Notes on Manumission Papers in the History San Jose Research Library & Archives
Roxanne L. Nilan,
History San Jose
November 8, 2016
In early October 1852, James Washington Finley arrived in the Santa Clara Valley with his wife and seven children following an arduous overland journey from Missouri. With them traveled two men, perhaps unwillingly, who might otherwise have been lost to history. In a 1922 memoir by Finley’s son Newton, these two men are listed merely as “Black Sam” and “Black Plim.” (1) Within weeks of arriving, 38-year old Sam, and Plim, 34 (as “Clem”) were recorded in the California state census, again without last names, living with the Finley family near present day Campbell. For each of the two men, their recorded occupation is eye-catching: slave. (2)
Two years later, in November 1854, James Finley freed both men. The manumission papers of Sampson Gleaves and Plim Jackson, preserved today at History San Jose, are rare in California, and provide clear evidence of African-American slavery in the Gold Rush state, but they also raise questions about Sam and Plim as well as about pioneer white families like the Finleys and their neighbors in the Santa Clara Valley. (3)
Perhaps it was James’ exhaustion after six months of travel, and Margaret’s death soon after reaching Santa Clara, that resulted in his admission to Sheriff John Yontz, the 1852 census taker, that the two men were his slaves. Since it was James, not Sam or Plim, who was answering on behalf of those in his household, he could just as easily have said “laborer,” “cook,” or “servant.” More likely, his Finley and Campbell relations, now living in the Valley, had made it clear that California, notoriously admitted to the Union in 1850 as an anti-slavery state, was also notoriously irregular in determining what that meant for either slave or slave owner once they arrived in the state. In any event, Finley seemed little worried about being challenged as a slave-owner. (4)
By comparison, another 1852 resident, Dr. L. H. Bascom, listed “David,” a 24-year old Kentucky-born black man with no last name, as a laborer. An 1887 recollection by Bascom’s wife, Anna Maria, mentions their 1850 purchase, in California, of a black man for $800, who stayed with them for four years. It seems that Dr. Bascom chose not to disclose David’s true status to the census taker. (5)
Having officially recorded the mens’ status as “slave,” James unknowingly had started the legal clock ticking on his “ownership.” Earlier that year, the state legislature had passed a fugitive slave law more rigorous and pro-slavery than the federal law. Between 1852 and 1855, its enforcement depended less on the merits of the case than on the peculiarities of the lawyers and judges involved, but much depended on the length of time a slave-owner had remained in California with his alleged “property.” In a state where African-Americans, slave or free, were generally unwelcome, the owner had a good chance of keeping his “slave property” if he could prove that he was a temporary resident and intended to take the slave back to a slave state, or, if he had returned South, hired agents to find and return his “property.” (6)
Finley clearly did not bring his large young family to California for a visit. Custom expected him to free Sam and Plim within a year of arriving. While the law was unclear, many California-bound slave owners also promised manumission in exchange for a worry-free trip overland, as suggested by Finley’s wording on their freedom papers, acknowledging his full “receipt of all demands … for further services” from Gleaves and Jackson. (7) Perhaps the death of Finley’s wife, his need of help (his 7 children were all under the age of 14), and doubts about making a go of this California move, were convenient excuses for waiting more than two years. And perhaps he felt little social pressure, living largely among neighbors and family from Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Texas.
The African American population around San Jose was small (an estimated 49 in a county population of around 8,000) and Plim and Sam had few legal options. Nevertheless, Finley, now settled and remarried, legally freed them in November 1854. (8) The two papers were witnessed by his brother, Asa Wallace Finlay, well-known in the Santa Clara Valley, and then serving as County Coroner (1853-55). (9)
Interestingly, both records were filed with the Santa Clara County recorder in November 1855, a full year after their creation, at the request of Sam and Plim. Why did they take this extra step? Had these papers been kept in the Finley home, or hidden away by Sam or Plim until that time? Were they aware of fugitive slave cases elsewhere in California where such precious documents had been stolen or destroyed by kidnappers and “slave catchers”? At least one well-reported case, in 1853, had been won by an alleged fugitive, whose freedom papers had been kept safe by a sympathetic lawyer. Someone involved understood that the 1852 California Fugitive Slave Law was clear: the burden of proof was on the accused “escaped slave.” Since African Americans did not have the right to testify in court, manumission papers were vital. (10)
In this case, the county recorder, Solomon A. Clark, was well known to both Asa and James Finley. Unlike many of Santa Clara County’s officials, Clark and Finley were not Democrats or associated with that party’s pro-slavery politicians, lawyers, and judges (including the notorious Santa Clara County Judge Joshua W. Redman) who held influential posts throughout the state. Rather, they were colleagues among the county’s small Whig party, an organization desperately trying to avoid the slavery question. To avoid any misconstructions, Clark carefully noted that James Finley was well known to him, and that Finley had freely and voluntarily executed the manumission documents. Having recorded the transaction, Clark then filed the two documents among county property records, where they would be found more than 150 years later, preserved at History San Jose among deeds and other Santa Clara County property transactions. (11)
Unfortunately, the trail of Plim Jackson and Sampson Gleaves goes cold after 1855. Some information from Finley family records, however, reveals a bit of their earlier lives. James Finley’s father, Asa Finley (1769-1853) had been a successful farmer and land investor in Saline County, Missouri, and before 1819-20, in Kentucky, Plim’s birthplace. Asa Finley Sr.’s will, executed in 1853, records earlier gifts to his children to document a fair proportion to each. Regarding James, the eldest son, Asa states: “I have also given to my said son James W. Finley a negro man named Plim, valued at four hundred dollars and for which I have not taken a receipt, making the whole amount given to him three thousand two hundred & three dollars. I therefore give him nothing at this time.” (12) The 1850 US Census for Missouri (slave schedule) reveals that among seven nameless slaves owned by James W. Finley is a 32-year old man, likely Plim. Little else is known of Plim Jackson, including the source of his last name, although it is likely related to his earlier life in Kentucky. (13)
Sampson Gleaves probably took (or was given) his last name from the family name of James Finley’s mother, Esther Gleaves. Esther (1786-ca.1839), the first of three wives of Asa Finley (Sr.), came from an established Virginia slave owning family. The extended Finley and Gleaves families had settled in Kentucky and Missouri and maintained close personal, business and property connections. (14)
Sampson Gleaves and Plim Jackson might have been lost to history altogether, two men without last names. Subsequent accounts of the Finley-Campbell overland journey have leapt to the conclusion that the two men were among the teamsters and cooks “hired to help” the family during the overland journey. (15) Many local histories of pioneering white families assume that Anti-Slavery California was slave-less, and that all who headed overland did so willingly. If we could only ask Sam and Plim if they, too, saw the journey as a new beginning. How can we know who they left behind, or if other family members may have been sold for funds needed to prepare for the arduous overland journey? Without connections made between memoirs by white settlers, manumission papers, census records, and other documentation, the special nature of the Black emigrant experience is a missing piece of the Gold Rush puzzle.
(1) Finley, Newton Gleaves, “Memoirs of Travel, from Saline County, Missouri, to San Jose, California in 1852,” Oregon Genealogical Society Quarterly (Oregon Genealogical Society, 2001). Original at Bancroft Library, C-D5182. (This 1922 recollection is also available online at the “Campbells of Southwest Virginia” website (philnorf.tripod.com) as “Memoirs of Travel,” by Newton Gleaves Finley, with an introduction by Phil Norfleet.) The James Finley family was part of the Benjamin Campbell overland party, a small party of 44 made up of four related families; Benjamin, later founder of Campbell, California, was Margaret Finley’s brother. James’ brother Asa was married to another sister, Mary Jane Campbell. On the Campbells, see “Benjamin Campbell,” in Pen Pictures from The Garden of the World or Santa Clara County, California, Illustrated, Edited by H.S. Foote (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1888) 526-527. On the Finleys, see The Descendants of John Finley (?-1783) fourth generation. (accessed October 25, 2016 at http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~cascgs/finley/aqwg05.htm#18940, and “John Pettis Finley,” in History of Oregon (Chicago: Pioneer Historical Publishing Co., 1922. 384-385).
(2) California Census, October 12, 1852, Santa Clara County. Sam’s birthplace is recorded as Missouri, Plim’s as Kentucky. James and his wife, Margaret, were both born in Kentucky, their children all born in Missouri.
(3) Certificates of Manumission, History San Jose 1997-297-1 and 1997-214-35.
(4) James (1813-1865) and the children arrived around October 1; Margaret (1820-1852), ill with “mountain fever,” had been sent ahead and died near Santa Clara in late September. Both she and James, who died in 1865, are buried in Santa Clara.
(5) Mrs. Bascom recalled: “It was not till spring  that Doctor found a black man who could cook. He paid $800 for him. Folks said he wouldn’t stay—for, of course, he was free in California—but he did. He lived with us for four years.” M. H. Field, “Grandma Bascom’s Story of San Jose in ’49,” Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine 9:53 (May 1887) 549.
(6) On fugitive slave cases and the unpredictability of court judgments, see Rudolph Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California (New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 1977) and his Archy Lee (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1969), and William F. Franklin, “The Archy Case: The California Supreme Court Refuses to Free a Slave,” Pacific Historical Review 23 (1963) 137-154.
(7) Sampson Gleaves, 1997-297- 1; Plim Jackson’s release 1997-214- 35, is similarly worded.
(8) See Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California, and Herbert Ruffin, Uninvited Neighbors: African Americans in Silicon Valley, 1769-1990 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2014) on population figures. James married Tennessee-born Rebecca McCoy (1827-?) in May 1854. They had five children, all born in Santa Clara County: Thomas, ca. 1855; Margaret, 1857; Joseph., 1860; Rubin, 1862; and Irving, 1864.
(9) Missouri-born Asa Wallace Finley (1822-1910) and Mary Jane Campbell had arrived in California in 1846 with a large overland party of some 250 wagons led by her father, William Campbell (the “Donner Party” was a splinter group). The main party’s travel was, for the most part, carefully managed and safe. On arriving in the Sacramento Valley, Asa was among several men of the party recruited by John C. Fremont, to bolster his California Battalion during the Bear Flag revolt in 1846. Asa Finley are listed in the 1852 California state census with five children, two born in California, with no servants or slaves; however, other families listed nearby include Negro “servants” listed only by their first names. By 1860, the Asa Finley family had moved on to the San Joaquin Valley. See also U.S. Census Records, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1900; History of Kern County (1914) 1233. On the William Campbell wagon train, see David Campbell, “Pioneer of 1846: a sketch of the hardships endured by those who crossed the Great Plains in 1846,” Weekly Review [Porterville, CA] (July 1899. Available online, with an introduction by Phil Norfleet, at the “Campbells of Southwest Virginia” website, philnorf.tripod.com)].
(10) On the widely-reported 1854 case of the paper-less Stephen S. Hill, see Carlo M. De Farrari, “Stephen Spencer Hill, fugitive from slavery,” [Tuolomne County Historical Society] Quarterly 5:3 (1966), and Silvia Roberts, Mining for Freedom: Black History Meets the California Gold Rush (Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2008) 49-54. In 1853, a free young woman in Auburn averted kidnapping because her freedom papers were filed with a sympathetic local lawyer. The much-talked about George Mitchell case occurred in April 1855. See Lapp, Blacks in Gold Rush California, and his “Negro Rights Activities in Gold Rush California,” California Historical Society Quarterly (March 1966).
(11) Solomon A. Clark was born in Massachusetts in 1823. He had lived briefly in Mississippi as a youth, but returned north on coming of age. He left New York for California in 1850, where he worked as a bookkeeper and store keeper. He served as county recorder from 1853 to 1857, then maintained a successful grocery business. History of Santa Clara County, California (San Francisco: Alley, Bowen &; Co., 1881) 779-780. Clark and Asa Finley’s county service and their party affiliation is listed among County and Township Offices on pages 783-785.
(12) The Descendants of Matthew Gleaves (Gleaves Family Association, 2009), available at gleavesfamily.com/letters.
(13) In 1850, James is listed as owning 7 slaves ranging in age from 32 (likely Plim Jackson, who would be listed as 34 two years later in the 1852 California census) to a child of five months. Four children were under the age of 8; one or more of the children may have been related to the 26-year- old female recorded, and perhaps to one of the two men; however, while one of the children is listed as “black,” three are listed as “mulatto,” suggesting a mixed-race parentage at some point.) Two black women also are listed, first names only, as part of the family household in the 1850 Federal Census (Missouri) rather than on the slave schedule (there is no evidence that they were not slaves, but merely living in the same quarters as Finley’s family): Charlotte, 50-year old woman born in Virginia, and Georgina, 14, born in Missouri. This may be the “Charlotte,” who with a “Sampson” was inherited by Burrell Perry Jr. from Absalom Gleaves of Tennessee. Gleaves Family Records, #174 Division of estate of Absalom Gleaves, Davidson County Tennessee, March 16, 1835, Gleavesfamily.com.
(14) Red Herrings: Gleaves family records reveal several men named Sam or Sampson, in Virginia and Tennessee. One individual, listed in probate records of Esther’s brother James Turk Gleaves as “Young Sampson,” is not our Sampson Gleaves of California, but appears to be another Sampson Gleaves (1826-1915) who is documented in post-Civil War federal censuses as living in nearby Christiansburg, Virginia. This man is younger, and is listed as being married in 1854 in Virginia. U.S. Federal Census records, Virginia, 1870, 1880, 1900, 1910, and Virginia state marriage and death records.
(15) Jeannette Watson, Campbell: The Orchard City (Campbell Historical Museum Association, 1999) 33.