During the mid to late 1800s, Napa County’s populace comprised a broad cross-section of different races and creeds. Contributing to that diversity were African-Americans who began to homestead in Napa County during the mid 19th century. One such early local African-American settler family was the Seawells.
The life-stories of Miltilda (“Tilley”), Abe and Esther Seawell have been gleaned from a very limited local supply of historical information. Yet, their stories provide some insight into the lives and times of Napa County’s African-American residents.
The Seawells arrived in Napa from Missouri in 1850 as the slaves of Major Seawell, the brother of their master William Seawell. At some point after their arrival, Tilley, her nephew Abe and niece Esther were freed because slavery was illegal in California.
For the next 30 years or so, Tilley was a dedicated nurse until her death in 1880. The Napa Daily Register remembered the 86-year-old Tilley as “a good-hearted old lady, an excellent nurse (who) was highly respected and loved.” The Register also noted, other than the few days preceding her death, Tilley had enjoyed a healthy life.
Sadly, the same could not be said for Abe who suffered greatly for nearly a year before passing away in 1894 at the age of 80. During his 44 years as a Napa resident, Abe married Judy, a freed African-American woman, around 1852. Their long marriage was punctuated first by the great joy of their two children and then the intense sorrow following each child’s death. The details of their lives and deaths is not known, for now.
Despite his challenging life, Abe was a benevolent soul. “He was a very popular old man, with always a pleasant word for everyone,” The Napa Daily Journal reported. “Of a generous nature, his house was always open and he was always willing to share what little he had with those who needed assistance.”
Years prior to his death, Abe witnessed and even participated in the many happy occasions in his sister Esther’s life. Those events were her marriage to Joseph Hatton in 1860 and the birth of their children along with other accomplishments.
Esther and Joseph were prominent and active members of both the local and regional African-American communities. Joseph, a respected Napa barber, played an important role in the regional civil rights movement as well as co-founded Napa’s African-American Methodist Episcopal church.
Another extra special moment in Esther and Joseph’s lives was their surprise 25th wedding anniversary party in 1885. That evening upon returning home after visiting friends, Esther and Joseph found their Napa residence packed with family and friends. They did inquire as to how their guests had gained access to their home. Joseph’s mother replied, she “had taken the liberty of using skeleton keys in getting possession of the house,” said the Register.
After being ushered into their dining room, Esther and Joseph found an even greater surprise: “A small table (was) loaded with presents of the brightest silver from their many friends,” according to the Register.
Following the numerous congratulatory speeches, everyone “sat down to a repast which would have appeased the appetite of any of Delmonico’s patrons.” The Register added, “After drinking toasts with 25-year-old Champagne...(the) dancing and singing (began and was) kept up until the hours of morn.”
Eventually the Seawell Hatton families, along with almost all of the local African-American residents, left Napa County for the Bay Area and beyond. By the early 1900s, African-Americans no longer substantially added diversity to Napa County’s populace.
If this historical account seemed vaguely familiar, it is an encore of a column that ran three years ago. I decided to repeat the Seawell family historical sketch because it is one of the few local African-American accounts that can be found in our historical reference materials. Their story also provides a rare glimpse into their actual lives versus just numbers, dates or lists. I hope that additional time and research will reveal the details of the lives and contributions of other African-Americans who at one time had called Napa County home.