Benjamin Duckett (b. circa 1831 - d. ?)
MSA SC 5496-8398
Fled from slavery, Prince George's County, Maryland, 1856
Born at Marietta, a plantation and manor house in northern central Prince George’s County, Benjamin Duckett was enslaved by the Duval Family. Benjamin Duval (d. 1801) built Marietta upon a 150 acre tract purchased from part of a larger survey known as “Darnall’s Grove.” Gabriel Duval (1752-1844), Benjamin Duval’s son, purchased the property from his father in 1784. During the first decades of the nineteenth century, Gabriel Duval established himself as a country gentlemen among the economic elite in the county. As an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court (1811-1835), Duval resided in Washington, D.C. for several weeks each year. Likewise, his duties on the Circuit Court saw him travel widely throughout Maryland and Delaware. He also conducted a private practice from a small law office on his plantation. Duval, like many Maryland elites, bred race horses, and traveled to competitions around the state. Garbiel Duval moved in the highest social circles, and James Madison spent a day and night at Marietta while on a country jaunt during his presidency (1809-1817). Official duties and visitors aside, life at Marietta was centered on families. Foremost in this way were the planter’s family: the Duvals. Yet, the slave quarters at Marietta were home to numerous families as well. The total number of slaves at Marietta during the Antebellum years fluctuated between thirty-five and fifty. Along with Gabriel, other Duvals living at Marietta during the nineteenth century held African Americans there. Included among these slaveholders were Gabriel’s son, Edmund (d. 1831), Gabriel’s sister Delila, and his orphaned grandchildren, Marcus, Edmund, Mary, and Gabriella, who came to live with him and his wife Jane (d. 1834) in 1832. Life at Marietta remained active throughout the Antebellum Era (Click here to read a memoir of life at Marietta from the mid-nineteenth century).
Not only was Prince George’s County the largest slaveholding county in the state, but Marietta's district during the Antebellum Era (Bladensburg, District No. 2), and its contiguous districts (especially Marlborough, District 3, and Queen Anne, District No. 7) held the majority of the county's slaves. It is likely, through a variety of characteristics and practices including the proliferation of a local slave trade which saw enslaved persons sold to nearby purchasers, that Marietta’s blacks knew the people and environs around them. In the 1850's, in addition to the population on Marietta Plantation specifically, there were a number of large slave holders nearby. John Contee to the west held twenty-one enslaved persons. Future Maryland Governer Oden Bowie to the south, operated sizeable plantations with fourty-seven slaves. Other plantations within five miles of Marietta included Bowieville to the south with fifty-four slaves, and Belair to the east with thirty-four slaves. The seventy-three enslaved blacks of then-former Governor Samuel Sprigg (to the west), the one-hundred twenty-three of planter Mordecai Plummer (to the south), and Charles Hill, Sr's one-hundred ninety-eight black slaves (also to the west), lived only seven miles from those enslaved at Marietta. In contrast to the large numbers of enslaved blacks held in Prince George’s County, the free black population was miniscule. Yet slightly more than ten miles from Marietta was the large and growing free black community of Washington, D.C. Between 1830 and 1860, the enslaved population of the nation’s capital fell from 2,330 to 1,774, while its free black number grew from 3,129 to 9,209.
As a boy growing into a man, Benjamin Duckett had known others around who resisted enslavement by running away. Successful or not, these acts of flight were examples to others. During Duckett’s childhood, for example, one of Gabriel Duval’s slaves, “Joe” fled. Again, his success is not known (though he had relatives in both Frederick City and Baltimore City, two prime points along the exodus out of Maryland). During his early teen years, transition at Marietta threatened the stability of Benjamin Duckett's family. Gabriel Duval died in 1844. After his death, the great body of his enslaved property passed to his grandsons, Marcus and Edmund B. Duval. Benjamin Duckett, his father, and perhaps a few of his five siblings, went to Edmund. Benjamin’s mother, other siblings and kin went to Marcus. Legal designations notwithstanding, it is unlikely that any great physical distance was imposed on the family. Following the division of the traditional enslaved community at Marietta, resistance through flight continued. Young Benjamin doubtlessly knew many who ran, as both the Duval brothers experienced runaways, particularly Edmund, whose slave Randolph Jackson (b. 1834) , used his familiarity with the region to attempt flight three times, 1853, 1855, and 1857!
At some point, probably between 1849 and 1856, Edmund Duval sold Benjamin to Zachariah Berry of Washington (also known as S. Berry). The Berrys were prominent land holders in the county and Washington, D.C., and perhaps elsewhere. In 1849, Zachariah Berry’s father, Washington Berry of Washington County, District of Columbia, purchased a tract of land from Richard C. Bowie. To this he later added an adjoining tract, “Riley’s Discovery,” purchased from Edmund Duval. Located in the Queen Anne’s District of Prince George’s County, along the road leading from “the Brick Church” (modern-day Church Road), in the middle of the region called, “the Forest of Prince George’s County,” just across from the estate known as Bowieville, Zachariah Berry began organizing his father’s operation at the newly acquired plantation called “Bellmont.” The plantation became Zachariah’s property outright at the moment of his father’s death in 1856. At the time Berry began building his operation at Bellmont, 11,510 enslaved blacks were held in Prince George’s County. By far the largest slaveholding county in the state, Prince George’s County accounted for thirteen percent of slaves held statewide (20 counties, plus Baltimore City). Bellmont was located in the Queen Anne’s District, No. 7 (created 1843). In 1850, a year after the Berrys purchased Bellmont, sixteen thousand people lived in District 7, fully sixty-six percent were black, of those ninety-one percent were enslaved. Some of the largest holders of District 7 lived within walking distance of Bellmont.
The details of Benjamin Duckett’s life with Zachariah Berry are unclear. It is possible, for example, that he may have spent time, not only at the developing Bellmont, but also at the other family plantations in Prince George’s County, and perhaps even at the properties held in Washington County, as the norther portion of the District of Columbia was called. The Duval family held at least three plantations, including “Belleview" on the Potomac River. Washington Berry received through a bill of sale executed in March 1855 from his son, Zachariah, nearly one dozen black slaves, including a twenty year old man named “Ben,” along with farm animals, agricultural concerns, and household items. Perhaps this was Benjamin Duckett, who would return to Zachariah's ownership following Washington's death the next year. Whatever actual scenario unfolded, as Zachariah Berry attempted to solidify his Bellmont operations with laborers purchased from nearby sources, he did a poor job securing his slaves. Numerous flight attempts from Bellmont occurred throughout the 1850s. Hannah Dikes fled during June 1854. Before that month ended, at least two more of Berry’s bondspeople, this time “Dick” and “Betsy,” fled together. These two had familial connections to other plantations in Prince George’s County, as well as others in Calvert County. The following spring and summer saw more escape attempts. Luke Carroll, an middle-aged enslaved man purchased from the estate of a local planter earlier in the decade, fled. So did Dinah Young, a women in her twenties who had experience in Baltimore and a husband in Calvert County. Luke Williams, who also fled Berry’s plantation during Summer 1855, had kinfolk not only in Prince George’s County but also in urban areas such as Annapolis, Baltimore, and even Philadelphia. Luke, in fact, was at least a two-time offender, having fled once before in 1851.
Perhaps emboldened and maybe even educated by earlier would-be fugitives, two slaves successfully escaped from Berry's plantation in the mid-1850s. Berry suffered the ignominy of not only losing two valuable slaves to flight, but having his loss recorded for posterity by William Still in his book Underground Railroad. One of those successful in getting free of Zach Berry was the twenty-five year-old Ben Duckett. When Duckett fled, September on 16, 1856, he was believed to have drawn on the kinship and friendship resources at his disposal on nearby plantations. His actual means and path to freedom has yet to be recovered, however. It is unknown if he went to Washington, D.C., Frederick City, or Baltimore. He may have traveled on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, or escaped on a ship on the Chesapeake. He may have gotten aboard an actual railroad, or contacted the Maryland-based agents of the Northern Underground Railroad for assistance. However he travelled, he reached Philadelphia in just under three weeks and was directed to William Still.
Another of Zach Berry’s slaves, Jim Belle, was with his owner barely a year before he fled in July 1857. With a wife and mother-in-law, both presumably free, living in South Baltimore, as did other relatives and friends, and perhaps still other kinfolk living on the several Baltimore County plantations upon which he had been previously held, the options for assistance were considerable. How Jim made his way from Prince George’s County to Philadelphia is not known with any specificity, and whether he actually knew Benjamin Duckett is also uncertain since their time on Berry’s plantation overlapped by only a few weeks. Jim Belle’s pursuers believed his family and friends in Northern Maryland were a resource. By whatever means, Jim reached freedom. At least three more of Berry’s slaves, Frank Tyler (1858), Barbary Williams (1860), and Hagar Williams (1860) attempted to run from Berry through the close of the decade. Of them, at least the Williams Sisters had ties to several nearby plantations.
Details of Ben Duckett’s life after reaching freedom evade historians.
The Philadelphia Vigilance Committee’s account books show that he was supplied
with a small sum of money for continued passage northward. It was
also standard practice of the Northern Underground Railroad to provide
a list of contacts and letters of introduction to runaways. The late
date during which he fled suggests that he headed for Canada, perhaps to
St. Catherine’s where hundreds of Maryland fugitives had gone before him.
Zach Berry continued to advertise for Duckett’s return through the end
of the Antebellum Era, suggesting that his former owner also failed to
discover Benjamin Ducket's final destination.
Return to Benjamin Duckett's Introductory Page
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