09 Dec 2019


Lost Capitol Hill: Michael Shiner

I have in the past frequently alluded to Michael Shiner without going into any further detail about his life and work. Given his importance to our neighborhood, and in particular what we know about daily life at the Washington Navy Yard in the 19th century, I want to take a few weeks to look more closely at this remarkable life.

Michael Shiner was born about 1805 in Piscataway, Maryland, due south of Washington and east up the Piscataway Creek from the Potomac River. Like his parents, he was enslaved, owned by the Pumphrey family, who had land not only in Piscataway, but also the District.

He was brought 12 miles north to D.C. ca. 1813 by William Pumphrey and worked at first in the Pumphrey house there, then later he was rented out by his owner to work in the Washington Navy Yard.

In 1826, the First Presbyterian Church opened a school for African Americans on Capitol Hill. Shiner was one of the students there. He would put his learning to use in writing, writing a memoir/diary that covered the years 1813 to 1869. While the memoir covered life on Capitol Hill and particular that of the Navy Yard, he was reticent in writing about his own life. Fortunately, records of the time fill in the gaps.

In 1827, William Pumphrey died. The following year, Shiner was sold to Thomas Howard, who worked as the Clerk of the Yard. Howard was in charge of scheduling all work at the yard, and thus knew Shiner’s value, and was willing to pay a high price in spite of the fact that he was sold not for life, but only for 15 years.

That same year, Shiner married Phillis, with whom he had six children over the next 18 years. His wife was also enslaved, and was owned by James Pumphrey. While Shiner was manumitted almost immediately after Howard’s death in 1832, the death of James Pumphrey the following year created great troubles for the newly free man. Pumphrey had been heavily in debt, and thus his heirs decided to sell the slaves to an Alexandria dealer.

Detail of an 1836 subpoena in a case in which Shiner continues to fight for his freedom. (Wikipedia)

Shiner, in his inimitable style, described the assistance he received from Navy Yard personnel, in particular that of Isaac Hull, pictured above, in retrieving them:

i am under Great oblagation to Comodore isaac Hull for the time my Wife wher Sold to george he had command of the washington navy yard foer his kindness to me and allso to Captain John H Aulic for his kindness to when my wife were Sold to george and allso to captain Joseph Hull for his kindness to me at that time he wher first lieutenant of the washington navy yard and also under the same obligation to Major Cary Seldon who wher Naval Store Keepper and allso to Mr. John etheridge which at that time was Comodores clerk and allso to David eaton Boat swain

all those above name gentelman all of them wher wiling to help me out my my disstresses in a honest up right way when my Wife and Childdren wher snacht away from me and sold on the 5 day of June 1833 on wensday from near West alley between 7 and eighth st east May the lord Bless them all i shal never forget them

Over the next few weeks, I will look at some of the incidents that Shiner wrote of in his memoir/diary.

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