'This is Sojourner Truth': New documents reveal more to her story

Decades before she became famous for crusading to end slavery, Sojourner Truth, or Isabella Van Wagenen, as she was known then, fought to free her son. Newly discovered documents illuminate the court case in which Truth won her son’s freedom.

Michael Hill/AP
The "X" mark signature of Isabella Van Wagenen, who became known as Sojourner Truth, on a court deposition document shown at the New York State Archives, in Albany N.Y. June 9, 2022. The rediscovered records from 1828 detail Truth's fight to rescue her son from slavery.

In 1828, years before she took the name Sojourner Truth, a Black woman who had escaped slavery with her infant daughter won a court fight in New York’s Hudson Valley to bring her son, Peter, home from Alabama.

It was a historic case of a Black woman seeking the release of her son from slavery prevailing in court against a white man. Isabella Van Wagenen, as she was known then, would gain enduring fame as an outspoken abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. As for her deposition and the rest of the court documents, they were boxed up and eventually stored among a million other records, unseen and unrecognized for their significance.

Until 194 years later.

An eagle-eyed state archivist searching for something else spotted the court records in January. Now, they will briefly be on public display Wednesday at the Ulster County Courthouse in Kingston, New York, the same building she walked into almost two centuries ago seeking justice. The eight hand-written pages offer new details about a significant turning point in her eventful life.

“This was extremely brave of Isabella,” said Nell Irvin Painter, author of “Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol.” “Just the fact that she was a woman going up against powerful men, that’s extraordinary right there. And then you add in race, and then you add in class. So it’s an amazing story.”

Dr. Painter will be among the people in Kingston on Wednesday, eager to glimpse the historic documents found by happenstance.

For the past 40 years, the papers have been safely, if anonymously, stored at the climate-controlled New York State Archives in Albany. They were uncovered there by Jim Folts, head of researcher services at the archives, who had been looking for habeas corpus examples from that era for a history book on New York’s courts.

Combing through boxes of documents, he found one from 1828. It had a woman’s name on it, which was unusual for the time. Interest piqued, he read the yellowed paper and saw the woman, Isabella Van Wagenen, was trying to recover her son from slavery.

“That rang the bell,” Dr. Folts said recently in an interview at the archives, “because Isabella Van Wagenen was then the name of the person who became known as Sojourner Truth.”

Researchers compare the surprising find to coming across missing puzzle pieces. Though Truth later recalled that the event happened in open court in the autumn of 1828, court papers indicate it happened that spring, and not in open court, Dr. Folts said. In her brief deposition, she said Peter was 9 years old.

“We always wondered, ‘Where were these records?’” said Paul O’Neill, Ulster County’s commissioner of jurors.

The documents are written in the same sort of lawyer-speak still used in courts today, including Van Wagenen’s testimony. She could neither read nor write, but left a simple “X” on the page by her name.

“This is her DNA left behind on this document. The rest is legalese and all of that,” said State Archivist Thomas Ruller, pointing at the mark on the page. “This is Sojourner Truth, this is where she shows up in this story.”

Born into slavery in or around 1797 in the Hudson Valley, she walked away from the home of her final owner in 1826 with her infant daughter after he reneged on a promise to free her. She went to work for the Van Wagenen family, and took their surname.

Meanwhile, her son Peter was sold into slavery in Alabama. The sale occurred during the gradual phase out of slavery in New York, where Peter would have been an indentured servant until he was older. But the sale of Peter to another state was illegal.

Faced with the prospect of never seeing him again, she went to court in Kingston to get him back. Dr. Painter said she relied on two lawyers allied with her and her faith in the Holy Spirit.

A grand jury proceeding was apparently enough to prompt the man who sold Peter to have him sent back to New York. But it was her application for a writ of habeas corpus that led to them being reunited. A Supreme Court Commissioner, acting with powers of a judge, ordered Peter freed March 15, 1828.

It was believed to be the first time a Black woman successfully sued white men to get her son released from slavery, though it’s possible there were other cases researchers are unaware of.

It was a bittersweet reunion. Peter’s body showed evidence of beatings and it took the traumatized child time to accept his mother. Peter did not have an easy life, Dr. Painter said.

“He ended up, as many troubled young men did at that time, on a Nantucket whaling vessel, and he was finally lost at sea,” Dr. Painter said.

Van Wagenen took the name Sojourner Truth in 1843 and lived another 40 years.

The court papers from that day were shipped north to Albany. They were transferred to the newly founded Court of Appeals in 1847 upon a reorganization of the state court system, and stayed at New York’s top court for more than a century. The records came to the state archives in 1982, stored in anonymity until Dr. Folts’ serendipitous discovery this winter.

“There are thousands of these boxes, millions of these documents,” Mr. Ruller said. “And many of them will contain the stories of other individuals who may not be as well known or well heard of. But their stories are just as important.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'This is Sojourner Truth': New documents reveal more to her story
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today