Thomas Gedney and Richard Meade, the Washington's officers, assisted Montez and Ruiz and re-captured the ship. Meanwhile, Henry Green and Pelatiah Fordham -- who had nothing to do with the Washington, separately captured the Africans who had come ashore for water.
The ship was piloted to New London, Connecticut, for a trial concerning the rights and ownership of the ship and its cargo. The African slaves were placed in the custody of the U.S. marshalls until the end of the trial.
Typically, a salvager sues in court to have his rights as a salvager declared. If he is successful, the court sets the dollar amount to which he is entitled, and orders a sale of the ship and its cargo.
However, under the law of the United States, slave trade was illegal in 1841. Accordingly, one important legal question was whether the Africans were Spanish citizens -- and therefore susceptible of "slave" status -- or of African or some other status, and therefore not slaves under U.S. or Spanish law.
If the slaves were property, the law of salvage would apply to them, and they would be sold along with the cargo.
Green and Fordham filed a response to Gedney and Meade's claim, stating that they (Green and Fordham) had helped rescue the cargo of the ship by capturing the Africans who had come ashore. Green and Fordham therefore claimed a portion of the value of the cargo as well.
Ruiz and Montez sued separately in U.S. District Court, stating that the slaves were their private property. Under a U.S. treaty with Spain Ruiz and Montez claimed that the slaves could not be included in the salvage sale of the ship.
The Spanish government also made a request. Spain argued that, since the Amistad was rescued by a U.S. government-owned armed ship, the United States was obligated under international treaty to return the ship and its cargo to the Spanish owners. An attorney for the United States government appeared before the court and presented this request. This attorney also argued that, if the Africans could not legally be returned to Ruiz and Montez, the court should order them sent back to Africa.
The Africans also responded to the claim. They argued that, since they were free men in their native Africa, and since they had been kidnapped from Africa by the Spanish slave traders, and since slave trade was illegal in New York (where the Amistad had landed), they should be released from custody and set free.
The United States attorney appealed the court's decision, demanding that the United States be free to return the slaves to Spain, under its treaty obligations. The Circuit Court -- the next highest court -- affirmed the district court's decision and rejected the United States arguments. The United States then appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court called the case "peculiar and embarrassing." It ruled for the Africans, accepting the argument that they were never citizens of Spain, and were illegally taken from Africa, where they were free men under the law.
The Supreme Court accepted that the United States had obligations to Spain under the treaty, but said that that treaty "never could have been intended to take away the equal rights of [the Africans]."
The Supreme Court also rejected a fairly novel argument by the United States. The U.S. argued that the Africans should not be freed because, in commanding a slave ship and piloting it into the United States, the Africans violated the laws of the United States forbidding slave trade. The Supreme Court stated that the slaves could not "possibly intend to import themselves into the United States as slaves, or for sale as slaves."
Once the Supreme Court finally affirmed the freedom of the slaves, they sailed back to Africa on the ship Gentleman. Public documents from the National Archives and Records Administration