Recollections and Experiences of an Abolitionist Chapter II - News from the South
THE excitement in Richmond
and Nashville, consequent upon the escape of so many valuable slaves,
extended to all the surrounding country. In the reading room of the hotel at
which I was stopping, I picked up a Richmond paper, which contained a
lengthy account of the escape of slaves from Richmond, Nashville, and other
parts of the South. The writer stated that a general impression prevailed in
that community, that a regularly organized band of abolitionists existed in
the South, which supplied the negroes with information and means to escape
to Canada. The authorities were urged to offer a large reward for the
apprehension of the "cursed negro thieves" that infested the South, and that
an example should be made of such as were caught, as would for ever deter
others from interference with the rights of the South.
I concluded it would be
better for the cause, I tried to serve, that no further attempt should be
made until the present excitement in the South quieted down. From Cleveland
I went to Philadelphia, where I remained until November, 1857. During my
stay in that city I was busily occupied in collecting statistics of the
slave populations of the different Slave States, and in consulting with
various friends as to the best methods of circulating information among the
slaves of the Cotton States.
Any one acquainted with the
institution of slavery, as it existed in the Gulf States, will fully
appreciate the difficulties that environed such an enterprise as the one I
now contemplated—that of conveying direct to the slaves a knowledge of the
best routes, the distances to be traversed, difficulties to be overcome, and
the fact that they had friends in the Border States to whom they could apply
for aid, and on whom they could implicitly rely for assistance to forward
them to Canada. Of all the dangers to myself that loomed up before my mind,
the last and the least was the fear of betrayal by the slaves. Once they
became satisfied of your friendship and your desire to help them escape from
bondage, they would willingly suffer torture or death to protect you. Such,
at least, has been my experience with the negroes of the Slave States.
OFF FOR NEW ORLEANS.
Early in the month of
December, 1857, I left New York, by steamer, for New Orleans, on a mission,
the subject and details of which had occupied my mind exclusively for many
months. I was accompanied to the steamer by two noble-hearted and steadfast
friends of freedom. One of these friends (a resident of the interior of New
York State) had been my principal supporter, and active and unflinching
friend from the commencement of my career as an abolitionist. The other, was
a resident of Brooklyn, a prominent philanthropist, long identified with the
abolitionists of the North. All my correspondence, while in the Slave
States, was to be sent to them. Whenever a slave succeeded in making his or
her escape I was to send them the information, and they in turn notified our
friends north of the Ohio river to be on the lookout for "packages of
hardware" (men) or "dry goods" (females), and these Ohio friends concealed
the fugitives for a time, if necessary, until they could be safely sent to
Canada. In many parts of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Pennsylvania, we had
fast friends, in the majority of cases belonging to the Society of Quakers,
whose doors were always open to the poor fugitive from bondage, and whose
hearts were open to the fugitive's appeal for help.
ARRIVAL IN NEW ORLEANS.
On my arrival in New Orleans
I secured board with a private family, and began my preparations for work in
the interior of the country. From childhood I had been passionately fond of
the study of Natural History, especially of Ornithology. I consequently
decided to follow the pursuit of a naturalist, as a guise to my actual
During my stay in New Orleans
I occasionally attended the slave auctions. The scenes I witnessed there
will never be effaced from my memory. The horrid traffic in human beings,
many of them much whiter and more intelligent than the cruel men who bought
and sold them, was, without exception, the most monstrous outrage upon the
rights of a human being that can possibly be conceived of. The cries and
heart-rending agonies of the poor creatures as they were sold and separated
from parents, children, husbands, or wives, will never cease to ring in my
cars. Babes were torn from the arms of their mothers and sold, while parents
were separated and sent to distant parts of the country. I have seen tired
and overworked women cruelly beaten because they refused the outrageous
demands of their wicked overseers.
HORRORS OF HUMAN SLAVERY.
My experience in New Orleans
served to intensify my abhorrence and hatred toward that vile and
unchristian institution of slavery, and to nerve me for the work I was
engaged in. On several occasions I attended divine worship, and I invariably
noticed that whenever the subject of slavery was mentioned, it was referred
to as a "wise and beneficent institution"; and one clergyman in particular
declared that "the institution of slavery was devised by God for the
especial benefit of the coloured race."
Finally my preparations were
completed, and, supplied with a shot gun, and materials for preserving
bird-skins, I began my journey into the interior of the country.
The route I had decided upon
was from New Orleans to Vicksburg, and thence through the interior of
Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Florida.
I had never before visited that part of the United States, and my field of
labour was consequently surrounded by difficulties not experienced during my
visit to Virginia and Tennessee, from the fact that I had not a single
friend in the Cotton States.
AT WORK NEAR VICKSBURG.
On my arrival at Vicksburg I
obtained board in a private family, and was soon busily engaged in
collecting ornithological specimens. I made frequent visits to the
surrounding plantations, seizing every favourable opportunity to converse
with the more intelligent of the slaves. Many of these negroes had heard of
Canada from the negroes brought from Virginia, and the border Slave States;
but the impression they had was, that Canada was so far away that it would
be useless to try and reach it. I was usually accompanied on these
excursions by one or two smart, intelligent slaves, to whom I felt I could
trust the secret of my visit. In this way I succeeded in circulating a
knowledge of Canada, and the best means of reaching that country, to all the
plantations for many miles around Vicksburg. I was often surprised at the
rapidity with which information was conveyed to the slaves of distant
plantations. Thus, on every plantation I had missionaries who were secretly
conveying the intelligence to the poor downtrodden slaves of that benighted
region, that in Canada there were hundreds of negroes who had, through the
aid of friends along the border, escaped from slavery, and were now free men
No one but a slave can fully
appreciate the true meaning of the word freedom.
I continued my labours in the
vicinity of Vicksburg for two months, and then went to Selma, Ala.
SOWING SEED AT SELMA.
I made this place my base for
extensive excursions to the surrounding country, pursuing a similar course
to that I adopted at Vicksburg. My ornithological collection had by this
time assumed respectable and interesting proportions and some of the
planters became so much interested in my apparent pursuit, as to offer me
every facility to roam over their plantations, of which I availed myself. I
had my choice of assistants from among the slaves, and selected those
possessing qualities suitable for my purpose. There was not a plantation
within fifteen miles of Selma that I did not visit successfully. The seed
planted at Vicksburg and Selma fell upon rich soil, the products of which
rapidly spread throughout the Gulf States, as was plainly evinced at the
time of the Harper's Ferry invasion, when the planters in the interior of
the South were surprised to find that their slaves were well informed about
Canada, and the purposes and efforts of friends in the North to aid them in
escaping from bondage.
IN A DANGEROUS POSITION.
Having completed my labours
at Selma, I selected Columbus, Mississippi, for my next field of labour. I
had been at work in Columbus about two weeks when a difficulty occurred
which, but for the faithfulness of a negro, would have ended in my death at
the hands of an infuriated mob. During one of my visits to a plantation near
Columbus, I met with a negro slave of more than ordinary intelligence. His
master was a man of coarse and brutal instincts, who had burned the initials
of his name into the flesh of several of his slaves, to render their capture
more certain in case they attempted to escape from this merciless wretch. I
saw several of the victims of his cruelty, whose backs would forever bear
the marks of his branding iron and lash. He was a veritable "Legree." On one
of my excursions over his plantation I was accompanied by the slave
mentioned. During our rambles he gave me a history of his life and
sufferings, and expressed an earnest desire to gain his freedom. I felt that
he could be relied upon, and imparted to him the secret object of my visit
to the South. He listened with absorbing earnestness while I explained to
him the difficulties and dangers he would have to encounter on so long and
perilous a journey. He, however, declared his determination to make the
attempt, saying, that death itself was preferable to his present existence.
On the following day (Saturday) I again visited the plantation, and selected
this slave for my companion. He informed me he had decided to start for
Canada, as soon as he could communicate with a brother, who was a slave on a
plantation a few miles distant. He wished to take this brother with him, if
possible. I gave him instructions for his guidance after he should cross the
Ohio river; the names of friends at Evansville (Ind.), and Cleveland (Ohio),
to whom he could apply for assistance. I also furnished him with a pistol,
knife, and pocket compass, and directed him to travel by night only until he
reached friends north of the Ohio river.
INTO THE JAWS OF DEATH.
On the following Monday
evening, while seated at the supper table of the hotel at which I was
stopping, I heard loud and excited talking in the adjoining room. In a few
minutes the landlord came up to me with an excited look, and said "Col.
wishes to speak with you. You had better go out and meet him." I immediately
rose, and went into the room from which the loud talking emanated. As I
entered, the Colonel, in a loud and brutal tone, said, "That's him, arrest
him," Upon which a man stepped up and said, "You are my prisoner." I
demanded the reason why I was arrested. Whereupon the doughty Colonel strode
toward me with his fist clenched, and charged me with being a d—d
abolitionist; and said he would have my heart's blood; that I had enticed
away his nigger "Joe ;" that the nigger had not been seen since lie went out
with me on the previous Saturday.
The room was filled with an
excited crowd of men, who glared upon me with fierce and fiendish looks. I
tried to keep cool, but I confess I felt that my work was done. I knew the
character of the Colonel, and also knew, that he possessed much influence
with the worst class of Southerners of that section.
MANACLED AND IN PRISON.
In the meantime the constable
had produced a pair of iron handcuffs, and fastened them around my wrists.
After the Colonel had exhausted his supply of curses and coarse abuse upon
me,—for the purpose of exciting the crowd to hang me,—I quietly asked if I
would be allowed to say a few words, at the same time making a Masonic sign
of distress, in hope that there might be a Mason in that crowd who would
have courage sufficient to sustain my request. I had no sooner made "the
sign of distress," than a voice near me said, "Yes, let's hear what he has
to say"; in a moment several others spoke up and said, "He ought to be
allowed to speak." I was encouraged, and very quietly said: Gentlemen, I am
a total stranger here, without friends; I am your prisoner in irons. You
have charged me with violating your laws; will you act the part of cowards,
by allowing this man (Col.) to incite you to commit a murder; or will you,
like brave men, grant the only request I have to make, that is, a fair trial
before your magistrates. Several persons at once spoke up in my favour,
among whom was the landlord and his brave little wife.
I was then, much to the
chagrin of the Colonel, led to the lock-up, and consigned to a filthy pen.
There I remained all through that dreary night, fearing to lie down on the
straw in the corner, on account of the number of vermin that infested it. In
fact, I dare not stand still through fear of being bitten by the rats that
kept running about the floor all night. At length morning came, and I was
taken, hand-cuffed, weary, hungry, and filled with dread, (of what appeared
my impending fate), before a Justice.
A DESPERATE SITUATION.
A crowd of people had
gathered to see an abolitionist have the mockery of a trial. Col. "Legree"
was asked by the Justice to state his case, which he did in true
slave-driving style, as if determined to force the case against me. In fact,
my case seemed hopeless. I saw no way of escape from my desperate situation.
On every side I was surrounded by men apparently thirsting for my blood, and
anxious to vindicate the outraged laws of the State of Mississippi.
At length the Colonel
finished his statement, which, reduced to simple facts, was, that I had
called at his residence on Saturday last, and requested permission to roam
over his plantation to shoot birds; that he had given me permission, and
allowed his servant "Joe" to accompany me; that "Joe" had not returned, nor
could he be found; that he was sure I had aided him to escape; and demanded
of the Justice that I should be punished as a "negro thief" deserved. His
remarks were- loudly applauded by the slave-hounds that surrounded him.
The Justice turned to me, and
in a stern voice said, "Have you any thing to say?"
At this moment a voice
outside the room shouted, "Here's Joe! Here's Joe!" and a rush was made
toward the door.
FIDELITY OF A SLAVE.
"Joe" was ushered into the
court room, and fell on his knees before the Colonel, asking his forgiveness
for leaving the plantation without permission. He said he wanted to see his
brother "powerful bad," and had gone to the plantation on which his brother
lived, about eight miles distant, on Saturday night, expecting to return by
Sunday evening; but having sprained his ancle, he could not move until
Monday evening, when he started for home, travelling nearly all night. As
soon as he reached the Colonel's, he was told of my arrest, and early that
morning had come into Columbus to help me. The Justice ordered the constable
to release me at once, and expressed his regret that I had been subjected to
so much annoyance.
The Colonel was completely
chopfallen at the turn affairs had taken, while I was surrounded by several
Masonic friends, who expressed their joy at my release. I addressed the
Colonel, saying, that as he had put me to much inconvenience and trouble, I
claimed a favour of him. He asked what it was. I begged him not to punish
"Joe" for what he had done, and to allow me to present him with a gift as a
mark of gratitude for his fidelity to me. As these favours were asked in the
presence of the crowd, he could not very well refuse my request. He sulkily
promised that "Joe" should not be punished, and said if I pleased I might
make him a present. I then handed "Joe" twenty dollars in gold, for which
the noble fellow looked a thousand thanks. I was thus enabled to evince my
gratitude for what he had done for me, and at the same time present him with
means to aid him in escaping from bondage.
Two years after this
occurrence, while dining at the American Hotel, in Boston, I observed a
coloured waiter eyeing me very closely; at last he recognised me, and asked
if I remembered him. It was "Joe," my saviour, the former slave of Col. "Legree."
I grasped the noble fellow's hand, and congratulated him, in the presence of
all in the room, upon his escape from bondage. In the evening I invited him
into the parlour, and introduced him to several influential friends, to
whom, I narrated the incidents above related. He afterwards gave me some of
the particulars of his escape from slavery, as follows:-
On the Sunday evening
following my arrest, his brother joined him in a piece of woods not far from
Col. "Legrec's" plantation, where he had secreted sufficient food to last
them several days.
TWO PASSENGERS BY THE
UNDERGROUND R. R.
At midnight they started
together, moving as rapidly as they could through fields and woods, keeping
the north star in front of them. Whenever it was possible they walked in the
creeks and marshy grounds, to throw the slave-hunters off their tracks.
Thus, night after night, they kept on their weary way, hungry and sore
footed. On the morning of the seventeenth day of their freedom, they reached
the Ohio river, nearly opposite a large town. All day they lay secreted in
the bushes, at night they found a small boat, with which they crossed the
river, and travelled rapidly, taking a north-east course. They finally,
after enduring many hardships, reached Cleve- land, Ohio, and went to the
house of a friend whose name I had given "Joe." They were kindly received,
and supplied with clothing and other comforts. After a week's rest they were
sent to Canada, where his brother still lives. Before leaving Boston, I
secured "Joe" a good situation in a mercantile house, where he remained for
many years, rendering faithful service to his grateful employers.
LEAVE COLUMBUS FOR OTHER
On the day following my
release from peril, I took the stage for luka, a station on the Charleston
and Memphis Railroad. There I purchased a through ticket for New York, which
I took pains to exhibit to the landlord of the hotel, so that in case I was
pursued, (as I certainly would be, if "Joe" and his brother succeeded in
escaping), he could state the fact of my having bought tickets for New York,
which would probably check their pursuit.
From luka I went to
Huntsville, Ala., where I remained four weeks actively engaged in
circulating information among the slaves. My next point was Augusta,
AT WORK IN AUGUSTA.
Finding that Augusta was
favourably situated for my work, and that the slaves in that section were
sharp and intelligent, I determined to make it my next field of labour.
Having secured a good home with a Quaker family, I was soon actively engaged
in collecting birds and insects, and in becoming acquainted with the more
intelligent coloured people of that section. I deem it my duty to place upon
record the fact, that among all the religious denominations in the South,
none were more faithful to the principles of freedom, or to the dictates of
humanity in respect to slavery, than the sect called Quakers. Wherever I
have met the members of that society, whether in the North or South, they
have always proved themselves friends in deed as well as name. They could
always be implicitly trusted by the poor fugitives flying from bondage. I
know of many instances where, at great sacrifice and risk, they have
shielded the outcasts from their pursuers—the slave-hunters and United
States marshals. Hundreds of the negroes of Canada will bear testimony to
the unfailing fidelity of the peaceful and worthy Quakers of Ohio and
ELEVEN FOLLOWERS OF THE NORTH
I laboured in Augusta for two
months, and finally succeeded in equipping a party of eleven fine, active,
intelligent slaves, for the long, dangerous, and weary journey to the north.
No one not actually engaged in similar work, can clearly appreciate the
extreme delicacy of my position. There was not a day, in fact scarcely an
hour, that I did not live in expectation of exposure. The system of keen and
constant espionage, in practice all over the Slave States, rendered it
exceedingly necessary to exercise the greatest prudence in approaching the
slaves. If a stranger was seen in conversation with a slave, he became at
once an object of suspicion. I found, by experience, that a frank, open, and
apparently indifferent course, proved the wisest. My ostensible scientific
pursuits also opened a way for me to come in contact with the very classes
of both whites and blacks best suited for my purposes.
I was greatly aided in my
work in Augusta, by a remarkably intelligent negro, who was coachman to a
prominent citizen of that town. This man was chosen leader of the band of
fugitives from Augusta, and proved the saviour of the whole party; for they
all arrived safely in Canada in less than two months from the time of their
escape from bondage. Two members of this party are now living in Canada, and
in good circumstances.
On the day following the
exodus of these brave fellows, I quietly left the scene of my labours, and
went to Charleston, S. C.
On the third day after my
arrival there, one of the Charleston papers contained a despatch from
Augusta, which stated that several first-class negro men had disappeared
from that place within a week; and that a very general impression prevailed
there that abolitionists were at work inciting the negroes to escape from
their masters. I left Charleston that evening, and went to Raleigh, N. C.
While at breakfast next morning, two men seated themselves near me, and
entered into a conversation relative to the escape of slaves from Augusta.
One of them remarked, that an Englishman who had been stopping in Augusta
for several weeks was suspected, and that it was supposed he had gone with
the fugitives, as he had not been seen since the slaves were missed. He
said, if the abolitionist was caught, no mercy would be shown him, as it was
time an example was made of the negro thieves that infested the South.
FAST TRAVELLING TO THE NORTH.
1-laying finished my
breakfast, I went to the office of the hotel, settled my bill, and to avoid
suspicion enquired for the residence of a prominent pro-slavery man, a
member of Congress. Having obtained the information, I bid the landlord good
day, and left Raleigh by the first train, taking no rest until I reached
Washington —nearly six months from the time I landed in New Orleans.
During my stay in Washington,
I became acquainted with Mr. Sumner, at whose house I had the pleasure of
meeting many distinguished people, who evinced a warm and kindly interest in
my labours. The slaveholders, at that period, held the balance of power in
the United States, and the Democratic party was used by them to strengthen
the bonds that bound the coloured people of the South in the chains of
The slave-masters were not
satisfied with the recognized boundaries of their institution, and sought by
every device to obtain some portion of the new territories of the
south-west, in which they could carry their vile institution. Northern men
of the Douglas and Seymour stamp were willing to yield to the slave lords,
and even sacrifice the dearest interests of their country, providing they
could advance their individual claims to the Presidency. The haughty and
outrageous demands of Davis, Mason, and Toombs, were abetted by the cowardly
democratic politicians of the North.
Towering above these
contemptible political demagogues stood Charles Sumner, the brave champion
of freedom. No prospect of political advancement could tempt him from the
path of duty, Nor could the brutal threats and blows of his cowardly
opponents, cause him to halt in his warfare for the rights of man. Toward
the end of April, 185, T left Washington for Philadelphia, and laid before
my anti-slavery friends a report of my work. One venerable and talented
Quaker lady, at whose house our re-union took place, and whose name had long
keen identified with the cause of human freedom, tendered me the hearty
congratulations of the organization on my safe return from the land of
darkness and despair.
TWO FUGITIVES FROM HUNTSVILLE.
While in Philadelphia a
telegram was received from a friend in Evansville, Indiana, informing us
that two fugitives had arrived there in a dilapidated condition, their
emaciated bodies bearing the marks of many a bruise. I at once went to
Evansville to render them such aid as I could. They were delighted to meet
me again, and recalled an interview they had with me at Huntsville, Alabama.
The poor fellows were kindly cared for, and after a few days' rest continued
their journey to Canada, prepared to defend their right to own themselves
against whoever might dispute it. The route travelled by these fugitives
from Huntsville to the Ohio river was marked with their blood. Their escape
was soon discovered, and persistent efforts made to capture them. They were
followed for two days by a a blood-hound that was placed on their tracks,
and which they succeeded in evading, by wading in the creeks and marshes;
but for forty-eight hours the deep baying of the hound was frequently heard.
They travelled by night only, taking the north star as their guide, and by
day they rested in secluded places. Their sufferings from hunger were very
severe, which they were often obliged to relieve by eating frogs and other
reptiles. Occasionally they succeeded in obtaining poultry from the
hen-houses of the farmers on their route.
From Evansville I returned to
Philadelphia, and after a short stay in that city left for Boston, via
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