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[Illustration: [Signature of] Austin Steward]
TWENTY-TWO YEARS A SLAVE,
FORTY YEARS A FREEMAN;
CORRESPONDENCE OF SEVERAL YEARS, WHILE
PRESIDENT OF WILBERFORCE COLONY,
LONDON, CANADA WEST,
FROM GOVERNOR CLARK.
STATE OF NEW YORK,
Albany, May 10, 1856.
MR. A. STEWARD, Canandaigua,
Dear Sir:--I notice a paragraph in the "Ontario Times" of this date,
making the announcement that you are preparing "a sketch of events
occurring under your own observation during an eventful life," to be
entitled, "Twenty Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman;" and that you
design soon to make an effort to obtain subscribers for the book.
Being desirous of rendering you what encouragement I may in the work, you
are permitted to place my name on your list of subscribers.
MYRON H. CLARK.
* * * * *
ROCHESTER, SEPTEMBER, 1856
MR. WM. ALLING,
Dear Sir:--The undersigned have heard with pleasure, that you are about
issuing a Book made up from incidents in the life of Austin STEWARD. We
have been the early acquaintances and associates of Mr. Steward, while a
business man in Rochester in an early day, and take pleasure in bearing
testimony to his high personal, moral and Christian character. In a world
of vicissitude, Mr. Steward has received no ordinary share, and we hope,
while his book may do the world good, it may prove a substantial benefit
to him in his declining years.
CHAS. J. HILL,
* * * * *
ROCHESTER, JULY 1, 1856.
A. STEWARD, ESQ.,
Dear Sir:--In reply to your letter upon the propriety of publishing your
life, I answer, that there is not only no objection to it, but it will be
timely, and is demanded by every consideration of humanity and justice.
Every tongue which speaks for Freedom, which has once been held by the
awful gag of Slavery, is trumpet-tongued--and he who pleads against this
monstrous oppression, if he can say, "here are the scars," can do much.
It is a great pleasure to me to run back to my boyhood, and stop at that
spot where I first met you. I recollect the story of your wrongs, and your
joy in the supposition that all were now ended in your freedom; of your
thirst for knowledge, as you gathered up from the rudimental books--not
then very plenty--a few snatches of the elements of the language; of
playing the school-master to you, in "setting copies" for your writing--
book; of guiding your mind and pen. I remember your commencement in
business, and the outrage and indignity offered you in Rochester, by white
competitors on no other ground than that of color. I saw your bitter
tears, and recollect assuring you--what afterwards proved true--that
justice would overtake the offenders, and that you would live to see
these enemies bite the dust! I remember your unsullied character, and your
prosperity, and when your word or endorsement was equal to that of any
other citizen. I remember too, when yourself, and others of your kind,
sunk all the gatherings of years of toil, in an unsuccessful attempt to
establish an asylum for your enslaved and oppressed brethren--and, not to
enumerate, which I might do much farther, I remember when your "old
master," finding you had been successful, while he himself had lost in the
changes on fortune's wheel--came here and set up a claim to yourself and
your property--a claim which might have held both, had not a higher power
suddenly summoned him to a tribunal, where both master and slave shall one
day answer each for himself!
But to the book. Let its plain, unvarnished tale be sent out, and the
story of Slavery and its abominations, again be told by one who has felt
in his own person its scorpion lash, and the weight of its grinding heel.
I think it will do good service, and could not have been sent forth at a
more auspicious period. The downfall of the hateful system of Slavery is
certain. Though long delayed, justice is sure to come at length; and he
must be a slow thinker and a poor seer, who cannot discern in the elements
already at work, the mighty forces which must eventually crush this
oppression. I know that you and I have felt discouraged at the long delay,
years ago,--when we might have kept up our hopes by the fact that every
thing that is slow is _sure_. Your book may be humble and your
descriptions tame, yet truth is always mighty; and you may furnish the
sword for some modern Sampson, who shall shout over more slain than his
ancient prototype. I close with the wish, that much success may attend
your labors, in more ways than one, and that your last days may be your
Your old Friend,
And obed't serv't,
[Footnote 1: The indignity spoken of was this: Mr. Steward had established
a grocery and provision store on Buffalo Street, in a part of Abner
Wakelee's building, opposite the Eagle Hotel. He put up his sign, a very
plain and proper one, and at night, some competitors, whom he knew, as
well as he could know anything which he could not prove, smeared his sign
with black paint, utterly destroying it! But the misguided men who stooped
to such an act--the victims of sensuality and excess--have years ago ended
their journey, and passed to the bar of a higher adjudication.]
* * * * *
I. SLAVE LIFE ON THE PLANTATION
II. AT THE GREAT HOUSE
III. HORSE-RACING AND ITS CONSEQUENCES
IV. JOURNEY TO OUR NEW HOME IN NEW YORK
V. INCIDENTS AT SODUS
VI. REMOVAL FROM SODUS TO BATH
VIII. HORSE-RACING AND GENERAL TRAINING
IX. DEATH-BED AND BRIDAL SCENES
X. HIRED OUT TO A NEW MASTER
XI. THOUGHTS ON FREEDOM
XII. CAPTAIN HELM--DIVORCE--KIDNAPPING
XIII. LOCATE IN THE VILLAGE OF ROCHESTER
XIV. INCIDENTS IN ROCHESTER AND VICINITY
XV. SAD REVERSES CAPTAIN HELM
XVI. BRITISH EMANCIPATION OF SLAVERY
XVII. ORATION--TERMINATION OF SLAVERY IN THE BRITISH POSSESSIONS
XVIII. CONDITION OF FREE COLORED PEOPLE
XIX. PERSECUTION OF THE COLORED PEOPLE
XX. REMOVAL TO CANADA
XXI. ROUGHING IT IN THE WILDS OF CANADA
XXII. NARROW ESCAPE OF A SMUGGLER
XXIII. NARRATIVE OF TWO FUGITIVES FROM VIRGINIA
XXIV. PLEASANT RE-UNION OF OLD AND TRIED FRIENDS
XXV. PRIVATE LOSSES AND PRIVATE DIFFICULTIES
XXVI. INCIDENTS AND PECULIARITIES OF THE INDIANS
XXVII. OUR DIFFICULTIES WITH ISRAEL LEWIS
XXVIII. DESPERATION OF A FUGITIVE SLAVE
XXIX. A NARROW ESCAPE FROM MY ENEMIES
XXX. DEATH OF B. PAUL AND RETURN OF HIS BROTHER
XXXI. MY FAMILY RETURN TO ROCHESTER
XXXII. THE LAND AGENT AND THE SQUATTER
XXXIII. CHARACTER AND DEATH OF ISRAEL LEWIS
XXXIV. MY RETURN TO ROCHESTER
XXXV. BISHOP BROWN--DEATH OF MY DAUGHTER
XXXVI. CELEBRATION OF THE FIRST OF AUGUST
The author does not think that any apology is necessary for this issue of
his Life and History. He believes that American Slavery is now the great
question before the American People: that it is not merely a political
question, coming up before the country as the grand element in the making
of a President, and then to be laid aside for four years; but that its
moral bearings are of such a nature that the Patriot, the Philanthropist,
and all good men agree that it is an evil of so much magnitude, that
longer to permit it, is to wink at _sin_, and to incur the righteous
judgments of God. The late outrages and aggressions of the slave power to
possess itself of new soil, and extend the influence of the hateful and
God-provoking "Institution," is a practical commentary upon its benefits
and the moral qualities of those who seek to sustain and extend it. The
author is therefore the more willing--nay, anxious, to lay alongside of
such arguments the history of his own life and experiences _as a slave_,
that those who read may know what are some of the characteristics of
that highly favored institution, which is sought to be preserved and
perpetuated. "Facts are stubborn things,"--and this is the reason why
all systems, religious, moral, or social, which are founded in injustice,
and supported by fraud and robbery, suffer so much by faithful exposition.
The author has endeavored to present a true statement of the practical
workings of the system of Slavery, as he has seen and _felt it himself._
He has intended "nothing to extenuate, nor aught set down in malice;"
indeed, so far from believing that he has misrepresented Slavery as an
institution, he does not feel that he has the power to give anything like
a true picture of it in all its deformity and wickedness; especially
_that_ Slavery which is an institution among an enlightened and Christian
people, who profess to believe that all men are born _free_ and _equal_,
and who have certain inalienable _rights_, among which are _life,
liberty_, and the pursuit of happiness.
The author claims that he has endeavored since he had his freedom, as much
as in him lay, to benefit his suffering fellows in bondage; and that he
has spent most of his free life in efforts to elevate them in manners and
morals, though against all the opposing forces of prejudice and pride,
which of course, has made much of his labor vain. In his old age he sends
out this history--presenting as it were his _own body_, with the marks and
scars of the tender mercies of slave drivers upon it, and asking that
these may plead in the name of Justice, Humanity, and Mercy, that those
who have the power, may have the magnanimity to strike off the chains from
the enslaved, and bid him stand up, a Freeman and a Brother!
SLAVE LIFE ON THE PLANTATION.
I was born in Prince William County, Virginia. At seven years of age, I
found myself a slave on the plantation of Capt. William Helm. Our family
consisted of my father and mother--whose names were Robert and Susan
Steward--a sister, Mary, and myself. As was the usual custom, we lived in
a small cabin, built of rough boards, with a floor of earth, and small
openings in the sides of the cabin were substituted for windows. The
chimney was built of sticks and mud; the door, of rough boards; and the
whole was put together in the rudest possible manner. As to the furniture
of this rude dwelling, it was procured by the slaves themselves, who were
occasionally permitted to earn a little money after their day's toil was
done. I never knew Capt. H. to furnish his slaves with household utensils
of any description.
The amount of provision given out on the plantation per week, was
invariably one peck of corn or meal for each slave. This allowance was
given in meal when it could be obtained; when it could not, they received
corn, which they pounded in mortars after they returned from their labor
in the field. The slaves on our plantation were provided with very little
meat In addition to the peck of corn or meal, they were allowed a little
salt and a few herrings. If they wished for more, they were obliged to
earn it by over-work. They were permitted to cultivate small gardens, and
were thereby enabled to provide themselves with many trifling
conveniences. But these gardens were only allowed to some of the more
industrious. Capt. Helm allowed his slaves a small quantity of meat during
harvest time, but when the harvest was over they were obliged to fall back
on the old allowance.
It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and
in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men.
Capt. H. employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each
slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer
always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest
kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about
four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite
extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture, and, when in the
hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an
ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see
the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner. Our
overseer, thus armed with his cowhide, and with a large bull-dog behind
him, followed the slaves all day; and, if one of them fell in the rear
from any cause, this cruel weapon was plied with terrible force. He would
strike the dog one blow and the slave another, in order to keep the former
from tearing the delinquent slave in pieces,--such was the ferocity of his
It was the rule for the slaves to rise and be ready for their task by
sun-rise, on the blowing of a horn or conch-shell; and woe be to the
unfortunate, who was not in the field at the time appointed, which was in
thirty minutes from the first sounding of the horn. I have heard the poor
creatures beg as for their lives, of the inhuman overseer, to desist from
his cruel punishment. Hence, they were usually found in the field
"betimes in the morning," (to use an old Virginia phrase), where they
worked until nine o'clock. They were then allowed thirty minutes to eat
their morning meal, which consisted of a little bread. At a given
signal, all hands were compelled to return to their work. They toiled
until noon, when they were permitted to take their breakfast, which
corresponds to our dinner.
On our plantation, it was the usual practice to have one of the old slaves
set apart to do the cooking. All the field hands were required to give
into the hands of the cook a certain portion of their weekly allowance,
either in dough or meal, which was prepared in the following manner. The
cook made a hot fire and rolled up each person's portion in some cabbage
leaves, when they could be obtained, and placed it in a hole in the ashes,
carefully covered with the same, where it remained until done. Bread baked
in this way is very sweet and good. But cabbage leaves could not always be
obtained. When this was the case, the bread was little better than a
mixture of dough and ashes, which was not very palatable. The time allowed
for breakfast, was one hour. At the signal, all hands were obliged to
resume their toil. The overseer was always on hand to attend to all
delinquents, who never failed to feel the blows of his heavy whip.
The usual mode of punishing the poor slaves was, to make them take off
their clothes to the bare back, and then tie their hands before them with
a rope, pass the end of the rope over a beam, and draw them up till they
stood on the tips of their toes. Sometimes they tied their legs together
and placed a rail between. Thus prepared, the overseer proceeded to punish
the poor, helpless victim. Thirty-nine was the number of lashes ordinarily
inflicted for the most trifling offence.
Who can imagine a position more painful? Oh, who, with feelings of common
humanity, could look quietly on such torture? Who could remain unmoved,
to see a fellow-creature thus tied, unable to move or to raise a hand in
his own defence; scourged on his bare back, with a cowhide, until the
blood flows in streams from his quivering flesh? And for what? Often for
the most trifling fault; and, as sometimes occurs, because a mere whim or
caprice of his brutal overseer demands it. Pale with passion, his eyes
flashing and his stalwart frame trembling with rage, like some volcano,
just ready to belch forth its fiery contents, and, in all its might and
fury, spread death and destruction all around, he continues to wield the
bloody lash on the broken flesh of the poor, pleading slave, until his
arm grows weary, or he sinks down, utterly exhausted, on the very spot
where already stand the pools of blood which his cruelty has drawn from
thee mangled body of his helpless victim, and within the hearing of those
agonized groans and feeble cries of "Oh do, Massa! Oh do, Massa! Do, Lord,
have mercy! Oh, Lord, have mercy!" &c.
Nor is this cruel punishment inflicted on the bare backs of the male
portion of slaves only. Oh no! The slave husband must submit without a
murmur, to see the form of his cherished, but wretched wife, not only
exposed to the rude gaze of a beastly tyrant, but he must unresistingly
see the heavy cowhide descend upon her shrinking flesh, and her manacled
limbs writhe in inexpressible torture, while her piteous cries for help
ring through his ears unanswered. The wild throbbing of his heart must be
suppressed, and his righteous indignation find no voice, in the presence
of the human monster who holds dominion over him.
After the infuriated and heartless overseer had satiated his thirst for
vengeance, on the disobedient or delinquent slave, he was untied, and left
to crawl away as best he could; sometimes on his hands and knees, to his
lonely and dilapidated cabin, where, stretched upon the cold earth, he lay
weak and bleeding and often faint from the loss of blood, without a
friend who dare administer to his necessities, and groaning in the agony
of his crushed spirit. In his cabin, which was not as good as many of our
stables at the North, he might lie for weeks before recovering sufficient
strength to resume the labor imposed upon him, and all this time without
a bed or bed clothing, or any of the necessaries considered so essential
to the sick.
Perhaps some of his fellow-slaves might come and bathe his wounds in warm
water, to prevent his clothing from tearing open his flesh anew, and thus
make the second suffering well nigh equal to the first; or they might
from their scanty store bring him such food as they could spare, to keep
him from suffering hunger, and offer their sympathy, and then drag their
own weary bodies to their place of rest, after their daily task was
Oh, you who have hearts to feel; you who have kind friends around you, in
sickness and in sorrow, think of the sufferings of the helpless,
destitute, and down-trodden slave. Has sickness laid its withering hand
upon you, or disappointment blasted your fairest earthly prospects, still,
the outgushings of an affectionate heart are not denied you, and you may
look forward with hope to a bright future. Such a hope seldom animates the
heart of the poor slave. He toils on, in his unrequited labor, looking
only to the grave to find a quiet resting place, where he will be free
from the oppressor.
AT THE GREAT HOUSE.
When eight years of age, I was taken to the "great house," or the family
mansion of my master, to serve as an errand boy, where I had to stand in
the presence of my master's family all the day, and a part of the night,
ready to do any thing which they commanded me to perform.
My master's family consisted of himself and wife, and seven children. His
overseer, whose name was Barsly Taylor, had also a wife and five children.
These constituted the white population on the plantation. Capt. Helm was
the owner of about one hundred slaves, which made the residents on the
plantation number about one hundred and sixteen persons in all. One
hundred and seven of them, were required to labor for the benefit of the
remaining nine, who possessed that vast domain; and one hundred of the
number doomed to unrequited toil, under the lash of a cruel task-master
during life, with no hope of release this side of the grave, and as far
as the cruel oppressor is concerned, shut out from hope beyond it.
And here let me ask, why is this practice of working slaves half clad,
poorly fed, with nothing or nearly so, to stimulate them to exertion, but
fear of the lash? Do the best interests of our common country require it?
I think not. Did the true interest of Capt. Helm demand it? Whatever may
have been his opinion, I cannot think it did. Can it be for the best
interest or good of the enslaved? Certainly not; for there is no real
inducement for the slaveholder to make beasts of burden of his fellow men,
but that which was frankly acknowledged by Gibbs and other pirates: "we
have the power,"--the power to rob and murder on the high seas!--which
they will undoubtedly continue to hold, until overtaken by justice; which
will certainly come some time, just as sure as that a righteous God reigns
over the earth or rules in heaven.
Some have attempted to apologize for the enslaving of the Negro, by saying
that they are inferior to the Anglo-Saxon race in every respect. This
charge I deny; it is utterly false. Does not the Bible inform us that
"God hath created of one blood all the nations of the earth?" And
certainly in stature and physical force the colored man is quite equal to
his white brother, and in many instances his superior; but were it
otherwise, I can not see why the more favored class should enslave the
other. True, God has given to the African a darker complexion than to his
white brother; still, each have the same desires and aspirations. The
food required for the sustenance of one is equally necessary for the
other. Naturally or physically, they alike require to be warmed by the
cheerful fire, when chilled by our northern winter's breath; and alike
they welcome the cool spring and the delightful shade of summer. Hence,
I have come to the conclusion that God created all men free and equal, and
placed them upon this earth to do good and benefit each other, and that
war and slavery should be banished from the face of the earth.
My dear reader will not understand me to say, that all nations are alike
intelligent, enterprising and industrious, for we all know that it is far
otherwise; but to man, and not to our Creator, should the fault be
charged. But, to resume our narrative,
Capt. Helm was not a very hard master; but generally was kind and
pleasant. Indulgent when in good humor, but like many of the southerners,
terrible when in a passion. He was a great sportsman, and very fond of
company. He generally kept one or two race horses, and a pack of hounds
for fox-hunting, which at that time, was a very common and fashionable
diversion in that section of country. He was not only a sportsman,
but a gamester, and was in the habit of playing cards, and sometimes
betting very high and losing accordingly.
I well remember an instance of the kind: it was when he played cards with
a Mr. W. Graham, who won from him in one sweep, two thousand and seven
hundred dollars in all, in the form of a valuable horse, prized at sixteen
hundred dollars, another saddle-horse of less value, one slave, and his
wife's gold watch. The company decided that all this was fairly won, but
Capt. Holm demurred, and refused to give up the property until an
application was made to Gen. George Washington, ("the father of his
country,") who decided that Capt. Helm had lost the game, and that Mr.
Graham had fairly won the property, of which Mr. G. took immediate
possession, and conveyed to his own plantation.
Capt. Helm was not a good business man, unless we call horse-racing,
fox-hunting, and card-playing, business. His overseer was entrusted with
every thing on the plantation, and allowed to manage about as he pleased,
while the Captain enjoyed himself in receiving calls from his wealthy
neighbors, and in drinking what he called "grog," which was no more nor
less than whisky, of which he was extremely fond, notwithstanding his
cellar contained the choicest wines and liquors. To show his partiality
for his favorite beverage, I will relate an incident which occurred
between Capt. Helm and Col. Charles Williamson. The Colonel, believing
wine to be a healthier beverage than whisky, accepted a bet made by Capt.
Helm, of one thousand dollars, that he would live longer and drink
whisky, than the Colonel, who drank wine. Shortly after, Col. Williamson
was called home by the British government, and while on his way to
England, died, and his body, preserved in a cask of brandy, was taken
home. The bet Capt. Helm made considerable effort to get, but was
Mrs. Helm was a very industrious woman, and generally busy in her
household affairs--sewing, knitting, and looking after the servants; but
she was a great scold,--continually finding fault with some of the
servants, and frequently punishing the young slaves herself, by striking
them over the head with a heavy iron key, until the blood ran; or else
whipping them with a cowhide, which she always kept by her side when
sitting in her room. The older servants she would cause to be punished
by having them severely whipped by a man, which she never failed to do for
every trifling fault. I have felt the weight of some of her heaviest keys
on my own head, and for the slightest offences. No slave could possibly
escape being punished--I care not how attentive they might be, nor how
industrious--punished they must be, and punished they certainly were. Mrs.
Helm appeared to be uneasy unless some of the servants were under the
lash. She came into the kitchen one morning and my mother, who was cook,
had just put on the dinner. Mrs. Helm took out her white cambric
handkerchief, and rubbed it on the inside of the pot, and it crocked it!
That was enough to invoke the wrath of my master, who came forth
immediately with his horse-whip, with which he whipped my poor mother
most unmercifully--far more severely than I ever knew him to whip a horse.
I once had the misfortune to break the lock of master's shot gun, and when
it came to his knowledge, he came to me in a towering passion, and charged
me with what he considered the _crime_ of carelessness. I denied it, and
told him I knew nothing about it; but I was so terribly frightened that he
saw I was guilty, and told me so, foaming with rage; and then I confessed
the truth. But oh, there was no escaping the lash. Its recollection
is still bitter, and ever will be. I was commanded to take off my clothes,
which I did, and then master put me on the back of another slave, my
arms hanging down before him and my hands clasped in his, where he was
obliged to hold me with a vise-like grasp. Then master gave me the most
severe flogging that I ever received, and I pray God that I may never
again experience such torture. And yet Capt. Helm was not the worst of
These cruelties are daily occurrences, and so degrading is the whole
practice of Slavery, that it not only crushes and brutalizes the wretched
slave, but it hardens the heart, benumbs all the fine feelings of
humanity, and deteriorates from the character of the slaveholders
themselves,--whether man or woman. Otherwise, how could a gentle, and in
other respects, amiable woman, look on such scenes of cruelty, without
a shudder of utter abhorrence? But slaveholding ladies, can not only look
on quietly, but with approbation; and what is worse, though very common,
they can and do use the lash and cowhide themselves, on the backs of their
slaves, and that too on those of their own sex! Far rather would I spend
my life in a State's Prison, than be the slave of the best slaveholder
on the earth!
When I was not employed as an errand-boy, it was my duty to stand behind
my master's chair, which was sometimes the whole day, never being allowed
to sit in his presence. Indeed, no slave is ever allowed to sit down in
the presence of their master or mistress. If a slave is addressed when
sitting, he is required to spring to his feet, and instantly remove his
hat, if he has one, and answer in the most humble manner, or lay the
foundation for a flogging, which will not be long delayed.
I slept in the same room with my master and mistress. This room was
elegantly furnished with damask curtains, mahogany bedstead of the
most expensive kind, and every thing else about it was of the most costly
kind. And while Mr. and Mrs. Helm reposed on their bed of down, with a
cloud of lace floating over them, like some Eastern Prince, with their
slaves to fan them while they slept, and to tremble when they awoke, I
always slept upon the floor, without a pillow or even a blanket, but, like
a dog, lay down anywhere I could find a place.
Slaves are never allowed to leave the plantation to which they belong,
without a written pass. Should any one venture to disobey this law, he
will most likely be caught by the _patrol_ and given thirty-nine lashes.
This patrol is always on duty every Sunday, going to each plantation under
their supervision, entering every slave cabin, and examining closely the
conduct of the slaves; and if they find one slave from another plantation
without a pass, he is immediately punished with a severe flogging.
I recollect going one Sunday with my mother, to visit my grand-mother; and
while there, two or three of the patrol came and looked into the cabin,
and seeing my mother, demanded her pass. She told them that she had one,
but had left it in another cabin, from whence she soon brought it, which
saved her a whipping but we were terribly frightened.
The reader will obtain a better knowledge of the character of a Virginia
patrol, by the relation of an affair, which came off on the neighboring
plantation of Col. Alexander, in which some forty of Capt. Helm's slaves
were engaged, and which proved rather destructive of human life in the
But I must first say that it is not true, that slave owners are respected
for kindness to their slaves. The more tyrannical a master is, the more
will he be favorably regarded by his neighboring planters; and from the
day that he acquires the reputation of a kind and indulgent master, he is
looked upon with suspicion, and sometimes hatred, and his slaves are
watched more closely than before.
Col. Alexander was a very wealthy planter and owned a great number of
slaves, but he was very justly suspected of being a kind, humane, and
indulgent master. His slaves were always better fed, better clad, and had
greater privileges than any I knew in the Old Dominion; and of course, the
patrol had long had an eye on them, anxious to flog some of "those
pampered niggers, who were spoiled by the indulgence of a weak,
inefficient, but well-meaning owner."
Col. A. gave his slaves the liberty to get up a grand dance. Invitations
were sent and accepted, to a large number of slaves on other plantations,
and so, for miles around, all or many of the slaves were in high
anticipation of joining in the great dance, which was to come off on
Easter night. In the mean time, the patrol was closely watching their
movements, and evinced rather a joyful expectancy of the many they
should find there without a pass, and the flogging they would give them
for that, if not guilty of any other offence, and perhaps they might catch
some of the Colonel's slaves doing something for which they could be
taught "to know their place," by the application of the cowhide.
The slaves on Col. A.'s plantation had to provide and prepare the supper
for the expected vast "turn out," which was no light matter; and as slaves
like on such occasions to pattern as much as possible after their master's
family, the result was, to meet the emergency of the case, they _took_
without saying, "by your leave, Sir," some property belonging to their
master, reasoning among themselves, as slaves often do, that it can not be
_stealing_, because "it belongs to massa, and so do _we_, and we only use
one part of his property to benefit another. Sure, 'tis all massa's."
And if they do not get detected in this removal of "massa's property" from
one location to another, they think no more of it.
Col. Alexander's slaves were hurrying on with their great preparations for
the dance and feast; and as the time drew near, the old and knowing ones
might be seen in groups, discussing the matter, with many a wink and nod;
but it was in the valleys and by-places where the younger portion were to
be found, rather secretly preparing food for the great time coming.
This consisted of hogs, sheep, calves; and as to master's _poultry_, that
suffered daily. Sometimes it was missed, but the disappearance was always
easily accounted for, by informing "massa" that a great number of hawks
had been around of late; and their preparation went on, night after night,
undetected. They who repaired to a swamp or other by-place to cook by
night, carefully destroyed everything likely to detect them, before they
returned to their cabins in the morning.
The night for the dance _came_ at last, and long before the time, the road
leading to Col. Alexander's plantation presented a gay spectacle. The
females were seen flocking to the place of resort, with heads adorned with
gaudy bandanna turbans and new calico dresses, of the gayest colors,
--their whole attire decked over with bits of gauze ribbon and other
fantastic finery. The shades of night soon closed over the plantation, and
then could be heard the rude music and loud laugh of the unpolished slave.
It was about ten o'clock when the _aristocratic slaves_ began to assemble,
dressed in the cast-off finery of their master and mistress, swelling out
and putting on airs in imitation of those they were forced to obey from
day to day.
When they were all assembled, the dance commenced; the old fiddler struck
up some favorite tune, and over the floor they went; the flying feet of
the dancers were heard, pat, pat, over the apartment till the clock
warned them it was twelve at midnight, or what some call "low twelve," to
distinguish it from twelve o'clock at noon; then the violin ceased its
discordant sounds, and the merry dancers paused to take breath.
Supper was then announced, and all began to prepare for the sumptuous
feast. It being the pride of slaves to imitate the manners of their master
and mistress, especially in the ceremonies of the table, all was conducted
with great propriety and good order. The food was well cooked, and in a
very plentiful supply. They had also managed in some way, to get a good
quantity of excellent wine, which was sipped in the most approved and
modern style. Every dusky face was lighted up, and every eye sparkled with
joy. However ill fed they might have been, here, for once, there was
plenty. Suffering and toil was forgotten, and they all seemed with one
accord to give themselves up to the intoxication of pleasurable amusement.
House servants were of course, "the stars" of the party; all eyes were
turned to them to see how they conducted, for they, among slaves, are what
a military man would call "fugle-men." The field hands, and such of them
as have generally been excluded from the dwelling of their owners, look to
the house servant as a pattern of politeness and gentility. And indeed, it
is often the only method of obtaining any knowledge of the manners of what
is called "genteel society;" hence, they are ever regarded as a privileged
class; and are sometimes greatly envied, while others are bitterly hated.
And too often justly, for many of them are the most despicable
tale-bearers and mischief-makers, who will, for the sake of the favor of
his master or mistress, frequently betray his fellow-slave, and by
tattling, get him severely whipped; and for these acts of perfidy, and
sometimes downright falsehood, he is often rewarded by his master, who
knows it is for his interest to keep such ones about him; though he is
sometimes obliged, in addition to a reward, to send him away, for fear
of the vengeance of the betrayed slaves. In the family of his master,
the example of bribery and treachery is ever set before him, hence it is,
that insurrections and stampedes are so generally detected. Such slaves
are always treated with more affability than others, for the slaveholder
is well aware that he stands over a volcano, that may at any moment rock
his foundation to the center, and with one mighty burst of its long
suppressed fire, sweep him and his family to destruction. When he lies
down at night, he knows not but that ere another morning shall dawn, he
may be left mangled and bleeding, and at the mercy of those maddened
slaves whom he has so long ruled with a rod of iron.
But the supper, like other events, came to an end at last. The expensive
table service, with other things, which had been secretly brought from the
"great house," was hurriedly cleansed by the slaves, and carefully
returned. The floor was again cleared, the violin sounded, and soon they
were performing another "break down," with all the wild abandon of the
African character,--in the very midst of which, the music suddenly ceased,
and the old musician assumed a listening attitude. Every foot was
motionless; every face terrified, and every ear listening for the cause of
Soon the slave who was kept on the "look-out," shouted to the listeners
the single word "_patrol!_" and then the tumult that followed that
announcement, is beyond the power of language to describe! Many a poor
slave who had stolen from his cabin, to join in the dance, now remembered
that they had no pass! Many screamed in affright, as if they already felt
the lash and heard the crack of the overseer's whip; others clenched their
hands, and assumed an attitude of bold defiance, while a savage frown
contracted the brow of all. Their unrestrained merriment and delicious
fare, seemed to arouse in them the natural feelings of self-defence and
defiance of their oppressors. But what could be done? The patrol was
nearing the building, when an athletic, powerful slave, who had been but a
short time from his "fatherland," whose spirit the cowardly overseer had
labored in vain to quell, said in a calm, clear voice, that we had better
stand our ground, and advised the females to lose no time in useless
wailing, but get their things and repair immediately to a cabin at a short
distance, and there remain quiet, without a light, which they did with all
possible haste. The men were terrified at this bold act of their leader;
and many with dismay at the thought of resistance, began to skulk behind
fences and old buildings, when he opened the door and requested every
slave to leave who felt unwilling to fight. None were urged to remain, and
those who stood by him did so voluntarily.
Their number was now reduced to twenty-five men, but the leader, a
gigantic African, with a massive, compact frame, and an arm of great
strength, looked competent to put ten common men to flight. He clenched
his powerful fist, and declared that he would resist unto death, before he
would be arrested by those savage men, even if they promised not to flog
him. They closed the door, and agreed not to open it; and then the leader
cried, "Extinguish the lights and let them come! we will meet them hand to
hand!" Five of the number he stationed near the door, with orders to rush
out, if the patrol entered, and seize their horses, cut the bridles, or
otherwise unfit them for use. This would prevent them from giving an alarm
and getting a reinforcement from surrounding plantations. In silence
they awaited the approach of the enemy, and soon the tramping of horses'
feet announced their approach, but when within a few yards of the house
they halted, and were overheard by one of the skulking slaves, maturing
their plans and mode of attack. There was great hesitancy expressed by a
part of the company to engage in the affair at all.
"Coming events cast their shadow before."
The majority, however, seemed to think it safe enough, and uttered
expressions of triumph that they had got the rascals at last.
"Are you not afraid that they will resist?" said the weaker party.
"Resist?" was the astonished answer. "This old fellow, the Colonel, has
pampered and indulged his slaves, it is true, and they have slipped
through our fingers whenever we have attempted to chastise them; but they
are not such fools as to dare resistance! Those niggers know as well as
we, that it is _death_, by the law of the State, for a slave to strike a
"Very true," said the other, "but it is dark and long past midnight, and
beside they have been indulging their appetites, and we cannot tell what
they may attempt to do."
"Pshaw!" he answered, contemptuously, "they are unarmed, and I should not
fear in the least, to go in among them _alone_, armed only with my
"As you please, then," he said, rather dubiously, "but look well to your
weapons; are they in order?"
"In prime order, Sir." And putting spurs to their horses, were soon at the
house, where they dismounted and requested one of the party to remain with
"What," said he, "are you so chicken-hearted as to suppose those d----d
cowardly niggers are going to get up an insurrection?"
"Oh no," he replied, carelessly, but would not consent to have the horses
left alone. "Besides," said he, "they may forget themselves at this late
hour; but if they do, a few lashes of the cowhide will quicken their
memory, I reckon."
The slaves were aware of their movements, and prepared to receive them.
They stepped up to the door boldly, and demanded admittance, but all was
silent; they tried to open it, but it was fastened. Those inside, ranged
on each side of the door, and stood perfectly still.
The patrol finding the slaves not disposed to obey, burst off the slight
fastening that secured the door, and the chief of the patrol bounded into
their midst, followed by several of his companions, all in total darkness!
Vain is the attempt to describe the tumultuous scene which followed. Hand
to hand they fought and struggled with each other, amid the terrific
explosion of firearms,--oaths and curses, mingled with the prayers of
the wounded, and the groans of the dying! Two of the patrol were killed
on the spot, and lay drenched in the warm blood that so lately flowed
through their veins. Another with his arm broken and otherwise wounded,
lay groaning and helpless, beside the fallen slaves, who had sold their
lives so dearly. Another of his fellows was found at a short distance,
mortally wounded and about to bid adieu to life. In the yard lay the
keeper of the horses, a stiffened corpse. Six of the slaves were killed
and two wounded.
It would be impossible to convey to the minds of northern people, the
alarm and perfect consternation that the above circumstance occasioned
in that community. The knowledge of its occurrence was carried from one
plantation to another, as on the wings of the wind; exaggerated accounts
were given, and prophecies of the probable result made, until the
excitement became truly fearful. Every cheek was blanched and every frame
trembled when listening to the tale, that "insurrection among the slaves
had commenced on the plantation of Col. Alexander; that three or four of
the patrol had been killed, &c." The day after, people flocked from every
quarter, armed to the teeth, swearing vengeance on the defenceless slaves.
Nothing can teach plainer than this, the constant and tormenting fear in
which the slaveholder lives, and yet he repents not of his deeds.
The kind old Colonel was placed in the most difficult and unenviable
position. His warm heart was filled with sorrow for the loss of his
slaves, but not alone, as is generally the case in such instances, because
he had lost so much property. He truly regretted the death of his faithful
servants, and boldly rebuked the occasion of their sudden decease. When
beset and harassed by his neighbors to give up his slaves to be tried for
insurrection and murder, he boldly resisted, contending for the natural
right of the slaves, to act in their own defence, and especially when on
his own plantation and in their own quarters. They contended, however,
that as his slaves had got up a dance, and had invited those of the
adjoining plantations, the patrol was only discharging their duty in
looking after them; but the gallant old Colonel defended his slaves, and
told them plainly that he should continue to do so to the extent of his
ability and means.
The poor slaves were sad enough, on the morning after their merry meeting,
and they might be seen standing in groups, conversing with a very
different air from the one they had worn the day before.
Their business was now to prepare the bodies of their late associates for
the grave. Robert, the brave African, who had so boldly led them on the
night before, and who had so judiciously provided for their escape, was
calmly sleeping in death's cold embrace. He left a wife and five slave
children. Two of the other slaves left families, whose pitiful cries it
was painful to hear.
The Colonel's family, deeply afflicted by what was passing around them,
attended the funeral. One of the slaves, who sometimes officiated as a
minister, read a portion of Scripture, and gave out two hymns;--one of
which commences with
"Hark! from the tomb a doleful sound."
Both were sung with great solemnity by the congregation, and then the good
old man offered a prayer; after which he addressed the slaves on the
shortness of human life and the certainty of death, and more than once
hinted at the hardness of their lot, assuring, however, his fellow-slaves,
that if they were good and faithful, all would be right hereafter. His
master, Col. Alexander, was deeply affected by this simple faith and
sincere regard for the best interests of all, both master and slave.
When the last look at their fellow-servants had been taken, the procession
was formed in the following manner: First, the old slave minister, then
the remains of the dead, followed by their weeping relatives; then came
the master and his family; next the slaves belonging to the plantation;
and last, friends and strangers, black and white; all moved on solemnly to
the final resting-place of those brave men, whose descendants may yet be
heard from, in defence of right and freedom.
HORSE-RACING AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.
Capt. Helm had a race-course on his plantation, on which he trained young
horses for the fall races. One very fine horse he owned, called _Mark
Anthony_, which he trained in the most careful manner for several months
previous to the races. He would put him on the course every morning,
sometimes covering him with a blanket, and then put him to his utmost
speed, which he called "sweating him." Mark Anthony was to be put on the
race-course in October following, as a competitor for the purse of ten
thousand dollars, which was the amount to be lost or gained on the first
day of the fall races. Capt. H. had also another young horse, called
_Buffer_, under a course of training, which he designed to enter the lists
for the second day. His course of training had been about the same as Mark
Anthony's, but being a year or two younger, it was thought that he had not
sufficient "bottom" to risk so much money on, as was at stake on the first
[Illustration: "Away they go, sweeping round the course with lightning
speed, while every spectator's eye is strained, and every countenance
flushed with intense anxiety."]
When the time for the races to commence came, all was bustle and
excitement in the house and on the plantation. It was a fine October
morning, and the sun shed a mellow radiance on all around, when people
began to throng the race-course. Some came with magnificent equipages,
attended by their numerous train of black servants, dressed in livery,
--some in less splendid array,--and others on foot, all hurrying on to the
exciting scene. There the noblest blood of Old Virginia, of which many are
wont to boast, was fully represented, as was also the wealth and fashion
of the country for many miles around.
All were in high spirits, and none seemed to fear that they would be the
losers in the amount of money about to change hands. And for what, pray,
is all this grand outlay--this vast expenditure? Merely the pleasure and
gratification of witnessing the speed of a fine horse, and the vanity of
prejudging concerning it.
The arrangements were at length completed,--the horses regularly entered,
Mark Anthony among the rest,--and then the word "go!" was given, when each
horse sprang as if for his life, each striving to take the lead. Away they
go, sweeping round the course with lightning speed, while every
spectator's eye is strained, and every countenance flushed with intense
Some of the noble animals were distanced the first heat, and others were
taken away by their owners.
The judges allowed twenty minutes to prepare the horses for the second
trial of their speed--a trial which must enrich or empoverish many of the
thousands present. Already there were sad countenances to be seen in the
The horses were again in readiness, and the word given,--away they flew
with the fleetness of the wind, to come in the second time.
But who can describe the anxiety written on every face, as they prepared
for the third and last trial? I cannot. Many had already lost all they had
staked, and others who had bet high began to fear for the result. Soon,
however, all was again prepared and those foaming steeds, after having
exerted their animal power to the utmost, have accomplished their task and
come in for the last time. The purse was won, _but not by Mark Anthony_.
Capt. Helm was more fortunate the second day. Buffer won the smaller
purse, but the Captain came from the races, a much poorer man than when
they commenced. These repeated failures and heavy losses had the effect to
arouse him to a sense of his pecuniary position, and he soon after began
to think and talk about going to some new country.
He resolved at last to visit the far-off "Genesee Country," which he
shortly after put in practice, and after an absence of about three weeks
he returned in good health, and delighted with the country; the more so,
doubtless, because he said, "the more slaves a man possessed in that
country the more he would be respected, and the higher would be his
position in society."
Capt. Helm finally concluded to sell his plantation and stock, except the
slaves, and remove to the Genesee Country, where he designed to locate his
The plantation and stock (retaining the slaves) were advertised for sale,
and on a certain day named, all would be disposed of at a public sale, or
to the highest bidder.
When the day of sale arrived, there flocked from all parts of the
surrounding country the largest assemblage of people I ever saw in that
place. A large number of wealthy and respectable planters were present,
whose gentlemanly behavior should have been an example to others.
The majority of that vast crowd, however, were a rough, quarrelsome,
fighting set, just such as might be expected from slave-holding districts.
There were several regularly fought battles during the first day of the
One Thomas Ford, a large, muscular, ferocious-looking fellow, a good
specimen of a southern bully and woman-whipper, had been victorious
through the day in numerous fights and brawls; but he had to pay dear for
it when night came. Some one or more of the vanquished party, took
advantage of the dark night to stab him in both sides. The knife of the
assassin had been thrust into his thigh, tearing the flesh upward, leaving
a frightful and dangerous wound; but what is most singular, both sides
were wounded in nearly the same manner, and at the same time, for so
quickly was the deed committed that the offenders made their escape,
before an alarm could be raised for their detection; nor have I ever heard
of any one being arrested for the crime.
Ford's groans and cries were painful to hear, but his brother acted like a
madman; rushing hither and thither, with a heavy bludgeon in his hand,
with which he indiscriminately beat the fences and whatever came in his
way, crying "Oh my brother, my poor brother! Who has murdered my poor
Physicians came to the aid of the wounded man who at first thought he
might recover, but in a climate like that of Virginia it was impossible.
His friends did all they could to save him, but the poor wretch lingered
a few days and died. Thus ended the life of a bad man and a hard master.
And who will wonder, if his slaves rejoiced to hear of his death? If they
must be sold to pay his debts, they could not fall into the hands of a
more heartless tyrant. Who then can blame those feeble women and helpless
children, long held as chattels in his iron grasp, if they are grateful
that the man-stealer is no more?
This Ford was a fair specimen of that class, known in more modern parlance
as a "Border Ruffian." Such as are at this time endeavoring, by their
swaggering and bullying, to cast on the fair fields of Kansas the deep
curse of Slavery--a curse which, like the poison of the deadly Upas,
blights all within its influence: the colored and the white man, the slave
and the master. We were thankful, however, that no more lives were lost
during the vendue, which was commenced with the stock; this occupied two
The reader will see that we had cause to be grateful, when he takes into
consideration that drinking and fighting was the order of the day, and
drunkenness and carousing the order of the night.
Then too, the practice of dueling was carried on in all its hideous
barbarity. If a gentleman thought himself insulted, he would immediately
challenge the offender to mortal combat, and if he refused to do so, then
the insulted gentleman felt bound by that barbarous code of honor, to take
his life, whenever or wherever he might meet him, though it might be in a
crowded assembly, where the lives of innocent persons were endangered.
A case of this kind happened in Kentucky, where the belligerent parties
met in a large concourse of people, the majority of them women and
children; but the combat ensued, regardless of consequences. One woman was
shot through the face, but that was not worthy of notice, for she was
only a _colored woman_; and in that, as in other slave States, the laws
give to the white population the liberty to trample under foot the claims
of all such persons to justice. Justly indignant ladies present
remonstrated, but all to no purpose. The Governor of the State was there
and was in danger of being wounded by their flying bullets, and it is
possible that if he had been in the place of the poor African, some action
would have been taken, and laws made to protect the people against such
inhuman practices. But I must return to Capt. Helm and the vendue.
The sale continued for several days, during which there was no such thing
as rest or sleep or one quiet moment on the premises. As was customary in
that State, Capt. Helm provided the food and drink for all who came, and
of course a great many came to drink and revel and not to buy; and that
class generally took the night time for their hideous outbreaks, when
the more respectable class had retired to their beds or to their homes.
And many foul deeds and cruel outrages were committed; nor could the
perpetrators be detected or brought to justice. Nothing could be done
but to submit quietly to their depredations.
One peaceable old slave was killed by having his head split open with an
ax. He was found in the morning lying in the yard, with the bloody
instrument of death by his side. This occasioned some excitement
among the slaves, but as the white people paid but little attention to it,
it soon passed off, and the sorrowful slaves put the old man's remains in
a rough box, and conveyed them to their last resting-place.
After the sale was over, the slaves were allowed a holiday, with
permission to go and visit their friends and relatives previous to their
departure for their new home in a strange land.
The slaves generally on Capt. Helm's plantation looked upon this removal
as the greatest hardship they had ever met; the severest trial they had
ever endured; and the separation from our old home and fellow-slaves,
from our relatives and the old State of Virginia, was to us a
contemplation of sorrowful interest. Those who remained, thought us the
most unfortunate of human beings to be taken away off into the State of
New York, and, as they believed, beyond the bounds of civilization, where
we should in all probability be destroyed by wild beasts, devoured by
cannibals, or scalped by the Indians. We never expected to meet again in
this life, hence our parting interviews were as solemn as though we were
committing our friends to the grave. But He whose tender mercies are over
all his creatures, knew best what was for our good.
Little did Capt. Helm think when bringing his slaves to New York that in a
few short years, they would be singing the song of deliverance from
Slavery's thralldom; and as little thought he of the great and painful
change, to be brought about in his own circumstances. Could any one have
looked into futurity and traced the difficult path, my master was to
tread,--could any one have foreseen the end to which he must soon come,
and related it to him in the days of his greatness and prosperity, he
would, I am certain, have turned from such a narrator of misfortune in a
greater rage than did Namaan when the man of God told him "to go and dip
seven times in the Jordan."
He could not have believed, nor could I, that in a few years the powerful,
wealthy slaveholder, living in luxury and extravagance, would be so
reduced that the _necessaries_ of life even, were beyond his means, and
that he must be supported by the town!
But I anticipate. Let us return to the old plantation which seems dearer
than ever, now that we are about to leave it forever.
We thought Capt. Helm's prospects pretty fair, and yet we shuddered when
we realized our condition as slaves. This change in our circumstances was
calculated to awaken all our fears that had been slumbering, and bring all
the perilous changes to which we might be subjected most vividly to mind.
We were about to leave the land of our birth, the home of our childhood,
and we felt that untried scenes were before us. We were slaves, it is
true, but we had heart-felt emotions to suppress, when we thought
of leaving all that was so familiar to us, and chose rather to "bear the
ills we had, than to fly to those we knew not of." And oh, the terrible
uncertainty of the future, that ever rests on the slave, even the most
favored, was now felt with a crushing weight. To-day, they are in the old
familiar cabin surrounded by their family, relatives and friends;
to-morrow, they may be scattered, parted forever. The master's
circumstances, not their own, may have assigned one to the dreadful
slave-pen, and another to the distant rice-swamp; and it is this continual
dread of some perilous future that holds in check every joyous emotion,
every lofty aspiration, of the most favored slave at the South. They know
that their owners indulge in high living, and they are well aware also
that their continual indulgences engender disease, which make them very
liable to sudden death; or their master may be killed in a duel, or at a
horse-race, or in a drunken brawl; then his creditors are active in
looking after the estate; and next, the blow of the auctioneer's hammer
separates them perhaps for life.
Now, after the lapse of so many years, when my thoughts wander back, as
they often do, to my native State, I confess that painful recollections
drive from my mind those joyful emotions that should ever arise in the
heart of man, when contemplating the familiar scenes of his youth, and
especially when recurring to the venerable shades and the sheltering roof
under which he was born. True, around the well-remembered spot where our
childhood's years were spent, recollection still loves to linger; yet
memory, ever ready with its garnered store, paints in glowing colors,
Virginia's crouching slaves in the foreground. Her loathsome slave-pens
and slave markets--chains, whips and instruments of torture; and back of
all this is as truthfully recorded the certain doom, the retributive
justice, that will sooner or later overtake her; and with a despairing
sigh I turn away from the imaginary view of my native State.
What though she may have been justly styled, "The Mother of Presidents?"
What avails the honor of being the birth-place of the brave and excellent
Washington, while the prayers and groans of the down-trodden African
daily ascend to heaven for redress? What though her soil be fertile,
yielding a yearly product of wealth to its possessors? And what matter is
it, that their lordly mansions are embowered in the shade of trees of a
century's growth, if, through their lofty and tangled branches, we espy
the rough cabin of the mangled bondman, and know that the soil on which he
labors has drunk his heart's blood?
Ah! to me, life's sweetest memories are all embittered. Slavery had cast
its dark and fearful shadow over my childhood, youth, and early manhood,
and I went out from the land of my birth, a fettered slave. A land which
I can regard only as "the house of bondage and the grave of freedom." But
God forgive me for having envied my master his fair prospects at this
After the sale of the plantation, Capt. Helm was in possession of quite a
large sum of money, and having never paid much attention to his pecuniary
interests, he acted as if there could be no end of it. He realized about
forty thousand dollars from the sale of his estate in Virginia, which
would have been a pretty sum in the hands of a man who had been accustomed
to look after his own interests; but under the management of one who had
all his life lived and prospered on the unrequited toil of slaves, it was
of little account. He bought largely of every thing he thought necessary
for himself or the comfort of his family, for which he always paid the
most extravagant prices. The Captain was not as well qualified to take
care of himself and family as some of his slaves were; but he thought
differently, and so the preparations for leaving the old plantation for a
home in the wilds of New York, went on under his direction, and at last we
bade a final adieu to our friends and all we held dear in the State of
JOURNEY TO OUR NEW HOME IN NEW YORK.
All things having been prepared for our departure, our last "Good-bye"
spoken, and our last look taken of the old plantation, we started, amid
the sobs and prolonged cries of separating families, in company with our
master, the overseer and another white man named Davis, who went with us
to take back the five-horse "Pennsylvania team," which was provided for
the conveyance of the food for the slaves, and what little baggage they
might have, and also that of the overseer.
Capt. Helm had determined to leave his family until he could get his
slaves settled in their future quarters, and a home provided for himself,
when they were expected to join him.
We traveled northward, through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and a portion of
New York, to Sodus Bay, where we halted for some time. We made about
twenty miles per day, camping out every night, and reached that place
after a march of twenty days. Every morning the overseer called the roll,
when every slave must answer to his or her name, felling to the ground
with his cowhide, any delinquent who failed to speak out in quick time.
After the roll had been called, and our scanty breakfast eaten, we
marched on again, our company presenting the appearance of some numerous
caravan crossing the desert of Sahara. When we pitched our tents for the
night, the slaves must immediately set about cooking not their supper
only, but their breakfast, so as to be ready to start early the next
morning, when the tents were struck; and we proceeded on our journey in
this way to the end.
At Sodus Bay there was then one small tavern, kept by a man named Sill.
The bay is ten miles in length and from a half to two miles in breadth,
and makes an excellent harbor. The surrounding country then was almost an
After Capt. Helm had rested a few days at Sodus, he went six miles up the
bay and purchased a large tract of land lying on both sides of that
beautiful sheet of water, and put his slaves on to clear and cultivate
it. Then came the "tug of war." Neither the overseer nor the slaves had
the least knowledge of _clearing_ land, and that was the first thing to be
done. It was useless to consult the Captain, for he knew still less about
matters of that kind. To obviate this difficulty, our master bought out a
Mr. Cummings, who had some cleared land on the west side of the bay. On
this he put the overseer and a part of the slaves, and then hired a Mr.
Herrington to take charge of the remainder. Herrington and his gang of
slaves was sent to the east side to chop down the heavy timber and clear
the land for cultivation, all of which had first to be learned, for we
knew nothing of felling trees, and the poor slaves had rather a hard time
Provisions were scarce and could not be procured for cash in that section.
There was no corn to be had, and we had but little left. We had no
neighbors to assist us in this trying time, and we came near starvation.
True, the wild, romantic region in which we were located abounded in
game,--elk, deer, bear, panther, and wolves, roamed abroad through the
dense forest, in great abundance, but the business of the slaves was not
hunting or fishing, but clearing the land, preparatory to raising crops
of grain the coming season.
At last Capt. Helm chartered a boat, and manned it to go to the mouth of
the Genesee River to buy corn. They embarked under favorable auspices, but
soon there came on such a tremendous storm, that the boat could no longer
be managed, and the crew in despair threw themselves on the bottom of the
boat to await their inevitable destruction, when one of their number, a
colored man named Dunbar, sprang to the helm, and with great difficulty
succeeded in running her safely into a Canadian port, where they were
obliged to part with every thing in their possession to obtain the means
to return to their families in Sodus, who had given them up as lost. But,
to the great joy of all, they came back at last with their lives, but with
nothing for the famishing slaves. Before another boat could be sent for
our relief, we were reduced to the last extremity. We became so weak we
could not work, and it was difficult to drag ourselves about, as we were
now obliged to do, to gather up all the old bones we could find, break
them up fine and then boil them; which made a sort of broth sufficient
barely to sustain life. This we drank, and merely existed, until at last,
the long looked for boat returned, loaded with provision, which saved us
from starvation and gave us strength to pursue our labor.
INCIDENTS AT SODUS BAY.
About this time two slaves who were laboring in the forest, instead of
returning to their cabin as was expected, got lost, and wandered eight
days in the dense forest without provision, except what they could procure
from roots and the bark of trees. Great exertion was made to find them;
guns were fired, horns blown, and shouts raised, but all to no purpose.
Finally, we gave them up, supposing they had starved to death or had been
killed by wild beasts. One of them was an elderly man, named Benjamin
Bristol, and the other, Edmund Watkins, a lad of about eighteen years of
age. They wandered in an easterly direction, a distance of some sixty or
seventy miles, through an unbroken wilderness, vainly trying to find their
way home. On the eighth day, to their inexpressible joy, they came out on
the shore of Lake Ontario, near Oswego; but young Watkins was so
completely exhausted that he declared himself incapable of further
exertion, and begged to be left to his fate. Bristol, however, who chewed
tobacco, which it was supposed kept him from sinking so low as his
companion, took him on his back, and carried him home, which they reached
in a famished state and reduced to skeletons. All were thankful for the
preservation of their lives, and, with the best we could do for them,
they soon recruited and became strong as ever.
One day, two others and myself thought we saw some animal swimming across
the bay. We got a boat and went out to see what it was. After rowing for
some time we came near enough to perceive it was a large bear. Those who
watched us from the shore expected to see our boat upset, and all on board
drowned, but it was not so to be; the, bear was struck on the nose with a
blow that killed him instantly, and he was hauled ashore in great triumph.
While these things were transpiring on the east side of the bay, the
overseer on the west side determined to punish one of the slaves who
worked on the east side. The name of the slave was Williams; a strong,
athletic man, and generally a good workman, but he had unfortunately
offended the overseer, for which nothing could appease his wrath but the
privilege of flogging him. The slave, however, thought as he was no longer
in Virginia, he would not submit to such chastisement, and the overseer
was obliged to content himself with threatening what he would do if he
caught him on the west side of the bay.
A short time after, the overseer called at the cabin of one of the slaves,
and was not a little surprised to find there the refractory slave,
Williams, in company with three other men. He immediately walked up to
him and asked him some question, to which Williams made no reply.
Attended, as he always was, by his ferocious bull-dog, he flourished his
cowhide in great wrath and demanded an instant reply, but he received
none, whereupon he struck the slave a blow with the cowhide. Instantly
Williams sprang and caught him by the throat and held him writhing in his
vise-like grasp, until he succeeded in getting possession of the cowhide,
with which he gave the overseer such a flogging as slaves seldom get.
Williams was seized at once by the dog who endeavored to defend his brutal
master, but the other slaves came to the rescue, and threw the dog into a
huge fire which was near by, from which, after a singeing, he ran off,
howling worse than his master when in the hands of Williams. He foamed and
swore and still the blows descended; then he commanded the slaves to
assist him, but as none obeyed, he commenced begging in the most humble
manner, and at last entreated them as "gentlemen" to spare him; but all to
no purpose. When Williams thought he had thrashed him sufficiently, he let
him go and hurried to his boat and rowed down the bay, instead of crossing
it. The overseer no sooner found himself at liberty than he ran out,
calling to a servant girl to bring his rifle, which was loaded. The rifle
was brought, but before he could get to the bay, Williams had gone beyond
his reach; but unfortunately another boat was at this moment crossing the
bay, which he, mad with rage, fired into. The men in the boat immediately
cried out to him not to repeat the shot, but he was so angry that he swore
he would shoot somebody, and sent another bullet after them. No one was
hurt, however, but the brave overseer was vanquished. Crest-fallen and
unrevenged, he shortly after called on Capt. Helm for a settlement,
which was granted, and bidding a final adieu to the "Genesee Country," he
departed for Virginia, where he could beat slaves without himself
receiving a cow-hiding. No one regretted his absence, nor do I think
any but the most heartless would cordially welcome his return to the land
[Illustration: "Instantly Williams sprang and caught him by the throat and
held him writhing in his vise-like grasp, until he succeeded in getting
possession of the cow-hide, with which he gave the overseer such a
flogging as slaves seldom get."]
REMOVAL FROM SODUS TO BATH.
Capt. Helm went to Virginia for his family, and returning with them,
concluded to locate his future residence in the village of Bath, Steuben
County. He purchased a large tract of land near the village, a large grist
mill, and two saw mills; also, two farms; one called the "Maringo," east
of the village; and the other, called "Epsam," north of it; and a fine
house and lot in the village. He also kept a distillery, which in those
days was well patronized, for nearly every body drank whisky; and with
Capt. Helm it was a favorite beverage.
The slaves were removed to Bath, where our master was well suited, and was
everywhere noted for his hospitality. He had a great deal of land to
cultivate, and carried on a multiplicity of business.
Soon after we were settled at Bath, Capt. Helm's eldest daughter, Jenny,
was married to Mr. John Fitzhugh, her cousin, who had come from Virginia
to claim his bride.
The wedding was a splendid affair. No pains were spared to make it more
imposing than any thing that had ever happened in that country. Never
before had the quiet village of Bath seen such splendor. All that wealth,
power and ambition could do, was done to make the event one of great
brilliancy. Europe contributed her full proportion; Turkey, the Indias,
East and West, were heavily taxed to produce their finest fabrics to adorn
the bride and bridal guests; and contribute delicacies to add elegance to
the festal scene. Two days previous to the wedding, the invited guests
began to arrive with their retinue of servants, and on the evening of the
marriage the large mansion was thrown open, and there was the most
magnificent assemblage I ever beheld. In the drawing-room, where the
ceremony took place, every thing was surpassingly elegant. Costly
chandeliers shed their light on the rich tapestry, and beautiful dresses
glittering with diamonds, and the large mirrors everywhere reflecting the
gay concourse. While the servants were preparing supper it was announced
that the hour had arrived for the ceremony to commence. The bridal pair
took their place in the center of the apartment. Pearls, diamonds, and
jewelry glittered on the bride with such luster, that it was almost
painful to the eye to look upon her.
The minister, after asking God to bless the assembled guests, and those he
was about to unite in the holy bonds of wedlock, proceeded in a very
solemn and impressive manner with the marriage service. The ceremony
concluded, and good wishes having been expressed over the sparkling wine,
the man of God took his leave, two hundred dollars richer than when he
came. The company were all very happy, or appeared so; mirth reigned
supreme, and every countenance wore a smile. They were seated at tables
loaded with luxuries of every description, and while partaking, a band of
music enlivened the scene.
All business was suspended for several days, the wedding party making a
tour of ten days to Niagara Falls. After a while, however, affairs assumed
their usual aspect, and business took its regular routine.
The grist mill belonging to the Captain was the only one for many miles
around, and was a source of great profit to him; the saw mills also, were
turning out a large quantity of lumber, which was in good demand; and the
distillery kept up a _steaming_ business. It yielded, however, a handsome
income to Capt. Helm, who was now, for the first time since I knew him,
overseeing his affairs himself, dispensing altogether with the service of
a regularly installed overseer.
The oldest son of our master had been absent from home for sometime, nor
did he return to attend his sister's grand wedding. He had sought and
obtained a commission in the United States service as a Lieutenant.
This had been his own choice; he had preferred the service and hardships
of a soldier, to a plantation well stocked with slaves, and the quietude
of domestic life. He had cheerfully given up his friends and prospects as
a planter, and entered the service of his country. Frank Helm, the second
son, soon followed the example of his older brother, Lina. He obtained a
like commission, but he did not, like his brother, get along quietly. His
prospects as an officer were soon blighted, and all hope of being
serviceable to his country vanished forever.
Lina Helm was an easy, good-natured, clever fellow; but his brother Frank
was his opposite in nearly every thing; proud, fractious and unyielding.
As might be expected, Frank, soon after entering the army, got into an
"affair of honor," according to the duelist's code of laws. He was not,
however, the principal in the difficulty. One of his friends and a
brother officer, had a quarrel with a gentleman whom he challenged to
mortal combat. Frank was the bearer of his friend's challenge, and on
presenting it, the gentleman refused to accept it, saying that the
challenger "was no gentleman." Then, according to the rules of dueling, no
alternative was left for Frank, but to take his brother officer's place,
and fight. This he did and came from the bloody field disabled for life.
In consequence of his lameness, he was under the necessity of resigning
his commission in the army, which he did, and came home a cripple, and
nearly unfitted for any kind of business whatever.
While on the subject of dueling, permit me to record some of the incidents
of another "affair of honor," which occurred in the District of Columbia,
between Gen. Mason and Mr. M'Carter, two antagonistic politicians.
M'Carter offered his vote to the inspectors, and Mason challenged it.
M'Carter offered to swear it in, when Mason said if he did so he would
perjure himself. This blew what appeared to be but a spark into an angry
blaze, and a duel was momentarily expected; but their warlike propensities
subsided into a newspaper combat, which was kept up for several weeks,
each party supposing they had the advantage of their adversary. In this
stage of the quarrel, Gen. Jackson, with one of his aid-de-camps, Dr.
Bruno, visited Washington. Dr. Bruno was a friend of Gen. Mason's, and
to him the General submitted the correspondence, desiring his opinion
relative to the advantage one had obtained over the other. Dr. Bruno
decided against his friend, which probably exasperated him still more,
and the General expressed his determination to fight his antagonist. Dr.
Bruno wrote to M'Carter to come to Washington, and he came immediately,
and was as readily waited upon by the Doctor, who inquired if he would
receive a communication from his friend, Gen. Mason. M'Carter replied,
that he "would receive no communication from Gen. Mason, except a
challenge to fight." The challenge was therefore sent, and accepted, and
the Doctor appointed to make the necessary arrangements for the duel. He
proposed the weapons to be pistols, and the distance, ten paces; to
which M'Carter objected, because he said, "the General was a dead shot
with the pistol, while he hardly knew how to use one." Then it was left to
M'Carter to choose the mode of warfare. He proposed muskets and ten paces
distance. This was agreed upon, and finally the morning arrived for the
conflict, and people began to assemble in great numbers to witness this
The belligerent parties unflinchingly took their place, each with his
loaded musket at his shoulder, and gazing in each other's face, with
feelings of the most bitter hatred, while their eyes flashed vengeance.
Oh! what a state of mind was this in which to meet inevitable death? How
could intelligent men, or gentlemen, if you please so to term them, look
placidly on such a horrid scene? Was there no heart of humanity to
interfere and arrest the murderous designs of these madmen? Alas, no! The
slaveholder's "code of honor" must be acknowledged, though it outrage the
laws of God and his country.
Dr. Bruno asks, "Gentlemen, are you ready?" and the duelists take their
deadly aim at each other. The signal to fire is given, and both weapons
are discharged, and when the smoke had cleared away, what a spectacle
was there presented to the duelist and spectator? Gen. Mason, a husband,
a father, a statesman, and a kind friend, lies bleeding, and gasping for
breath. He is no more! Who will bear to his loving and unsuspecting wife,
the sad intelligence of her sudden bereavement? Who will convey his
lifeless body to his late residence, and throw grief and consternation
into the bosom of his family, and drape in sadness his whole household?
And yet this painful task must be performed. The family of General Mason
remained entirely ignorant of what was transpiring regarding the duel,
until his mangled corpse was brought into his dwelling, from which he had
so recently gone forth in all the vigor of life and manhood. And here let
us drop the curtain, nor intrude on that scene of domestic affliction
around the deserted hearth-stone of the bereaved family of General Mason.
But where is Mr. M'Carter, the more fortunate party in the duel? Hurrying
away from the frightful scene, his hands dripping with the blood of his
fellow-man, he skulks about, until an opportunity is given him to step on
board a vessel bound to a foreign port; he leaves home, friends and
country, in the vain hope of finding peace of mind, and ridding himself of
that guilt and censure which must attach itself to a crime so heinous as
that of taking the life of another. I can but regard the inhuman practice
of dueling as the legitimate fruit of Slavery.
Men who have been raised in the Slave States, where, if the laws do not
give them the power, they do not restrain them from cruelly punishing
every offender with personal violence, even unto death, if their insulted
dignity seems to demand it. It is, however, encouraging to know that for
a few years past the practice of dueling has somewhat fallen into
disrepute among the more humane and candid class of community.
HORSE-RACING AND GENERAL TRAINING.
After the return of the wedding party, Mr. Fitzhugh purchased a tract of
land near that of Capt. Helm, on which the newly-married couple commenced
keeping house. They, however, became dissatisfied with their location,
and soon after sold their possessions and returned to the South.
Capt. Helm still continued to take the oversight of his slaves, and was
out every day, superintending his business, just as his overseer used to
About this time a man named Henry Tower came to Bath to hire "slave boys,"
as we were called. The Captain hired to him Simon and myself, and a Mr.
Baker also hired to him one slave named Vol. McKenzie. We three started
for Dresden, Ontario County, where we arrived in due time.
Mr. Tower had just bought a tract of land, three miles this side of the
village of Lyons, on the Canandaigua outlet. Here Mr. Tower contemplated
making great improvements, building mills, opening stores &c. This tract
of land was comparatively wild, there being but a small frame house for a
dwelling, one for a store, and another for a blacksmith shop. Mr. Tower
had two brothers; James, the eldest, who took charge of the store, and
John, the younger, who took charge of the hands who worked on the farm;
Henry himself superintending the building of the mills. This firm had a
great number of men in their employ that year. I was kept busy helping the
women about the cooking and house-work. And here, for the first time in my
life, I had a comfortable bed to sleep on, and plenty of wholesome food to
eat; which was something both new and strange to me.
The Towers were thorough-going business-men; they built a large grist
mill, with four run of stone, and also a distillery. In those days it was
customary for nearly all classes to drink spirituous liquors; hence, the
distilleries were sources of great pecuniary interest to those who owned
them. But having lived to see the dreadful evils which the drinking of
alcoholic beverages have produced on community, I can hardly speak of
distilleries in the favorable light in which they were then regarded.
The Towers, with commendable enterprise, cleared a great number of acres
of land during the first year I lived with them, besides doing a heavy
business in the mill, store and distillery.
It was customary then for men to assemble at some public place for the
purpose of drinking whisky and racing horses.
One Saturday afternoon there was to be a race, and all was excitement.
Being young, I wished to go with the rest. I hurried through my work as
fast as possible, and then, with a trembling heart, set off in search of
my master, fearing lest he would refuse me the simple request. But he
happened to be in uncommon good humor, and readily gave his consent; and
away I went, "as happy as a lark." When I reached the race-ground, they
were just preparing to run the horses. Seeing me, they knew me to be a
poor friendless little slave boy, helpless and unprotected, and they could
therefore do with me as they pleased, and have some fine sport at my
When I was asked to ride one of the fast horses, I felt proud of the honor
conferred, and was assisted to mount, feeling highly elated with the lofty
position I had gained.
The word "go," was shouted, and the horse whirled off, and it seemed to me
as if he flew with the speed of lightning. My hat fell off the first
thing; and there I was, clinging with might and main to the neck of the
fiery animal, my head bare, my feet bootless, and my old stripped shirt
blown from my back, and streaming out behind, and fluttering like a banner
in the breeze; my ragged pants off at the knees, and my long legs dangling
down some length below; and at the same time crying "Whoa! whoa!" as loud
as I could. Nor was this all; frightened as I was, nearly to death, I cast
a despairing look behind me, and the loud, derisive laugh of the
bystanders rung in my ears.
Ludicrous as I must have appeared, this was too much,--I felt a giddiness
coming over me, my brain reeled, my hold relaxed, and the next instant I
had fallen to the ground, where all consciousness left me. When I came to
my senses I was lying in bed, surrounded by all the appurtenances of a
The first thing I heard was Mr. Tower scolding the men who put me on the
horse, and threatening them with a law-suit for presuming to do such a
thing without his permission. Mr. Tower considered himself holden to Capt.
Helm for my safe return, and was therefore justly indignant at their
placing my life in such peril. It was indeed a narrow escape, for the
horse was running with all his speed when I fell. My bones were unbroken,
however, and I suppose it must have been the tremendous jar I got when I
fell that rendered me unconscious; nor do I think it impossible that the
fright may not have contributed somewhat to the catastrophe.
It was while I was living with that gentleman that the greatest "general
training" ever known in Western New York, came off at "Oak's Corners," in
the town of Phelps. It really seemed to me that the whole world were going
to the training, and I, of course, felt a great curiosity to go where "all
creation" appeared to be going. Mr. Tower permitted me to go, and I
started off in high spirits. When I arrived within two or three miles of
the place the road was almost blocked up with people, and when I got to
Oak's Corners the crowd beggared all description; carriages of all sorts
were there, containing eatables of all kinds, and tents of all dimensions
were on the road-side, for the houses could not begin to accommodate the
people. The entire brigade was to meet at that place, and Gov. Lewis was
expected to review the different companies, and all were anxious to see
the Governor, for, in those days, it was a rare thing to see so high a
dignitary in Western New York; the eastern portion of the State having had
every thing of that kind their own way.
Nor was the means and mode of traveling brought to such perfection as now.
The roads were new and rough, and our best public conveyances only the
slow lumbering stage-coach; yet, notwithstanding these inconveniences,
there was an innumerable crowd gathered at that place. I spent the day in
walking about the encampment, and seeing what was to be seen, for it was
all new to me.
Officers were riding over the ground, dressed in uniform, and mounted on
their splendid steeds: their plumes waving over their cocked-hats in true
military array. A band of music, as is usual, accompanied the soldiers.
There was also a "sham-fight," before the breaking up of the encampment,
and it was really terrifying to me, who had never seen a battle fought, to
witness two columns of troops drawn up, and, at the roll of the drum,
behold them engage in deadly conflict, to all appearance, and the smoke
curling up in a blackened mass toward heaven; and, above all, the
neighing of horses, with the feigned groans of the wounded and dying. I
inwardly prayed to God that those men might ever draw their weapons in a
The first night I spent at the encampment was one long to be remembered;
it was like the confusion of Babel. Of all the hideous noises I ever heard
none could exceed those made there that night. They fired guns, quarreled,
drank, and swore, till day light. There was such a crowd at the tavern
that I did not suppose I could get a bed, so I threw myself down upon a
door-step, and began to compose myself to sleep, when a man came and
wakened me, inquiring at the same time whose boy I was. I replied that I
lived with Mr. Tower. "Follow me," said he; I arose and followed him into
the house, where he procured for me a bed, to be shared with another
"boy," who had already occupied it.
I had just began to doze, when the explosion of firearms startled all in
the house. The keeper of the tavern ran up stairs in great alarm, and when
an examination was made, we found that a drunken fellow had discharged his
musket in the room below the one where we were sleeping, and that the ball
had passed up through the second floor and completely through the bed on
which I slept, to the roof, where, having passed through that also, rolled
from thence to the ground! And yet, strange as it may appear, no one was
injured, though the house was filled to overflowing with guests.
There were groups of disorderly and drunken men continually roaming over
the camp-ground at night, who seemed to have no other object than to annoy
others, and torment any one they might find sleeping, by shaking them, or,
if soundly asleep, dragging them out of their beds by their feet. Among
these thus annoyed by them was a physician from Canandaigua. Being a
passionate man, they seemed to think it fine sport to arouse him from
sleep and hear him scold. The first time they dragged him from his tent he
merely remonstrated in a very gentlemanly manner, and quietly crept back
again. The rowdies were disappointed; they had expected a "scene." As soon
as he was asleep they attacked him again, dragging him out by the heels;
then he was angry, and told them if they repeated the offence it would be
at the peril of their lives, and a third time retired to his tent; but a
third party soon came, and one, more bold than the rest, entered the tent
and laid hold of the Doctor. He sprang to his feet and drew his sword,
which he ran through the body of a man supposed to be that of his
tormentor; but oh! what sorrow and consternation possessed him when he
found he had taken the life of a quiet, unoffending person who happened
to be standing by, attracted to the spot probably by the noise of the
revelers. The unhappy Doctor was obliged to flee from his country for a
time, but after a while the shadows which had so suddenly fallen on his
fair prospects were cleared away, and he returned to his home and country.
The second day of the encampment was one of surpassing beauty. The sun
shone in all its softened radiance on that vast concourse of human beings.
The field presented a spectacle which must have been imposing to those of
more experienced vision than mine; but to me, in my ignorant simplicity,
it was superbly grand; fascinating beyond my power of resistance, and made
an impression on my mind never to be effaced.
The brigade was drawn up in a line, each colonel stationed just so many
paces in front of the line, and all the other officers, such as majors,
quarter-masters, &c., were stationed at an equal distance in the rear.
When all were paraded, the Governor of the State made his appearance,
dressed in full uniform, his hat being one of the Bonaparte style,
attended by his aid-de-camp, who was dressed much in the same manner as
his Excellency Governor Lewis, who, after the salute, took his place at
the head of the brigade, and the military exercises commenced. When the
Governor issued his orders, they were first given to his aid, who passed
them to the officers, and they gave the word of command to the soldiers;
for instance if the Governor wished the brigade to "shoulder arms,"--the
order went to the officer who commanded the first regiment, and he
repeated the order, and was obeyed; then the same order passed to the
next, and so on, until the whole brigade had complied with the order of
But this, I believe, was the first and last time that the military were
ever called out on so large a scale, in the State of New York. It was
supposed that the effect would be decidedly injurious to a community and
the idea was abandoned. Young men were so liable to be fascinated by the
magnificent spectacle, that not the rabble only were attracted by the
"trappings of war," but they have a tendency to induce young, and _old men
even_, of fair prospects, to neglect _their agricultural interests_ for
military pursuits, which, in a new country, were certainly of paramount
importance, if not the greater of the two.
I know that it became very hard for me to content myself to labor as I had
done, after witnessing this grand display. I was completely intoxicated
with a military spirit, and sighed for the liberty to go out "on the
lines" and fight the British.
The martial music, the waving plumes, and magnificent uniform, had driven
from my mind entirely the bloodshed and carnage of the battle field;
beside, I was sick and tired of being a slave, and felt ready to do almost
any thing to get where I could act and feel like a free man.
I became acquainted with a Mr. McClure, a merchant in Bath, who, while on
a journey to Philadelphia, to purchase goods, was taken suddenly ill and
died; when his brother, George McClure, came on to attend to his diseased
brother's business. He was a fine, persevering kind of man, and very soon
got to be General McClure, and commanded the brigade in Steuben County,
and, as such, was liable to be called at any time when his services were
required, to go to the frontier and guard our lines from the invasion of
the English army.
To him I applied for a situation as waiter, which he readily agreed to
give me if I could get the consent of Captain Helm. I thought there would
be no trouble about that; and oh! how I dreamed of and anticipated the
happiness of being _something_ beside a slave, for a _little while at
least_. Almost every day I went to the store to talk to Gen. McClure of
this greatest happiness imaginable, "going to the lines!" and was
impatient for the chance to arrive that would send me there.
At last Gen. McClure wrote to Gen. Armstrong, to say that he was ready to
obey any order that he might send him, and march to "the lines," if his
services were needed; and, to _my_ inexpressible joy, marching orders were
returned. I nearly flew in search of Capt. Helm, never once suspecting
that he would object; because I knew that he did not then require my
services himself, and the pay would be quite as good as he had been
receiving for my time; besides I had so completely set my heart on going,
that it was impossible for me to dream of a disappointment so bitter as
that of being denied going "to the lines."
Oh! how then were my high hopes fallen, and how much more hateful appeared
that slavery which had blighted all my military prospects? Nor was Capt.
Helm's heartless and mercenary reply to my humble pleading any antidote to
my disappointed feelings and desire for freedom. He said, "you shall not
go; I will permit nothing of the kind, so let there be an end to it. The
_pay_ is all well enough, I know, but if you get killed your wages will
stop; and then who, do you suppose, will indemnify me for the loss? Go
about your business, and let me hear no more of such nonsense!"
There was an emergency I had not provided for; and, as I then believed,
the master could make no demand on or for the slaves beyond the grave, I
was silent; but both master and myself were mistaken on that point; for I
have since learned numerous instances where slaves have fought and died
in the service of their master's country, and the slave-owner received
his wages up to the hour of his death, and then recovered of the United
States the full value of his person as property!
Gen. McClure left soon after for the frontier; my saddened heart followed
him, and that was all; my body was in slavery still, and painful though
it was, I must quietly submit.
The General, however, reaped but few if any laurels in that campaign; he
burned the small village of Newark, in Canada, for which he got very
little credit on either side of the lake; so I comforted myself as well as
I could with the reflection, that all who "went to the wars" did not
return covered with glory and laurels of victory.
I continued to live with the Towers; and in the fall of that year, I had
the misfortune to cut my foot badly. While chopping fire wood at the door,
I accidentally struck my ax against a post, which glanced the blow in such
a manner that it came down with sufficient force to nearly sever my great
toe from my left foot, gashing upward completely through the large joint,
which made a terrible wound. Dr. Taylor was immediately called, and sewed
the flesh together, taking two stitches on the upper, and one on the
under, side of the foot, before it began to swell; but when the swelling
came on, the stitches on the upper side gave way, which occasioned the toe
to fall over so much, that I have been slightly lame from that day to
this. For several weeks I was unable to be moved, and was regularly
attended by Dr. Taylor, but as soon as it could be done without danger, I
was taken back to Capt. Helm's, where I found things in much the same
condition as when I left them over a year before.
On leaving the family of Mr. Tower, I endeavored to express to them as
well in my power the gratitude I felt for their kindness, and the
attention I had received during my lameness.
We returned to Bath in a sleigh, and arrived without accident or any great
suffering. But the kind treatment I had always received from the Messrs.
Tower and family, made it very hard for me to reconcile myself to my
former mode of living; especially now that I was lame and weak, from
sickness and long confinement; besides, it was cold weather. Oh! how hard
it did seem to me, after having a good bed and plenty of bed clothes every
night for so long time, to now throw myself down, like a dog, on the
"_softest side_" of a rough board, without a pillow, and without a
particle of bedding to cover me during the long cold nights of winter. To
be reduced from a plentiful supply of good, wholesome food, to the mere
pittance which the Captain allowed his slaves, seemed to me beyond
And yet I had always lived and fared thus, but I never felt so bitterly
these hardships and the cruelties of Slavery as I did at that time; making
a virtue of necessity, however, I turned my thoughts in another direction.
I managed to purchase a spelling book, and set about teaching myself to
read, as best I could. Every spare moment I could find was devoted to that
employment, and when about my work I could catch now and then a stolen
glance at my book, just to refresh my memory with the simple lesson I was
trying to learn. But here Slavery showed its cloven foot in all its
hideous deformity. It finally reached the ears of my master that I was
learning to read; and then, if he saw me with a book or a paper in my
hand, oh, how he would swear at me, sending me off in a hurry, about some
employment. Still I persevered, but was more careful about being seen
making any attempt to learn to read. At last, however, I was discovered,
and had to pay the penalty of my determination.
I had been set to work in the sugar bush, and I took my spelling book with
me. When a spare moment occurred I sat down to study, and so absorbed was
I in the attempt to blunder through my lesson, that I did not hear the
Captain's son-in-law coming until he was fairly upon me. He sprang
forward, caught my poor old spelling book, and threw it into the fire,
where it was burned to ashes; and then came my turn. He gave me first
a severe flogging, and then swore if he ever caught me with another book,
he would "whip every inch of skin off my back," &c.
This treatment, however, instead of giving me the least idea of giving it
up, only made me look upon it as a more valuable attainment. Else, why
should my oppressors feel so unwilling that their slaves should possess
that which they thought so essential to themselves? Even then, with my
back bleeding and smarting from the punishment I had received, I
determined to learn to read and write, at all hazards, if my life was only
spared. About this time Capt. Helm began to sell off his slaves to
different persons, as he could find opportunity, and sometimes at a great
sacrifice. It became apparent that the Captain, instead of prospering in
business, was getting poorer every day.
DEATH BED AND BRIDAL SCENES.
Neither Capt. Helm nor his wife made any religious pretensions. I hardly
know whether or not they were avowed infidels; but they alike ridiculed
all religious professions and possessed some very singular notions
regarding life and death.
I have often heard the Captain say, that no person need die unless they
choose to do so; and his wife was of the same belief. I have frequently
heard her remark that if mankind would firmly resist death it would flee
An opportunity, however, was soon after given to test the truth of this
strange dogma. Mrs. Helm's health began to decline, but she would pay no
attention to it, following her usual course and regular routine of
household duties; but all in vain; she was taken down, alarmingly ill, and
it became apparent to all, that the "king of terrors" had chosen his
victim. She tried with all her natural energy of character, to baffle
his pursuit and escape his steady approach, but all to no purpose. "The
valley and the shadow of death" were before her, and she had no assurance
that the "rod and staff" of the Almighty would sustain and comfort her
through the dark passage. She shrank with perfect horror from the untried
scenes of the future.
If any one had ever envied Mrs. Helm in her drawing-room, richly attired
and sparkling with jewels, or as she moved with the stately step of a
queen among her trembling slaves, they should have beheld her on her death
bed! They should have listened to her groans and cries for help, while one
piercing shriek after another rang through the princely mansion of which
she had been the absolute mistress!
[Illustration: "If any one had ever envied Mrs. Helm in her drawing-room,
richly attired and sparkling with jewels, or as she moved with the stately
step of a queen among her trembling slaves, they should have beheld her on
Surrounded as she was with every elegance and luxury that wealth could
procure, she lay shrieking out her prayers for a short respite, a short
lengthening out of the life she had spent so unprofitably; her eyes
wandering restlessly about the apartment, and her hands continually
clinching the air, as if to grasp something that would prevent her from
sinking into the embrace of death! There was not a slave present, who
would have exchanged places with her. Not one of those over whom she had
ruled so arbitrarily would have exchanged their rough, lowly cabin and
quiet conscience, for all the wealth and power she had ever possessed.
Nothing of all she had enjoyed in life, nor all that she yet called her
own, could give her one hour of life or one peaceful moment in death!
Oh! what a scene was that! The wind blew, and great drops of rain fell on
the casements. The room lighted only with a single taper; the wretched
wife mingles her dying groans with the howling of the storm, until, as the
clock struck the hour of midnight she fell back upon her pillow and
expired, amid the tears and cries of her family and friends, who not only
deplored the loss of a wife and mother, but were grieved by the manner in
which she died.
The slaves were all deeply affected by the scene; some doubtless truly
lamented the death of their mistress; others rejoiced that she was no
more, and all were more or less frightened. One of them I remember went to
the pump and wet his face, so as to appear to weep with the rest.
What a field was opened for reflection, by the agonizing death of Mrs.
Helm? Born and reared in affluence; well educated and highly accomplished,
possessed of every means to become a useful woman and an ornament to her
sex; which she most likely would have been, had she been instructed in the
Christian religion, and had lived under a different influence. As
infidelity ever deteriorates from the female character, so Slavery
transforms more than one, otherwise excellent woman, into a feminine
monster. Of Mrs. Helm, with her active intellect and great force of
character, it made a tyrannical demon. Her race, however, is ended; her
sun gone down in darkness, and her soul we must leave in the keeping of a
righteous God, to whom we must all give an account for the deeds done in
the body. But in view of the transitory pleasures of this life; the
unsatisfactory realization of wealth, and the certainty of death, we may
well inquire, "What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose
his own soul?"
Some little time after the scene just recorded, there came to Bath a young
physician named Henry, who commenced practice under very flattering
prospects. He was an accomplished young man, well educated and very
skillful in his profession. He was affable and gay in his manners, and
very fond of company. An intimate acquaintance was soon formed with Capt.
Helm and family, and he called almost daily to chat and drink wine with
the Captain,--both being quite fond of a social glass.
One night in the depth of winter, the Doctor was called to see a patient
who lived six miles down the Conhocton river. Previous, however, to the
call, he had accepted an invitation to attend a party at Capt. Helm's,
and there he was found. They had music and dancing, while the wine passed
around very freely. None seemed to join in the dance and other amusements
of the evening with more enjoyment than did Dr. Henry; but after he was
sent for, it being a most bitter cold night, he asked the Captain for a
horse to ride to see his patient, to which he readily assented, and had
his fine _race-horse_ (for the Captain had not left off all his old
habits), brought out from the stable, and the Doctor sprang lightly into
the saddle. Unfortunately his way led by the race-course, and when the
trained animal came to it he started with such speed as to throw the
Doctor to the ground, where he lay all that terrible cold night. In the
morning, some person going after wood, came in sight of the Doctor as he
was trying to creep away on his frozen hands and feet. He was put into the
sleigh and taken to the village with all possible speed. All was done for
him that could be, but his feet and legs were frozen solid. His uncle, Dr.
Henry, was brought as soon as possible, who decided that nothing could
save his life but the amputation of both legs, just below the knee. This
was done; but what a change in the prospects of this promising young man!
Instead of stepping lightly about as he used to do, with a smiling
countenance, he at last came forth after a tedious confinement, a cripple
for life, hobbling about on his knees, sad and dejected. And what, think
you, was the cause of this terrible calamity? What prevented the Doctor
from an exertion to save his life? Wine, intoxicating wine, was
undoubtedly the occasion of the heedless and reckless conduct of both
himself and Capt. Helm. And should not this circumstance be a warning to
parents and guardians, to young men and children, "to look not upon the
wine when it is red," and remember that at last "it will bite like a
serpent and sting like an adder?" Should it not also remind those who have
guests to entertain, of the sinfulness of putting the cup to their
neighbor's lips? Certainly it should. But I must resume my story.
About this time Major Thornton of Bath, died. He had long been an intimate
friend and acquaintance of Capt. Helm, and as the reader is already
informed of the death of Mrs. Helm, they will not be surprised to know
that he began to look earnestly after the widow of his late friend. It
become apparent that his solicitude for the loneliness of Madam Thornton
was not so much as a disconsolate widow, as that of making her the future
Mrs. Helm; nor was it less observable that the new-made widow accepted the
Captain's attentions with great favor, and more as a lover than a
The result was, after the Major had been dead six weeks, Capt. Helm was
married to his widow, and brought her and her servants in great triumph
to his house, giving her the charge of it. His own servants were
discharged, and hers took their places.
All went on pleasantly for a while; then the slaves began to grow sullen
and discontented; and two of them ran away. Capt. Helm started a man named
Morrison, a Scotchman, in pursuit, who hunted them ten days, and then
returned without any tidings of the absconding slaves. They made good
their escape and were never heard from afterwards, by those whose interest
suffered by the loss.
I was one afternoon at a neighbor's house in the village, when I was
suddenly taken so violently ill with pain in my head and side, that I had
to be carried home. When we arrived there, I was allowed a pallet of straw
to lie on, which was better than nothing. Day after day, my disease
increased in violence, and my master employed a physician to attend me
through my illness, which brought me very low indeed. I was constantly
burning with fever, and so thirsty that I knew not what I would have given
for a draught of cold water, which was denied me by the physician's
direction. I daily grew weaker until I was reduced to helplessness, and
was little else than "skin and bones." I really thought my time had come
to die; and when I had strength to talk, I tried to arrange the few little
business affairs I had, and give my father direction concerning them. And
then I began to examine my own condition before God, and to determine how
the case stood between Him and my poor soul. And "there was the rub." I
had often excused myself, for frequent derelictions in duty, and often
wild and passionate outbreaks, on account of the hardness of my lot, and
the injustice with which I was treated, even in my best endeavors to do as
well as I knew how. But now, with death staring me in the face, I could
see that though I was a friendless "slave-boy," I had _not_ always done as
well as I knew how; that I had _not_ served God as I knew I ought, nor had
I always set a good example before my fellow-slaves, nor warned them as
well as I might, "to flee the wrath to come." Then I prayed my Heavenly
Father to spare me a little longer, that I might serve Him better; and in