New York Slave Traders’ Matured Arrangements
From Free North Carolina
In June 1861, Captain Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, Maine, stood trial in New York City for engaging in the slave trade – apprehended by the USS Mohican off the Congo with 900 slaves aboard the Erie. His trial revealed the financial base of the slave trade in New England, and the great difficulty in obtaining convictions. Like Lt. Dunnington below, famed Southern blockade running Captain John Newland Maffitt was busy capturing New England slavers off the coast of Cuba in his prewar US Navy days.
Bernhard Thuersam, Chairman
North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission
"The Official Website of the North Carolina WBTS Sesquicentennial"
New York Slave Traders’ Matured Arrangements:
“[The slave trade] at this time [did not] impact the slave population of the South; slaves were being conveyed mainly from the Congo to Cuba, not to Richmond or Charleston.
The first issue to be addressed was that of Gordon’s citizenship. [An] old Portland sea captain named Richard Crockett testified that he knew Gordon, as well as his parents and siblings, [and that he had] “never heard that Gordon was born anywhere but in Portland [Maine] till to-day I heard he was born in the Mediterranean.”
The next issue to be determined was the nationality of the Erie….proof that the Erie was an American-owned ship would clear the prosecution’s way for conviction. [A] witness was Mason Barney, a shipwright from Swansea, Massachusetts, who had built the Erie, but testified he had not seen the ship since he finished her in 1849 and sold her to New York businessman Ralph Post. And though he had had a financial interest in her until seven or eight years previous, he “didn’t know who owned her in August, 1860.” What no one involved in the trial seemed aware of – except perhaps Gordon – was that Ralph Post was one of the partners…who had turned over the Erie to Gordon in Havana [to sail for the Congo].
Lieutenant John W. Dunnington was the ranking officer who boarded the Erie, arrested Gordon and his crew, and ultimately commanded the Erie on the trip to Monrovia [to free the slaves]. [When] the Civil War commenced, Dunnington resigned his commission to return to his home in Kentucky and serve in the Confederate navy.
It is difficult to imagine how any honest, intelligent juror could have harbored a reasonable doubt [of Gordon’s guilt]. They stood seven to five for conviction, with no hope of a unanimous verdict. [Judge] Shipman…declared a mistrial, on June 30 , and dismissed the jury.
Horace Greeley’s [New York] Tribune was…caustic in its condemnation of the jury’s findings. “It is a remarkable fact that the slave-traders in [New York City] have matured their arrangements so thoroughly that they almost invariably manage to elude the meshes of the law. Now they bribe a jury, another time their counsel or agents spirit away a vital witness…The truth is, the United States in Chambers Street, under the influences which have been brought to bear here, have become thoroughly corrupt.
(Hanging Captain Gordon, The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader, Ron Soodalter, Atria Books, 2006, pp. 108-115.