Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)


William R. Hughlett (b. 1816 - d. 1885 )
MSA SC 5496-38912
Property Owner, Talbot County, Maryland

Biography:

    William R. Hughlett was a prominent Eastern Shore industrialist, who lost at least two slaves to flight in the late 1850's. He operated a farm and shipyard at Jamaica Point, Talbot County, on which he employed a large force of free and enslaved laborers.1 Taking advantage of the ideal location along the Choptank River, Hughlett amassed a relative fortune building cargo-hauling schooners. By his mid-30's, Hughlett held real estate valued at $56,000 and was in possession of at least 26 African-American slaves.2 In addition to being highly lucrative in this time period, the ship building industry also required a more diverse and skilled labor force than the agriculture that predominated throughout much of the Shore. Hughlett paid exorbitant amounts for workers to satisfy this need, and one 1853 purchase was even deemed worthy of a piece in the Baltimore Sun, entitled "High Price for Slaves."3 Hughlett had purchased four males from John S. Martin for slightly more than $1,000 each, whereas average prices within the state were closer to half that value. However, this economic consideration did not necessarily translate to better treatment for these slaves.

    Brothers Joe and William Bailey certainly had some ill-will toward William R. Hughlett when they decided to flee in November of 1856. While they acknowledged that Hughlett was generally fair with his slaves, he was accused of using physical punishment both men and women. Joe Bailey recalled a particularly cruel incident when he was '"stripped naked" and "flogged" very cruelly by his master."4 Conflicting souces attribute the abuse either to Bailey's altercation with a fellow slave or to Hughlett's desire to establish dominance over even his most valuable slaves. Regardless, the incident was simply too much to take for the 28 year old, who was the foreman of the shipyard and had only been recently been purchased by Hughlett.5,6 When the Bailey's escaped Maryland with direct support from Harriet Tubman and Ben Ross, the three affected owners almost immediately placed a runaway advertisement in local newspapers. That action was particularly notable because Hughlett placed Joe Bailey's reward at $1500, an inordinately high number.7 The master was determined not to let his valuable slave go free, and he took uncommon measures to recapture Joe. Aware of the established Underground Railroad route through Wilmington, Delaware, Hughlett and the other two owners actually reached the city three days before the cautious fugitives.8 Despite the efforts of blacks and white sympathizers to limit exposure of the substantial reward ads, it had become well-known to the local patrol and slave catchers.

    The fugitive party, including Tubman, remained on the outskirts of town until they could get word to legendary abolitionist Thomas Garrett, who conducted thousands of former slaves through the mid-Atlantic. Garrett likely enlisted an Irish worker and stable owner near the Christiana River, as well as a team of African-American bricklayers that worked in the area.9 The next morning, two supply-filled wagons left Wilmington with their black occupants singing and shouting loudly. They returned after dark with the men still singing and acting like they were drunk, even louder than when they had departed. On this return trip, however, they were carrying Harriet and the group beneath the straw. When the wagon reached the checkpoint, the police did not bother to check the wagon. Once they arrived on Garrett's side of the bridge he provided everything the slaves needed to continue on to freedom.10 They were forwarded to William Still in Philadelphia, where he recorded the details of their harrowing journey.

    The Bailey brothers ultimately settled near St. Catharine's, Ontario, and Hughlett made no further effort to retrieve them. However, this loss was hardly a fatal blow to his timber and shipping operations, which continued to expand in the late 1850's. Hughlett's personal estate had grown to a value of $93,000 by 1860, much of it tied up in his Jamaica Point shipyard.11 Furthermore, he held over 40 African-Americans in bondage, making him one of the wealthiest and largest slaveholders on the Eastern Shore.12 It is likely that Hughlett experienced other instances of flight, though none were reported through newspaper ads or other official documents. William Hughlett continued to prosper into the post-bellum period, eventually dying in 1885.13


Footnotes - 

1. Dilworth, 1858 Map of Talbot County, District 3, Library of Congress, MSA SC 1213-1-456.

2. Ancestry.com. United States Federal Census, 1850, Talbot County, Maryland, p. 83;  
    Ancestry.com. United States Federal Census, Slave Schedule, 1850, Talbot County, Maryland, p. 24.

3. "High Price for Slaves," Baltimore Sun, 25 August 1853.

4. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libaries: Documenting the American South.  "Harriet, the Moses of Her People, Bradford, Sarah H."
    http://docsouth.unc.edu/harriet/harriet.html

5. Ibid. 

6. William Still. The Underground Railroad:  A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, etc.  (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1872), pp. 272-274.

7. "Two Thousand Six Hundred Dollars Reward," Baltimore Sun, 22 November 1856.

8. UNC, "Harriet".

9. Ibid. 

10. Ibid. 

11. Ancestry.com. United States Federal Census, 1860, Talbot County, Maryland, Trappe, p. 54. 

12. Ancestry.com. United States Federal Census, Slave Schedule, 1860, Talbot County, Maryland, Trappe, pp. 3-4.

13. Dickson J. Preston. Talbot County: A History. Tidewater Publishers: Centreville, MD, 1983.


Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2011.

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