Michael Shiner

Washington Navy Yard in the 1800s. There are ships on the water and smokestacks in the background.
This is a lithograph of the Washington Navy Yard in the 19th century.

Naval Historical Center

Quick Facts
Witness to the Burning of Washington in 1814
Place of Birth:
Piscataway, Maryland
Date of Birth:
Place of Death:
Washington, D.C.
Date of Death:

Michael Shiner was born in 1805 in Piscataway, Maryland, enslaved to William Pumphrey, Jr. The Pumphrey brothers owned property in Piscataway, Maryland and Washington D.C., which is where Shiner worked for most of his life.

Shiner likely learned to read and write later in life since the only schools that Black people were allowed to attend at the time were Sunday church schools. That being so, Shiner recorded his own experiences in a diary that is now held at the Library of Congress. 

In this diary, he reflects on many things, including the War of 1812. At the time, he lived in the capital with his enslaver. When writing about the Battle of Bladensburg, he described the military movement in detail. From the color of the British military uniforms to the names of American generals, Shiner’s account was very accurate despite relying on memories that were nearly sixty to seventy years old, since he was only eight or nine at the time of the war.

He also recounted the British marching on Washington – he even tried to run but was stopped by a woman who told him, “What do you recon the British want with... you?” It is likely that she stopped him because she knew that the British were taking Black enslaved people to free British colonies.

Afterward, he briefly discussed the Battle of Baltimore and the bombardment of Fort McHenry. He wrote that guns and cannons from Fort McHenry could be heard in the capital for several days. 

For most of Shiner’s life, he worked in the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. As an enslaved man, his wages were given directly to his enslaver, who was expected to provide Shiner with essentials (e.g. food, clothes, etc.). Black men, enslaved and free, were expected to do the menial labor like that of carpenters or cooks.

In 1827, when William Pumphrey, Jr. died, Shiner was sold as a “term slave” to Thomas Howard in accordance with Pumphrey’s will. This meant that he would work for someone else for a predetermined number of years – fifteen years for Shiner – and would then be manumitted afterward. However, five years later in 1832, Thomas Howard also died. Howard’s will stated that Shiner should be freed eight years after his original date of sale. 

Soon after, James Pumphrey died, which meant chaos for Shiner’s family. By 1833, Shiner had several children with his wife Phillis, who was enslaved by James Pumphrey. Pumphrey’s son, Levi, then tried to sell Phillis and three of her children to someone else. Shiner was able to, with the help of well-connected individuals, secure the manumission of his family.

Shiner petitioned for his freedom from the Howard family in 1836. As a free man, he became a painter for the Navy Yard and an activist for Black rights after the Civil War. When he died of smallpox in 1880 at the age of seventy-five years old, he was well-respected, and his obituary was on the front page of the Evening Star

To read about Michael Shiner’s life in more depth, please visit this article from the Naval History and Heritage Command. To read his diary, please visit this ebook made available by the Naval Historical Center.

Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail

Last updated: January 18, 2022