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Slavery, after all, was illegal in Oregon. Either she was family, or she was an employee; it had to be one or the other, right?
Subpoenas went out to various witnesses who could testify to something like this, and the case was placed on the docket for trial.
Greenberry Smith’s response to this seems to have been outrage at the temerity of this “uppity” black woman, who, instead of being grateful for the gentle treatment he had given her (not selling her back into slavery, not trying to seize the money with which she'd bought back her things), was resisting his pseudo-legal theft of her property.
Through his attorney, prominent local pro-slavery lawyer John Kelsay, Greenberry retorted that Letitia had been a slave up to the time of her death, as had her children, and that as such she was entitled to no compensation, and even if she were, her freedom was compensation enough. He then undermined that argument by quibbling about the dollar amounts she put on the various things she was claiming in the suit.
That may have had something to do with the verdict — or maybe Smith’s Snidely Whiplash-style coldness and intransigence had finally started rubbing his neighbors the wrong way. In any case, when it was handed down on May 7, 1855, by a jury of Smith’s white male property-owning neighbors, it was a win for Letitia — sort of. They awarded Letitia just $300 plus $229.50 in court costs, which Smith, representing the estate, paid — reluctantly and only after the Oregon Territory’s chief justice, George H. Williams, ordered them to accept and pay it.
As Zybach notes, not much of that $300 made it back to Letitia after the sheriff’s expenses and witness fees were deducted from it – likely much less than she’d had to pay to redeem her things from that illegal auction.
But it was a moral victory, and a foot in the door, and she followed it up with a suit for compensation for the theft of her cattle.
This time, Letitia’s attorney was able to get in touch with a key witness, a neighbor who had had a conversation with David Carson about the cattle just before he died. David, complimented on the size and health of his herd, had replied, “Most of those are Letitia’s.” He then pointed to one particular dowager cow and told the witness that 27 of the cattle in the herd were the offspring of that one cow, which she had bought on the plains in 1845 while en route to Oregon.
This was good enough for the jury and for Judge Williams, who issued a judgment for $1,200 to compensate Letitia for her rustled cattle.
And perhaps that’s what it was all about — or maybe they were just trying to avoid a subject that had become uncomfortable for everyone involved. After all, most of the ancient Romans who stuck their knives in Julius Caesar were ashamed of themselves afterward, weren’t they? And some of the most prominent members of the Benton County community had attended Smith’s auction and bought Letitia’s stolen property. Chances are, by the time the court had ruled that she’d been done dirty, they weren’t super proud of the part they’d played in it.
She proved her claim up, of course. Finally laboring for herself and her children, with legal protection from marauders like Greenberry Smith, she seriously overdid it. The improvements on her property included an 18x22-foot one-and-a-half-story log home, a barn, a granary, a smokehouse, an orchard with 100 fruit trees in it … and — of course — a big herd of cattle.
Hers was one of the first several dozen homestead claims certified, and was quite likely the first Homestead Act claim proven up by an African American in U.S. history.