Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Irish Nell Butler
MSA SC 5496-000534
Indentured Servant, St. Mary's County, Maryland


Eleanor Butler, also called "Irish Nell," immigrated to Maryland as a white indentured servant to Charles Calvert, the third Lord Baltimore. She married Charles Butler, a slave of Major William Boarman, around 1681.1 A 1664 Maryland law required that when a "free borne woman shall inter marry with any slave ... [she] shall Serve the master of such slave dureing the life of her husband." Her children would also be slaves.2 Lord Baltimore warned Nell that "she would... enslave herself and her property," but Nell insisted that she would "rather have Charles than have your lordship."3 Charles and Nell Butler were married in a Catholic ceremony at Major Boarman's home in Charles County.4 They had seven or eight children—all born after the repeal of the 1664 law. Nell's children included Jack, her oldest son, and her daughters Abigail (Abby), Kate, Moll, Nan, and Jenny.5 One of the Butler's neighbors, Mrs. Elizabeth Warren, recounted that Jack later escaped from his enslavement, fleeing to southern Virginia, and later purchased his freedom from one of the Boarman family.6

The Butlers lived near the farm of the late Thomas Notley on the Wicomico River, in the Zechiah Swamp. Notley's farm appeared on Augustine Herrman's 1670 map of Virginia and Maryland.7 As a slave of the Boarmans, Nell "took in spinning and acted as a midwife."8

In October 1770, Mary and William Butler filed freedom suits. The slaves of Richard Boarman, the Butlers sought their freedom on the basis that their ancestor, Irish Nell, was a white woman. Other alleged descendents filed suits in 1786 and 1787. In 1786, Maryland law accepted the testimony of African Americans in freedom suits. Mary Butler's daughter, also called Mary, won her freedom the following year. Incidentally, in 1793, the testimony of blacks in freedom suits was again prohibited.9

1.     Maryland State Archives Special Collections, "Butler, Eleanor, S1759-9-7," Phebe Robinson Jacobsen Research Collection, MSA SC 5865-B9-F7.
1.     PROVINCIAL COURT (Judgment Record), Liber DD 17, Folio 239. Deposition of Nathaniel Suit, May 27, 1767.
1.     David S. Bogen, "The Annapolis Poll Books of 1800 and 1804: African American Voting in the Early Republic," Maryland Historical Magazine 86.1 (1991): 57-65.
1.     Glenn O. Phillips, "Maryland and the Caribbean, 11634 - 1984: Some Highlights," Maryland Historical Magazine 83.3 (1988): 199-214.
1.     Lorena S. Walsh, "Rural African Americans in the Constitutional Era in Maryland, 1776-1810," Maryland Historical Magazine 84.4 (1989): 327-341.
1.     William W. Warner, At Peace with All Their Neighbors: Catholics and Catholicism in the National Capital: 1787-1860 (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1994) 91.

2.     Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly, September 1664, "An Act Concerning Negroes & Other Slaves," Archives of Maryland Online, Vol. 1, Page 533.

3.     PROVINCIAL COURT (Judgment Record), Liber DD 17, Folio 237 [MSA S551-85]. Deposition of Samuel Abell, May 27, 1767.

4.     Ibid.

5.     PROVINCIAL COURT (Judgment Record), Liber DD 17, Folio 236 [MSA S551-85]. Deposition of Thomas Beach, October 27, 1767.
5.     PROVINCIAL COURT (Judgment Record), Liber DD 17, Folio 238. Deposition of William McPherson, May 27, 1767.
5.     PROVINCIAL COURT (Judgment Record), Liber DD 17, Folio 240. Deposition of Thomas Bowling, May 27, 1767.
5.     PROVINCIAL COURT (Judgment Record), Liber DD 17, Folio 242. Deposition of James Jameson, May 27, 1767.
5.     PROVINCIAL COURT (Judgment Record), Liber DD 17, Folio 243. Deposition of Mary Crosen, May 27, 1767.
5.     Peter Wallenstein, Tell the Court I Love My Wife: Race, Marriage, and Law: An American History (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) 24.

6.     PROVINCIAL COURT (Judgment Record), Liber DD 17, Folio 243. Deposition of Mrs. Elizabeth Warren, May 27, 1767.

7.     Deposition of Samuel Abell.
5.   Augustine Herrman, Virginia and Maryland as it is planted and inhabited this present year 1670, Library of Congress.

8.    Deposition of William McPherson.

9.     COURT OF APPEALS (Judgments) MSA S381-52. Description: Judgements. October Term 1787, Mary Butler vs. Adam Craig.
6.     Maryland State Archives Special Collections. MSA SC 4239-2-6. Description: Court of Appeals (Judgments) No. 3. Includes petition of William and Mary Butler 15 October 1770; Tracy Butler 12 April 1786; Mary Butler May 1786, October 1787; lower court judgment affirmed with costs June Term 1791 [Docket, p. 5].

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