Harry Wigle, Adam Wigle, Rachel Wigle, Nace Johnson, Nancy Johnson, & William Forrest v. George Kirby

United States. Circuit Court (District of Columbia) - Washington (D.C.)


On January 15, 1829, Harry Wigle, Adam Wigle, Rachel Wigle, Nace Johnson, Nancy Johnson, and William Forrest filed a petition for freedom against George Kirby, executor for the estate of his uncle, John Baptist Kirby (also spelled Kerby). They claimed that they were entitled to freedom under the terms of Kirby's will, which specified that "all my slaves, that are over the age of thirty-five years, shall be free immediately after my death." George Kirby contended that under District of Columbia law, he was not obligated to free these six people, because they were estimated to have been over the age of 45 at the time of his uncle's death, and manumission through a will was restricted to those under 45 years.

The petitioners' attorney, Richard S. Coxe, argued that the law should be interpreted to allow manumission of those over 45 if they were able to support themselves. Nace Johnson, 59, was a carpenter who earned at least some cash; he bought "a wire sifter & some pewter buttons" for fifty cents at the sale of J. B. Kirby's estate. The D.C. Court, however, ruled that the law was clear and that those over the age of 45 were ineligible for manumission via will regardless of ability to support themselves.

Two of the petitioners, Harry Wigle and William Forrest, successfully argued that they were under the age of 45 and therefore still eligible for manumission. On June 15, 1829, Joseph Nally testified that he was certain Harry could not be more than 45 years old, and a week later, on June 23, "Judgement on verdict of a jury liberating Harry Wigle and William Forrest was entered." George Kirby deducted the appraised value of both men from the estate assets. There is no record of William Forrest after the verdict, but in 1840, Harry Wigle and a woman were living as free colored persons in the "country part" of Washington County, District of Columbia.

The other four petitioners, however, were clearly over the age of 45. By December 1829, when the estate sale accounts were submitted to the District of Columbia court, they had been sold to family members and neighbors. Rachel Wigle, 60, was sold to a neighbor, Thomas Grimes, while Adam Wigle, 60, was sold to another neighbor, William Thorn. Less than a year later, in February 1830, Thomas Grimes purchased Adam from Thorn's son for one dollar. While this reunited him with Rachel, Adam continued his pursuit of freedom, filing suit against Grimes in 1831.

Nace Johnson and Nancy Johnson, 50, were sold to Francis Kerby, brother of John Baptist Kirby and father of executor and defendant George Kirby. Yet when Francis died less than two years later, in October 1831, neither Nace nor Nancy were listed in the estate inventory or records of bequests. Then, in the fall of 1832, George Kirby offered a reward in the Daily National Intelligencer for the return of runaway Nancy Johnson, about age 50, mentioning that her husband had "left" him two years earlier, and was now living in Pennsylvania. It is possible that at some point after December 1829, ownership of the Johnsons transferred from father to son, and that afterwards, Nace and Nancy made their escape. Both had skills that would enable them to earn a living: Nace was a carpenter and Nancy a cook. Nancy clearly planned her flight, taking her clothes and departing Kirby's farm in Prince George's County under cover of darkness on a Saturday night. She and her husband had friends and family in the District of Columbia and Alexandria, who had aided in Nace's escape, and who were believed to be hiding Nancy until she could safely leave for Pennsylvania. Freed by a will, then denied freedom in court because of their ages, Nace and Nancy Johnson may have chosen to take matters into their own hands.

This case summary was written and researched by Dianne Lake, a genealogist and researcher, and has been edited by project scholars. Lake is a descendant of the Kirby/Kerby family.


Daily National Intelligencer, November 28, 1832.

Estate of John B. Kerby, RG21, Entry 115, O.S. Case File 1380, National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Estate Inventory of Francis Kerby, "Maryland Register of Wills Records, 1629-1999," FamilySearch, Prince George's County, Inventory Accounts 1831-1839, Vol. 2-3, Hall of Records, Annapolis.

Thomas Grimes' Daybook, 1828-1833, Grimes Family Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries, https://hdl.handle.net/1903.1/39280.