October 5, 2015By Toussaint Heywood
A curious phrase in old lawsuits is "casually lost": Person A casually lost something which Person B found and a complaint occurred because Person B wouldn't return it. The item that was casually lost might be a stray cow or a boat adrift on a river, but there were also complaints of enslaved people who were "casually lost" by the owners and found in the possession of someone else.
This seems strange, because an enslaved person, even if genuinely lost on an errand for example, could simply tell someone who her master was and ask how to get home. If a neighbor refused to direct her home and told her to stay and work for him, he would be committing the crime of "conversion," the same as if someone lost a boat in a storm and the person who pulled it onto his beach refused to return it upon request.
The odd situation inspires questions about the motives when a human is "casually lost." Did the enslaved person choose to run away and, rather than seeking freedom far off, prefer to work for another master? Knowing that keeping him was illegal, why would the neighbor not return him? Was the enslaved person being held prisoner?
The authors of Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation suggest that most casually lost enslaved people went to other plantations to "live with loved ones, hide from their owners, or secure wages as hirelings." The situation, then, is one which empowered the enslaved person and gave a frustrating sense of lack of control to his or her owner, almost as much as if he or she was seeking complete freedom. Perhaps moreso, because such a lawsuit publicly pitted neighbor against neighbor, with the enslaved person indicating who was the better master by his or her actions.
Unfortunately, when the situation devolved to a lawsuit, the enslaved persons would be dependant on the legal and social risks that their new protectors were willing to take on their behalf. Some examples of such lawsuits are given in abstract form at the Digital Library on American Slavery.
Here is a typical abstract, from Richmond County, Georgia, 1842: "Edmond Palmer states that he 'casually lost' a slave, George, valued at $1,000 and having a yearly hiring value of $100. George is now in the possession of Wyatte Starke, who refuses to return the slave to Palmer. Palmer seeks $2,000 in damages."
Most lost slaves appeared nearby. An usual attempt at applying the law occurred in Missouri in 1849, when Ruell Daggs said he casually lost nine freedom seekers, who headed into the free state of Iowa and were helped on their way by over a dozen citizens of Salem, Iowa. Daggs named the citizens and tried to recover the cost of the slaves using the standard terminology of such lawsuits, but the judge ruled that the Iowa citizens could not assume the blacks they found were property, since blacks in Iowa were assumed to be free, and therefore they had no duty to return them
The judge allowed Ruell to try again under the fugitive slave law, as he should have done, and he won his suit two years later, being awarded almost $4,000 in damages and costs, less than he had asked for. It is not known if he was ever able to collect any of it.
Finding the story behind most "casually lost" lawsuits is difficult, but they may offer insight into the lives of enslaved people who took a chance to better their situation by choosing a new master, rather than risk all by trying to run away entirely.