Archy Lee was an African-American born into slavery in Mississippi in 1840.
Lee's slave-owner, Charles Stovall, brought Lee with him to Sacramento, California on October 2, 1857. While in California, Stovall rented out Lee for his wages.
In January 1858, when Stovall decided to return to Mississippi, Lee escaped from Stovall while en route to the bay and went back to Sacramento. Lee took refuge in the home of Charles Hackett and Charles Parker, two politically active African-Americans in Sacramento who operated a hotel, the Hackett House (on Third Street between K and L). Stovall had Lee arrested, but a prominent civil rights attorney, Edwin B. Crocker defended Lee, and in decision on January 26, 1858, Judge Robert Robinson ruled that Lee was a free man because California was a free state and, though Mississippi was a slave state, Stovall had become permanent resident of California, and thus could not own slaves. Judge Robinson's decision was appealed to the California Supreme Court, however, and on February 11, 1858, the Court ruled that although California prohibited slave ownership for state residents, Stovall's inexperience and poor health warranted an exception that he be allowed to leave the state with Lee as his property. The Supreme Court decision was authored by Peter Burnett, who authored a bill banning African-Americans from the State of Oregon as a legislator there, and who unsuccessfully urged the same bill in California while he was Governor. Justice Burnett's decision was joined by Justice David Terry, a southern Democrat who would flee California the following year after killing an abolitionist, David Broderick, in a duel.
Californians were outraged by the California Supreme Court decision. On March 5, 1858, Stovall, although legally successfully, tried to sneak Lee out of the state by boat. Abolitionists and San Francisco police discovered the plan and climbed aboard the Orizaba (a ship) to rescue Lee. Stovall was arrested for kidnapping, a charge which challenged the California Supreme Court's decision that Lee was Stovall's property.
In March 1858, a federal court, the U.S. District in San Francisco, overturned the California Supreme Court decision, holding that Lee was a free man.
Stovall then argued to United States Commissioner William Penn Johnson that Lee was in violation of the 1850 National Fugitive Slave Law, but on April 14, 1858, a final trial held that Lee had crossed no state lines to escape, and Lee was finally declared a free man.
In November 1873, Lee was reportedly found buried up to his neck in a swamp, in Sacramento, apparently having buried himself to stay warm. He was taken to the County Hospital, where he died.