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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.


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.


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 object.


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.


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.


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 and women.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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 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.


"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.


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.


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, Georgia.


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 Michigan.


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.


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 slavery.

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.


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 Springfield.

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