Generations a Slave: Unlawful Bondage and Charles Carroll of Carrollton

This post was written by Julita Braxton, EBSCO Project Cataloger

Portrait of Solomon Northup from his memoir, 12 Years a Slave

Challenges to the legality of bondage, shown in acclaimed director Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave—which won the Best Picture for Drama at the Golden Globes on Sunday night—are not without precedence, as evidenced by a document held in the manuscript collections of the New-York Historical Society: a list of persons to be freed. While the film tells the story of the unlawful enslavement in 1841 of Solomon Northup, a free African American from upstate New York, the N-YHS list is related to an earlier case in Maryland. Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the movie, was kidnapped in 1841 on the streets of Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he labored for twelve years on bayou plantations.

Title page of an 1853 printing held in the collections of the New-York Historical Society (E444.N87)
Title page of an 1853 printing (E444.N87)

His 1853 memoir depicts the horrors of American chattel enslavement from the perspective of a freeborn man who had lived that way for decades. His slave narrative went on to contribute to the national dialogue on abolition. Northup was unsuccessful in his pursuit of legal action against his captors, as the laws of the jurisdiction prohibited his testimony against a white man in the nation’s capital, the scene of the crime.

A half century before, in the courts of the neighboring Upper South state of Maryland, Charles Mahoney successfully challenged the legality of his enslavement. Mahoney brought suit in 1791 against Father John Ashton, an influential Catholic Procurator General, Jesuit missionary, head of the White Marsh Mission, and slave owner. Mahoney received a favorable ruling in Maryland’s Court of Appeals in May of 1799. Mahoney’s counsel had successfully argued that he be manumitted on the grounds that he was a descendant of a freewoman, Ann Joice, who had been unlawfully enslaved. (Joice’s descendants had long asserted their freedom, and in 1770 her grandsons, the brothers Jack Wood and Jack Crane, took an axe to the neck to the man who claimed to be their overseer.)

From the collection of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Manuscript Department, New-York Historical Society
From the collection of Charles Carroll of Carrollton

The 1799 verdict in Mahoney v. Ashton not only freed Charles Mahoney, but also all known descendants of Ann Joice. Her descendants were owned not only by Ashton, but also by several other Maryland planters.

Portrait File, PR 52.
Portrait File, PR 52.

One such person in possession of Mahoney’s relatives was Ashton’s cousin, Charles Carroll of Carollton (1737-1832), a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

In compliance with the court ruling, Carroll accounted for Joice descendants currently held at his estate at Doughoregan, and those formerly owned by him.

 “The above is an exact list of all the negroes that were sold and who obtained their freedom belonging to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq.” “I desire that the commissioners may have the above negroes taken off of my assessment and those who have been sold assessed to the respective purchasers mentioned in the above list which is signed by my clerk on Doughoregan Manor”.
“The above is an exact list of all the negroes that were sold and who obtained their freedom belonging to Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq.”

In May of 1799, Carroll took an inventory of Mahoney’s relations, including a list of the names of 23 newly freed persons, and “A list of negroes sold on Doughoregan Manor since December the 2d, 1799 by Mr. Carroll.” In consequence of legal reversals, for a few more years, Mahoney’s family continued to petition the Maryland courts for manumission, with a final favorable ruling being delivered in 1802.

“A list of negroes who obtained their freedom of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq., in May, 1799 – in consequence of the verdict obtained by Charles Mahoney against the Rev. Mr. John Ashton, May Term, 1799”
“A list of negroes who obtained their freedom of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Esq., in May, 1799 – in consequence of the verdict obtained by Charles Mahoney against the Rev. Mr. John Ashton, May Term, 1799”

Mahoney v. Ashton is an illuminating example of late-eighteenth-century abolitionist movement in the Upper South.



  1. Ingrid says

    Thank you for such an informative article relating to the current film. Americans need more films and web articles like this so that it serves as a constant reminder of the mistakes of our past so as not to repeat those mistakes in more subtle ways.

  2. Helen Agent says

    Thank you for this new information about Charles Carroll. I am in the process of researching my family history. I do know my ancestors were slaves of Mr. Carroll. Right now I’m trying to find out whether or not Mr. Carroll ever manumitted his slaves. I keep getting mixed information. Some says he did manumit and some says he never freed any slaves. This has been an eye-opening journey that I plan to continue until I have found everything that concerns my ancestors. Actually, I am enjoying the ride.

    • Dr. Kathleen Minnix says

      Do you know what your ancestor’s name was? I’m working on a biography of the Carroll family and have slave records from various sources. Feel free to contact me.

    • says

      Please contact me. I’d love to speak with you regarding a project I’m working on. I recently learned that I’m a descendant of Charles Carroll and I’m looking to speak with some descendants of those who were enslaved by him.


      Loki Mulholland

      • Kim says

        Ms. Agent and I are related and both (along with another family member) have been researching our connection to the Carrolls. I would love to speak with you.

    • Melva Shipley says

      Looking for all information related to CARROLL Slaves. The Shipleys were enslaved by the Carrolls. Please email at your convenience. I have traced our family back to a slave born in 1692 – Lucy of the Ironworks.

    • Diane Fama says

      I was told that I was a descendant of the carroll family. Because I am “white” I thought it was plausible. I recently did a dna test and found out that my great great grandfather who was from Maryland was actually african and native. The story goes that he was born in 1848 and when he was 12 he ran away with a regiment from ny during the Civil war coming to brooklyn, never to return to Maryland. I can’t find those records but ancestry has matched me with african Americans with connectons to the carroll family. My gg grandfather’s name was William Reed. Any information would be appreciated.

    • Kathleen Carroll says

      Thanks for the great information.

      I am also doing some research on the family for a graduate project and would love to share information with you or your readers regarding the Carrolls and slavery.

      If interested, please drop a note to indexrex@gmail.com.

  3. says

    Helen Agent and Dr. Kathleen Minnix,

    Please contact me if you see this message. I’m working on a project that incorporates Charles Carroll which is a direct relative of mine and I want to speak with some of the descendants of those he enslaved.


    Loki Mulholland

  4. Tamika Carroll says

    I’d love any information anyone can give me on more African American people that were owned by the Carroll’s……my father was born in Mt. Vernon NY.

  5. Debbie Snyder Rousseau says

    I am searching for slave records for the Ambush family who were on the Carroll land owned by Hezekiah Trundle. They may have been bought with the land from the Carroll family because one of them is buried in St. Joseph’s Cemetery on the Carroll farm. Do you have any records on Robert, Oscar, Frederick, Patrick, or Edward Ambush from just before the Civil War? They did stay in Buckeystown area after they were freed. My grandchildren are descendants and would love to find out where they Ambush family came from and how they got their last name. THANK YOU for any help.

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