My first first impressions of
human slavery were derived from the published speeches and writings of
Wilberforce, Brougham, and other English abolitionists, which I read in my
youth, and in later years from the eloquent appeals for the freedom of the
enslaved, made by Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Theodore Parker,
and Gerrit Smith. The impulses gained from the above sources excited my
sympathies, and impelled me to seek for further and more practical
information as to the workings of the institution of slavery in the American
Republic. I had not far to seek for the desired knowledge, for there were in
Canada hundreds of escaped slaves, living witnesses to the hideous barbarity
of that wicked institution. From them I heard heart-rending stories of the
cruelties practised upon the poor oppressed coloured people of the Slave
States. In proof of their statements I was shown the indelible marks of the
lash and branding-iron upon their bodies.
These refugees were, as a
general rule, superior specimens of their race, and possessed qualities, in
the majority of cases, which fitted them for all the duties of citizenship.
Many of those I conversed with were quite intelligent, having held positions
as coachmen, house servants, and body servants to their masters, and the
information I obtained from them enabled me, in after years, to render some
service to their friends in bondage.
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN.
While I was engaged in my
inquiries among the coloured people of Canada, Mrs. Stowe's work, "Uncle
Tom's Cabin," was published, and excited the sympathies of every humane
person who read it, in behalf of the oppressed. To me it was a command; and
a settled conviction took possession of my mind, that it was my duty to help
the oppressed to freedom, to "remember them in bonds, as bound with them."
My resolution was taken, to devote all the energies of my life to "let the
oppressed go free."
I had learned from the
refugees in Canada that there existed in the Northern States relief
organizations, formed for the purpose of extending aid to fugitives from
bondage. I also gathered from the same sources much information relative to
the various secret routes leading from the Slave States to Canada, as well
as the names and addresses of many good friends of freedom in the States of
Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, who cheerfully gave shelter and aid to the
escaped slaves whose objective point was Canada—the Land of Liberty for the
slaves of the American Republic.
PREPARATION FOR THE WORK.
In November, 1856, I left
Canada to prepare for the work which had absorbed my thoughts for years. A
prominent abolitionist of Northern New York had invited me to visit his
home, and confer with him in respect to the best way of accomplishing the
most good for the cause we both had at heart. From this noble philanthropist
and true Christian I obtained most valuable and interesting information as
to the workings of the different organizations having for their object the
liberation from bondage of the slaves of the South. He accompanied me to
Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. I was introduced to many liberty-loving
men and women, whose time, talents, and means, were devoted to the cause of
freedom. The contact with such noble, enthusiastic minds, imbued with an
undying hatred and detestation of that foul blot on the escutcheon of their
country, served to strengthen my resolution and fortify me for the labour
before me. I was initiated into a knowledge of the relief societies, and the
methods adopted to circulate information among the slaves of the South; the
routes to be taken by the slaves, after reaching the so-called Free States;
the relief posts, where shelter and aid for transportation could be
The poor fugitive who had run
the gauntlet of slave-hunters and blood-hounds was not safe, even after he
had crossed the boundary line between the Slave and Free States, for the
slave-drivers of the South and their allies, the democrats of the North,
held control of the United States Government at that time; and under the
provisions of the iniquitous "Fugitive Slave Law," the North was compelled
to act as a police detective for the capture and return to slavery of the
fugitives from the Slave States.
My excellent friend also
accompanied me to Ohio and Indiana, where I made the personal acquaintance
of friends in those States who, at risk of life and property, gave shelter
to the fugitives, and assisted them in reaching Canada.
READY FOR THE WORK.
On my return to Philadelphia
I made the necessary preparations for work in the Southern States.
In undertaking this
enterprise I did not disguise from myself the dangers I would most certainly
have to encounter, and the certainty that a speedy, and perhaps cruel, death
would be my lot, in case my plans and purposes were discovered. And not only
would my own life be exposed, but also the lives of those I sought to aid.
My kind friends in Boston and
Philadelphia had warned me of the dangers that were in my path; and many of
them urged me to seek other and less dangerous channels wherein to aid the
oppressed. I felt convinced, however, that the only effectual way to help
the slaves was, to aid them in escaping from bondage. To accomplish that, it
was necessary to go to them, advise them, and give them practical
assistance. With a few exceptions the negroes were in absolute ignorance of
every thing beyond the boundary of their plantation or town.
The circulation of
information among the slaves would also have a certain tendency to create a
feeling of independence in the minds of the negroes, which, ultimately,
would lead to insurrection, and perhaps the destruction of the institution
At length all my preparations
were completed, and I was ready to enter the land of bondage, and discharge,
to the best of my ability, the duty that rested upon me.
Two years had passed since I
had finished reading Mrs. Stowe's work, and the resolution which I then
made, to devote my energies to "let the oppressed go free," was still fresh
Before leaving Philadelphia a
mutual understanding was arranged between my friends and myself in respect
to confidential correspondence, by which it was understood that the term
"hardware," was to mean males; and "dry-goods," females. I was to notify my
friends in Philadelphia (if possible) whenever a package of "hard-ware" or
"dry-goods" was started for freedom; and they in turn warned the friends in
Ohio and Pennsylvania to be on the look-out for runaways.
INTO THE LAND OF BONDAGE.
On a beautiful morning in
April, 1857, I crossed the Potomac en route for Richmond. My outfit was
compact, and contained in a small valise. The only weapon I had, was a small
revolver, which had been presented to me by a Bostonian, who, in after
years, honoured the office of Governor of Massachusetts.
On arriving in Richmond I
went to the house of a gentleman to whom I had been directed, and who was
known in the North to be a friend to the slaves. I spent a few weeks in
quietly looking around, and determining upon the best plans to adopt.
THE WORK BEGINS.
Having finally decided upon
my course, I invited a number of the most intelligent, active, and reliable
slaves, to meet me at the house of a coloured preacher, on a Sunday evening.
On the night appointed for
this meeting forty- two slaves came to hear what prospect there was for
their escape from bondage. I shook each by the hand, asked their name, age,
and whether married or single. I had never before seen, at one time, so many
coloured men together, and I was struck with their individuality and general
kindness and consideration for each other. I then explained to them my
object and purposes in visiting the Slave States. I also carefully explained
to them the various routes from Virginia to Ohio and Pennsylvania, and the
names of friends in border towns who would help them on to Canada. I
requested them to circulate this information discreetly among all upon whom
they could rely. Thus, each of my hearers became an agent in the good work.
I then told them that if any of their number chose to make the attempt to
gain their freedom, in the face of all the obstacles and dangers in their
path, that I would supply them with weapons to defend themselves, in case
any attempt was made to deprive them of their right to freedom; and also, as
much food as they could conveniently carry. I requested as many as were
ready to accept my offer, to come to the same house on the following Sunday
NINE FUGITIVES FROM BONDAGE.
On the evening appointed nine
stout, intelligent young men had declared their determination to gain their
freedom, or die in the attempt. To each I gave a few dollars in money, a
pocket compass, a knife, and as much cold meat and bread as each could carry
with ease. I again carefully explained to them the route, and the names of
friends along the border upon whom they could rely for shelter and
assistance. I never met more apt students than these poor fellows; and
their" Yes, massa, I know it now," was assurance that they did. They were to
travel only by night, resting in some secure spot during the day. Their
route was to be through Pennsylvania to Erie, on Lake Erie, and from thence
to Canada. I bid them good bye with an anxious heart, for well I knew the
dangers they had to encounter. I learned many months after that they all
arrived safely in Canada. (In 1863, I enlisted three of these brave fellows
in a coloured regiment in Philadelphia, for service in the war that gave
freedom to their race). Two of my Richmond pupils were married men, and left
behind them wives and children. The wife of one made her escape, and reached
Canada within six months after her husband gained his liberty. (I visited
their happy little home, in Chatham, Canada, in after years, and was
delighted to find them prosperous and contented).
AT WORK AGAIN.
The day following the
departure of my little band of fugitives from Richmond, I left for
Nashville, in the State of Tennessee, which I decided should be my next
field of labour. On my arrival in Nashville I went direct to the residence
of a Quaker lady, well known for her humane and charitable disposition
toward the coloured people. When I informed her of my success in Richmond,
and that I intended to pursue the same course in Nashville, she expressed
great anxiety for my safety. But finding that I was determined to make the
attempt, she sent for an old free negro, and advised me to trust him
implicitly. This good man was nearly eighty years of age, and had the
confidence of all the coloured people for miles around Nashville. He lived a
short distance outside the city limits. At his house he preached to such of
the slaves as were disposed and could attend, every Sunday evening. I
requested him to invite as many of the most reliable and intelligent of the
slaves as he could to meet me at his house on the next Sunday evening.
On the evening appointed I
found thirteen fine able-bodied men assembled to see and hear an
abolitionist. Seldom have I seen a finer or more intelligent looking lot of
coloured men than those that composed my little audience on that occasion;
their ages ranged from i8 to 30. Some of them were very black, while others
were mulattoes, and two of them had straight hair, and were very
light-coloured; but all of them had an earnest and intelligent look. My host
volunteered to stand guard outside the house, to prevent interruption and to
intercept any friendly or evil minded callers. I talked to my hearers
earnestly and practically for two hours, explaining the condition and
prospects of the coloured people in Canada, the obstacles and dangers they
would have to encounter, the route to be taken, and the names of friends,
north of the Ohio river, to whom they could safely apply for aid to help
them on to Canada. No lecturer ever had a more intensely earnest audience
than I had that evening. I gathered them close around me, so that I could
look each in the face, and give emphasis to my instructions. In conclusion,
I told them that I should remain in Nashville until after the following
Sunday evening, when as many as felt disposed to make the attempt to gain
their freedom could meet inc in the same house at 9 p.m. I requested those
who would decide to leave on that night to inform their old friend before
the next Friday, that I might make some provision for their long and
Early in the week I received
word from five; and by Friday evening two more had decided to make the
attempt to obtain liberty.
At 9 o'clock, on the Sunday
evening appointed, I was promptly at the house of my friend. He again stood
guard. It was nearly 10 o'clock before I heard the signal agreed upon
-"scratching upon the door." I unlocked the door, when in stepped four men,
followed soon after by three others. They were all young men and unmarried.
I asked each if he had fully determined to make the attempt; and receiving
an affirmative reply, I very carefully explained to them the routes to be
taken, the dangers they might expect to encounter, and the friends upon whom
they could call for aid. To each I gave a pistol, a knife, a pair of shoes,
a compass, and to their leader twenty dollars in money. They were also
supplied with as much food as they could conveniently carry.
SEVEN CANDIDATES FOR FREEDOM.
At midnight I bid them
good-bye; and these brave-hearted fellows, with tears in their eyes and
hearts swelling with thankfulness toward me, started for the land of
freedom. I advised them to travel by night only, to keep together, and not
use their pistols except in absolute necessity.
Next morning I called upon my
Quaker friend and informed her of the result of my labours in Nashville. She
expressed her delight and satisfaction ; but feared for my safety, if I
remained in the city after the escape of the slaves became known.
That evening I sent letters
to friends in Evansville, Cincinnati, and Cleveland, to keep a sharp lookout
for "packages of hardware."
As I was leaving the Post
Office a man handed me a small printed bill, which announced the escape of
thirteen slaves from Richmond; but nine only were described, together with
the names of their owners. A reward of $i,000 was offered for their capture
and return to Richmond. I now thought it was time for me to leave for other
fields of labour. Early next day I bade farewell to my kind Quaker friend,
and started for Memphis. On my arrival there I sought the house of an
antislavery man to whom I had been directed. The husband was absent from
home, but the good wife received me most kindly, and urged me to make her
house my home during my stay in the city. I felt, however, that I had no
right to expose the family to trouble and suspicion, in case I got into
difficulty. I went to a hotel, and being tired and weary, laid down upon a
couch to rest, and must have fallen asleep, for I was aroused by the
shouting of a newsboy under my window. The burthen of his cry was, the
escape of several slaves from Nashville in one night. I opened the window,
and told the boy to bring a paper up to my room. The news was as follows:-
TWELVE HUNDRED DOLLARS REWARD.
"Great excitement in
Nashville—Escape of seven first-class slave-men, by the aid of an
abolitionist who had been seen prowling about the city for several days
previous." Three hundred dollars reward was offered for the capture and
return of each of the slaves, and twelve hundred dollars for the
apprehension of the "accursed" abolitionist; then followed a description of
the slaves, and a very good description of myself, considering that I had
kept very close during my stay in Nashville. At a glance I saw the danger of
my position, and determined to leave the hotel at once, which I did ;
returning to the house I had first visited, I told the good wife my
position. The paper, which contained the exciting news, also contained the
announcement that a steamer would leave for St. Louis that night at nine
o'clock. It was now three. Six long hours to remain in the very jaws of
death! I made enquiries for the house of a coloured man, upon whom my old
coloured friend in Nashville told me I could rely. Having received the
proper direction, I went to his humble dwelling, and mentioning the name of
his old friend at Nashville, he cordially welcomed me. He was a fine looking
man, with honest eyes, open countenance, and of more than ordinary
intelligence, for one of his race. I handed him the paper, and pointed to
the reward for my apprehension. When he read the exciting news, he grasped
my hand and said, "Massa, I'd die to save you; what shall we do ?" I told
him I had determined to leave by nine o'clock that night, if possible, on
the steamboat for St. Louis, and asked permission to remain in his house
until the arrival of the steamer. The noble fellow placed his house, and all
he possessed at my command. On many occasions I have placed my life in the
hands of coloured men without the slightest hesitation or fear of betrayal.
A POOR NEGRO SPURNS THE
This poor despised negro held
in his hand a a paper offering a reward of $I,200 for my capture. He was a
labouring man, earning his bread by the sweat of his brow; and yet I felt
perfectly safe, and implicitly trusted this poor man with my life. In fact,
I felt safer in his house than I should have felt in the house of a certain
Vice-President of the U. S., who, in more recent times sold himself for a
similar amount. This poor oppressed negro, had everything to gain by
surrendering me into the hands of the slave- masters, and yet he spurned the
reward, and was faithful to the trust I had placed in him.
Night was now approaching,
and my friend suggested the propriety of shaving off my whiskers and
changing my dress. While engaged making these alterations I overheard an
animated conversation, in the adjoining room, between my host and a female.
The woman earnestly begged of him to ask me to take her to Canada, where her
husband then was. The poor man told her my life was already in great danger,
and that I might be captured and killed, if she was seen with me; but still
she continued to beg. When I had completed my change of appearance, he came
into the room, and told me that in the next room was a coloured woman that
had lately fled from her master on account of his cruelty to her. I told him
to bring her in, and let me talk with her. She was about thirty- five years
old, and a light mulatto, of bright, intelligent appearance. She told inc of
the escape of her husband to Canada about two years previously, and of her
master's cruelty in beating her, because she refused to marry a negro whom
he had selected for her. She showed me her back, which was still raw and
seamed with deep gashes, where the lash of her cruel master's whip had
ploughed up her flesh. She earnestly implored me to take her to Canada. I
told my friend to dress her in male attire, so that she might accompany me
in the capacity of valet, and that I would make the attempt to take her to
Canada. The poor creature gladly accepted the offer, and was soon ready for
the journey. I gave her the name of "Sam," and myself the title of "Mr.
Smith, of Kentucky." At half- past eight, p.m., we left the house of my
faithful friend, and started for the boat, "Sam" walking behind me, carrying
my valise. Through some cause or other the boat was detained until near
eleven o'clock. Oh, what hours of misery! every minute filled with
apprehensions of disaster, not only to myself, but to the poor creature
depending upon me. No one, not similarly placed, can imagine the anxiety and
dread that filled my mind during this long delay. The moments passed so
slowly, that they seemed hours. "Sam" stood near me, looking as anxious as I
felt. At length we got aboard the boat I secured tickets for myself and
servant for St. Louis, and when the boat left the levee, I breathed freer
than I had for several hours.
I arrived in St. Louis
without the occurrence of any incident of importance, and sent telegrams to
different points along the Ohio river to friends, warning them to be on the
lookout for fugitives from Tennessee. I remained in St. Louis but a few
hours, and left for Chicago, accompanied by my happy servant, whose frequent
question, "Massa, is we near Canada yet," kept me continually on the alert
to prevent her from exposing herself to arrest.
ARRIVAL IN CHICAGO WITH A
When we reached Chicago, I
took my servant to the house of a friend of the slave, where she was
properly cared for. It was deemed prudent, however, that she should continue
to wear male attire until she reached Canada, for it occasionally occurred
that fugitives were caught in Detroit, and taken back to bondage, after
having come in sight of the land of promise. Their proximity to a safe
refuge from their taskmasters, and from the operation of the infamous
Fugitive Slave Law, rendered them careless in their manner, and so happy in
appearance, that they were frequently arrested on suspicion by the minions
of the United States Government, ever on the watch to obey the behests of
the slave power. After a few hours' rest in Chicago, I left with my charge
for Detroit, where I arrived in due time on the following day; and, taking a
hack, drove to a friend's house in the suburbs of the city. Here I made
arrangements to be rowed across the river to Windsor, Canada, in a small
boat, as soon as darkness would render our passage safe. I also sent
telegrams to friends in London, Chatham, and Amherstburg, to ascertain the
whereabouts of her husband, and finally heard that he was working in a
barber shop in London.
SAFE ON THE SOIL OF CANADA.
At night the poor fugitive
and myself were taken silently over the river that separated the land of
freedom from the land of slavery. Not a word was spoken until we touched the
soil of Canada. I then told her that she was now a free woman, and no one
could now deprive her of her right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of
happiness." She dropped on her knees, and uttered a sincere prayer to the
Almighty to protect and bless me for bringing her to Canada. I took her to
the house of a friend, and on the following day sent her to London, where
she and her husband were united, after a separation of two years. (In 1863 I
dined with them at their pretty little home, which they had paid for with
the proceeds of their industry and thrift). Returning to Detroit I took the
cars for Cleveland. On my arrival there I received a telegram from Boston
informing me that Capt. John Brown, of Kansas, would meet me in Cleveland in
a day or two, and that he desired to confer with me on a subject of
importance, connected with the Antislavery cause.
FIRST INTERVIEW WITH JOHN
On the evening of my third
day in Cleveland, while seated in my room at the hotel, a gentle tap at my
door aroused me; I said, "come in" (thinking it was a servant); the door
opened, and in walked a plain, farmer-like looking man —a stranger, but with
a remarkable countenance, strongly indicative of intelligence, coolness,
tenacity of purpose, and honesty. He appeared about five feet ten inches in
height, slender, but wiry and tough; his glance keen, steady, and honest ;
his step light, quick, and firm. He was, although simply and plainly
dressed, a man of remarkable appearance; no close observer would pass him on
the street without making that observation. He introduced himself as "John
Brown, of Kansas," and handed me several letters from friends in Boston and
While I was engaged reading
the letters, and occasionally asking a question in reference to their
contents, he was closely examining a revolver of mine which he had found on
my bureau. When I had finished reading the letters he remarked, "How very
strange that you should have a pistol exactly like one I have in my pocket,"
which he produced. They were, indeed, fellows in every respect, and
presented to us by the same generous Bostonian. Capt. Brown remained with me
until after midnight, eagerly listening to a narrative of my trip through
Virginia and Tennessee, and in relating incidents connected with his labours
in Kansas. His manner and conversation produced a magnetic influence which
rendered him very attractive, and stamped him as a man of more than ordinary
coolness, tenacity of purpose, and devotion to what he considered right. He
was, in my estimation, a Christian in the full sense of that word. No idle,
profane, or immodest word fell from his lips. He was deeply in earnest in
the work, in which he believed himself a special instrument in the hands of
God. During our long (and to me deeply interesting) interview, which lasted
from 8 p.m. until 3 in the morning, he related many incidents of his life
bearing upon the subject of slavery. He said he had for many years been
studying the guerilla system of warfare adopted in the mountainous portions
of Judy and Switzerland ; that he could, with a small body of picked men,
inaugurate and maintain a negro insurrection in the mountains of Virginia,
which would produce so much annoyance to the United States Government, and
create such a feeling of dread and insecurity in the minds of slave-
holders, that slavery would ultimately be abolished.
HIS OPINION OF ABOLITIONISTS.
Capt. Brown had little
respect for that class of abolitionists who, from their abodes of safety in
the North, spoke so bravely in behalf of the oppressed coloured people of
the Slave States, but who took good care to keep their precious bodies north
of the Potomac. He stoutly maintained that the only way to abolish slavery
was by conveying to the slaves such information as would aid them in making
their escape to Canada, and by encouraging insurrection among the slaves;
thus producing feelings of dread and uncertainty in the minds of
slaveholders, that would end in the emancipation of the slaves.
John Brown was now returning
to Kansas, from the Eastern States, where he had been for several weeks
trying to collect means to carry on the war in Kansas. He said he had found
by experience that those abolitionists who made the most noise from the
pulpits and lecture-rooms, were the last to offer a dollar toward any
practical means for the liberation of the slaves. He had met with
disappointment in the East, and felt it most keenly. He had sacrificed his
own peace and comfort, and the peace and comfort of his family, in obedience
to his sincere convictions of duty toward the oppressed people of the South,
while those who had the means to help him make war upon the oppressor, were
lukewarm or declined to aid him in his warfare.
CHARACTER OF JOHN BROWN.
I have been in the presence
of many men whom the world called great and distinguished, but never before
or since have I met a greater or more remarkable man than Capt. John Brown.
There was manifest, in all he said and did, an absorbing intensity of
purpose, controlled by lofty moral principles. He was a devout Christian;
and sincerely believed himself a chosen instrument in the hands of God to
let the oppressed go free.
HE LEAVES FOR KANSAS.
Capt. Brown left me at an
early hour in the morning, to take the cars for Kansas. Before parting I
urged him to accept from me a portion of my funds, to aid him in the
purchase of material for his Kansas work. This he did reluctantly,
expressing his fears that I was depriving myself of the means to continue my