Mary Richardson,"Free Woman"

A slave woman carries a basket

On the eve of the Civil War, the state of Maryland continued to have numerous laws in place that contributed to the oppression of African Americans, both slave and free. Of all the slave states, Maryland had the largest free black population from 1810 to 1860. The state legislature and the inhabitants of Maryland debated the issue of slavery amid growing concerns about the burgeoning free black population. Enslaved individuals could more easily escape to freedom due to Maryland's shared border with Pennsylvania, an abolitionist state, and could disappear amongst the large numbers of free blacks in Maryland. Even in Maryland's western counties, where slavery was less prevalent, slavery and intolerance still persisted as the nation readied itself for war.

In September 1860, Mary Richardson, a free black woman who lived in Frederick County, Maryland, was accused of assisting a slave named Jackson Nickles (Nicholls) to run away from his owner, William Eader. Eader, who owned a large farm outside of the Frederick city limits, and another farmer offered a $400 reward for Nickles (Nicholls) and another slave who ran away with him. Mary Richardson appeared before the Frederick County Circuit Court during the October 1860 term. Four court documents relating the details of Richardson's case have survived to the present day.

Richardson had much to lose if she were found guilty of assisting a runaway slave. At the time, free blacks accused of aiding slaves could be jailed and sold into slavery, usually outside the state of Maryland. Her court case is signigficant because, as the documents indicate, she argued that she was a "free woman" and not a "free negro" or "free negress." The final document shows that Richardson was successful in her plea and was released on the information that "her mother was a white woman."

The strategic interplay of race and gender in this case are worth noting. Richardson used her knowledge of existing race and gender relations in order to make her case. She knew that if the court would believe her mother were white, she might gain the sympathy of the all white, male court, regardless of whether or not she had actually committed the supposed crime. Richardson, and her lawyers, likely understood that the more she could link herself to the white ideal of womanhood, the more she would be seen as a "free woman."

Mary Richardson almost certainly did not know how to read or write, but there is still a record of her life to be found in the archives. She did not create these documents that record an important event in her life, so taking perspective into account when examining these historical documents is important. What terminology would Mary Richardson have used to describe herself and her situation if she were writing about her own experiences in the courtroom?


Frederick County Circuit Court documents, 1860

These four Frederick County circuit court documents relate to Mary Richardson's criminal case, which took place between October and December 1860. The documents reveal that Richardson made a plea to the court to forgive her alledged crime based on her status as the daughter of a white woman. Mary Richardson's whereabouts and life experiences after the trial and during the impending Civil War are not known.

Document Transcriptions


Additional documents:
Maryland Manuscripts Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

Newspaper Advertisment, 1860

Reward advertisement for the return of Jackson Nickles (Nicholls) from the October 24, 1860 issue of the Frederick Examiner.
Maryland Manuscripts Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

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