To be Young, Black, and Manumitted: The Case of the Chase Family in Delaware

What did freedom look like for the Chase family?

By: Ruth Decosse | Posted: 7-7-2022

The story of the Chase family begins with the enslaved relatives Ann and Sewell Chase. Ann Chase was born in 1824 and Sewell was born in 1835. In 1842, Henry Chase was born, followed by Charles Chase in 1846, and Laura in 1850.[1]It is not clear whether or not Ann was mother to Henry, Charles, or Laura or what their relationship was to each other. They could have been cousins or siblings. However they all were of the Chase family and they were all enslaved by the same man, Rathmell Wilson, President of the Board of Trustees of Delaware College.[2] It is not clear when Wilson acquired all the Chases, but we know he enslaved them by early 1850 – because later that year, he manumitted them.[3]

Manumission was a legal process that allowed slave owners to “free his/her slaves either immediately or at some point in the future.”[4] While laws surrounding manumission defined the process for making a manumission official and legal, it didn’t set a time or age by which an enslaver had to make the manumission effective. As a result, a majority of manumissions in Delaware were conditional and not immediate – enslaved people only became free when they reached an age or condition determined by their white owners.[5]  This practice created a large class of Black people who were neither free nor slave, living in what historian Patience Essah calls “quasi-freedom.”[6] Some slaveholders allowed these quasi-free Blacks to live as free persons, but legally, these quasi-free people remained bound to their slaveholders until their manumission was complete.[7]

The Chase family helps us understand and explore these complications in manumission processes.[8]  In Newark, Delaware during the nineteenth century they were first enslaved and then manumitted – but still bound to labor – by wealthy and influential white people. In 1810, there was a law passed by the Delaware legislature that “balanced the interests of state, owner, and half-free black,” and clarified the half-free system.[9] The law stated that quasi-free Blacks were considered slaves until the terms of their contract were met: those who completed their terms of servitude would be considered fully free, while quasi-free Black people who attempted to breach their contract prematurely could face additional years of service; children born from those who were quasi-free were considered slaves until twenty-five if male, and twenty-one if female. However, this 1810 law forbade the permanent enslavement of the children of quasi-free-Blacks. [10] Young, Black and manumitted – it is under these laws that the Chases fought for their freedom.

In the case of the Chases, Wilson set their manumission date on April 1, 1850, the day after Easter, a common day for Christian slaveholders to display charity and generosity.[11] Manumissions became increasingly popular as anti-slavery religious sentiments grew in the 19th century and given the religious holiday Rathmell Wilson manumitted them on, perhaps he acted out of religious pressure. Each Chase member was denied full freedom and through the manumission laws, each was given different amounts of continued servitude. All except Laura were to be freed in their mid-twenties. Though manumitted, the Chases were sold to other white families and found themselves living in new, and separate, households. Ann, Laura, Henry and Charles were sold to the Holtzbeckers, while Sewell was sold to the De Havens, both neighbors.[13]  Despite being promised freedom in the future, the the Chase family was still subjected to the horrors of slavery: their labor legally belonged to others, and they were subject to sale and family separation.

 

Manumission for Ann, Laura and Sewell Chase

After Ann and Laura were manumitted on April 1, 1850 by Rathmell Wilson, their freedom date was set for early 1851.[14] After showing up in the 1850 census in the Holtzebecker household,[15] Ann and Laura Chase drop out of the historical record. Unfortunately, no other information on Ann and Laura has yet been found in subsequent censuses or historical documents – a common problem for African American women and girls during this time period. Without further evidence, it’s not clear if Ann and Laura survived the rest of their servitude and were freed in 1851. Perhaps they did, and Ann married and changed her last name, as well as her daughter’s name, and so emerged elsewhere in legal records. Sewell Chase was manumitted when he was sixteen years old, but his freedom was deferred another 8 year, until he was twenty-four years old.[16] During manumission, he was sold for $175 by the Holtzbecker household to Jacob De Haven to work as a servant.[17] The Holtzebeckers, like other wealthy families in Newark, often bought and sold young slaves, manumitting them, and then using their unfree labor for long periods of time.[18] Sewell Chase’s life, like that of Ann and Laura, goes silent in the records after showing up in the 1850 census in the De Haven household.[19] These erasures could be due to the  lack of documentation of Black lives in the antebellum period. Official disinterest has caused great harm to those whose ancestors were enslaved, making it extremely difficult or impossible to trace their ancestry.

 

Henry Chase and Charles Chase

The record for Henry Chase’s life is a little more detailed compared to Sewell, Ann, and Laura. He was manumitted at the age of eight, and due to be set free at twenty-three years old.[20] When he reached his freedom at twenty-three, Henry enlisted in the Union Army in Norristown, Pennsylvania with the 2nd U.S. Colored Cavalry.[21] Henry Chase later joined the 2ndCalvary at Norfolk, Virginia in April of 1865 and sailed to Texas with the regiment in June of that same year.[22]Though manumitted and done with his time of servitude, Henry Chase decided to risk his life to fight against slavery. It is striking that Henry immediately went to fight against slavery upon being freed.

Born in 1844/1846, Charles was manumitted by Rathmell Wilson in 1850 and due to be free at the age of twenty-three like Henry.[23]  In February of 1864, Charles Chase enlisted in one of the few African American units in New York, the 31/26 USC regiment in Tarrytown.[24] At the time of his enlistment, Charles is about twenty years old, yet according to his manumission documents, he was due to be set to be fully free by twenty-three. Thirty years later, Charles Chase was admitted at the age of fifty into the National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers in Hampton, Virginia in 1895 for health problems. Subsequent to his admission to the hospital, Charles lived and worked as a cook in Washington, D.C. He was receiving a pension and was married, but widowed, and was survived by at least one child, his son George E. Chase. [25] Charles’ life was cut early due to health reasons. Though it is not said if these health conditions came about as a result of his life as a slave and soldier, it can be inferred that his jobs took a toll on his health.

There are still many questions and gaps that are not answered, and may, unfortunately, never be answered. What was the fate of the other Chase family members? Where did the Chase family come from? Why did Rathmell Wilson manumit, and then sell them? The involvement of the Holtzbecker and the De Haven families in UD history is not yet known, what can be drawn out is that each family had transactions with Rathmell Wilson. Using the Chase family, these three families played along in a popular system that abused young Black people while waving a distant flag of freedom in their faces. It is important for the stories of these Black families adversely affected by UD’s leaders to be drawn out and bought to life so that the University, its faculty and students acknowledge and honor their lives.

The University today does not acknowledge Rathmell Wilson’s involvement with slavery, or how other white families connected to Delaware College partook in the institution of slavery. Perhaps the University is ashamed of these characters in their history, and do not highlight them as much as other leaders in order to avoid negative reactions. This is not the correct way. Acknowledgement of the past is the first step in moving forward with the University’s racist past.

Ruth Decosse is a graduate of the University of Delaware’s MPA program (’22). While at UD, she was a Fellow for the Institute of Public Administration. Ruth graduated from UConn in 2020 with her BA in Africana Studies and Urban Studies.


[1] Jacob De Haven and Elizabeth Holtzbecker, White Clay Creek Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware, 1850 United States Census Federal Census, accessed via Ancestry.com.

[2] Letter to Rathmell Wilson, August 15, 1843, Box 1, Folder F23, Wilson Family Papers, MS303, Special Collections, University of Delaware Library, Newark, DE; Collin Willard, “Oppression in Antebellum Delaware,” Seminar Paper, HIST 460/660, University of Delaware, December 14, 2021.

[3] Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, Volume F-6, pp. 47-51.

[4] “Finally Free,” Delaware Public Archives, https://archives.delaware.gov/one-hundred-stories-exhibit/other-stories/finally-free.

[5] Patience Essah, A House Divided: Slavery and Emancipation in Delaware, 1638–1865 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1996), 76.

[6] Essah, 106.

[7] Ibid, 104.

[8] Ibid, 37.

[9] Ibid, 105.

[10] Ibid, 105.

[11] Ibid, 86.

[12] Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, Volume F-6, pp. 47-51.

[13] Jacob De Haven and Elizabeth Holtzbecker, White Clay Creek Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware, 1850 United States Census Federal Census, accessed via Ancestry.com.

[14] New Castle County, Delaware. Deed Book F-6, p. 48;  Essah, A House Divided, 96.

[15] Elizabeth Holtzbecker, White Clay Creek Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware, 1850 United States Census Federal Census, accessed via Ancestry.com.

[16] Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, Volume F-6, p. 51.

[17] J. Thomas Scharf, History of Delaware: 1609-1888 (Philadelphia: L. J. Richards & Co., 1888), 947; Eliza Holtzbecker, August 21,1850, Delaware Land Records, Delaware Public Archives, Roll Number 60, page 440.

[18] “Advertisement- Twenty-Five Dollars Reward.” American Watchman (Wilmington, Delaware) July 18, 1810, p. 3. Manumission of Negro Girl, Grace, by Holtzbecker siblings, March 18, 1834, New Castle County, Delaware Public Archives, Delaware Land Record, Roll Number 4, page 126.

[19] Jacob De Haven, White Clay Creek Hundred, New Castle County, Delaware, 1850 United States Census Federal Census, accessed via Ancestry.com.

[20]  Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, Volume F-6, p. 50.

[21] Henry Chase in U.S. Civil War Soldiers 1861-1865, accessed via Ancestry.com.

[22] Ibid.

[23]  Deed Books of New Castle County, Delaware, Volume F-6, p. 47.

[24] Abstracts of Muster Rolls of the 26th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops from New York State, New York State Archives, accessed via Ancestry.com.

[25] Charles Chase, The National Archives in Washington, D.C, Historical Register of National Homes for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers, 1866-1938, Series M1749, p. 11532.