Portland State University. Department of History
Term of Graduation
Date of Publication
Master of Arts (M.A.) in History
Women slaves -- Civil rights -- Oregon -- 19th century, Slave labor -- Oregon, Right of property – Oregon, Oregon -- Race relations -- History
1 online resource (viii, 119 pages)
Letitia Carson arrived in Oregon from Missouri in 1845, accompanied by David Carson and their newborn child, a daughter named Martha. The Carsons settled in the Soap Creek Valley and took advantage of Oregon's Provisional Government's donation land claim program, living on 640 acres in the newly formed Benton County with Martha and a second child, a son named Adam, born a few years after arriving in Oregon. Within ten years, however, David would be dead and Letitia would be dispossessed of all property and belongings. A former slave, Letitia had little social standing in the new territory and no legal right to inherit David's estate. Yet, Letitia filed suit against the executor of David's estate, asserting agency in defining their relationship - and her own status - on her own terms. In so doing, Letitia revealed the intricacies of a complicated racial and political landscape.
David and Letitia's relationship has been difficult to define. He likely owned Letitia as a slave in Missouri. However, he was also the father of her two young children, living and working together on the difficult task of rural homesteading. While he was alive, their relationship was protected by his Whiteness. Seven years after arriving in Oregon, however, David died suddenly, without a will, leaving Letitia and their two children unprotected. The land she lived on and all her possessions were taken from her by Greenberry Smith, a wealthy White landowning neighbor who became executor of the late David Carson's estate. Remarkably, Letitia sued Smith in Benton County probate court in 1853. Claiming she was Carson's employee, she sued for back wages - and won. Letitia's status in relation to David became the center of the court case, and the conflict reveals a complicated and contradictory racial reality in antebellum Oregon. A year later Letitia sued Smith again for the loss of her cattle and was victorious a second time. While the first case centered on Letitia's status in relation to David, the second focused on individual property rights. Both cases provide a microcosm that better illuminate the larger debates in Oregon - and nationally - around slavery, land, and labor.
Given the pervasive White supremacy that dominated antebellum Oregon, including notorious Black exclusion laws, it seems unlikely that a Black woman would file suit against a White man at all, let alone win. Analyzing how and why Letitia won her cases illuminates key understandings of early Oregon history and the history of Black women in the West. Though source material on Black women in antebellum Oregon is rare, Letitia Carson's court records survived and analysis of them is critical to developing a nuanced understanding of the political and racial realities of Oregon prior to statehood. Namely, that while even anti-slavery laws at the time were underpinned by near-ubiquitous racial prejudice, there existed other structures of power that overlapped and competed to expose cracks in the still-forming racialized landscape. With the help of recent scholarship on race and gender as well as land and labor policy, this thesis maintains that the political debates of the antebellum decades created a specific and unique context in which a White jury may have been sympathetic to a single Black woman. Additionally, this thesis argues that Letitia Carson was successful because of her shrewd legal strategy. She recognized an opportunity and took it, exploiting the cracks in the racialized landscape to demand the right to define herself and determine her destiny.
© 2021 Stephanie Marie Vallance
In Copyright. URI: http://rightsstatements.org/vocab/InC/1.0/ This Item is protected by copyright and/or related rights. You are free to use this Item in any way that is permitted by the copyright and related rights legislation that applies to your use. For other uses you need to obtain permission from the rights-holder(s).
Vallance, Stephanie Marie, "Letitia Carson in Court: African American Women, Property, and Wages in the Pacific Northwest" (2021). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 5866.