The Making of a Master
At the first light of day on a September morning in 1847, Lt. James Tilton crouched outside the high stone walls of Chapultepec castle, waiting for the order to attack. Chapultepec was the last bastion defending Mexico City from the American invaders. If it fell, Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana and his army would certainly surrender the city and lose the war.
Lieutenant Tilton had rested uneasily during the night, unsure how his company of riflemen would perform. Who would storm the fortress, exposed to fire from the defenders above? Who would be the first up the ladders? Overnight, officers had moved among the men, quietly offering promotions and cash to anyone willing to brave enemy bullets to place ladders against the walls and climb over the parapet.
Tilton needed no bribe. At age 28, he was a confident officer in the Voltigeurs, an elite rifle company in the U.S. Army. The Voltigeurs were patterned after the French cavalry, but they fought on foot, carrying the best rifles available. They were often used as sharpshooters to weaken the enemy in advance of the main infantry assault. Tilton wore his distinctive gray uniform with pride, following in the patriotic tradition of the
men and women in his family.
It was a fine tradition. During the Revolutionary War, his great-uncle James had served as George Washington's physician. The family treasured a lock of the general's hair, tied with ribbon and given to the doctor. While British soldiers had scoured the streets of Wilmington, Delaware, hunting for revolutionaries, young Tilton's grandmother had boldly sneaked two rebels out of the city, right under the eyes of the redcoats. Grandfather Tilton had fought in the revolution and earned a medal for his courage from the Marquis de Lafayette, a keepsake passed from eldest son to eldest son. Grandfather Gibson had smuggled cannons through the British blockade of Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.
So when President James Polk called for American patriots to fight against Mexico, James was eager to join up. Critics claimed that the war was a pretext to extend slavery in the Southwest, but that charge didn't bother the young man. A restless, determined ambition drove the Tiltons, generation after generation. James Tilton was the third in his family to bear the same name and the same belief in the country's destiny. He was ready to distinguish himself and eager to extend the American empire.
The first summer of warfare in Mexico had been brutal. In June, the Voltigeurs had landed, three hundred strong, at the beach of Vera Cruz and marched inland for weeks through the burning heat. They paused in their relentless push toward Mexico City for battles at Churubusco and El Molino del Rey, which Tilton would remember as the bloodiest battle of the war.
Four evenings later, the exhausted army moved into assault positions beneath the walls of Chapultepec. All day, American cannons had battered holes deep into the masonry walls of the castle, but the defenders had not surrendered. At dawn on September 13, the guns boomed again, but precisely at 8:00 a.m. they stopped—the signal for the attack. An eerie silence fell over the Voltigeurs who would lead the charge. Tilton readied his rifle and checked his cartridge belt.
Tilton's company was the first to rush forward along the south side of the castle. Mexican troops had covered an opening in an outer stone wall with a sandbag bunker, but the Voltigeurs broke through, hastily took cover, and laid a heavy fire on the castle above. The infantry charged across boggy ground and high grass as Mexican cannons sent showers of grapeshot and canisters smashing through the tops of cypress trees below the walls. Limbs crashed and fell as the soldiers ran, yelling and firing, until they stormed over breastworks, reached the outer walls, and took cover.
Once again the yells and thunder paused. Tilton watched from cover as the recruited volunteers hauled heavy ladders and pushed them up against the walls of the citadel itself. Waving regimental flags and cheering, the Voltigeurs scaled the ladders, leading the assault. As Tilton climbed, a Mexican defender's bullet tore across his cheek and up along his forehead, grazing his right eye. Ignoring the pain and the streaming blood, Tilton thrust himself over the wall and flung out the colors in triumph. After a brief rest, Tilton wiped the blood from his eyes and led his company along the causeway into Mexico City. The Mexican forces regrouped and fought back fiercely, but their general surrendered the city the next day, effectively ending the war.
Tilton made himself at home in Mexico City, one of 160 American officers who organized the Aztec Club—to play cards, drink, dine, and recover from their wounds. Gen. Winfield Scott honored the heroism of the officers who formed the club, praising their courage: “You have been baptized in fire and blood, and come out steel,” he told them. Tilton had joined his generation's military elite, which included an officer who would become the U.S. president—Franklin Pierce.
Like many of that elite, James Tilton supported the American imperial mission. Rather than waste time worrying about disagreements at home—slavery and race—they believed that the United States should expand aggressively throughout the continent, spreading the “experiment of liberty.” Tilton and others
had no doubt that it was the destiny of the United States to stretch across the continent, to seize land from any peoples who were in the way, and to become the benevolent masters of races they considered inferior.
The journalists and politicians back home were exultant that the Mexicans had been decisively beaten, but most veterans hated Mexico—the heat and the flies, the starving dogs, the whining beggars, the corrupt officials, and the Mexicans themselves who seemed servile and lazy. Tilton was eager to leave Mexico behind. The United States had gained new territory—Texas, Utah, Nevada, California and parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado—completing a national pathway across the continent to the Pacific. As the huge Mexican cession came under the U.S. flag, Tilton was ready to take America's measure—surveying it, laying it out, and setting it down on a map.
James knew early in his life that he would become a surveyor. He was born at the estate called Tilton Hill in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1819. His father, Dr. James Tilton, had grown up in a family that owned a few slaves, but he had left the land to study medicine. He worked as a doctor at the famous Dupont gunpowder works, but when land opened up for settlement in the new west, Dr. Tilton saw opportunity for himself and his sons. He started a medical practice in the bustling city of Madison, Indiana, splayed out on high bluffs above the Ohio River. Side- and stern-wheelers steamed up the Mississippi and Ohio, bringing coffee and spices from Asia to the port. Great mounds of coal, cured pork, and cotton waited on the levees along Front Street for export. The new state promised fame and wealth to determined men in return for their hard work.
On the western edge of the United States, everyone was claiming land. Treaties signed with the Indians opened land to settlers who would homestead. Surveyors spread out over the woods, meadows, and hills with their transits and compasses, plotting an orderly grid for homesteaders' claims. States and territories were surveying their boundaries, building canals, roads, and railroads.
At the young age of 14, James entered the state service of Indiana as an assistant engineer and rose rapidly in the ranks.
While his son surveyed Indiana, Dr. Tilton dabbled in land speculation. The state legislature had authorized construction of a railroad from Madison to Indianapolis, the new capital in the middle of the state. Anticipating the first station ten miles north of Madison, Dr. Tilton bought eighty acres of prime farmland and platted a town there in 1836. He named it Dupont in honor of the French family he admired. The Tilton family moved north to a home in the brand-new town, anticipating the railroad boom.
Out in the countryside near Dupont, the nation's ongoing argument over slavery turned local. To the southwest, antislavery settlers organized the Neil's Creek Abolition Society. They founded an antislavery church, boycotted slave-produced goods, and assisted fugitive slaves to escape pursuit on Indiana's Underground Railroad. With money from eastern abolitionists, they founded Eleutherian College and promised to educate black and mulatto children. Local opponents burned down the student dormitories, but the academy persevered for several years.
This vicious opposition was centered just a few miles away, southeast of Dupont. The Latta Tavern on Middlefork Creek was a meeting place, a “castle,” for a chapter of the secret society known as the Knights of the Golden Circle. The Knights wanted to create an American slaveholding empire, with Cuba at the center. Armed and dangerous, they threatened violence against abolitionists, harassment of free blacks, and capture of runaway slaves.
Living in the same township as both abolitionists and the Knights, Tilton's parents walked a careful middle ground. Over several generations, the Tiltons and the Gibsons had lived and prospered in border states in the uneasy space between slave and free—in central Delaware, eastern Maryland, and southern Indiana. Indiana was a free state and slavery was prohibited there, but Kentucky—right across the Ohio River—was a slave state. Madison's free black community offered secret havens for runaway
slaves who risked their lives for freedom, swimming the river by night to reach the Indiana shore.
The Tiltons in Delaware and the Gibsons in Maryland had owned slaves. Slavery was part of everyday life in America for millions, as was the threatened status of free blacks. Freed slaves had little education and few family connections to help establish them in the world. Instead they became indentured or apprenticed workers, trading their labor in exchange for training in a trade. After moving to Dupont, Dr. Tilton apprenticed a 9-year-old black boy, John Smith, and promised to train him as a farmer until he reached the age of 21. The boy owed his labor to the Tilton family for twelve years, without pay.
Dr. Tilton's death in 1840 put an end to his great plans for Dupont. Two years later, funds ran out for the railroad, which had hardly advanced beyond the town. Indiana's poor financial condition closed ambitious public works projects, ending the younger Tilton's job in 1842 and leaving him footloose. James Tilton returned home briefly to settle the estate to support his widowed mother, and then he set off around the world. James joined the U.S. Navy and served as a captain's clerk and then as purser, keeping accounts on several warships, from 1842 to 1845, visiting Africa and China and circumnavigating the world on the USS Perry. The restless young man had to get something out of his system—maybe conflict within the family, maybe a failed romance, maybe the loss of his father.
Once back in the States, he returned to surveying to earn his living. In the next few years, the life of a surveyor took him to boundaries between the territories of Iowa and Minnesota, to townships in Missouri and Mississippi, and to explorations for the transcontinental railroad from the upper Missouri to the upper Mississippi rivers. He was in Washington, DC, reporting the results of a land survey, when the United States declared war against Mexico, and Tilton gained an officer's commission in the Voltigeurs, an experience that would shape his political and racial views for the rest of his life.
James Tilton returned home in the summer of 1848 to barbecues celebrating the American triumph. Given a hero's welcome, he was 30 years old, seasoned from travel and combat. He had shed blood under “the flag of the Union,” and his loyalty to the country was unwavering. But in little more than a decade, the conflict over slavery would split the nation and unravel Tilton's world.
Just a month after he returned from the war, in August 1848, James married Isabella Hanson Adams. Isabella, called Belle, grew up in Cincinnati, just up the river, but their families had known each other in Delaware. James's and Isabella's maternal grandmothers, Lydia and Nancy Hanson, were sisters—it was Lydia who smuggled her future husband out of Wilmington when it was occupied by the British during the Revolutionary War. A relative of Isabella's father was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Coming from such renowned families, the couple returned to Wilmington to marry, at Trinity Church.
They settled down in Dupont, long enough for James to join the local Masons. He applied for a military pension, citing his eye injury and acute rheumatism he had incurred from chilly nights on guard duty. The couple's first child and only girl, Fannie, was born in 1850, and a son, Edward, in 1852; both babies were christened in Christ Episcopal Church in Madison.
When he was home between work assignments in the field, James would have escorted Belle to brilliant social balls in the dining room of the new Madison Hotel. Out of earshot of the women, heated political discussions warmed the reading room on winter evenings. The Mexican War had raised the specter of the possible expansion of slavery to the Southwest. Then the Compromise of 1850 admitted California to the Union as a free state but gave slave-holding states the right to track runaway slaves to free states. The Fugitive Slave Law gave Kentucky slave-owners the right not only to track down runaways who crossed the Ohio River but to force Indiana law officers to assist the pursuers.
Faced with such deep divisions over race and slavery, James Tilton became increasingly active in politics, as did many Americans
in the decade leading up to the Civil War. In the presidential election year of 1852, Tilton campaigned hard for the Democrat Franklin Pierce, whom he had met at the Aztec Club. Pierce was a northerner who was willing to uphold the constitutionality of slavery in order to preserve the Union and avoid civil war. This conviction matched Tilton's fierce loyalty to the country and willingness to tolerate slavery. Although Pierce was little known in Indiana, he won the state handily with the help of advocates like Tilton.
A year after his election, President Pierce appointed his fellow Democrat and war comrade, James Tilton, to the position of surveyor-general in the newly formed Washington Territory. Pierce said the appointment was motivated not by politics but by his respect for Tilton's professional skill. Tilton's surveys would resolve the land claims of the Hudson's Bay Company and establish the boundaries of Native reservations, under the treaties. He would survey routes for wagon roads and railroads and establish homestead boundaries for the settlers who were streaming west on the Oregon Trail. Like his grandfather and father, Tilton was restless and ambitious, eager to prove his worth on the next frontier.
James and Belle Tilton packed their bags and said their goodbyes, bundling up little Fannie and Edward, Irish cook Mary Garity, and Tilton's widowed half sister, Clara, and her two sons. The eight travelers prepared for a grand adventure, bound for distant Washington Territory, months away by river steamer and sailing ship, around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean. But first, James Tilton had obligations. He had to pay a visit to his mother's family in Maryland.
Tilton stood up and stretched, straightening his back. The sun had just risen over the Indiana hills, filling the window panes with gold. He bent down and blew out the flame in the lamp and cocked his head to one side, looking critically at the drawing laid out on the table. His drafting instruments lay neatly alongside the drawing board, and
his surveying tools and backpack leaned against the wall. Tilton was plotting a careful survey map from his notes. It had to be just right.
He was working in the front parlor of the family home in Madison, on a temporary desk. The chilly room was stacked with crates filled with books, linens, and china, all ready to be shipped to far-off Olympia, Washington Territory. Belle Tilton walked softly through the door and stood behind her husband. She put her arms around him, turning him toward her, away from the drawing.
“Aren't you tired out, Jim? You've been working all night.”
He smiled at her. “The final draft is done, and I wanted to finish it before we leave. I will be very busy with Aunt Mary and Cousin Rebecca, and then we'll be at sea.”
“But how is your eye? Does it pain you?
“Yes,” he said reluctantly, “it does. Almost all the time, and when I'm tired, I can't see very clearly.”
“Are you certain that taking this appointment in Washington Territory is a wise move?” Her words began to tumble out. “Such a wild, uncivilized place to raise the children, far from my family and your brother and sister, thousands of miles from anywhere, Indians and cougars, and the work will be so hard for you—”
“Belle, I have no wish to spend my life sitting at a desk,” Tilton said firmly. “That's not where the real opportunities are—this is the chance we've been waiting for, to be posted to a fresh, new country in the West! We can pick the very best land before the railroad gets there, and the land surveyor will be the most important man in the territory.
“But,” he said in a different tone, turning away. “We've been through this before.”
“Yes, I suppose we have…. And this trip to Maryland?”
“I owe it to them.”
The Making of a Slave
Cholera spread swiftly along the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the summer of 1850. Warm, brackish pools dotted the marshlands bordering the fields; the sultry air lay heavy on the earth. The epidemic moved across the waters of Chesapeake Bay and reached Marengo, an estate on a long neck of land. Mistress Rebecca Reynolds Gibson lived at Marengo with her mother and thirteen slaves. The great house had burned a few years before, leaving just outbuildings to shelter the white women and their slaves. There was a new baby in the cramped quarters and 3-year-old Charles Mitchell, a boy of mixed race.
Charlie was born on a failed plantation where whites a...