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Untold Lowell Stories : Black History

Betsey Cornwell and her daughter Caroline - Freedom Seekers

print of nineteenth century courthouse

Lowell Judicial Court House, 1856, UMass Lowell Libraries, Center for Lowell History.


Freedom Seekers: The Story of Betsey Cornwell and her daughter Caroline

Jesse Cornwell (1796-1852), was born in Prince William County, Virginia. When still a young boy, the Cornwell Family moved to Rockingham, North Carolina. In the mid-1820s, Jesse Cornwell purchased several slaves in North Carolina and resettled on a new plantation in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi.

According to Vox Populi, Lowell, October, 1858

A case of extraordinary interest….

“Jesse Cornwell, a rich planter in Mississippi, had a smart favorite slave names Betsey, who was employed in the confidential relation of housekeeper, and with whom he cohabited. The result of the cohabitation was a daughter, who is now 24 years old, smart, capable, intelligent and good looking. Her name is Caroline.

Cornwell, on his deathbed, requested his friend, Dr. Lewis Keyes (ed: Dr. Levi Keese) to take charge of his effects, including a considerable sum of money; and especially charged him, as soon as he could arrange to do so, to take Betsey and their child Caroline, to a Free State, and then see them comfortably located. For the special services Keyes was directed to take $5,000 cash. $4,000 of which was to be equally divided between the mother and the daughter and $1,000 to be retained for his own his services.

Instead of performing faithfully, this last dying request; it is alleged Keyes, immediately on the death of Cornwell, took the mother and daughter and hired them out at $100 a year each for a period of six years.

When he finally brought them with him North, arriving in Lowell in the later part of May last. They have been here with Keyes family under strict surveillance; since that time.

On Saturday last, the mother and daughter appeared before Isaac S. Morse, Esq. (ed: Isaac Stevens Morse, Lowell District Attorney) to whom they made a complaint and told their story. Mr. Morse on their behalf instituted a suit against Keyes for the recovery of the money given by Cornwell, and also their six years of labor.

Keyes was arrested by Deputy Sheriff E. L. Shed (ed: Edwin Luther Shed) and held to bail in the sum of $6,000. He claims that the women were given to him by Cornwell, but this is hard to believe. It is unnatural to suppose a father who according to the testimony of both mother and daughter never struck a blow per either of them, would consign his own child to the ownership of a man who has since, according to the same authority, flogged them both unmercifully, the marks of which the mother still bears.

We have seen and conversed with both mother and daughter, at the house of a private family with whom they are now stopping, and were impressed with the truthfulness of their story – The mother is a smart, intelligent woman, about 45 years old. The daughter, as before stated, is of prepossessing appearance, intelligent and modest, and among other accoutrements is a good dressmaker.

They will not suffer, though they are here without money, in a strange land, for in addition to District Attorney Morse, we are happy to lead to learn that General Benjamin Butler has signified a willingness to lend a helping hand to protect them in their rights.

There are several nice legal points involved in this case, all of which will be in due time elaborated, to say nothing of the political and moral elements – exciting side issues that will be forced upon it. Especially will the moral aspect of the case be interesting, as bringing before us a living witness and a practical demonstration of the worst feature of the “peculiar institution: of the South.”

There was later a case update in The Liberator, Boston, May 1, 1859

Before the time of trial, Keyes made a compromise with the counsel of the women, by which he gave to the said women a life lease of a small house in Lowell, and agreed to pay the a fixed sum of money semi-annually, thus virtually confessing judgement against himself, and confirming the essential truth of the women’s statement.

The women are now free, and beyond the power of this wretch, but the audacity of the attempt to hold them as Slaves, in Massachusetts, and its success, for a time, should be a warning to every friend of Freedom to employ the strictest vigilance, and to suffer no doubtful case to go unchallenged.”

From 1859-1870, Elizabeth Cornwell and her daughter, Caroline, lived in a small house on Chelmsford Street near Grand Street. Their home was refuge to a number of women and men of color who were born in the South and moved to Lowell to live and work. In 1870, Elizabeth Cornwell and her daughter, Caroline, disappear from the Lowell city records.

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