Butler, who was of Irish origin, was an indentured servant to Charles Calvert, 3rd Baron Baltimore. At around 16 years of age she announced her intention to marry a man referred to only as "Negro Charles". A 1664[b] Maryland law outlined the legal status of a free woman who voluntarily married a slave: she would serve the master of her husband until his death, and any offspring of their union would be born into slavery.[c] Despite this, Butler was determined to be wed. The thought of a white woman becoming a slave apparently distressed Lord Baltimore somewhat, and he warned against the union for that reason.
Lord Baltimore petitioned Maryland's provincial assembly to change the 1664 law, and in 1681 key provisions of the law were in fact repealed. The new law additionally outlawed marriages between female servants and slaves, and provided for huge punitive fines to be levied on the master of any slave thus wed.
Despite this, Butler and Charles apparently married in 1681, but before the law went into effect. Because the new law did not apply retroactively, and perhaps also because Lord Baltimore left Maryland indefinitely in 1684, Butler and Charles lived out the rest of their lives as the slaves of William Boarman, Eleanor Butler's husband's owner. They had seven or eight children, all born after the repeal of the 1664 law, but these were nonetheless born slaves. One son, Jack, apparently escaped and later bought his freedom from the Boarman family. The rest remained chattel.
In October 1770, two of their descendants, William and Mary Butler, still enslaved, filed suit for their freedom on the basis they were descendants of a white woman. Mary Butler was Nell Butler's great granddaughter, but the provincial court ruled against them, noting that "many of these people, if turned loose, cannot mix with us and become members of society." Other suits from other descendants followed in the 1780s. In 1787, the daughter of William and Mary Butler – also named Mary – successfully sued for her freedom, but hers was a procedural victory devoid of any particular precedent. While her attorney hoped that the court would decide that any descendant of a white woman could not be a slave, such a decision and the far-reaching effects it would have brought were not forthcoming. Instead, the court ruled that as no evidence existed of a legal union between Nell Butler and Negro Charles, the provisions of the 1664 law that condemned her and her offspring to slavery should not have applied in her case. This compromise ruling allowed Mary Butler her freedom without having any significant effect on property rights in the state.
- Estimated from her marriage at age 16 in 1681
- Some sources, e.g. Whitman, give the date as 1663.
- Spelling as in original, quoted in Tomlins: All Children born of any Negro or other slaue shall be Slaues as their ffathers were for the terme of their liues. And forasmuch as diver freeborne English women forgettfull of their free Condicon and to the disgrace of our Nation doe intermarry with Negro Slaues by which also diuers suites may arise touching the Issue of such woemen and a great damage doth befall the Masters of such Negroes for preuention whereof for deterring such freeborne women from such shamefull Matches Bee itt further Enacted … That whatsoever free borne women shall inter marry with any slaue from and after the Last day of this present Assembly shall Serue the master of such slaue dureing the life of her husband. And that all the issue of such freeborne woemen soe marryed shall be Slaues as their fathers were. And Bee itt further Enacted that all the Issues of English or other freeborne woemen that haue already marryed Negroes shall serve the Masters of their Parents till they be Thirty years of age and no longer. Archives of Maryland, Volume I: Proceedings and Acts of the General Assembly of Maryland, January 1637/8 – September 1664 (Baltimore, 1883), pp 533–4
- "Irish Nell Butler". Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series). 27 July 2011. Retrieved 23 June 2015.
- "A love story carved in Callum's family tree". The Baltimore Sun. 22 June 2005. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
- Tomlins, Christopher (August 2010). Freedom Bound: Law, Labor, and Civic Identity in Colonizing English America, 1580–1865. Cambridge University Press. p. 459. ISBN 978-0-521-13777-5. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
- Whitman, T. Stephen (15 February 2001). The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 63–6. ISBN 0-8131-2004-7.
- Hoffman, Ronald (25 February 2002). Princes of Ireland, Planters of Maryland: A Carroll Saga, 1500–1782. The University of North Carolina Press. p. 87. ISBN 0-8078-5347-X.
Although Charles Calvert, third Lord Baltimore, left Maryland to reside permanently in England in 1684 …
- Winch, Julie (4 April 2014). Between Slavery and Freedom: Free People of Color in America from Settlement to the Civil War (The African American History Series). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. p. 7.