In December 1821, the U.S. Navy schooner Alligator, under the command of Lt. Robert F. Stockton, sailed down Africa’s Windward Coast to anchor off a rocky headland known as Cape Mesurado. The Alligator’s usual assignment was to patrol the area for American ships engaging in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which the United States had outlawed 13 years earlier. But on this voyage, Stockton was transporting a New Jersey physician named Eli Ayres, an agent for the American Colonization Society, which was seeking a permanent home in Africa for free Black Americans.
The two men spent four days ashore negotiating a contract with local leaders to purchase a narrow tract of land that scholars estimate covered about 140 acres. Payment would come in the form of trade goods—including guns, gunpowder, tobacco, rum, tableware, utensils, shoes, hats, umbrellas and mirrors (together worth roughly $7,000 in today’s money). Both parties also pledged “to live in peace and friendship for ever.”
Ayres recorded the deal in careful script on the front and back of a single sheet of paper. He signed it along with Stockton and six local leaders, who referred to themselves as Peter, George, Zoda, Long Peter, Governor and Jimmy. (They were called “kings” in the contract, although they were not monarchs in the European sense.) The written agreement, not unusual for the era if astonishingly casual to the modern legalistic mind, is the founding document of the nation that would become Liberia.
American newspapers published accounts of the purchase and transcripts of the contract after Ayres returned to the States, but in 1835 a committee of the American Colonization Society reported that the document itself was missing—the last time the contract was known to be cited in print. Over the ensuing decades, that loss contributed to the myth that the contract had never existed at all—that the Americans had simply seized the land by force or fraud.
Not often is a historian presented with such a high-stakes challenge: Find a nearly 200-year-old sheet of paper, which may not even be real, that launched a new nation. But it was a challenge that C. Patrick Burrowes, a former Penn State University professor who has spent much of his career researching Liberia’s early history, was eager to take on. So, exactly two centuries after the document was supposedly drafted, Burrowes set out to solve the existential mystery and clarify our understanding of a critical chapter of U.S. and African history.
The American Colonization Society was founded in 1816 by a group of white clergymen and political leaders who saw repatriation to Africa as a possible future for free Black Americans. Among its supporters were slaveholders, who feared that the increasing number of free Black people living in the South might foment uprisings, and white abolitionists, who believed an African homeland offered the best chance for Black self-determination. (For their part, Black antislavery activists tended to be more skeptical of the scheme.) Still, many of those backing the ACS simply hoped to alleviate political tensions then growing around the question of slavery, Burrowes says. “They thought, ‘If we can get a colony for free Blacks, we can take the pressure off.’” Of course, the pressure would keep building until it exploded in the Civil War. But meanwhile, the ACS pursued its vision.
In March 1820, its first ship, carrying 86 settlers, arrived in Sierra Leone, landing at swampy Sherbro Island. But the ACS was unable to persuade local residents to sign over land; besides, the island was plagued by mosquitoes that carried malaria and other diseases.
ACS officials turned to Cape Mesurado, about 150 miles to the southeast, on the advice of a Lt. Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy, who was posted in the area. The ACS resettled the Sherbro repatriates to Mesurado and named the area Liberia to signify that it was a home for free people.
Because Ayres kept a detailed journal of the 1821 journey to Cape Mesurado, and newspapers printed the text of the agreement, we know much of what happened that December. But the absence of the original document left an enormous hole in the historical record.
Burrowes knew hunting down a phantom document that no one had seen in nearly two centuries would not be easy. Having exhausted the official records of the ACS, he broadened his search to include the archives of lawyers known to have worked for the society; perhaps one had stowed the document away and forgotten about it.
Early in his search, Burrowes looked into Francis Scott Key, better known as the lyricist behind “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But the hunt through Key’s papers, archived in Baltimore, proved fruitless.
Next was Elias Caldwell, who had clerked for the Supreme Court during the tenure of Justice Bushrod Washington, President George Washington’s nephew and an ACS co-founder. Charles Gunther, an Illinois collector, had donated some of Caldwell's papers to the Chicago History Museum, and among the drafts of Supreme Court decisions and an insurance policy for Mount Vernon were records of Caldwell’s work for the ACS. It was August 2021, and pandemic precautions kept Burrowes from visiting the museum. He asked archivists to send him scans of the entire Bushrod Washington archive—hundreds of documents, each page of which he reviewed. “I really was about to give up,” Burrowes recalls in a phone interview from his home in Columbia, Maryland.
Then he found himself gazing at a scan of a severely yellowed letter with unmistakably elegant 19th-century handwriting. The Liberia purchase contract. “That was the highest point of my professional career,” he recalls.
The discovery, which Burrowes presented earlier this year in a talk at the Library of Congress, has electrified historians who study slavery, abolition and the deep ties between the United States and Liberia. “One might think about it as the difference between having a transcription of the Declaration of Independence and the actual declaration,” says Eric Burin, a historian at the University of North Dakota and author of a 2005 book about the ACS, Slavery and the Peculiar Solution. “This is a very important document in Liberian history.”
Burrowes compared a high-resolution copy of the contract with known samples of Ayres’ handwriting. They matched. That alone was significant, since the accepted wisdom was that Stockton penned the document. Most important, the discovery will help put to rest the claim, long advanced by historians and others, that no legitimate contract ever existed—an idea that has helped fuel political tensions and conflict in Liberia between indigenous groups and the descendants of formerly enslaved settlers.
That particular myth arose in the mid-20th century, when some American historians, re-examining U.S.-African relations from a perspective critical of American colonialism, suggested that Stockton and Ayres took advantage of the African leaders by forcing the deal at gunpoint (“an infamous scene of pistol diplomacy,” as one author put it). Others asserted that the Africans did not understand Western notions of property and could not meaningfully consent to the sale. “There’s an idea that they were just bought off with baubles and beads and didn’t understand what was going on,” Burin says.
The notion was consistent with Americans’ aggressive dealings with other nations, including the exploitation of Native Americans, the acquisition of Mexican territory and the imperialist surge of the Spanish-American War. Yet the idea that U.S. operators swindled their African hosts has its own demeaning, even racist implication. It portrays the West African sellers as ignorant and unsophisticated. In fact, Burrowes argues, coastal West Africans had been dealing with white people for centuries and knew well how to make advantageous bargains; as he points out, they charged the buyers nearly twice the going rate for unimproved land in the States.
The knowledge that the document is real contributes to further scholarship and interpretation, including the impact of the agreement on the local slave trade. Some local leaders had profited both from trade in goods with Europeans and from capturing and selling their neighbors into slavery. The negotiations on Cape Mesurado required them to consider whether they would continue this grim practice.
“The main sticking point was the slave trade, and the objections to the Americans buying land came from people who were interested in continuing it,” Burrowes says. But the African leaders who signed the agreement knew that the slave trade had been abolished in England, and that the U.S. had recently proscribed further imports of captive Africans. Slavery, they recognized, was on its way out. By dealing with the American settlers, Burrowes says, the locals “were taking an implicitly abolitionist position.” Indeed, the agreement helped bring about an eventual end to these leaders’ relationships with local slave traders by about 1840, sooner than in any other slave-trading region of Africa.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Black Americans were faced with a fraught choice. Most, like abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, found the prospect of emigration not only unenticing but insulting. As Douglass would later put it in an 1852 newspaper editorial, “There is no sentiment more universally entertained, nor more firmly held by the free colored people of the United States, than that this is their own, their native land.”
Still, plenty of African Americans decided to seek a different destiny in Liberia. Once the first few dozen settlers left Sherbro Island for Cape Mesurado in April 1822, the colony quickly expanded, and the ACS negotiated further land transfers with local leaders. By 1838, tens of thousands of free Black American repatriates were living in the city that would become Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, named after President James Monroe, who backed the ACS and had been in office at the time of the Cape Mesurado purchase.
Some who made the journey were idealists of one sort or another. Take Lott Carey (or Cary; sources differ), who had purchased his freedom in Virginia around 1813 and left with the first group of colonists because he hoped to spread Christianity in Africa. “If you think of coming out you need not fear,” he wrote a friend back home, “for you will find as fine a spot as ever your eyes beheld.”
Some former slaves left the States in the wake of Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, which prompted white Southerners to unleash a wave of violent repression throughout Virginia and neighboring states. The 1850s saw another uptick in emigration, after the Fugitive Slave Act was passed and the Supreme Court decided in Dred Scott v. Sandford that descendants of slaves were not and never could be U.S. citizens. Others were manumitted by conscience-plagued owners with the condition—or strong encouragement—that they emigrate to Liberia. Robert E. Lee freed most of his slaves before the Civil War, offering to pay their travel expenses if they went to Africa. Emigration from the United States dropped precipitously after the start of the Civil War, although Liberia continued to accept captives rescued from illegal slave ships.
Liberia, to be sure, has had its own troubled history. Despite the contract’s promises of “peace and friendship,” settlers and local ethnic groups would clash repeatedly as the colony expanded—and as repatriates built a society that often discriminated against indigenous Africans in ways that mirrored the Jim Crow South. In 1980, longstanding resentment against Liberia’s elites, most of whom were descended from freed slaves, begat a violent coup and a series of civil wars from which the country is still recovering.
“One of the consequences of deep societal conflict is that the past gets rewritten according to the present,” Burrowes says. “Conflicts are projected infinitely back....Unless you have a true understanding of the past, it’s very difficult to move forward.” Burrowes hopes that, in some small way, the aged, fragile piece of paper he discovered might help.