Found  /  Discovery

State Archives Find Sojourner Truth’s Historic Court Case

A document thought lost to history shows how Sojourner Truth became the first Black woman to successfully sue white men to get her son released from slavery.

ALBANY — Buried in 5,000 cubic feet of court records, the New York State Archives has uncovered the 1828 documents thought lost to history detailing how Sojourner Truth became the first Black woman to successfully sue white men to get her son released from slavery.

Archivist and author Jim Folts’ knowledge that Sojourner Truth had once been known as Isabella Van Wagenen when she lived in the Kingston area and sued in Albany Supreme Court made the eight pages of historic court records jump out.

The records provide an insight into New York’s and the Hudson Valley’s waning days of slavery when it had been outlawed, but yet still lingered on. The records also show that despite illiteracy Sojourner Truth was able to go to court to sue Solomon Gedney and make her mark to start the path to securing her son Peter’s freedom after he was sold south to slave owners in Alabama.

“It’s a document that has been lost. The document is new to historians,” said Folts about the deposition.

Folts made the discovery when he was revising his “Duely & Constantly Kept: A History of the New York Supreme Court, 1691-1847 and An Inventory of Its Records (Albany, Utica and Geneva Offices), 1797-1847.” It will be featured as a sidebar in the new edition.

The papers uncovered include Truth’s deposition given by her when she was still known as Isabella Van Wagenen, the writ of habeas corpus, Gedney’s response and the court order freeing Peter.

Truth’s deposition describes her knowledge of Gedney becoming master of her son Peter and that “has been during all that time in some of the Southern States with the knowledge of said Solomon Gedney.”

Van Wagenen took the name Sojourner Truth when she converted to Methodism. She would become known as a Black abolitionist and a womens’ rights activist, eventually moving to Michigan. Folts noted that Truth was accomplished and overcame illiteracy to communicate her message.

Truth was part of the enslaved population in the Hudson Valley, which was the most numerous in the state outside of New York City. She had several owners growing up in the valley and escaped the last one — John I. Dumont of New Paltz — who sold her son Peter when he was 5 years old to Eleazar Gedney of Newburgh for $20. He then sold Peter to his brother Solomon Gedney.

Truth began the legal proceedings on March 1, 1828. She used the surname of the family that assisted her and was represented by two attorneys from Kingston. The suit was brought citing state law passed in 1818 that freed enslaved people born after July 4, 1799, after reaching their 20s. Until then they were bound to their owners before being set free. Peter was born in 1818.