In February 2022, the New York State Archives announced that archivists had uncovered court records detailing the 1828 legal battle by Sojourner Truth to secure her enslaved son Peter’s freedom. According to archivist Jim Folts, this case was the first time in United States history that a Black woman successfully sued a White man for a family member’s freedom.
After passage of the New York State Gradual Emancipation Act in 1799, some slaveholders illegally sold enslaved Africans to Southern planters for the expanding cotton industry. When Sojourner Truth, then known as Isabella Van Wagenen, escaped from enslavement in 1826, her former “owner,” John J. Dumont of New Paltz, Ulster County, NY, sold her five-year old son Peter to Eleazer Gedney who planned to take the boy with him to England.
When this plan fell through, Eleazer Gedney sold Peter to his brother, Solomon Gedney, who resold Peter to their sister’s husband, a man named Fowler, who was a wealthy Alabama planter.
Sojourner Truth sued Fowler and Solomon Gedney and the Albany Supreme Court for permitting the illegal sale. Fowler, who faced kidnapping charges, transferred “ownership” of Peter back to Solomon Gedney to avoid indictment.
During the New York trial, Sojourner Truth sat in court to bear witness and the judge ruled that Peter “having no other master, no other controller, no other conductor” had to be returned to the custody of his mother. She describes the court case in her memoir The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1850).
The rediscovered court documents include a response from the New York slaveholder who illegally sold Peter and the court order freeing Peter from enslavement.
The case illustrates the ties between Northerners and Southerners as slavery, although increasingly banned in Northern states, remained a national institution.
The handwritten documents are often difficult to read and require judgments to determine what words and phrases were intended. Words that are completely unclear are marked with a triple x in the transcripts below.
The People of the State of New York by the Grace of God free and independent – To Solomon Gedney; Greetings: We command you that you have the body of Peter, a boy of color, detained in your custody and by your falsely and unjustly imprisoned as if said by whatever name he may be called together with the day and cause of the taking and detaining the said Peter before our trusty and honorable Abraham Bruyn Hasbrouck a Commissioner to perform certain duties of a Judge of the Supreme Court be at his office in the town of Kingston in the County of Ulster, immediately after the receipt of this our writ to do submit to and receive all and singular those things which shall then and there be considered of him in this behalf.
Witness John Savage Esquire Chief Justice at the City of Albany the first of March in the year of our Lord One Thousand Eight hundred and twenty eight.
Romeyn Van Buren, attorney
Fairlie Paige Hubbard Clerk
Document B. March 10, 1828
The People vs Solomon Gedney
Romeyn Van Buren, attorney
By the Statute allowed 10th March 1828
A Bruyn Hasbrouck Commissioner to perform certain duties of a Judge of the Supreme Court
Charges of bringing the xxx named Peter Van Wagener and a half Cents for Van Wagener
A Bruyn Hasbrouck Commissioner
State of New York
Ulster County ss. Isabella Van Wagenen of New Paltz in the County of Ulster being duly sworn saith that Peter a boy of colour now of the age nine years was about two years ago sold by John L. Dumont of New Paltz xxx to Eleazer Gedney and said Eleazer Gedney gave or sold him to Solomon Gedney of New Paltz aforesaid shortly thereafter as she is informed and believes to be true – That said Peter was born since the fourth day of July in the year 1799 to wit about the month of July 1818 at the town of New Paltz in said county of Ulster and is the son of this deponent – and this deponent says that since the said Solomon Gedney became the master of said Peter he the said Peter has been absent since last spring from said town of New Paltz until within five or six weeks past and during that time has been constantly absent from the said town of New Paltz where said Solomon Gedney resides and has resided during the time aforesaid and has as this deponent is informed and believes been during all that time in some of the Southern States with the knowledge of said Solomon Gedney and in places without this state – and this deponent says that she is informed and believes and expects to be able to prove that the said Peter has been exported to some place or places without the State of New York for all the time aforesaid and that said Solomon Gedney did himself exported him a the time of aforesaid or aided or consented to such exportation contrary to the provisions of the Act of the Legislature of the State of New York entitled “An act concerning slaves” and contrary to the laws of said State of New York and the statutes in such case made and provided and that this deponent does believe that said Solomon Gedney in whose possession said Peter now is xxx again shortly to export said Peter xxx this state.
Her X Mark Isabella Van Wagener
Subscribed and sworn this 10th day of March 1828 before me A Bruyn Hasbrouck
Document C. March 15, 1828
The People vs Solomon Gedney
Habeas Corpus &
Romeyn Van Buren, attorney
Document D. March 18, 1828
This answer of Solomon W. Gedney to the writ of Habeas Corpus hereto annexed & issued by Abraham D. Hasbrouck Esq., directed to him by the name of Solomon Gedney Showith that the Boy Peter in said with named is now him present his own proper person, xxx to be delivered to the same A. Bruyn Hasbrouck Esq. the Com. who xxx with of Habeas Corpus.
That this respondent has himself no interest in or to the xxx after said Boy Peter in any other way than this. This respondents Brother Eleazar Gedney purchase the services of the said Boy Peter from John L Dumont of New Paltz in Ulster County some time since intended to make use of the services of said Peter as a body servant xxx take said Peter to the City of New York & afterwards sent him back to this respondent to keep the said Boy Peter, until he wanted the said Boy. That the said Boy Peter is now with him on the same terms. This respondent claiming no interest in him at all except as foresaid. That the same Eleazar Gebney has for some time past xxx nowhere in this State and now resides in the City of New York is this respondent’s believes. That the price paid to the said John L Dumont for said Peter’s services by the said Eleazer Gedney was Twenty Dollars. That this respondent never paid any part of the said money, xxx never claims any right Tittle or Interest in the services of said Boy Peter and only claimed those serves herefore as he was placed in his care by the said Eleazer Gedney. He submits the Boy Peter to the care & jurisdiction of the said A Bruyn Hasbrouck Com claiming himself no right or tittle to his services, nor has he ever detained said Boy Peter in his service against his consent to his knowledge or belief.
Document E. State of New York Ulster County, ss:
The Boy of Colour name Peter in the annexed writ of Habeas Corpus mentioned being brought before xxx the issuance of said writ on this fourteenth day of March 1828 and Solomon W. Gedney to whom the said write of Habeas Corpus was directed by the name of Solomon Gedney. Now here by a return in writing under his hand, presented by his Counsel, and which is here annexed, submits the said boy Peter to my order and direction and claims himself no rights or title to his services and denying that he has ever detained the said boy Peter in his service against his consent to his knowledge and belief. On motion of H. Mr. Romeyn Esq of Counsel I do declare and it is hereby ordered that the said boy Peter be and he is hereby discharged from the xxx custody and direction of the said Solomon W. Gedney and further that the late Writ of Habeas Corpus & the proceeding thereon be filed forthwith with the Clerk of the Supreme Court in the City of Albany.
Photos, from above: portrait of Sojourner Truth; and Writs of Habeas Corpus courtesy New York State Archives.