Cincinnati Museum Center acquires unique piece of abolitionist history

Silver pitcher given to Salmon P. Chase will be on display for first-time at Music Hall during Louis Langree Inaugural Weekend Performances Nov. 8, 9 and 10 featuring Dr. Maya Angelou narrating “Lincoln’s Portrait”

CINCINNATI – A remarkable piece of national abolitionist history has come home to Cincinnati. A silver pitcher given to Salmon P. Chase “by the Colored people of Cincinnati” has been given by Chase’s descendant to Cincinnati Museum Center, where it will be a welcome addition to Cincinnati’s rich local history and the Museum Center’s own collection of Chase materials. The pitcher highlights the struggle for freedom in this country and Chase’s influential activity advocating for the rights of African-Americans.

“Years before our nation went to war to end slavery, Chase was fighting for the rights of African Americans right here in Cincinnati,” says Douglas W. McDonald, president and CEO of Cincinnati Museum Center. “Cincinnati Museum Center is truly grateful to receive this fascinating piece of our nation’s history.”

Salmon P. Chase was one of the most prominent politicians of the 1850s and 60s, serving as U.S. Senator from Ohio, Governor of Ohio, Secretary of the Treasury under President Abraham Lincoln who then appointed him Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. He began practicing law in Cincinnati in 1830 and became an advocate of abolition and the anti-slavery movement, lending his legal mind to the cause of fugitive slaves, often free of charge. Before Chase found fame as a politician or member of Lincoln’s Cabinet, he spoke loudly and passionately on behalf of African Americans when their status and rights as citizens were not recognized. It was for this passionate work that Chase was given the 12-inch silver pitcher in 1845 by a group of grateful African Americans.

On February 12, 1845, Chase “called a convention of 2,000 delegates in the interest of the Liberty Party” to advocate for Samuel Watson, an escaped slave then in court and at risk of being returned into bondage. Watson was being conveyed by a slave handler from Arkansas to Virginia when the steamboat Ohio Belle landed at Cincinnati. Watson went missing for a brief period before being found, seized and detained by his handler. Watson and his handler were taken before a judge who had to decide whether Watson was a fugitive slave subject to recapture, or was now a free man.

Chase was one of three attorneys who represented Watson in court. He argued that, by virtue of his presence in a free state, Watson was now a free man. Despite Chase’s spirited and powerful closing argument, the judge rejected his points and Watson was returned to Virginia to resume a life in bondage.

Although Chase lost the case, the free black population of Cincinnati watched the case closely and were moved by Chase’s passionate arguments. In a ceremony at the Union Baptist Church on May 6, 1845, as an act of gratitude for Chase’s eloquent and powerful defense of Watson and condemnation of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793’s legality, “the Colored People of Cincinnati” gave him the silver pitcher that will be preserved by Cincinnati Museum Center.

The pitcher, fabricated and engraved by the firm of E. & D. Kinsey here in Cincinnati, is inscribed with the following dedication: “A Testimonial of Gratitude to Salmon P. Chase, from the Colored People of Cincinnati, for his various public services in behalf of the oppressed, and particularly for his eloquent advocacy of the rights of man, in the case of Samuel Watson, who was claimed as a fugitive slave, February 12, 1845,”

McDonald further stated: “We are humbled to accept this piece of history in honor of Chase’s descendants, and those he helped. Welcoming it back to Cincinnati, where, in 1845, Chase was leading the struggle for freedom and humanity against the then very legal system that was allowing injustice; is the very important role of our museums.”

The silver pitcher is a fitting addition to an already impressive collection of Salmon P. Chase materials in Cincinnati Museum Center’s collections that includes a pamphlet of Chase’s speech in response to receiving the pitcher on May 6, 1845. Amongst other Chase materials are several handwritten letters from Chase, a copy of his published papers, photographs of Chase from different periods of his life and two letters to Chase from President Abraham Lincoln. One letter, dated May 16, 1861, asks Chase to send Lincoln his commissions for two appointees Chase had recommended. The other letter, dated May 3, 1864 asks Chase for his recommendation on what action, if any, the government should take in response to the Fort Pillow massacre, in which Confederate troops killed surrendering Union troops, many of whom were African American.

Cincinnati Museum Center is pleased to display the artifact for the first time, in partnership with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Inaugural Weekend of new musical director Louis Langrée. The Inaugural Weekend concerts featuring Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, narrated by Dr. Maya Angelou November 8, 9, and 10. The Salmon P. Chase silver pitcher will be on display at Music Hall immediately preceding the performances and during intermission on November 8, 9, and 10. Tickets for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra are available at or by calling (513) 381-3300

For more information on the other Chase artifacts in Cincinnati Museum Center’s collections please visit the Cincinnati History Library and Archives page where you search the Museum Center’s collections.

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