Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

Kessiah Bowley (b. 1825 - d. 1897)
MSA SC 5496-15227                                                
Fled from slavery, Dorchester County, 1851


    Kessiah Bowley was one of many young African-American slaves to flee Dorchester County near the middle of the 19th century. However, she has the distinction of being the benefactor of Harriett Tubman's first documented rescue, less than two years after her own escape in 1849.1 Bowley was supposed to be placed on the auction block in August of that year, only to have her fate postponed, likely due to legal wrangling between her current and former owners.2,3 As an enslaved woman, Kessiah had married John Bowley, a free black shipbuilder and blacksmith, who had been manumitted sometime in the 1840's.4 They had two children, James Alfred and Araminta, who were exposed to the possibility of being sold along with their mother. 

    Kessiah Bowley's mother Linah was Harriett Tubman's sister.5 However, because of their closeness in age, Harriet and Kessiah had been raised more like sisters in the enslaved black community around Cambridge. Linah Ross had been sold out of the state some time during the 1830's, despite provisions for her manumission in Atthow Pattison's will.6 Such situations were not uncommon, as white slave holders knew that their largely illiterate laborers stood little chance of challenging illegal sales. However, the stipulations of Pattison's will would be debated into the 1850's, as they affected the fates of those numerous members of Kessiah's extended family who were descended from Harriett's mother, Rit Ross. The Pattisons lawsuit against Eliza Ann Brodess, Kessiah's current owner, prevented her original sale from going forward as scheduled on September 10, 1849. Unfortunately, the court decided simultaneously to authorize the sale of her sister and niece. Still, Bowley was not out of harm's way. She and her children were scheduled to be auctioned off again in late 1850. Receiving word of the proposed sale, Harriett Tubman went to Baltimore, where she and John Bowley planned a daring rescue.7 

    During the auction, Kessiah's husband somehow managed to secure the highest bid without being identified. By the time Dorchester County officials realized what had happened, the three slaves had been secreted to a nearby safehouse. Amazingly, the Bowley's were able to sail a small boat up the Chesapeake to Baltimore, where Tubman reunited with them. From there, they were guided to Philadelphia.8 However, the newly passed Fugitive Slave Act made it increasingly dangerous for Eastern Shore runaways to reside in nearby "free" states. Kessiah Bowley and her family made their way to Canada in 1851, settling in Chatham, where a black fugitive community had developed. The 1861 Census confirms the Bowley's presence, now with a total of seven children.9
   Perhaps due to limited economic opportunities or simply the strong desire to return home, Kessiah and John decided to reenter the United States in the mid 1860's. They may have stayed with Tubman in Auburn, New York for some time, though they would return to Dorchester County soon after.10 Only their son Harkless would remain behind a while longer, in order to continue his education and support the elderly Rosses, his great-grandparents. Kessiah, John, four of their children, as well as her elderly father Harkless Jolley, are recorded as living in Church Creek in the 1870 Census.11 By 1880, their grown son Harkless had married and become a school teacher, but still lived next door to his aging parents.12 Kessiah Bowley originally registered her will with the Dorchester County Court in 1888, but it was not filed until her death in 1897. In this document, she distributed the family property between John Bowley and their children.13  

Footnotes - 

1. Kate Clifford Larson. Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero. New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2004, p. 89.

2. Ibid, pp. 76-77

3."Negro for Sale," The Cambridge Democrat. 29 August 1849. 

4. Larson, p. 26. 

5. Ibid, p. 64. 

6. Ibid. 

7. Ibid, p. 89. 

8. Ibid. 

9. 1861 Census of Canada, Kent, Canada West, p. 135.

10. Larson, pp. 236-7.

11. 1870 United States Federal Census, Dorchester County, District 9, p. 10.

12. 1880 United States Federal Census, Dorchester County, Church Creek, District 29, p. 27. 

13. Dorchester County Register of Wills (Wills), Book JWF 2, p. 74 -76.

Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2012.

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