In 1828, years before she took the name Sojourner Truth, a black woman who had escaped slavery with her newborn daughter won a court battle in New York’s Hudson Valley to bring her son, Peter, home from Alabama.
It was a landmark case of a black woman seeking to free her son from prevailing slavery in court against a white man. Isabella van Wagenen, as she was known then, would achieve an enduring reputation as an outspoken abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. As for her statement and the rest of the court documents, they were boxed and eventually archived among a million other records, unseen and unrecognized for their importance.
Until 194 years later.
An eagle-eyed state archivist looking for something else looked at court records in January. Now, they will be on public display Wednesday at the Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston, New York, the same building in which she was seeking justice nearly two centuries ago. Eight handwritten pages provide new details about a turning point in her eventful life.
“It was the sheer bravery of Isabella,” said Nell Irwin Painter, author of “Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol.” “Just the fact that she was a woman going up against powerful men, it’s extraordinary there. And then you add in race, and then you add in class. So it’s an amazing story.”
The painter will be in Kingston on Wednesday among people eager to see the historical documents found by chance.
For the past 40 years, the papers have been securely, if anonymously, stored at the climate-controlled New York State Archives in Albany. They were uncovered there by Jim Foults, head of research services at the archives, who was looking for examples of habeas corpus from that era for the history book in New York courts.
Through boxes of documents, he found one from 1828. It had a female name on it, which was unusual for the time. Growing interest, he read the yellow paper and saw the woman Isabella van Wagenen trying to free her son from slavery.
“She rang the bell,” Folts said in a recent interview at the Archives, “because Isabella Van Wagenen was the name of the man who became known as Sojourner Truth.”
Researchers liken the surprising discovery to coming across the missing puzzle pieces. Although Truth later recalled that the incident took place in open court in the autumn of 1828, court papers indicate it took place in the spring, and not in open court, Foltes said. In her brief statement, she said that Peter was 9 years old.
“We always thought, ‘Where were these records? Paul O’Neill, Ulster County Jury Commissioner.
The documents are written in the same kind of lawyer-speak that is still used in courts today, including Van Wagenen’s testimony. She could neither read nor write, but left on a simple “X” page with her name.
“It’s his DNA that’s left behind on this document. The rest is legal and all that,” said State Archivist Thomas Ruler, pointing to the mark on the page. “It’s Sojourner Truth, right here in this story.” gives.”
Born into slavery in the Hudson Valley in or around 1797, she moved with her newborn daughter from her last owner’s home in 1826, when he reneged on her promise to free her. She went to work for the Van Wagenen family, and took their surname.
Meanwhile, her son Peter was sold into slavery in Alabama. The sale occurred during the gradual phase of slavery in New York, where Peter would have been an indentured servant until he grew up. But it was illegal to sell Peter to another state.
Faced with the prospect of never seeing him again, she goes to court in Kingston to get him back. Painter said she relied on the two lawyers associated with her and her belief in the Holy Spirit.
A grand jury proceeding was apparently enough to induce the man who sold Peter to send him back to New York. But it was his application for a writ of habeas corpus that led him to rejoin. Acting with the powers of a judge, the Commissioner of the Supreme Court ordered Peter to be freed on March 15, 1828.
It is believed to be the first time a black woman successfully sued white men to free her son from slavery, although it is possible that there were other cases that researchers were unaware of.
It was a bitter union. Peter’s body showed evidence of beatings and it took time for the victim child to accept his mother. Peter’s life was not easy, Painter said.
“He ended up, as did many troubled youths on the Nantucket whaling ship at the time, and he was finally lost at sea,” Painter said.
Van Wagenen took the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 and lived another 40 years.
From that day onwards the court papers were sent north to Albany. He was transferred to the newly established Court of Appeals in 1847 upon the reorganization of the state court system, and served on New York’s top court for more than a century. The records arrived in the state archives in 1982, stored in oblivion until the Faults’ grave discovery this winter.
“These are thousands of boxes, millions of these documents,” Ruler said. “And many of them will include stories from other individuals who may not be as well-known or heard of. But their stories are just as important.”