncanny representative, whose practice of eating his lunch on the floor of the House from a big red handkerchief gave Richelieu Robinson a chance to make himself famous as a correspondent, and whose washing bill during the long term would foot up $4.25.[vi]
As a “bright mulatto” William would have been able to “pass white,” and when an Italian Opera Company visited Washington in the fall of 1845, it is said – perhaps staying at the hotel – he plotted to escape with them when they departed for their next engagement.[vii] Disguising himself as a member of the company, he fled Washington and, via the Underground Railroad, eventually made hisr way to Springfield, Massachusetts, then a center of abolitionist sentiment, and settled in the neighborhood of Chicopee where he became a well-known and popular barber.
In 1839 William had married an eighteen-year-old free black woman named Mary Elizabeth Jackson in Washington City.[viii] She was the daughter of Philip and Ann Jackson of Prince George’s County, Maryland. She may possibly have met and worked in the hotel along with William, if the story is correct. What little factual evidence we have comes from her death certificate filed in Springfield in 1853.[ix] With her enslaved husband, she had two children in Washington: George, born in 1843, and Julia, born in 1844. There was a Phillip Jackson, “laborer,” who is mentioned in Free Negroes in the District of Columbia[x] and could have been her father and he may be the Philip Jackson listed as a “free colored man” who lived with an older wife and a younger daughter aged ten or under, according to the 1840 census of Washington;[xi] however, the fact that Mary’s marriage to William was registered in the District suggests that she must have been a free as the time of her marriage because slave marriages were not legally recognized. Following William’s escape, Mary too left the District with her two children and made her way to Chicopee.
Is William the same as Thomas H. Ringgold?
When he fled north, William took the name Thomas, and in official documents filed with the state thereafter was known by the name Thomas H. Ringgold. Adopting a new name was common among fugitive slaves – it was hoped it would make it more difficult for slave-catchers to track them down – but it is interesting that William kept his middle initial and last name regardless of the obvious similarity.[xii] From all available evidence, it is sure that William and Thomas were the same person, and for the sake of simplicity and to avoid confusion William will be used throughout this article. Despite a new name, William legally remained a slave since he had never received emancipation papers from his former owner. In 1850, following the promulgation of the Fugitive Slave Act by the U.S. Congress, William no doubt expressed fear to the clients of his barber shop that Jesse Brown would ask agents in Massachusetts to arrest him and take him back to Washington. His clients included well-known men in the community,[xiii] and they offered to raise a sum of money allowing him to purchase his freedom. William got in contact with a sympathetic bricklayer and mason in Washington – and probably also an anti-slavery man – named Richard R. Shekell (spelled in various ways),[xiv] who offered to be the go-between him and the estate of Jesse Brown who had died in 1847. How they knew each other is not known. Jesse’s widow and children were the new owners of William, so Shekell approached them and they settled on the price of $600, which then became the amount that William’s friends in Chicopee and the nearby towns of Springfield and Holyoke raised. Shekell agreed to buy William from them and then register his emancipation immediately with the D.C. authorities. For legal reasons, however, William had to go to Washington to receive the document himself.
In 1851, the Springfield Republican, a nationally known newspaper, caught wind of this story and published it, drawing attention to the assistance given him by the citizens of Chicopee and the neighborhood.[xv] The details they provided were not as rich as the ones later available to the reporter of the Springfield News and Comment.[xvi]
In accordance with the plan that Shekell sketched out for him, William set out for Washington, carrying with him a pass that Shekell sent him:
To all whom it may Concern. Let the within named negro man William H. Ringgold, pass from Chicopee, Massachusetts, to Georgetown, D.C., and back again. He is a bright mulatto.
He headed to Baltimore, where a justice of the peace, with whom Shekell was acquainted, was asked to see that he get through Baltimore without trouble and be seated on a train to Washington. This was conveyed in a letter Shekell wrote to the justice in advance: “See that the bearer is not molested in passing through Baltimore to Georgetown, D.C., and if necessary to see that he gets a seat in the cars for Washington by a note or in person.” The note seems to have survived for the retelling some thirty years later. He safely arrived at Shekell’s home in Georgetown,[xvii] where William received the anticipated document: [xviii]
To Whom It May Concern: Be it known that I, Richard R. Shekel – for divers good causes and consideration, me thereunto having as also in further consideration of $5 current money to me in hand paid, have released from slavery, liberated, manumitted and set free, and by these presents to hereby release from slavery, liberate, manumit and set free my negro man named William H. Ringgold, being of the age of 35 years and able to work and gain a livelihood sufficient and a maintenance, and him, the said negro man, named William H. Ringgold, I do declare to be henceforth free, manumitted, and discharged from all manner of servitude…. Acknowledged before Walter Lewis, mayor of Washington and ex officio justice of the peace. [xix]
Also surviving, according to the same source, was the bill of sale that Shekell secured from the Brown estate documenting his purchase of William:[xx]
Know all men by these presents that we, Rosanna Brown, widow of Jesse Brown, deceased, and Henry How, late husband of Eliza F. How, deceased, one of the heirs-in-law and distributors of the said Jesse Brown, Tillotaton [Tillotson] P. Brown, Marshall Brown, heirs-in-law of the said Jesse Brown, all of the City of Washington, in the District of Columbia, for and in consideration of the sum of $600 current money of the United States to us in hand paid by Richard R. Shekel of the town of Georgetown, in the said District of Columbia, the receipt of which we do hereby severally acknowledge, have bargained, sold, and transferred and so hereby transfer until the said Richard R. Shekel, his executors, administrators, and assigns, one negro man named William H. Ringgold, aged about 35 years, a slave for life and belonging to the estate of the said Jesse Brown, deceased. To have and hold the said negro man, William H. Ringgold, a slave for life unto him the said Richard R. Shekel, his executors, administrators and assigns, to his and their sole use and benefit.[xxi]
No good deed goes unpunished, as the saying goes, and Shekell’s role in helping Ringgold was sadly misinterpreted by some in Massachusetts. In reading these reports, Shekell was outraged at the allegation that he had somehow persuaded William to return to Washington in order to turn him over to his former masters and pocket the money that had been raised for his rescue. He sued the trustees of the Commonwealth newspaper which libeled him, claiming damages of $5,000. The Supreme Court of Massachusetts ruled in his favor in 1852, awarding him $400.[xxii]
Ringgold’s Life in Springfield
Following the events of this remarkable final escape from bondage, William settled back into life in Chicopee. His story had drawn the attention of other free African Americans in the Springfield area, then a center of anti-abolitionist sentiment. John Brown lived in Springfield 1846-49, and had listened to lectures there by Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. One of Ringgold’s new neighbors, Perry Frank Adams, was in fact a virtual relation of Douglass, having married Douglass’s “sister,” Ruth Cox, known as Harriet Bailey, in 1847. She had been born in Talbot County, Maryland, and Douglass had adopted her as a “sister” after she escaped north and needed protection and shelter. Perry, born a free man, also came from Talbot County, and the Eastern Shore connection may have provided an extra bond between Perry and his wife and William since the Ringgolds were well known on the Eastern Shore as once wealthy planters and merchants.[xxiii]
Through his activism, Adams was tied into national anti-slavery movements, which grew in strength greatly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. He had already become the secretary of the Colored Citizens of Springfield in 1850. He was also a member of the new League of Gileadites, a radical anti-slavery organization that sought to use violence to protect fugitives from slave catchers. Its constitution was written by John Brown before he left Springfield for New York.[xxiv] In this heady atmosphere, William was persuaded by Perry and other members of the League[xxv] to become active in anti-slavery work, and in January 1854 he went to Boston with Perry Adams to represent Hampden County at the first meeting of the State Council for Colored People of Massachusetts, a chapter of the National Convention for the Colored People of the United States. As the meeting was being organized, Ringgold was selected secretary pro tem and soon after asked to join the committee to prepare the constitution of the Council and later was appointed as a vice president at this Council. Upon the adoption of the new local constitution, Ringgold was elected as a national representative of the Council.[xxvi] Clearly he made an impression and was even charismatic.
The summer preceding these events, however, personal tragedy struck. His wife Mary gave birth to a second daughter, whom they named Harriet B. S. – no doubt honoring Perry’s wife – but died of pneumonia shortly after giving birth. Little Harriet survived her mother by only three months. Three years later, their young son, Thomas, called Frank, also died and was buried with his mother and sister in Springfield Cemetery.[xxvii] Of his family, only the eldest children, George and Julia, were still living. But the 1855 census of Springfield shows that “Thomas H. Ringgold” was also housing Ann Johnson, a 35-year-old woman born in the District of Columbia, whom he may have got to know through the Adamses. She was a member of the League of Gileadites, and thus an activist in the anti-Slavery movement in the area.[xxviii] She and William may have lived as man and wife,[xxix] or she may have been living in the house in order to look after William’s young children. His personal situation must have been difficult, and in 1857 he was married a second time to Caroline E. Green, from Baltimore, aged 30. On the marriage certificate when asked to provide the name of his father, he put down “Teach [Tench] Ringold (Ringgold],” and that he had been born in Washington, D.C. in 1817. His origins will be discussed further on.
After his remarriage, the documentary record on him and his family becomes scarce. Son George moved to Pittsfield, where he worked as a barber like his father. In January, 1863, aged 20, he married 13-year-old Helen Porter of Williamstown.[xxx] She was white, the daughter of Isaac Porter, a laborer according to the 1850 census, one of seven children. Eight months later she gave birth to their son, William, in Williamstown.[xxxi] Scarcely a month after he married, George – perhaps inspired by his father’s activism ten years earlier – enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment in Pittsfield, and for the next two years served well enough to be promoted corporal of Company A by the time he was mustered out at the end of August, 1865.[xxxii] Curiously, a relic of his service was auctioned some years ago in Massachusetts – a toothbrush issued to him by the regiment with his name stamped on it.
William seems to have withdrawn from active participation in future work with the National Convention of Colored People, and people in the area remembered that he moved south to Baltimore to be with his new wife’s people. Apparently he reverted to his original name. The 1860 census for the city shows that a William Ringgold was living in the 6th Ward with wife Caroline and mother-in-law Lucinda Green and a fifteen-year-old girl named Maria Smith. There is no mention of daughter Julia. His occupation is given as barber – a sign that this is indeed “our” William – while his wife is listed as a dressmaker and his widowed mother-in-law a washerwoman. The date of his death is unknown.
The origins of William Ringgold are unknown and may never be known. In 1884, he was said to have been born on the estate of Gen. Samuel Ringgold in western Maryland, “his father being his master’s son.”[i] Samuel Ringgold’s estate consisted of some 15,000 acres about eight miles outside Hagerstown. In 1786 he had built a beautiful home on the estate which he called Fountain Rock, to which he brought his bride from Philadelphia, Maria Cadwalader, and raised some eleven children. By Maria he had six sons, the best known being Maj. Samuel Ringgold, the hero of the Battle of Palo Alto in the Mexican American War, and Commodore Cadwalader Ringgold, who had a noted naval career. The eldest son, John Cadwalader Ringgold, immigrated west and became a pioneer settler in Arkansas. They were born 1796, 1802 and 1794 respectively, so any of them could conceivably have been the reputed father of William. Maj. Ringgold died in 1846 as a result of injuries sustained during the battle, and his heroism was marked all over the country – about the time of William’s escape from Washington and slavery. Old Samuel was remarried in 1807 to Marie Antoinette Hay, daughter of a close friend of James Madison and the step-daughter of James Monroe. He maintained a lavish life-style and accumulated much debt. When he died, virtually bankrupt, in 1829, William, then age eight according to one story or eleven according to another, was sold to Jesse Brown, the hotelier in Washington D.C. If it still exists, the purchase deed documenting the sale would include the name of the seller and perhaps reveal it was one of the Ringgolds.
A variant of his origins suggests that Samuel Ringgold’s younger brother, Tench Ringgold, U. S. marshal for the District of Columbia, was the father.[ii] A source is not given, but most probably stems from information provided on William’s 1857 marriage certificate. Tench was living in Washington in 1817, having remarried and not yet appointed a marshal. His second wife gave birth in 1817 and 1818, both times in Loudon County, Virginia, where her father had an estate.[iii] It is possible that during the times his wife was away from Washington he formed an alliance with one of the enslaved women working for him. According to the 1820 census, he owned eighteen, of which two were women between the ages of ten and 24, and five of whom were enslaved boys under the age of ten. Would William and his mother have been among them? We may never know for sure. But if William were a Ringgold by birth, his future political activism on behalf of his own African-American people and his son George’s military service during the Civil War suggests they followed the pattern set by other members of the family in their service to the country.
1817 or 1821 – born in Maryland or DC, son of an unknown African American woman and either Samuel Ringgold or Tench Ringgold
1829 – enslaved to Jesse Brown of Brown’s Hotel
1839 – marries Mary Elizabeth Jackson, daughter of Philip Jackson on April 6. Source: http://genealogytrails.com/washdc/marriages/marr1836to1840.html
1843 – son George W. is born
1844 – daughter Julia born
1845 – escapes from Jesse Brown: runaway ad appears in the Daily National Intelligencer
1849 – post office in Springfield has mail for him (December) under name Thomas H. Ringgold
1850 – son Thomas F. Ringgold born in Chicopee
1851 – Sep 5, article in Springfield Republican says he has returned to Washington to pay for freedom
1851 – emancipation deed received from Richard R. Shekell
1851 – Richard Shekell sues Massachusetts Commonwealth newspaper for libel.
1853 – Harriet B. S. born in Chicopee
1853 – wife Mary E. dies and buried in Springfield
1854 – represents with Perry Adams Hamden County in the State Council of Colored People of Massachusetts Convention in Boston
1855 – in Mass census is living with five children and a black woman named Ann Johnson
1856 – son Thomas F. Frank dies 1 September.
1857 – remarries in Chicopee to Caroline E. Green of Baltimore, daughter of John Green
1860 – in US Census for Baltimore, 6th ward, aged 35, black, occupation barber, with Caroline Ringgold, black, dressmaker, aged 30 and Maria Smith, 15, black, and Lucinda Green, 55, born in Virginia, washer woman.
1863 – son George, a barber, marries a 13-year-old Helen Porter in Williamstown, Mass.
1863 – son George enrolls in 54th Massachusetts in Pittsfield
1863 – grandson William born to George and Helen.
1865 – George is mustered out of 54th Regiment
1884 – article about William Henry Ringgold in the Springfield News and Comment, March 16
1893 – Grandson son William marries Mersuria Kelly, aged 33, on 8 April in NY. Her father is James Kelly, mother is Dinah.
1896 – Chicopee magazines write up the story of the role of its citizens in freeing Thomas Ringgold.
[i] The Springfield News and Comment: see ft. 2.
[ii] Wikipedia entry for Tench Ringgold, updated 5 February 2020.
[i] See the advertisement placed in the Daily National Intelligencer of Washington, December 8, 1843, announcing these improvements.
[ii] “How One Man was Freed: A Story Which Interested Chicopee and Springfield Years Ago,” Springfield News and Comment, March 16, 1884. Some of the legal documents are now available on the internet: see further on.
[iii] Felix Grundy McConnell served in the U.S. House of Representatives 1843-1846,; he stabbed himself to death, said to have been induced in a state of delirium tremens: Kim Long, The Almanac of Political Corruption, Scandals, and Dirty Politics (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2008),
[iv] George Coke Dromgoole, 1797-1847: https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/12463#biography. On the duel with Daniel Dugger, owner of a hotel in Lawrenceville, Virginia, and Dromgoole’s alcoholism, Henry H. Lewis, “The Dugger-Dromgoole Duel,” North Carolina Historical Review 34: 3 (July, 1957), 327-345.
[v] Mary Elizabeth Jackson. She was not enslaved. See further on.
[vi] William Erigena Robinson, a correspondent in Washington for the New York Tribune 1843-1848, wrote under the name “Richelieu Robinson.” He was expelled “from the reporter’s seats on the floor because, in one of his letters to the Tribune, he had humorously described the mid-day luncheon, upon a chunk of bread and a sausage, of one Sawyer, a member of the House from Ohio….”: Rufus Rockwell Mudd, Washington: The Capital City and Its Part in the History of the Nation, vol. 2 (Boston: Lippincott, 1901), 43; on William Sawyer, member of the U. S. Congress 1845-49, https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/21251; known as “Sausage Sawyer,” https://history.house.gov/Blog/2015/August/8-11-Sausage-Sawyer/. The story may be anachronistic since Ringgold fled from the hotel in October 1845.
[vii] See A. I. Mudd, “The Theatres in Washington from 1835 to 1850,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, 6 (1903), 222-266; Katherine K. Preston, Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825-60 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001)
[viii] http://genealogytrails.com/washdc/marriages/marr1836to1840.html, citing Clerk of the Superior Court, Records Office, Washington D.C., “District of Columbia Marriages, 1811-1950.”
[ix] Massachusetts State Archives, Boston, Deaths Registered in Chicopee, Hamden County, Massachusetts, 1854, p. 2.
[x] Letitia Woods Brown, Free Negroes in the District of Columbia, 1790-1846 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1972), 149.
[xi] Did Mary Elizabeth have a younger sister?
[xii]Among many examples, Perry Adams’s wife Ruth Cox, a fugitive from Talbot County, Maryland, was given the name “Harriet Bailey” by her protector, Frederick Douglass.
[xiii] Among them Adolphus G. Parker, a vice president of the Chicopee Savings Bank, later a force in the Underground Railroad: Skipmunk: A Story of Chicopee (Chicopee, Chicopee Savings Bank (?), 1891), 25.
[xiv] Shekell was a bricklayer by profession and became a life-long member of the Georgetown Masonic Lodge.
[xv] Springfield Republican, March 14, 1851. His new name “Thomas H. Ringgold” is used throughout.
[xvi] These following details come from the Springfield News and Comment article, which uses Thomas’s original name: “How One Man was Freed: A Story Which Interested Chicopee and Springfield Years Ago,” March 16, 1884. The author of the article is not identified.
[xvii] In 1860 he lived at 151 High Street (renamed Wisconsin Ave): Boyd’s Directory of Washington and Georgetown, 1860.
[xviii] The text includes misspellings and a misnomer in the Springfield News article.
[xix] Most probably Walter Lenox, mayor of Washington 1850-52.: Allen C. Clark, “Walter Lenox, the Thirteenth Mayor of the City of Washington,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society (Washington), vol. 20 (1917), 167-193.
[xx] A copy should be in the District of Columbia Archives Property Records section.
[xxi] The heirs are mentioned in an obituary of Jesse Brown published on the Congressional Cemetery website: https://www.remembermyjourney.com/Memorial/Obituary/11863362
[xxii] Original suit reported in the Boston Evening Transcript, April 3, 1851, p. 1, and in Washington by the Republic, April 5, 1851, p.8; Shekell’s success in the suit and award of $400 damages: Southern Press (Washington, D.C), February 10, 1852, p. 3.
[xxiii] On Perry’s marriage to Harriet, David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon and Shuster, 2018), 166; also 163-65 on her background; William/Thomas would later claim descent from the branch of the family that moved to Washington County, Maryland in the late eighteenth century.
[xxiv] On the League in and around Springfield, Cliff McCarthy, Archivist, Wood Museum of Springfield History, “League Gileadites,” page from the Freedom Stories from Pioneer Valley, https://freedomstoriespv.wordpress.com/league-of-gileadites/known-members-of-the-league-of-gileadites/; on John Brown in Springfield, Joseph Carvalho, III, ” John Brown’s Transformation: The Springfield Years, 1846-1849,” Historical Journal of Massachusetts 48. 1 (2020).
[xxv] Several barbers in the Springfield area were named members of the League: citation above.
[xxvi] The Liberator, February 24, 1854.
[xxvii] https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/134149774/mary-e-ringgold; https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/134150287/harriet-b_s_-ringgold. Mary was 31 or 32 at her death. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/134151228/thomas-f-ringgold.
[xxviii] See the McCarthy source above.
[xxix] The Massachusetts census includes a son named Francis (1 year old), i.e. born in 1854 after William’s wife died. But the censor made several mistakes with the age of the children in the household and may have been in error.
[xxx] Massachusetts State Archives, Boston, “Massachusetts Marriages, 1841-1915, Record no. 118.
[xxxi] Ibid., “Births, marriages (1841-1895), and deaths (1841-1899), Births v. 151-152,159 1862-1863, Record no. 76
[xxxii] A appears in the roster of the regiment published by Luis Fenollosa Emilio, History of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, 1863-1865 (Boston: Boston Book Co., 1891), and in the Appendix of soldiers published by the National Gallery of Art in connection with an exhibit of the Saint-Gaudens Shaw Memorial: Sarah Greenough and Nancy K. Anderson with Lindsay Harris and Renee Ater, Tell It With Pride (Washington, D. C., 2013), 174.