Documents Reveal Sojourner Truth’s Fight To Save Her Son

Youn 1828, years before she took the name Sojourner Truth, a Black woman who had escaped slavery with her infant daughter won a court fight in New York’s Hudson Valley to bring her son, Peter, home from Alabama.

This was an historic case in which a Black mother seeking to free her son from slavery won against a white male judge. Isabella Van Wagenen, as she was known then, would gain enduring fame as an outspoken abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. Her deposition as well as the other court documents were kept in a box and later placed among millions of records. These records are not known and often forgotten for their importance.

It was 194 years after.

The court records were discovered by a curious state archivist who was looking for other information in January. The court records will now be displayed briefly at the Ulster County Courthouse of Kingston, New York. It is this same building that she first entered nearly two centuries ago, seeking justice. Eight pages hand-written provide details on a pivotal turning point of her remarkable life.

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“This was extremely brave of Isabella,” said Nell Irvin Painter, author of Truth of Sojourners: A Life, A Sign. “Just the fact that she was a woman going up against powerful men, that’s extraordinary right there. Then you can add race and class. So it’s an amazing story.”

Painter will attend the Kingston event on Wednesday and be eager to see the historic documents that were discovered by accident.

The papers were kept safely at Albany’s climate-controlled New York State Archives for the last 40 years. They were uncovered there by Jim Folts, head of researcher services at the archives, who had been looking for habeas corpus examples from that era for a history book on New York’s courts.

After combing through boxes full of papers, he discovered one that was from 1828. It had a woman’s name on it, which was unusual for the time. He was intrigued and read the yellowed papers to see that Isabella Van Wagenen, the woman trying to free her son, had written his name on it.

“That rang the bell,” Folts said recently in an interview at the archives, “because Isabella Van Wagenen was then the name of the person who became known as Sojourner Truth.”

Researchers liken the surprise find to finding missing pieces. Truth later claimed that the incident took place in open court in autumn 1828. However, Folts stated in court papers that it actually occurred that spring. Her brief testimony stated that Peter was only nine years old.

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“We always wondered, ‘Where were these records?’” said Paul O’Neill, Ulster County’s commissioner of jurors.

The documents are written in the same sort of lawyer-speak still used in courts today, including Van Wagenen’s testimony. She could neither read nor write, but left a simple “X” on the page by her name.

“This is her DNA left behind on this document. The rest is legalese and all of that,” said State Archivist Thomas Ruller, pointing at the mark on the page. “This is Sojourner Truth, this is where she shows up in this story.”

After being born in slavery in 1797, Hudson Valley, she fled with her baby girl to the house of her former owner. He had reneged on the promise to let her go. She worked for Van Wagenen and adopted their surname.

Her son Peter was then sold to slavery in Alabama. Peter, who was indentured as a servant for the rest of his life in New York City until then, was sold during the phase-out of New York slavery. The sale of Peter was not legal.

With the fear of never seeing him again she took him to Kingston for his return. Painter claimed that Painter relied on the support of two lawyers and her belief in the Holy Spirit.

The grand jury proceeding apparently was enough for the man who had sold Peter to request that he be sent back to New York. They were reunited after she applied for a habeas corpus writ. Peter was released March 15, 1828 by the Supreme Court Commissioner who acted with the powers of a Judge.

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It was believed to be the first time a Black woman successfully sued white men to get her son released from slavery, though it’s possible there were other cases researchers are unaware of.

It was bittersweet to see them again. Peter’s body showed evidence of beatings and it took the traumatized child time to accept his mother. Painter claimed that Peter didn’t have an easy childhood.

“He ended up, as many troubled young men did at that time, on a Nantucket whaling vessel, and he was finally lost at sea,” Painter said.

Van Wagenen, who was born Sojourner Truth on 1843, lived an additional 40 years.

They were then shipped to Albany with the court papers. They were transferred to the newly founded Court of Appeals in 1847 upon a reorganization of the state court system, and stayed at New York’s top court for more than a century. The records came to the state archives in 1982, stored in anonymity until Folts’ serendipitous discovery this winter.

“There are thousands of these boxes, millions of these documents,” Ruller said. “And many of them will contain the stories of other individuals who may not be as well known or well heard of. But their stories are just as important.”

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