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Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist
Chapter I - First Impressions of Human Slavery


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 obtained.

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 of slavery.

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 and strong.

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 evening.

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 perilous journey.

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 REWARD.

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 CHATTEL.

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 BROWN.

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 Philadelphia.

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.

HIS DISAPPOINTMENTS.

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 labours.


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