In a series of articles found on the California Digital Newspaper Archive from U.C. Riverside, here is some of the story of the capture of the American Slaver Wildfire as reported in May, 1860, well before the Civil War.
Sacramento Daily Union – 19 June 1860
Capture of a Slaver off the Coast of Africa.— The Key West correspondent of the New York Herald, under date of May 7th, says :
The great event of the past fortnight in this section of the Union has been the capture, by the United States steamer Mohawk, Lieutenant T. A. M. Craven, of the slave bark Wildfire and her cargo of five hundred and twenty negroes, and the arrival and disembarcation ot the latter upon Whitehead Point, near Fort Taylor. News arrived in the city on Sunday, the 29th, that the Mohawk was at anchor off Indian Key, fifty miles east of Key West, with a slaver in tow. The next morning the Mohawk made her appearance off Bocca Chica, and at noon rounded Fort Taylor, and proceeding up opposite the naval depot, came to anchor with her prize.
The Mohawk sailed from Key West on the 9th of April for a cruise off the eastern end of the Island of Cuba. She steamed and sailed about the barren keys of the Bahamas, occasionally landing and procuring supplies of fish and turtle. She also visited the Lobos Keys, and had two or three exciting chases after suspicious craft. On the 23d she put into the harbor of Neuvitas, and remained there until the 25th, when she took the American brig Pedro Sanches Dolz in tow, the weather being calm, and carried her outside of the reef. She remained in company with the brig until the next morning, when discovering a sail in the offing heading for land, she cast off the brig and made chase.
There being no wind, the sail, which proved to be a bark, was speedily approached. She was evidently an American built vessel, but having no name upon her stern, she was requested to show her colors, in response to which the American was hoisted. As the Mohawk ranged alongside, men were observed at work in the rigging, others about the, decks— a few in number— while the Captain and his officers coolly leaned upon the rail observing the steamer’s movements. She did not look the slaver, but from force of habit, with a spice of curiosity, Captain Craven ordered Lieutenant Carpenter to board her.
As the boat approached the vessel it was observed that no rope was thrown out, and it was evident. that the visit was not agreeable. The Lieutenant, unassisted, boarded the vessel, and was no sooner on her bulwarks than he waved his sword, and the men in the boat raised a shout, a signal that she was a slaver and a prize. The moment that the slaves, who had just been driven below, caught sight of the officer’s uniform (the hatches were covered with gratings only) they sang and clapped their hands with joy. They instinctively knew that their deliverers were at hand.
The vessel was at once taken possession of by Captain Craven, a prize crew put on board, the officers and crew transferred to the Mohawk and the bark taken in tow. The Mohawk then steered for the Florida Keys. The bark proved to be the Wildfire, a handsome clipper of 337 tons, built in Philadelphia in 1855.
She sailed from New York on the 16th of December, 1859, with in American crew, for the West Indies. She made a good run to St. Thomas, where she remained eight days, and then sailed for the Congo river. She took on board 603 slaves the night of March 21st. She got safely off the coast and had not seen a sail up to the day of her capture. When they left the coast the American captain and crew were superseded by a Spanish crew, the former then acting as passengers. The cargo consisted of children and young men and women, the majority being from twelve to sixteen years of age.
They are in a remarkably sound and healthy condition ; few cargoes come over in better order than this. The negroes, since their transfer to the shore, seem happy and contented. The sick in hospital are getting well under the kind treatment they are. receiving. The United States Marshal who had charge of the negroes, placed them in hastily constructed but comfortable sheds, built expressly for them upon Whitehead Point, a portion of the land purchased for Fort Taylor, but half a mile distant from the fortification.
The crew of the slaver has been before the United States Commissioner and committed to jail. Captain Brannan has detailed a portion of his company to guard the negroes to prevent their escape or recapture. A guard of marines from the Mohawk have also been detailed for this duty. The Marshal has added to this force a guard chosen from among the citizens, who are on duty night and day.
The negroes seem to be perfectly happy and contended, and are singing, clapping their hands and dancing their country dances at stated intervals during the day. They are visited daily by the whole population. This encampment, in fact, is the only city attraction on the Key ; and it is worth a voyage of a thousand miles to see them. The women are, some of them, most attractive in person; they are generally clean, are but slightly tatooed, and have by no means the repulsive looks and manners of our native slave population. They exhibit marked signs of affection for each other, and are perfectly overwhelming in their fondness for the white children on the Key.
To the Senate and House of Representatives :
On the 20th day of April last, Lieutenant Craven, of the United States steamer Mohawk, captured the slaver Wildfire, on the coast of Cuba, with five hundred and seven African negroes on board. The prize was brought into key West on the 31st of April, and the negroes were delivered into the custody of Fernando J. Moreno, Marshal of the Southern District of Florida.
The question which now demands immediate decision is, what disposition shall be made of these Africans? In the annual message to Congress of December 6, 1858, I expressed my opinion in regard to the construction of the Act of the 3d March, 1819, ” in addition to the Acts prohibiting the slave trade,” so far as the same is applicable to tho present case. From this I make the following extract: ” Under the second section of this Act the President is authorized to make such regulations and arrangements as he may deem expedient for the safe-keeping, support, and removal beyond the limits of the United States of all such negroes, mulattoes, or persons of color, captured by vessels of the United States, as may be delivered to the Marshal of the district to which they are brought, ‘ and appoint a person or person’s residing upon the coast of Africa, as agent or agents for receiving the negroes, mulattoes, or persons of color delivered from on board vessels seized in the prosecution of the slave trade, by commanders of the United States armed vessels.’
“A doubt immediately arose as to the true construction of this Act. It is quite clear from its terms that the President was authorized to provide ‘ for the safe-keeping, support and removal’ of these negroes up till the time of their delivery to the agent on the coast of Africa; but no express provision was made for their protection and support after they had reached the place of their destination. Still, an agent was to be appointed to receive them in Africa; and it could not have been supposed that Congress intended he should desert them at the moment they were received and turn them loose on that inhospitable coast to perish for want of food, or to become again the victims of the slave trade. Had this been the intention of Congress, the employment of an agent to receive them, who is required to reside on the coast, was unnecessary ; and they might have been landed by our vessels anywhere in Africa, and left exposed to the sufferings and the fate which would certainly await them.”
Mr. Monroe, in his special message of the 17th December, 1819. at the first session after the Act was passed, announced to Congress what in his opinion was its true construction. He believed it to be his duty under it to follow these unfortunates into Africa, and make provision for them there until they should be able to provide for themselves. In communicating this interpretation of the Act of Congress, he stated that some doubt had been entertained as to its true intent and meaning; and he submitted the question to them, so that they might, should it be deemed advisable, amend the same before further proceedings arc had under it.’ Nothing was done by Congress to explain the Act, and Mr. Monroe proceeded to carry it into execution according to his own interpretation. This, then, became the practical construction.”
Adopting this construction of President Monroe, 1 entered into an agreement with the Colonization Society, dated 7th September, 1858, to receive the Africans which had been captured on the slaver Echo from the agent of the United States in Liberia ; to furnish them during the period of one year thereafter with comfortable shelter, clothing and provisions ; and to cause them to be instructed in the arts of civilized life suitable to their condition, at the rate of $150 for each individual. It was believed that within that period they would be prepared to become citizens of Liberia and to take care of themselves. As Congress was not then in session, and as there was no outstanding appropriation applicable to this purpose, the Society were obliged to depend for payment on the future action of that body. I recommended this appropriatoin (sic), and seventy-five thousand dollars were granted by the Act of the 3d March, 1859 (the Consular and Diplomatic Bill), to ” enable the President of the United States to carry into effect the Act of Congress of 3d March, 1819, and any subsequent Acts now in force for the suppression of the slave trade.”
Of this appropriation there remains unexpended the sum of twenty-four thousand three hundred and fifty dollars and ninety cents ($24,350 90), after deducting from it an advance made by the Secretary of the Interior out of the judiciary fund of eleven thousand three hundred and forty-eight dollars and ten cents ($11,848 10).
I regret to say that, under the mode adopted in regard to the Africans captured on board the Echo, the expenses will be large ; but this seems to a great extent to be inevitable, without a violation of the laws of humanity. The expedition upon thia scale for those captured on board the Wildfire, will not be less than one hundred thousand dollars, and may considerably exceed that sum. Still, it ought to be observed that, during the period when the Government itself, through its own agents, undertook the task of providing for captured negroes in Africa, the cost per head was much greater than that which I agreed to pay the Colonization Society.
But it will not be sufficient for Congress to limit the amount appropriated to the case of the Wildfire. It is probable, judging from the increased activity of the slave trade and the vigilance of our cruisers, that several similar captures may be made before end of the year. An appropriation ought, therefore, to be granted large enough to cover such contingencies.
The period has has arrived when it is indispensable to provide some specific legislation for the guidance of the Executive on this subject. With this in view, I would suggest that Congress might authorize the President to enter into a general agreement with the Colonization Society, binding them to receive on the coast of Africa from our agent there, all the captured Africans which may be delivered to them, and to maintain them for a limited period, upon such terms and conditions as may combine humanity towards these unfortunates, with a just economy. This would obviate too necessity of making a new bargain with every new capture, and would prevent delay, and avoid expense in the disposition of the captured. The law might then provide that in all cases where this may be practicable, the captor should carry the negroes directly to Africa, and deliver them to the American agent there, afterwards bringing the captured vessel to the United States for adjudication.
The capturing officer, in case he should bring his prize directly to the United States, ought to be required to land the negroes in some one or more ports to be designated by Congress, where the prevailing health throughout the year is good. At these ports cheap but permanent accommodations might be provided for the negroes, until they could be sent away, without incurring the expense of erecting such accommodations at every port where the capturing officer may think proper to enter. On the present occasion these negroes have been brought to Key West; and, according to the estimate presented by the Marshal of the Southern District of Florida to the Secretary of the Interior, the cost of providing temporary quarters for them will be $3,500, and the aggregate expenses for the single month of May will amount to $12,000. But this is far from being the worst evil. Within a few weeks the yellow fever will most probably prevail at Key West; and hence the Marshal urges their removal from their present quarters at an early day, which must be done in any event, as soon aa practicable. For these reasons I earnestly commend this subject to the immediate attention of Congress.
I transmit herewith a copy of the letter and estimate of Fernando J. Moreno, Marshal of the Southern District of Florida, to the Secretary of the Interior, dated 10th May, 1860, together with a copy of the letter ot the Secretary of the Interior to myself, dated 16th of May. It is truly lamentable that Great Britain and the United States should be obliged to expend such a vast amount of blood and treasure for the suppression of the African slave trade ; and this when the only portion of the civilized world where it is tolerated and encouraged are the Spanish islands of Cuba and Porto Rico.
Washington, May 19, 1860.
Another Slaver Captured.— The New York Express of the 21st (May, 1860) says: Hardly has the President’s message to the Senate, asking for an appropriation to send hack to Africa over 500 negroes, captured on hoard the Wildfire, been read, but we have to report that another slaver—the barque William, late of New York—has been taken into Key West, with 550 negroes on board, having been captured by the United States steamer Wyandotte, off the Isle of Pines.