From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Adam (enslaved by Justice G. Robertson)

In the fall of 1862, during the Civil War, Colonel William L. Utley of the 22nd Wisconsin Volunteers was in Kentucky when a small Negro boy named Adam sought refuge in his camp. Adam was a runaway enslaved child, about 15- or 16-years old and small for his size; some describing him as a crippled dwarf. Around his neck was welded a collar with eight-inch spikes.

The collar was removed, and Adam was cared for and employed in the camp. He had been there but a short time when his owner, former Chief Justice George Robertson (1790-1874), arrived to claim him as his property. Robertson was well known throughout Kentucky: he practiced law in Lexington and had been a Kentucky Representative, an Associate Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and a law professor at  Transylvania University in Lexington. He became a justice of the Court of Appeals in 1864.

In spite of his prominence in Kentucky, when Justice Robertson arrived to claim Adam Colonel Utley cited the article of war that would allow Adam to leave with Robertson on his own volition, but he could not be forced to leave with Robertson--Robertson left the camp empty-handed.

Both Utley and Robertson appealed to President Lincoln for help resolving the matter, but the President did not take either side, refusing to get involved in the dispute. Justice Robertson, proclaiming that an injustice had taken place, gave public speeches and wrote letters to newspapers stating his case. Colonel Utley was sent word that he would never leave Kentucky with Robertson's slave.

As the 22nd Wisconsin Volunteers were marching through Louisville, KY, Colonel Utley warned the citizens that he intended to take Adam and all other refugees in their company, and if the townspeople attempted to attack them as they had other regiments with refugees, the 22nd Wisconsin would follow orders to shoot to kill and the town would be burnt to the ground. The 22nd Wisconsin marched through Louisville with loaded weapons and bayonets. Adam and another escaped enslaved person were at the head of the line. There were no attacks from the townspeople.

Colonel Utley, from Racine, WI, took Adam to Wisconsin, where he settled in Waukesha as a free person. The collar he had worn into Utley's camp was put on display in the Racine post office.

Justice Robertson filed a civil suit in Kentucky against Utley for Adam's value: $908.06. The Kentucky newspapers carried story after story about the bold theft of Justice Robertson's slave. Prior to the settlement of the matter, Utley was taken prisoner in Spring Hill, TN by Confederates, and the matter of the stolen enslaved youth was all but forgotten.

After the war and after all the enslaved had been freed, Justice Robertson still wanted to be paid for the value of his enslaved boy, $908.06 plus costs of $26.40. Robertson's lawsuit was brought to the Circuit Court of Wisconsin in 1868, and Utley was ordered to pay Robertson the total sum. In turn, Utley filed a claim with Congress for reimbursement, and in 1873 the Senate voted in favor of the reimbursement and passed it on to the House for approval. Colonel Utley was reimbursed in full.

For more see "Claim for the value of a Kentucky slave," Daily Evening Bulletin, 2/20/1873, issue 116, Col. B; and "Colonel William [F.] Utley and Adam the African American Slave," by Kevin Dier-Zimmel [online at the community website].

Kentucky County & Region

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Item Relations

Cited in this Entry

NKAA Source: Daily evening bulletin (California)(newspaper)

Related Entries Citing this Entry

NKAA Entry: Robertson County (KY) Free Blacks and Free Mulattoes, 1870-1900

Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Adam (enslaved by Justice G. Robertson),” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed June 12, 2024,

Last modified: 2023-09-05 16:28:55