Archives of Maryland
(Biographical Series)

John Bowley (b. 1815 - d. ?)
MSA SC 5496-15228 
Accomplice to slave flight, Dorchester County, 1851 


    John Bowley was born a slave in Dorchester County, but received his freedom before assisting Harriet Tubman in the rescue of his enslaved wife. He had been manumitted, or formally freed, by Levin Stewart some time in the 1840's.1 The 1817 deed that Stewart filed in the Dorchester County Court stipulated that young John would be enslaved for twenty six more years before the agreement would be enacted.2 Eastern Shore owners commonly employed this type of staggering manumission, perhaps as an incentive to their workforce. The Stewart family lived in close proximity to the Pattison and Brodess clans, who enslaved most of Harriett Tubman's extended family, including her niece Kessiah Jolly. She and John Bowley were ultimately married, having their first child James Alfred around 1844 and then Araminta in 1849.3 By law, these children would inherit the same social status as their mother, making them slaves as well.          

    While his status as a free African-American did not afford all the same rights as a white man, John was at least entitled to greater control of wages, and mobility throughout the Chesapeake Bay area. Laboring as a shipbuilder and blacksmith in Dorchester, he probably made a better living than most blacks in the region.4 Bowley and his brothers worked at John T. Stewart's Steam Mill Wharf, and were able to purchase an unfinished schooner in 1848, presumably with intentions to use it for their own independent shipping operations.5 John also likely spent time in Baltimore, where large numbers of free and enslaved blacks from the Shore partipated in the various maritime industries of the city.6

    In Dorchester County, there were many black families with mixed free and slave members, a situation that could be very difficult for the unbound spouse. Between 1849 and 1850, John Bowley was twice faced with the possibility that Kessiah would be sold by her owner, Eliza Ann Brodess.7 While legal issues muddled the first proposed sale, she was officially placed on the auction block in December, 1850. Harriett Tubman, who had fled to Philadelphia the previous year, had also heard about the predicament of her niece, whom she actually treated more like a sister. Lonely in her new home, Tubman decided at that point to embark on her first rescue mission, in which John Bowley played a pivotal role. The two met in Baltimore to quickly hatch their plan.8 

    The sale took place at the Dorchester County courthouse. During the auction, John somehow managed to secure the highest bid without being identified. By the time officials realized what had happened, the three slaves had been secreted to a nearby safehouse. Amazingly, John Bowley was then able to sail the family up the Chesapeake to Baltimore, where Tubman reunited with them. From there, they were guided to Philadelphia. However, the newly passed Fugitive Slave Act made it increasingly dangerous for Eastern Shore runaways to reside in nearby "free" states. The Bowley's made their way to Canada in 1851, settling in Chatham, where a black fugitive community had developed.9 The 1861 Census confirms the Bowley's presence, now with a total of seven children.10

    John and Kessiah's family ultimately returned to Dorchester County in the late 1860's, after a brief stay at Tubman's home in Auburn, New York.11 They are  recorded as living in Church Creek in the 1870 Census, along with her elderly father Harkless Jolley.12 By 1880, their grown son Harkless had married and become a school teacher, but still lived next door to his aging parents.13 Kessiah Bowley originally registered her will with the Dorchester County Court in 1888, but it was not filed until her death in 1897.14 Considering that her will stipulated that John be given certain real estate, he must have been alive at that point. However, there is no further documentation to suggest when he ultimately deceased. Their children and other descendents continued to live in the area well into the 20th century.  

Footnotes - 

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

2. Dorchester County Court Papers, 1797-1851 "Levin Stewart to Sundry Negroes".

3. Ibid, p. . 

4. Ibid, pp. 76-77.

5. Dorchester County Circuit Court, Chattel Records, 1847-1852, Volume 776, pp. 61 - 62.

6. Ibid, p. 89. 

7. Ibid. 

8. Ibid. 

9. Ibid, p. 117. 

10. 1861 Census of Canada, Kent, Canada West, p. 135.

11. Larson, pp. 236-7.

12. 1870 United States Federal Census, Dorchester County, District 9, p. 10.

13. 1880 United States Federal Census, Dorchester County, Church Creek, District 29, p. 27. 

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

Researched and Written by David Armenti, 2012.

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