SLAVE LIFE ON THE PLANTATION.
I was born in Prince William County, Virginia. At seven years of age, I found myself a slave on the plantation of Capt. William Helm. Our family consisted of my father and mother – whose names were Robert and Susan Steward – a sister, Mary, and myself. As was the usual custom, we lived in a, built of rough boards, with a floor of earth, and small openings in the sides of the cabin were substituted for windows. The chimney was built of sticks and mud; the door, of rough boards; and the whole was put together in the rudest possible manner. As to the furniture of this rude dwelling, it was procured by the slaves themselves, who were occasionally permitted to earn a little money after their day’s toil was done. I never knew Capt. H. to furnish his slaves with household utensils of any description.
The amount of provision given out on the plantation per week, was invariably one peck of corn or meal for each slave. This allowance was given in meal when it could be obtained; when it could not, they received corn, which they pounded in mortars after they returned from their labor in the field. The slaves on our plantation were provided with very little meat. In addition to the peck of corn or meal, they were allowed a little salt and a few herrings. If they wished for more, they were obliged to earn it by over-work. They were permitted to cultivate small gardens, and were thereby enabled to provide themselves with many trifling conveniences. But these gardens were only allowed to some of the more industrious. Capt. Helm allowed his slaves a small quantity of meat during harvest time, but when the harvest was over they were obliged to fall back on the old allowance.
It was usual for men and women to work side by side on our plantation; and in many kinds of work, the women were compelled to do as much as the men. Capt. H. employed an overseer, whose business it was to look after each slave in the field, and see that he performed his task. The overseer always went around with a whip, about nine feet long, made of the toughest kind of cowhide, the but-end of which was loaded with lead, and was about four or five inches in circumference, running to a point at the opposite extremity. This made a dreadful instrument of torture, and, when in the hands of a cruel overseer, it was truly fearful. With it, the skin of an ox or a horse could be cut through. Hence, it was no uncommon thing to see the poor slaves with their backs mangled in a most horrible manner. Our overseer, thus armed with his cowhide, and with a large bull-dog behind him, followed the slaves all day; and, if one of them fell in the rear from any cause, this cruel weapon was plied with terrible force. He would strike the dog one blow and the slave another, in order to keep the former from tearing the delinquent slave in pieces, – such was the ferocity of his canine attendant.
It was the rule for the slaves to rise and be ready for their task by sun-rise, on the blowing of a horn or conch-shell; and woe be to the unfortunate, who was not in the field at the time appointed, which was in thirty minutes from the first sounding of the horn. I have heard the poor creatures beg as for their lives, of the inhuman overseer, to desist from his cruel punishment. Hence, they were usually found in the field “betimes in the morning,” (to use an old Virginia phrase), where they worked until nine o’clock. They were then allowed thirty minutes to eat their morning meal, which consisted of a little bread. At a given signal, all hands were compelled to return to their work. They toiled until noon, when they were permitted to take their breakfast, which corresponds to our dinner.
On our plantation, it was the usual practice to have one of the old slaves set apart to do the cooking. All the field hands were required to give into the hands of the cook a certain portion of their weekly allowance, either in dough or meal, which was prepared in the following manner. The cook made a hot fire and rolled up each person’s portion in some cabbage leaves, when they could be obtained, and placed it in a hole in the ashes, carefully covered with the same, where it remained until done. Bread baked in this way is very sweet and good. But cabbage leaves could not always be obtained. When this was the case, the bread was little better than a mixture of dough and ashes, which was not very palatable. The time allowed for breakfast, was one hour. At the signal, all hands were obliged to resume their toil. The overseer was always on hand to attend to all delinquents, who never failed to feel the blows of his heavy whip.
The usual mode of punishing the poor slaves was, to make them take off their clothes to the bare back, and then tie their hands before them with a rope, pass the end of the rope over a beam, and draw them up till they stood on the tips of their toes. Sometimes they tied their legs together and placed a rail between. Thus prepared, the overseer proceeded to punish the poor, helpless victim. Thirty-nine was the number of lashes ordinarily inflicted for the most trifling offence.
Who can imagine a position more painful? Oh, who, with feelings of common humanity, could look quietly on such torture? Who could remain unmoved, to see a fellow-creature thus tied, unable to move or to raise a hand in his own defence; scourged on his bare back, with a cowhide, until the blood flows in streams from his quivering flesh? And for what? Often for the most trifling fault; and, as sometimes occurs, because a mere whim or caprice of his brutal overseer demands it. Pale with passion, his eyes flashing and his stalwart frame trembling with rage, like some volcano, just ready to belch forth its fiery contents, and, in all its might and fury, spread death and destruction all around, he continues to wield the bloody lash on the broken flesh of the poor, pleading slave, until his arm grows weary, or he sinks down, utterly exhausted, on the very spot where already stand the pools of blood which his cruelty has drawn from the mangled body of his helpless victim, and within the hearing of those agonized groans and feeble cries of “Oh do, Massa! Oh do, Massa! Do, Lord, have mercy! Oh, Lord, have mercy!” &c.
Nor is this cruel punishment inflicted on the bare backs of the male portion of slaves only. Oh no! The slave husband must submit without a murmur, to see the form of his cherished, but wretched wife, not only exposed to the rude gaze of a beastly tyrant, but he must unresistingly see the heavy cowhide descend upon her shrinking flesh, and her manacled limbs writhe in inexpressible torture, while her piteous cries for help ring through his ears unanswered. The wild throbbing of his heart must be suppressed, and his righteous indignation find no voice, in the presence of the human monster who holds dominion over him.
After the infuriated and heartless overseer had satiated his thirst for vengeance, on the disobedient or delinquent slave, he was untied, and left to crawl away as best he could; sometimes on his hands and knees, to his lonely and dilapidated cabin, where, stretched upon the cold earth, he lay weak and bleeding and often faint from the loss of blood, without a friend who dare administer to his necessities, and groaning in the agony of his crushed spirit. In his cabin, which was not as good as many of our stables at the North, he might lie for weeks before recovering sufficient strength to resume the labor imposed upon him, and all this time without a bed or bed clothing, or any of the necessaries considered so essential to the sick.
Perhaps some of his fellow-slaves might come and. bathe his wounds in warm water, to prevent his clothing from tearing open his flesh anew, and thus make the second suffering well nigh equal to the first; or they might from their scanty store bring him such food as they could spare, to keep him from suffering hunger, and offer their sympathy, and then drag their own weary bodies to their place of rest, after their daily task was finished.
Oh, you who have hearts to feel; you who have kind friends around you, in sickness and in sorrow, think of the sufferings of the helpless, destitute, and down-trodden slave. Has sickness laid its withering hand upon you, or disappointment blasted your fairest earthly prospects, still, the outgushings of an affectionate heart are not denied you, and you may look forward with hope to a bright future. Such a hope seldom animates the heart of the poor slave. He toils on, in his unrequited labor, looking only to the grave to find a quiet resting place, where he will be free from the oppressor.
AT THE GREAT HOUSE.
When eight years of age, I was taken to the “great house,” or the family mansion of my master, to serve as an errand boy, where I had to stand in the presence of my master’s family all the day, and a part of the night, ready to do any thing which they commanded me to perform.
My master’s family consisted of himself and wife, and seven children. His overseer, whose name was Barsly Taylor, had also a wife and five children. These constituted the white population on the plantation. Capt. Helm was the owner of about one hundred slaves, which made the residents on the plantation number about one hundred and sixteen persons in all. One hundred and seven of them, were required to labor for the benefit of the remaining nine, who possessed that vast domain; and one hundred of the number doomed to unrequited toil, under the lash of a cruel task-master during life, with no hope of release this side of the grave, and as far as the cruel oppressor is concerned, shut out from hope beyond it.
And here let me ask, why is this practice of working slaves half clad, poorly fed, with nothing or nearly so, to stimulate them to exertion, but fear of the lash? Do the best interests of our common country require it? I think not. Did the true interest of Capt. Helm demand it? Whatever may have been his opinion, I cannot think it did. Can it be for the best interest or good of the enslaved? Certainly not; for there is no real inducement for the slave-holder to make beasts of burden of his fellow men, but that which was frankly acknowledged by Gibbs and other pirates: “we have the power,” – the power to rob and murder on the high seas! – which they will undoubtedly continue to hold, until overtaken by justice; which will certainly come some time, just as sure as that a righteous God reigns over the earth or rules in heaven.
Some have attempted to apologize for the enslaving of the Negro, by saying that they are inferior to the Anglo-saxon race in every respect. This charge I deny; it is utterly false. Does not the Bible inform us that “God hath created of one blood all the nations of the earth?” And certainly in stature and physical force the colored man is quite equal to his white brother, and in many instances his superior; but were it otherwise, I can not see why the more favored class should enslave the other. True, God has given to the African a darker complexion than to his white brother: still, each have the same desires and aspirations. The food required for the sustenance of one is equally necessary for the other. Naturally or physically, they alike require to be warmed by the cheerful fire, when chilled by our northern winter’s breath; and alike they welcome the cool spring and the delightful shade of summer. Hence, I have come to the conclusion that God created all men free and equal, and placed them upon this earth to do good and benefit each other, and that war and slavery should be banished from the face of the earth.
My dear reader will not understand me to say, that all nations are alike intelligent, enterprising and industrious, for we all know that it is far otherwise; but to man, and not to our Creator, should the fault be charged. But, to resume our narrative,
Capt. Helm was not a very hard master; but generally was kind and pleasant. Indulgent when in good humor, but like many of the southerners, terrible when in a passion. He was a great sportsman, and very fond of company. He generally kept one or two ace horses, and a pack of hounds for fox-hunting, which at that time, was a very common and fashionable diversion in that section of country. He was not only a sportsman, but a gamester, and was in the habit of playing cards, and sometimes betting very high and losing accordingly.
I well remember an instance of the kind: it was when he played cards with a Mr. W. Graham, who won from him in one sweep, two thousand and seven hundred dollars in all, in the form of a valuable horse, prized at sixteen hundred dollars, another saddlehorse of less value, one slave, and his wife’s gold watch. The company decided that all this was fairly won, but Capt. Helm demurred, and refused to give up the property until an application was made to Gen., “(the father of his country,”) who decided that Capt. Helm had lost the game, and that Mr. Graham had fairly won the property, of which Mr. G. took immediate possession, and conveyed to his own plantation.
Capt. Helm was not a good business man, unless we call horse-racing, fox-hunting, and card-playing, business. His overseer was entrusted with every thing on the plantation, and allowed to manage about as he pleased, while the Captain enjoyed himself in receiving calls from his wealthy neighbors, and in drinking what he called “grog,” which was no more nor less than whisky, of which he was extremely fond, notwithstanding his cellar contained the choicest wines and liquors. To show his partiality for his favorite beverage, I will relate an incident which occurred between Capt. Helm and Col. Charles Williamson. The Colonel, believing wine to be a healthier beverage than whisky, accepted a bet made by Capt. Helm, of one thousand dollars, that he would live longer and drink whisky, than the Colonel, who drank wine. Shortly after, Col. Williamson was called home by the British government, and while on his way to England, died, and his body, preserved in a cask of brandy, was taken home. The bet Capt. Helm made considerable effort to get, but was unsuccessful.
Mrs. Helm was a very industrious woman, and generally busy in her household affairs – sewing, knitting, and looking after the servants; but she was a great scold, – continually finding fault with some of the servants, and frequently punishing the young slaves herself, by striking them over the head with a heavy iron key, until the blood ran; or else whipping them with a cowhide, which she always kept by her side when sitting in her room. The older servants she would cause to be punished by having them severely whipped by a man, which she never failed to do for every trifling fault. I have felt the weight of some of her heaviest keys on my own head, and for the slightest offences. No slave could possibly escape being punished – I care not how attentive they might be, nor how industrious – punished they must be, and punished they certainly were. Mrs. Helm appeared to be uneasy unless some of the servants were under the lash. She came into the kitchen one morning and my mother, who was cook, had just put on the dinner. Mrs. Helm took out her white cambric handkerchief, and rubbed it on the inside of the pot, and it crocked it! That was enough to invoke the wrath of my master, who came forth immediately with his horse-whip, with which he whipped my poor mother most unmercifully-far more severely than I ever knew him to whip a horse.
I once had the misfortune to break the lock of master’s shot gun, and when it came to his knowledge, he came to me in a towering passion, and charged me with what he considered the crime of carelessness. I denied it, and told him I knew nothing about it; but I was so terribly frightened that he saw I was guilty, and told me so, foaming with rage; and then I confessed the truth. But oh, there was no escaping the lash. Its recollection is still bitter, and ever will be. I was commanded to take off my clothes, which I did, and then master put me on the back of another slave, my arms hanging down before him and my hands clasped in his, where he was obliged to hold me with a viselike grasp. Then master gave me the most severe flogging that I ever received, and I pray God that I may never again experience such torture. And yet Capt. Helm was not the worst of masters.
Those cruelties are daily occurrences, and so degrading is the whole practice of Slavery, that it not only crushes and brutalizes the wretched slave, but it hardens the heart, benumbs all the fine feelings of humanity, and deteriorates from the character of the slave-holders themselves, – whether man or woman. Otherwise, how could a gentle, and in other respects, amiable woman, look on such scenes of cruelty, without a shudder of utter abhorrence? But slaveholding ladies, can not only look on quietly, but with approbation; and what is worse, though very common, they can and do use the lash and cowhide themselves, on the backs of their slaves, and that too on those of their own sex! Far rather would I spend my life in a State’s Prison, than be the slave of the best slave-holder on the earth!
When I was not employed as an errand-boy, it was my duty to stand behind my master’s chair, which was sometimes the whole day, never being allowed to sit in his presence. Indeed, no slave is ever allowed to sit down in the presence of their master or mistress. If a slave is addressed when sitting, he is required to spring to his feet, and instantly remove his hat, if he has one, and answer in the most humble manner, or lay the foundation for a flogging, which will not be long delayed.
I slept in the same room with my master and mistress. This room was elegantly furnished with damask curtains, mahogany bedstead of the most expensive kind, and every thing else about it was of the most costly kind. And while Mr. and Mrs. Helm reposed on their bed of down, with a cloud of lace floating over them, like some Eastern Prince, with their slaves to fan them while they slept, and to tremble when they awoke, I always slept upon the floor, without a pillow or even a blanket, but, like a dog, lay down anywhere I could find a place.
Slaves are never allowed to leave the plantation to which they belong, without a written pass. Should any one venture to disobey this law, he will most likely be caught by the patrol and given thirty-nine lashes. This patrol is always on duty every Sunday, going to each plantation under their supervision, entering every slave cabin, and examining closely the conduct of the slaves; and if they find one slave from another plantation without a pass, he is immediately punished with a severe flogging.
I recollect going one Sunday with my mother, to visit my grand-mother; and while there, two or three of the patrol came and looked into the cabin, and seeing my mother, demanded her pass. She told them that she had one, but had left it in another cabin, from whence she soon brought it, which saved her a whipping but we were terribly frightened.
The reader will obtain a better knowledge of the character of a Virginia patrol, by the relation of an affair, which came off on the neighboring plantation of Col. Alexander, in which some forty of Capt. Helm’s slaves were engaged, and which proved rather destructive of human life in the end.
But I must first say that it is not true, that slave owners are respected for kindness to their slaves. The more tyrannical a master is, the more will he be favorably regarded by his neighboring planters; and from the day that he acquires the reputation of a kind and indulgent master, he is looked upon with suspicion, and sometimes hatred, and his slaves are watched more closely than before.
Col. Alexander was a very wealthy planter and owned a great number of slaves, but he was very justly suspected of being a kind, humane, and indulgent master. His slaves were always better fed, better clad, and had greater privileges than any I knew in the Old Dominion; and of course, the patrol had long had an eye on them, anxious to flog some of “those pampered riggers, who were spoiled by the indulgence of a weak, inefficient, but well-meaning owner.”
Col. A. gave his slaves the liberty to get up a grand dance. Invitations were sent and accepted, to a large number of slaves on other plantations, and so, for miles around, all or many of the slaves were in high anticipation of joining in the great dance, which was to come off on Easter night. In the mean time, the
patrol was closely watching their movements, and evinced rather a joyful expectancy of the many they should find there without a pass, and the flogging they would give them for that, if not guilty of any other offence, and perhaps they might catch some of the Colonel’s slaves doing something for which they could taught “to know their place,” by the application of the cowhide.
The slaves on Col. A’s plantation had to provide and prepare the supper for the expected vast “turn out,” which was no light matter; and as slaves like on such occasions to pattern as much as possible after their master’s family, the result was, to meet the emergency of the case, they took, without saying, “by your leave, Sir,” some property belonging to their master, reasoning among themselves, as slaves often do, that it can not be stealing, because “it belongs to massa, and so do we, and we only use one part of his property to benefit another. Sure, ’tis all massa’s.” And if they do not get detected in this removal of ” massa’s property” from one location to another, they think no more of it.
Col. Alexander’s slaves were hurrying on with their great preparations for the dance and feast; and as the time drew near, the old and knowing ones might be seen in groups, discussing the matter, with many a wink and nod; but it was in the valleys and by-places where the younger portion were to be found, rather secretly preparing food for the great time coming. This consisted of hogs, sheep, calves; and as to master’s poultry, that suffered daily. Sometimes it was missed, but the disappearance was always easily accounted for, by informing “massa” that a great number of hawks had been around of late; and their preparation went on, night after night, undetected. They who repaired to a swamp or other by-place to cook by night, carefully destroyed everything likely to detect them, before they returned to their cabins in the morning.
The night for the dance came at last, and long before the time, the road leading to Col. Alexander’s plantation presented a gay spectacle. The females were seen flocking to the place of resort, with heads adorned with gaudy bandanna turbans and new calico dresses, of the gayest colors, – their whole attire decked over with bits of gauze ribbon and other fantastic finery. The shades of night soon closed over the plantation, and then could be heard the rude music and loud laugh of the unpolished slave. It was about ten o’clock when the aristocratic slaves began to assemble, dressed in the cast-off finery of their master and mistress, swelling out and putting on airs in imitation of those they were forced to obey from day to day.
When they were all assembled, the dance commenced; the old fiddler struck up some favorite tune, and over the floor they went; the flying feet of the dancers were heard, pat, pat, over the apartment till the clock warned them it was twelve at midnight, or what some call “low twelve,” to distinguish it from twelve o’clock at noon; then the violin ceased its discordant sounds, and the merry dancers paused to take breath.
Supper was then announced, and all began to prepare for the sumptuous feast. It being the pride of slaves to imitate the manners of their master and mistress, especially in the ceremonies of the table, all was conducted with great propriety and good order. The food was well cooked, and in a very plentiful supply. They had also managed in some way, to get a good quantity of excellent wine, which was sipped in the most approved and modern style. Every dusky face was lighted up, and every eye sparkled with joy. However ill fed they might have been, here, for once, there was plenty. Suffering and toil was forgotten, and they all seemed with one accord to give themselves up to the intoxication of pleasurable amusement.
House servants were of course, “the stars” of the party; all eyes were turned to them to see how they conducted, for they, among slaves, are what a military man would call “fugle-men.” The field hands, and such of them as have generally been excluded from the dwelling of their owners, look to the house servant as a pattern of politeness and gentility. And indeed, it is often the only method of obtaining any knowledge of the manners of what is called “genteel society;” hence, they are ever regarded as a privileged class; and are sometimes greatly envied, while others are bitterly hated. And too often justly, for many of them are the most despicable tale-bearers and mischief-makers, who will, for the sake of the favor of his master or mistress, frequently betray his fellow-slave, and by tattling, get him severely whipped; and for these acts of perfidy, and sometimes downright falsehood, he is often rewarded by his master, who knows it is for his interest to keep such ones about him; though he is sometimes obliged, in addition to a reward, to send him away, for fear of the vengeance of the betrayed slaves. In the family of his master, the example of bribery and treachery is ever set before him, hence it is, that insurrections and stampedes are so generally detected. Such slaves are always treated with more affability than others, for the slave-holder is well aware that he stands over a volcano, that may at any moment rock his foundation to the center, and with one mighty burst of its long suppressed fire, sweep him and his family to destruction. When he lies down at night, he knows not but that ere another morning shall dawn, he may be left mangled and bleeding, and at the mercy of those maddened slaves whom he has so long ruled with a rod of iron.
But the supper, like other events, came to an end at last. The expensive table service, with other things, which had been secretly brought from the “great house,” was hurriedly cleansed by the slaves, and carefully returned. The floor was again cleared, the violin sounded, and soon they were performing another “break down,” with all the wild abandon of the African character, – in the very midst of which, the music suddenly ceased, and the old musician assumed a listening attitude. Every foot was motionless; every face terrified, and every ear listening for the cause of the alarm.
Soon the slave who was kept on the “look-out,” shouted to the listeners the single word “patrol!” and then the tumult that followed that announcement, is beyond the power of language to describe! Many a poor slave who had stolen from his cabin, to join in the dance, now remembered that they had no pass! Many screamed in affright, as if they already felt the lash and heard the crack of the overseer’s whip; others clenched their hands, and assumed an attitude of bold defiance, while a savage frown contracted the brow of all. Their unrestrained merriment and delicious fare, seemed to arouse in them the natural feelings of self-defence and defiance of their oppressors. But what could be done? The patrol was nearing the building, when an athletic, powerful slave, who had been but a short time from his “fatherland,” whose spirit the cowardly overseer had labored in vain to quell, said in a calm, clear voice, that we had better stand our ground, and advised, the females to lose no time in useless wailing, but get their things and repair immediately to a cabin at a short distance, and there remain quiet, without a light, which they did with all possible haste. The men were terrified at this bold act of their leader; and many with dismay at the thought of resistance, began to skulk behind fences and old buildings, when he opened the door and requested every slave to leave who felt unwilling to fight. None were urged to remain, and those who stood by him did so voluntarily.
Their number was now reduced to twenty-five men, but the leader, a gigantic African, with a massive, compact frame, and an arm of great strength, looked competent to put ten common men to flight. He clenched his powerful fist, and declared that he would resist unto death, before he would be arrested by those savage men, even if they promised not to flog him. They closed the door, and agreed not to open it; and then the leader cried, “Extinguish the lights and let them come! we will meet them hand to hand!” Five of the number he stationed near the door, with orders to rush out, if the patrol entered, and seize their horses, cut the bridles, or otherwise unfit them for use. This would prevent them from giving an alarm and getting a reinforcement from surrounding plantations
In silence they awaited the approach of the enemy, and soon the tramping of horses’ feet announced their approach, but when within a few yards of the house they halted, and were overheard by one of the skulking slaves, maturing their plans and mode of attack. There was great hesitancy expressed by a part of the company to engage in the affair at all.
“Coming events cast their shadow before.”
The majority, however, seemed to think it safe enough, and uttered expressions of triumph that they had got the rascals at last.
“Are you not afraid that they will resist?” said the weaker party.
“Resist?” was the astonished answer. “This old fellow, the Colonel, has pampered and indulged his slaves, it is true, and they have slipped through our fingers whenever we have attempted to chastise them; but they are not such fools as to dare resistance! Those niggers know as well as we, that it is death, by the law of the State, for a slave to strike a white man.”
“Very true,” said the other, “but it is dark and long past midnight, and beside they have been indulging their appetites, and we cannot tell what they may attempt to do.”
“Pshaw!” he answered, contemptuously, “they are unarmed, and I should not fear in the least, to go in among them alone, armed only with my cowhide!”
“As you please, then,” he said, rather dubiously, “but look well to your weapons; are they in order?”
“In prime order, Sir.” And putting spurs to their horses, were soon at the house, where they dismounted and requested one of the party to remain with the horses.
“What,” said he, “are you so chicken-hearted as to suppose those d—d cowardly niggers are going to get up an insurrection?”
“Oh no,” he replied, carelessly, but would not consent to have the horses left alone. “Besides,” said he, “they may forget themselves at this late hour; but if they do, a few lashes of the cowhide will quicken their memory, I reckon.”
The slaves were aware of their movements, and prepared to receive them.
They stepped up to the door boldly, and demanded admittance, but all was silent; they tried to open it, but it was fastened. Those inside, ranged on each side of the door, and stood perfectly still.
The patrol finding the slaves not disposed to obey, burst off the slight fastening that secured the door, and the chief of the patrol bounded into their midst, followed by several of his companions, all in total darkness!
Vain is the attempt to describe the tumultuous scene which followed. Hand to hand they fought and struggled with each other, amid the terrific explosion of firearms, – oaths and curses, mingled with the prayers of the wounded, and the groans of the dying! Two of the patrol were killed on the spot, and lay drenched in the warm blood that so lately flowed through their veins. Another with his arm broken and otherwise wounded, lay groaning and helpless, beside the fallen slaves, who had sold their lives so dearly. Another of his fellows was found at a short distance, mortally wounded and about to bid adieu to life. In the yard lay the keeper of the horses, a stiffened corpse. Six of the slaves were killed and two wounded.
It would be impossible to convey to the minds of northern people, the alarm and perfect consternation that the above circumstance occasioned in that community. The knowledge of its occurrence was carried from one plantation to another, as on the wings of the wind; exaggerated accounts were given, and prophecies of the probable result made, until the excitement became truly fearful. Every cheek was blanched and every frame trembled when listening to the tale, that “insurrection among the slaves had commenced on the plantation of Col. Alexander; that three or four of the patrol had been killed, &c.” The day after, people flocked from every quarter, armed to the teeth, swearing vengeance on the defenceless slaves. Nothing can teach plainer than this, the constant and tormenting fear in which the slave-holder lives, and yet he repents not of his deeds.
The kind old Colonel was placed in the most difficult and unenviable position. His warm heart was filled with sorrow for the loss of his slaves, but not alone, as is generally the case in such instances, because he had lost so much property. He truly regretted the death of his faithful servants, and boldly rebuked the occasion of their sudden decease. When beset and harrassed by his neighbors to give up his slaves to be tried for insurrection and murder, he boldly resisted, contending for the natural right of the slaves, to act in their own defence, and especially when on his own plantation and in their own quarters. They contended, however, that as his slaves had got up a dance, and had invited those of the adjoining plantations, the patrol was only discharging their duty in looking after them; but the gallant old Colonel defended his slaves, and told them plainly that he should continue to do so to the extent of his ability and means.
The poor slaves were sad enough, on the morning after their merry meeting, and they might be seen standing in groups, conversing with a very different air from the one they had worn the day before.
Their business was now to prepare the bodies of their late associates for the grave. Robert, the brave African, who had so boldly led them on the night before, and who had so judiciously provided for their escape, was calmly sleeping in death’s cold embrace. He left a wife and five slave children. Two of the other slaves left families, whose pitiful cries it was painful to hear.
The Colonel’s family, deeply afflicted by what was passing around them, attended the funeral. One of the slaves, who sometimes officiated as a minister, read a portion of Scripture, and gave out two hymns; – one of which commences with
“Hark! from the tomb a doleful sound.”
Both were sung with great solemnity by the congregation, and then the good old man offered a prayer, after which he addressed the slaves on the shortness of human life and the certainty of death, and more than once hinted at the hardness of their lot, assuring, however, his fellow-slaves, that if they were good and faithful, all would be right hereafter. His master, Col. Alexander, was deeply affected by this simple faith and sincere regard for the best interests of all, both master and slave.
When the last look at their fellow-servants had been taken, the procession was formed in the following manner: First, the old slave minister, then the remains of the dead, followed by their weeping relatives; then came the master and his family; next the slaves belonging to the plantation; and last, friends and strangers, black and white; all moved on solemnly to the final resting-place of those brave men, whose descendants may yet be heard from, in defence of right and freedom.
HORSE-RACING AND ITS CONSEQUENCES.
Capt. Helm had a race-course on his plantation, on which he trained young horses for the fall races. One very fine horse he owned, called Mark Anthony, which he trained in the most careful manner for several months previous to the races. He would put him on the course every morning, sometimes covering him with a blanket, and then put him to his utmost speed, which he called “sweating him.” Mark Anthony was to be put on the race-course in October following, as a competitor for the purse of ten thousand dollars, which was the amount to be lost or gained on the first day of the fall races. Capt. H. had also another young horse, called Buffer, under a course of training, which he designed to enter the lists for the second day. His course of training had been about the same as Mark Anthony’s, but being a year or two younger, it was thought that he had not sufficient “bottom” to risk so much money on, as was at stake on the first day.
When the time for the races to commence came, all was bustle and excitement in the house and on the plantation. It was a fine October morning, and the sun shed a mellow radiance on all around, when people began to throng the race-course. Some came with magnificent equipages, attended by their numerous train of black servants, dressed in livery, – some in less splendid array, – and others on foot, all hurrying on to the exciting scene. There the noblest blood of Old Virginia, of which many are wont to boast, was fully represented, as was also the wealth and fashion of the country for many miles around.
All were in high spirits, and none seemed to fear that they would be the losers in the amount of money about to change hands. And for what, pray, is all this grand outlay – this vast expenditure? Merely the pleasure and gratification of witnessing the speed of a fine horse, and the vanity of prejudging concerning it.
The arrangements were at length completed, – the horses regularly entered, Mark Anthony among the rest, and then the word “go!” was given, when each horse sprang as if for his life, each striving to take the lead. Away they go, sweeping round the course with lightning speed, while every spectator’s eye is strained, and every countenance flushed with intense anxiety.
Some of the noble animals were distanced the first heat, and others were taken away by their owners.
The judges allowed twenty minutes to prepare the horses for the second trial of their speed – a trial which must enrich or empoverish many of the thousands present. Already there were sad countenances to be seen in the crowd.
The horses were again in readiness, and the word given, – away they flew with the fleetness of the wind, to come in the second time.
But who can describe the anxiety written on every face, as they prepared for the third and last trial? I cannot. Many had already lost all they had staked, and others who had bet high began to fear for the result. Soon, however, all was again prepared and those foaming steeds, after having exerted their animal power to the utmost, have accomplished their task and come in for the last time. The purse was won, but not by Mark Anthony. Capt. Helm was more fortunate the second day. Buffer won the smaller purse, but the Captain came from the races, a much poorer man than when they commenced. These repeated failures and heavy losses had the effect to arouse him to a sense of his pecuniary position, and he soon after began to think and talk about going to some new country.
He resolved at last to visit the far-off “Genesee Country,” which he shortly after put in practice, and after an absence of about three weeks he returned in good health, and delighted with the country; the more so, doubtless, because he said, “the more slaves a man possessed in that country the more he would be respected, and the higher would be his position in society.”
Capt. Helm finally concluded to sell his plantation and stock, except the slaves, and remove to the Genesee Country, where he designed to locate his future residence.
The plantation and stock (retaining the slaves) were advertised for sale, and on a certain day named, all would be disposed of at a public sale, or to the highest bidder.
When the day of sale arrived, there flocked from all parts of the surrounding country the largest assemblage of people I ever saw in that place. A large number of wealthy and respectable planters were present, whose gentlemanly behavior should have been an example to others.
The majority of that vast crowd, however, were a rough, quarrelsome, fighting set, just such as might be expected from slave-holding districts. There were several regularly fought battles during the first day of the sale.
One Thomas Ford, a large, muscular, ferocious-looking fellow, a good specimen of a southern bully and woman-whipper, had been victorious through the day in numerous fights and brawls; but he had to pay dear for it when night came. Some one or more of the vanquished party, took advantage of the dark night to stab him in both sides. The knife of the assassin had been thrust into his thigh, tearing the flesh upward, leaving a frightful and dangerous wound; but what is most singular, both sides were wounded in nearly the same manner, and at the same time, for so quickly was the deed committed that the offenders made their escape, before an alarm could be raised for their detection; nor have I ever heard of any one being arrested for the crime.
Ford’s groans and cries were painful to hear, but his brother acted like a madman; rushing hither and thither, with a heavy bludgeon in his hand, with which he indiscriminately beat the fences and whatever came in his way, crying “Oh my brother, my poor brother! Who has murdered my poor brother?”
Physicians came to the aid of the wounded man who at first thought he might recover, but in a climate like that of Virginia it was impossible. His friends did all they could to save him, but the poor wretch lingered a few days and died. Thus ended the life of a bad man and a hard master.
And who will wonder, if his slaves rejoiced to hear of his death? If they must be sold to pay his debts, they could not fall into the hands of a more heart less tyrant. Who then can blame those feeble women and helpless children, long held as chattels in his iron grasp, if they are grateful that the man-stealer is no more?
This Ford was a fair specimen of that class, known in more modern parlance as a “Border Ruffian.” Such as are at this time endeavoring, by their swaggering and bullying, to cast on the fair fields of Kansas that deep curse of Slavery – a curse which, like the poison of the deadly Upas, blights all within its influence: the colored and the white man, the slave and the master. We were thankful, however, that no more lives were lost during the vendue, which was commenced with the stock; this occupied two days.
The reader will see that we had cause to be grateful, when he takes into consideration that drinking and fighting was the order of the day, and drunkenness and carousing the order of the night.
Then too, the practice of dueling was carried on in all its hideous barbarity. If a gentleman thought himself insulted, he would immediately challenge the offender to mortal combat, and if he refused to do so, then the insulted gentleman felt bound by that barbarous code of honor, to take his life, whenever or wherever he might meet him, though it might be in a crowded assembly, where the lives of innocent persons were endangered.
A case of this kind happened in Kentucky, where the belligerent parties met in a large concourse of people, the majority of them women and children; but the combat ensued, regardless of consequences. One woman was shot through the face, but that was not worthy of notice, for she was only a colored woman; and in that, as in other slave States, the laws give to the white population the liberty to trample under foot the claims of all such persons to justice. Justly indignant ladies present remonstrated, but all to no purpose. The Governor of the State was there and was in danger of being wounded by their flying bullets, and it is possible that if he had been in the place of the poor African, some action would have been taken, and laws made to protect the people against such inhuman practices. But I must return to Capt. Helm and the vendue.
The sale continued for several days, during which there was no such thing as rest or sleep or one quiet moment on the premises. As was customary in that State, Capt. Helm provided the food and drink for all who came, and of course a great many came to drink and revel and not to buy; and that class generally took the night time for their hideous outbreaks, when the more respectable class had retired to their beds or to their homes. And many foul deeds and cruel outrages were committed; nor could the perpetrators be detected or brought to justice. Nothing could be done but to submit quietly to their depredations.
One peaceable old slave was killed by having his head split open with an ax. He was found in the morning lying in the yard, with the bloody instrument of death by his side. This occaisoned some excitement among the slaves, but as the white people paid but little attention to it, it soon passed off, and the sorrowful slaves put the old man’s remains in a rough box, and conveyed them to their last resting-place.
After the sale was over, the slaves were allowed a holiday, with permission to go and visit their friends and relatives previous to their departure for their new home in a strange land.
The slaves generally on Capt. Helm’s plantation looked upon this removal as the greatest hardship they had ever met; the severest trial they had ever endured ; and the separation from our old home and fellow-slaves, from our relatives and the old State of Virginia, was to us a contemplation of sorrowful interest. Those who remained, thought us the most unfortunate of human beings to be taken away off into the State of New York, and, as they believed, beyond the bounds of civilization, where we should in all probability be destroyed by wild beasts, devoured by cannibals, or scalped by the Indians. We never expected to meet again in this life, hence our parting interviews were as solemn as though we were committing our friends to the grave. But He whose tender mercies are over all his creatures, knew best what was for our good.
Little did Capt. Helm think when bringing his slaves to New York that in a few short years, they would be singing the song of deliverance from Slavery’s thralldom; and as little thought he of the great and painful change, to be brought about in his own circumstances. Could any one have looked into futurity and traced the difficult path, my master was to tread, – could any one have foreseen the end to which he must soon come, and related it to him in the days of his greatness and prosperity, he would, I am certain, have turned from such a narrator of misfortune in a greater rage than did Namaan when the man of God told him “to go and dip seven times in the Jordan.”
He could not have believed, nor could I, that in a few years the powerful, wealthy slave-holder, living in luxury and extravagance, would be so reduced that the necessaries of life even, were beyond his means, and that he must be supported by the town!
But I anticipate. Let us return to the old plantation which seems dearer than ever, now that we are about to leave it forever.
We thought Capt. Helm’s prospects pretty fair, and yet we shuddered when we realized our condition as slaves. This change in our circumstances was calculated to awaken all our fears that had been slumbering, and bring all the perilous changes to which we might be subjected most vividly to mind.
We were about to leave the land of our birth, the home of our childhood, and we felt that untried scenes were before us. We were slaves, it is true, but we had heart-felt emotions to suppress, when we thought of leaving all that was so familiar to us, and chose rather to “bear the ills we had, than to fly to those we knew not of.” And oh, the terrible uncertainty of the future, that ever rests on the slave, even the most favored, was now felt with a crushing weight. To-day, they are in the old familiar cabin surrounded by their family, relatives and friends; to-morrow, they may be scattered, parted forever. The master’s circumstances, not their own, may have assigned one to the dreadful slave-pen, and another to the distant rice-swamp; and it is this continual dread of some perilous future that holds in check every joyous emotion, every lofty aspiration, of the most favored slave at the South. They know that their owners indulge in high living, and they are well aware also that their continual indulgences engender disease, which make them very liable to sudden death; or their master may be killed in a duel, or at a horse-race, or in a drunken brawl; then his creditors are active in looking after the estate; and next, the blow of the auctioneer’s hammer separates them perhaps for life.
Now, after the lapse of so many years, when my thoughts wander back, as they often do, to my native State, I confess that painful recollections drive from my mind those joyful emotions that should ever arise in the heart of man, when contemplating the familiar scenes of his youth, and especially when recurring to the venerable shades and the sheltering roof under which he was born. True, around the well-remembered spot where our childhood’s years were spent, recollection still loves to linger; yet memory, ever ready with its garnered store, paints in glowing colors, Virginia’s crouching slaves in the foreground. Her loathsome slave-pens and, whips and instruments of torture; and back of all this is as truthfully recorded the certain doom, the retributive justice, that will sooner or later overtake her; and with a despairing sigh I turn away from the imaginary view of my native State.
What though she may have been justly styled, “The Mother of Presidents?” What avails the honor of being the birth-place of the brave and excellent Washington, while the prayers and groans of the down-trodden African daily ascend to heaven for redress? What though her soil be fertile, yielding a yearly product of wealth to its possessors? And what matter is it, that their lordly mansions are embowered in the shade of trees of a century’s growth, if, through their lofty and tangled branches, we espy the rough cabin of the mangled bondman, and know that the soil on which he labors has drunk his heart’s blood?
Ah! to me, life’s sweetest memories are all embittered. Slavery had cast its dark and fearful shadow over my childhood, youth, and early manhood, and I went out from the land of my birth, a fettered slave.
A land which I can regard only as “the house of bondage and the grave of freedom.” But God forgive me for having envied my master his fair prospects at this time.
After the sale of the plantation, Capt. Helm was in possession of quite a large sum of money, and having never paid much attention to his pecuniary interests, he acted as if there could be no end of it. He realized about forty thousand dollars from the sale of his estate in Virginia, which would have been a pretty sum in the hands of a man who had been accustomed to look after his own interests; but under the management of one who had all his life lived and prospered on the unrequited toil of slaves, it was of little account. He bought largely of every thing he thought necessary for himself or the comfort of his family, for which he always paid the most extravagant prices. The Captain was not as well qualified to take care of himself and family as some of his slaves were; but he thought differently, and so the preparations for leaving the old plantation for a home in the wilds of New York, went on under his direction, and at last we bade a final adieu to our friends and all we held dear in the State of Virginia.
JOURNEY TO OUR NEW HOME IN NEW YORK.
All things having been prepared for our departure our last “Good-bye” spoken, and our last look taken of the old plantation, we started, amid the sobs and prolonged cries of separating families, in company with our master, the overseer and another white man named Davis, who went with us to take back the five-horse “Pennsylvania team,” which was provided for the conveyance of the food for the slaves, and what little baggage they might have, and also that of the overseer.
Capt. Helm had determined to leave his family until he could get his slaves settled in their future quarters, and a home provided for himself, when they were expected to join him.
We traveled northward, through Maryland, Pennsylvania, and a portion of New York, to Sodus Bay, where we halted for some time. We made about twenty miles per day, camping out every night, and reached that place after a march of twenty days. Every morning the overseer called the roll, when every slave must answer to his or her name, felling to the ground with his cowhide, any delinquent who failed to speak out in quick time. After the roll had been called, and our scanty breakfast eaten, we marched on again, our company presenting the appearance of some numerous caravan crossing the desert of Sahara. When we pitched our tents for the night, the slaves must immediately set about cooking not their supper only, but their breakfast, so as to be ready to start early the next morning, when the tents were struck; and we proceeded on our journey in this way to the end.
At Sodus Bay there was then one small tavern, kept by a man named Sill.
The bay is ten miles in length and from a half to two miles in breadth, and makes an excellent harbor. The surrounding country then was almost an unbroken wilderness.
After Capt. Helm had rested a few days at Sodus, he went six miles up the bay and purchased a large tract of land lying on both sides of that beautiful sheet of water, and put his slaves on to clear and cultivate it. Then came the “tug of war.” Neither the overseer nor the slaves had the least knowledge of clearing land, and that was the first thing to be done.
It was useless to consult the Captain, for he knew still less about matters of that kind. To obviate this difficulty, our master bought out a Mr. Cummings, who had some cleared land on the west side of the bay. On this he put the overseer and a part of the slaves, and then hired a Mr. Herrington to take charge of the remainder. Herrington and his gang of slaves was sent to the east side to chop down the heavy timber and clear the land for cultivation, all of which had first to be learned, for we knew nothing of felling trees, and the poor slaves had rather a hard time of it.
Provisions were scarce and could not be procured for cash in that section. There was no corn to be had, and we had but little left. We had no neighbors to assist us in this trying time, and we came near starvation. True, the wild, romantic region in which we were located abounded in game, – elk, deer, bear, panther, and wolves, roamed abroad through the dense forest, in great abundance, but the business of the slaves was not hunting or fishing, but clearing the land, preparatory to raising crops of grain the coming season.
At last Capt. Helm chartered a boat, and manned it to go to the mouth of the Genesee River to buy corn. They embarked under favorable auspices, but soon there came on such a tremendous storm, that the boat could no longer be managed, and the crew in despair threw themselves on the bottom of the boat to await their inevitable destruction, when one of their number, a colored man named Dunbar, sprang to the helm, and with great difficulty succeeded in running her safely into a Canadian port, where they were obliged to part with every thing in their possession to obtain the means to return to their families in Sodus, who had given them up as lost. But, to the great joy of all, they came back at last with their lives, but with nothing for the famishing slaves. Before another boat could be sent for our relief, we were reduced to the last extremity. We became so weak we could not work, and it was difficult to drag ourselves about, as we were now obliged to do, to gather up all the old bones we could find, break them up fine and then boil them; which made a sort of broth sufficient barely to sustain life. This we drank, and merely existed, until at last, the long looked for boat returned, loaded with provisions, which saved us from starvation and gave us strength to pursue our labor.
INCIDENTS AT SODUS BAY.
About this time two slaves who were laboring in the forest, instead of returning to their cabin as was expected, got lost, and wandered eight days in the dense forest without provision, except what they could procure from roots and the bark of trees. Great exertion was made to find them; guns were fired, horns blown, and shouts raised, but all to no purpose. Finally, we gave them up, supposing they had starved to death or had been killed by wild beasts. One of them was an elderly man, named Benjamin Bristol, and the other, Edmund Watkins, a lad of about eighteen years of age. They wandered in an easterly direction, a distance of some sixty or seventy miles, through an unbroken wilderness, vainly trying to find their way home. On the eighth day, to their inexpressible joy, they came out on the shore of Lake Ontario, near Oswego; but young Watkins was so completely exhausted that he declared himself incapable of further exertion, and begged to be left to his fate. Bristol, however, who chewed tobacco, which it was supposed kept him from sinking so low as his companion, took him on his back, and carried him home, which they reached in a famished state and reduced to skeletons. All were thankful for the preservation of their lives, and, with the best we could do for them, they soon recruited and became strong as ever.
One day, two others and myself thought we saw some animal swimming across the bay. We got a boat and went out to see what it was. After rowing for some time we came near enough to perceive it was a large bear. Those who watched us from the shore expected to see our boat upset, and all on board drowned, but it was not so to be; the bear was struck on the nose with a blow that killed him instantly, and he was hauled ashore in great triumph.
While these things were transpiring on the east side of the bay, the overseer on the west side determined to punish one of the slaves who worked on the east side. The name of the slave was Williams; a strong, athletic man, and generally a good workman, but he had unfortunately offended the overseer, for which nothing could appease his wrath but the privilege of flogging him. The slave, however, thought as he was no longer in Virginia, he would not submit to such chastisement, and the overseer was obliged to content himself with threatening what he would do if he caught him on the west side of the bay.
A short time after, the overseer called at the cabin of one of the slaves, and was not a little surprised to find there the refractory slave, Williams, in company with three other men. He immediately walked up to him and asked him some question, to which Williams made no reply. Attended, as he always was, by his ferocious bull-dog, he flourished his cowhide in great wrath and demanded an instant reply, but he received none, whereupon he struck the slave a blow with the cowhide. Instantly Williams sprang and caught him by the throat and held him writhing in his viselike grasp, until he succeeded in getting possession of the cowhide, with which he gave the overseer such a flogging as slaves seldom get. Williams was seized at once by the dog who endeavored to defend his brutal master, but the other slaves came to the rescue, and threw the dog into a huge fire which was near by, from which, after a singeing, he ran off, howling worse than his master when in the hands of Williams. He foamed and swore and still the blows descended; then he commanded the slaves to assist him, but as none obeyed, he commenced begging in the most humble manner, and at last entreated them as “gentlemen” to spare him; but all to no purpose. When Williams thought he had thrashed him sufficiently, he let him go and hurried to his boat and rowed down the bay, instead of crossing it. The overseer no sooner found himself at liberty than he ran out, calling to a servant girl to bring his rifle, which was loaded. The rifle was brought, but before he could get to the bay, Williams had gone beyond his reach; but unfortunately another boat was at this moment crossing the bay, which he, mad with rage, fired into. The men in the boat immediately cried out to him not to repeat the shot, but he was so angry that he swore he would shoot somebody, and sent another bullet after them. No one was hurt, however, but the brave overseer was vanquished. Crest-fallen and unrevenged, he shortly after called on Capt. Helm for a settlement, which was granted, and bidding a final adieu to the “Genesee Country,” he departed for Virginia, where he could beat slaves without himself receiving a cowhiding. No one regretted his absence, nor do I think any but the most heartless would cordially welcome his return to the land of Slavery.
REMOVAL FROM SODUS TO BATH.
Capt. Helm went to Virginia for his family, and returning with them, concluded to locate his future residence in the village of Bath, Steuben County. He purchased a large tract of land near the village, a large grist mill, and two saw mills; also, two farms; one called the “Maringo,” east of the village; end the other, called “Epsam,” north of it; and a fine house and lot in the village. He also kept a distillery, which in those days was well patronized, for nearly every body drank whisky; and with Capt. Helm it was a favorite beverage.
The slaves were removed to Bath, where our master was well suited, and was everywhere noted for his hospitality. He had a great deal of land to cultivate, and carried on a multiplicity of business.
Soon after we were settled at Bath, Capt. Helm’s eldest daughter, Jenny, was married to Mr. John Fitzhugh, her cousin, who had come from Virginia to claim his bride.
The wedding was a splendid affair. No pains were spared to make it more imposing than any thing that had ever happened in that country. Never before had the quiet village of Bath seen such splendor. All that wealth, power and ambition could do, was done to make the event one of great brilliancy. Europe contributed her full proportion; Turkey, the Indias, East and West, were heavily taxed to produce their finest fabrics to adorn the bride and bridal guests; and contribute delicacies to add elegance to the festal scene. Two days previous to the wedding, the invited guests began to arrive with their retinue of servants, and on the evening of the marriage the large mansion was thrown open, and there was the most magnificent assemblage I ever beheld. In the drawing-room, where the ceremony took place, every thing was surpassingly elegant. Costly chandeliers shed their light on the rich tapestry, and beautiful dresses glittering with diamonds, and the large mirrors everywhere reflecting the gay concourse. While the servants were preparing supper it was announced that the hour had arrived for the ceremony to commence. The bridal pair took their place in the center of the apartment. Pearls, diamonds, and jewelry glittered on the bride with such luster, that it was almost painful to the eye to look upon her.
The minister, after asking God to bless the assembled guests, and those he was about to unite in the holy bonds of wedlock, proceeded in a very solemn and impressive manner with the marriage service. The ceremony concluded, and good wishes having been expressed over the sparkling wine, the man of God took his leave, two hundred dollars richer than when he came. The company were all very happy, or appeared so; mirth reigned supreme, and every countenance wore a smile. They were seated at tables loaded with luxuries of every description, and while partaking, a band of music enlivened the scene.
All business was suspended for several days, the wedding party making a tour of ten days to Niagara Falls. After a while, however, affairs assumed their usual aspect, and business took its regular routine.
The grist mill belonging to the Captain was the only one for many miles around, and was a source of great profit to him; the saw mills also, were turning out a large quantity of lumber, which was in good demand; and the distillery kept up a steaming business. It yielded, however, a handsome income to Capt. Helm, who was now, for the first time since I knew him, overseeing his affairs himself, dispensing altogether with the service of a regularly installed overseer.
The oldest son of our master had been absent from home for sometime, nor did he return to attend his sister’s grand wedding. He had sought and obtained a commission in the United States service as a Lieutenant. This had been his own choice; he had preferred the service and hardships of a soldier, to a plantation well stocked with slaves, and the quietude of domestic life. He had cheerfully given up his friends and prospects as a planter, and entered the service of his country. Frank Helm, the second son, soon followed the example of his older brother, Lina. He obtained a like commission, but he did not, like his brother, get along quietly. His prospects as an officer were soon blighted, and all hope of being serviceable to his country vanished forever.
Lina Helm was an easy, good-natured, clever fellow; but his brother Frank was his opposite in nearly every thing; proud, fractious and unyielding. As might be expected, Frank, soon after entering the army, got into an “affair of honor,” according to the duelist’s code of laws. He was not, however, the principal in the difficulty. One of his friends and a brother officer, had a quarrel with a gentleman whom he challenged to mortal combat. Frank was the bearer of his friend’s challenge, and on presenting it, the gentleman refused to accept it, saying that the challenger “was no gentleman.” Then, according to the rules of dueling, no alternative was left for Frank, but to take his brother officer’s place, and fight. This he did and came from the bloody field disabled for life. In consequence of his lameness, he was under the necessity of resigning his commission in the army, which he did, and came home a cripple, and nearly unfitted for any kind of business whatever
While on the subject of dueling, permit me to record some of the incidents of another “affair of honor,” which occurred in the District of Columbia, between Gen. Mason and Mr. M’Carter, two antagonistic politicians.
M’Carter offered his vote to the inspectors, and Mason challenged it. M’Carter offered to swear it in, when Mason said if he did so he would perjure himself. This blew what appeared to be but a spark into an angry blaze, and a duel was momentarily expected; but their warlike propensities subsided into a newspaper combat, which was kept up for several weeks, each party supposing they had the advantage of their adversary. In this stage of the quarrel, Gen. Jackson, with one of his aid-de-camps, Dr. Bruno, visited Washington. Dr. Bruno was a friend of Gen. Mason’s, and to him the General submitted the correspondence, desiring his opinion relative to the advantage one had obtained over the other. Dr. Bruno decided against his friend, which probably exasperated him still more, and the General expressed his determination to fight his antagonist. Dr. Bruno wrote to M’Carter to come to Washington, and he came immediately, and was as readily waited upon by the Doctor, who inquired if he would receive a communication from his friend, Gen. Mason. M’Carter replied, that he “would receive no communication from Gen. Mason, except a challenge to fight.” The challenge was therefore sent, and accepted, and the Doctor appointed to make the necessary arrangements for the duel. He proposed the weapons to be pistols, and the distance, ten paces, to which M’Carter objected, because he said, “the General was a dead shot with the pistol, while he hardly knew how to use one.” Then it was left to M’Carter to choose the mode of warfare. He proposed muskets and ten paces distance. This was agreed upon, and finally the morning arrived for the conflict, and people began to assemble in great numbers to witness this murderous scene.
The belligerent parties unflinchingly took their place, each with his loaded musket at his shoulder, and gazing in each other’s face, with feelings of the most bitter hatred, while their eyes flashed vengeance.
Oh! what a state of mind was this in which to meet inevitable death? How could intelligent men, or gentlemen, if you please so to term them, look placidly on such a horrid scene? Was there no heart of humanity to interfere and arrest the murderous designs of these madmen? Alas, no! The slave-holder’s “code of honor” must be acknowledged, though it outrage the laws of God and his country.
Dr. Bruno asks, “Gentlemen, are you ready?” and the duelists take their deadly aim at each other. The signal to fire is given, and both weapons are discharged, and when the smoke had cleared away, what a spectacle was there presented to the duellist and spectator? Gen. Mason, a husband, a father, a statesman, and a kind friend, lies bleeding, and gasping for breath. He is no more! Who will bear to his loving and unsuspecting wife, the sad intelligence of her sudden bereavement? Who will convey his lifeless body to his late residence, and throw grief and consternation into the bosom of his family, and drape in sadness his whole household? And yet this painful task must be performed. The family of General Mason remained entirely ignorant of what was transpiring regarding the duel, until his mangled corps was brought into his dwelling, from which he had so recently gone forth in all the vigor of life and manhood. And here let us drop the curtain, nor intrude on that scene of domestic affliction around the deserted hearth-stone of the bereaved family of General Mason.
But where is Mr. McCarter, the more fortunate party in the duel? Hurrying away from the frightful scene, his hands dripping with the blood of his fellow-man, he skulks about, until an opportunity is given him to step on board a vessel bound to a foreign port; he leaves home, friends and country, in the vain hope of finding peace of mind, and ridding himself of that guilt and censure which must attach itself to a crime so heinous as that of taking the life of another. I can but regard the inhuman practice of dueling as the legitimate fruit of Slavery.
Men who have been raised in the Slave States, where, if the laws do not give them the power, they do not restrain them from cruelly punishing every offender with personal violence, even unto death, if their insulted dignity seems to demand it. It is, however, encouraging to know that for a few years past the practice of dueling has somewhat fallen into disrepute among the more humane and candid class of community.
HORSE-RACING AND GENERAL TRAINING.
After the return of the wedding party, Mr. Fitzhugh purchased a tract of land near that of Capt. Helm, on which the newly-married couple commenced keeping house. They, however, became dissatisfied with their location, and soon after sold their possessions and returned to the South.
Capt. Helm still continued to take the oversight of his slaves, and was out every day, superintending his business, just as his overseer used to do.
About this time a man named Henry Tower came to Bath to hire “slave boys,” as we were called. The Captain hired to him Simon and myself, and a Mr. Baker also hired to him one slave named Vol. McKenzie. We three started for Dresden, Ontario County, where we arrived in due time.
Mr. Tower had just bought a tract of land, three miles this side of the village of Lyons, on the Canandaigua outlet. Here Mr. Tower contemplated making great improvements, building mills, opening stores &c. This tract of land was comparatively wild, there being but a small frame house for a dwelling, one for a store, and another for a blacksmith shop. Mr. Tower had two brothers; James, the eldest, who took charge of the store, and John, the younger, who took charge of the hands who worked on the farm; Henry himself superintending the building of the mills. This firm had a great number of men in their employ that year. I was kept busy helping the women about the cooking and house-work. And here, for the first time in my life, I had a comfortable bed to sleep on, and plenty of wholesome food to eat; which was something both new and strange to me.
The Towers were thorough-going business-men; they built a large grist mill, with four run of stone, and also a distillery. In those days it was customary for nearly all classes to drink spirituous liquors; hence, the distilleries were sources of great pecuniary interest to those who owned them. But having lived to see the dreadful evils which the drinking of alcoholic beverages have produced on community, I can hardly speak of distilleries in the favorable light in which they were then regarded.
The Towers, with commendable enterprize, cleared a great number of acres of land during the first year I lived with them, besides doing a heavy business in the mill, store and distillery.
It was customary then for men to assemble at some public place for the purpose of drinking whisky and racing horses.
One Saturday afternoon there was to be a race, and all was excitement. Being young, I wished to go with the rest. I hurried through my work as fast as possible, and then, with a trembling heart, set off in search of my master, fearing lest he would refuse me the simple request. But he happened to be in uncommon good humor, and readily gave his consent; and away I went, “as happy as a lark.” When I reached the race-ground, they were just preparing to run the horses. Seeing me, they knew me to be a poor friendless little slave boy, helpless and unprotected, and they could therefore do with me as they pleased, and have some fine sport at my expense.
When I was asked to ride one of the fast horses, I felt proud of the honor conferred, and was assisted to mount, feeling highly elated with the lofty position I had gained.
The word “go,” was shouted, and the horse whirled off, and it seemed to me as if he flew with the speed of lightning. My hat fell off the first thing; and there I was, clinging with might and main to the neck of the fiery animal, my head bare, my feet bootless, and my old stripped shirt blown from my back, and streaming out behind, and fluttering like a banner in the breeze; my ragged pants off at the knees, and my long legs dangling down some length below; and at the same time crying “Whoa! Whoa!” as loud as I could. Nor was this all; frightened as I was, nearly to death, I cast a despairing look behind me, and the loud, derisive laugh of the bystanders rung in my ears.
Ludicrous as I must have appeared, this was too much, – I felt a giddiness coming over me, my brain reeled, my hold relaxed, and the next instant I had fallen to the ground, where all consciousness left me. When I came to my senses I was lying in bed, surrounded by all the appurtenances of a dying person.
The first thing I heard was Mr. Tower scolding the men who put me on the horse, and threatening them with a law-suit for presuming to do such a thing without his permission. Mr. Tower considered himself holden to Capt. Helm for my safe return, and was therefore justly indignant at their placing my life in such peril. It was indeed a narrow escape, for the horse was running with all his speed when I fell. My bones were unbroken, however, and I suppose it must have been the tremendous jar I got when I fell that rendered me unconscious; nor do I think it impossible that the fright may not have contributed somewhat to the catastrophe.
It was while I was living with that gentleman that the greatest “general training” ever known in Western New York, came off at “Oak’s Corners,” in the town of Phelps. It really seemed to me that the whole world were going to the training, and I, of-course, felt a great curiosity to go where “all creation” appeared to be going. Mr. Tower permitted me to go, and I started off in high spirits. When I arrived within two or three miles of the place the road was almost blocked up with people, and when I got to Oak’s Corners the crowd beggared all description; carriages of all sorts were there, containing eatables of all kinds, and tents of all dimensions were on the road-side, for the houses could not begin to accommodate the people. The entire brigade was to meet at that place, and Gov. Lewis was expected to review the different companies, and all were anxious to see the Governor, for, in those days, it was a rare thing to see so high a dignitary in Western New York; the eastern portion of the State having had every thing of that kind their own way.
Nor was the means and mode of traveling brought to such perfection as now. The roads were new and rough, and our best public conveyances only the slow lumbering, stage-coach; yet, notwithstanding these inconveniences, there was an innumerable crowd gathered at that place. I spent the day in walking about the encampment, and seeing what was to be seen, for it was all new to me.
Officers were riding over the ground, dressed in uniform, and mounted on their splendid steeds; their plumes waving over their cocked-hats in true military array. A band of music, as is usual, accompanied the soldiers. There was also a “sham-fight,” before the breaking up of the encampment, and it was really terrifying to me, who had never seen a battle fought, to witness two columns of troops drawn up, and, at the roll of the drum, behold them engage in deadly conflict, to all appearance, and the smoke curling up in a blackened mass toward heaven; and, above all, the neighing of horses, with the feigned groans of the wounded and dying. I inwardly prayed to God that those men might ever draw their weapons in a feigned encounter.
The first night I spent at the encampment was one long to be remembered; it was like the confusion of Babel. Of all the hideous noises I ever heard none could exceed those made there that night. They fired guns, quarreled, drank, and swore, till day light. There was such a crowd at the tavern that I did not suppose I could get a bed, so I threw myself down upon a door-step, and began to compose myself to sleep, when a man came and wakened me, inquiring at the same time whose boy I was. I replied that I lived with Mr. Tower. “Follow me,” said he; I arose and followed him into the house, where he procured for me a bed, to be shared with another “boy,” who had already occupied it.
I had just began to dose, when the explosion of firearms startled all in the house. The keeper of the tavern ran up stairs in great alarm, and when an examination was made, we found that a drunken fellow had discharged his musket in the room below the one where we were sleeping, and that the ball had passed up through the second floor and completely through the bed on which I slept, to the roof, where, having passed through that also, rolled from thence to the ground! And yet, strange as it may appear, no one was injured, though the house was filled to overflowing with guests.
There were groups of disorderly and drunken men continually roaming over the camp-ground at night, who seemed to have no other object than to annoy others, and torment any one they might find sleeping, by shaking them, or, if soundly asleep, dragging them out of their beds by their feet. Among these thus annoyed by them was a physician from Canandaigua. Being a passionate man, they seemed to think it fine sport to arouse him from sleep and hear him scold. The first time they dragged him from his tent he merely remonstrated in a very gentlemanly manner, and quietly crept back again. The rowdies were disappointed; they had expected a “scene.” As soon as he was asleep they attacked him again, dragging him out by the heels; then he was angry, and told them if they repeated the offence it would be at the peril of their lives, and a third time retired to his tent; but a third party soon came, and one, more bold than the rest, entered the tent and laid hold of the Doctor. He sprang to his feet and drew his sword, which he ran through the body of a man supposed to be that of his tormentor; but oh! what sorrow and consternation possessed him when he found he had taken the life of a quiet, unoffending person who happened to be standing by, attracted to the spot probably by the noise of the revelers. The unhappy Doctor was obliged to flee from his country for a time, but after a while the shadows which had so suddenly fallen on his fair prospects were cleared away, and he returned to his home and country.
The second day of the encampment was one of surpassing beauty. The sun shone in all its softened radiance on that vast concourse of human beings. The field presented a spectacle which must have been imposing to those of more experienced vision than mine; but to me, in my ignorant simplicity, it was superbly grand; facinating beyond my power of resistance, and made an impression on my mind never to be effaced.
The brigade was drawn up in a line, each colonel stationed just so many paces in front of the line, and all the other officers, such as majors, quarter-masters, &c., were stationed at an equal distance in the rear. When all were paraded, the Governor of the State made his appearance, dressed in full uniform, his hat being one of the Bonaparte style, attended by his aid-de-camp, who was dressed much in the same manner as his Excellency Governor Lewis, who, after the salute, took his place at the head of the brigade, and the military exercises commenced. When the Governor issued his orders, they were first given to his aid, who passed them to the officers, and they gave the word of command to the soldiers; for instance if the Governor wished the brigade to “shoulder arms,” – the order went to the officer who commanded the first regiment, and he repeated the order, and was obeyed; then the same order passed to the next, and so on, until the whole brigade had complied with the order of his Excellency.
But this, I believe, was the first and last time that the military were ever called out on so large a scale, in the State of New York. It was supposed that the effect would be decidedly injurious to a community and the idea was abandoned. Young men were so liable to be fascinated by the magnificent spectacle, that not the rabble only were attracted by the “trappings of war,” but they have a tendency to induce young, and old men even, of fair prospects, to neglect their agricultural interests for military pursuits, which, in a new country, were certainly of paramount importance, if not the greater of the two.
I know that it became very hard for me to content myself to labor as I had done, after witnessing this grand display. I was completely intoxicated with a military spirit, and sighed for the liberty to go out “on the lines” and fight the British.
The martial music, the waving plumes, and magnificent uniform, had driven from my mind entirely the bloodshed and carnage of the battle field; beside, I was sick and tired of being a slave, and felt ready to do almost any thing to get where I could act and feel like a free man.
I became acquainted with a Mr. McClure, a merchant in Bath, who, while on a journey to Philadelphia, to purchase goods, was taken suddenly ill and died; when his brother, George McClure, came on to attend to his diseased brother’s business. He was a fine, persevering kind of man, and very soon got to be General McClure, and commanded the brigade in Steuben County, and, as such, was liable to be called at any time when his services were required, to go to the frontier and guard our lines from the invasion of the English army.
To him I applied for a situation as waiter, which he readily agreed to give me if I could get the consent of Captain Helm. I thought there would be no trouble about that; and oh! how I dreamed of and anticipated the happiness of being something beside a slave, for a little while at least. Almost every day I went to the store to talk to Gen. McClure of this greatest happiness imaginable, “going to the lines!” and was impatient for the chance to arrive that would send me there.
At last Gen. McClure wrote to Gen. Armstrong, to say that he was ready to obey any order that he might send him, and march to “the lines,” if his services were needed; and, to my inexpressible joy, marching orders were returned. I nearly flew in search of Capt. Helm, never once suspecting that he would object; because I knew that he did not then require my services himself, and the pay would be quite as good as he had been receiving for my time; besides I had so completely set my heart on going, that it was impossible for me to dream of a disappointment so bitter as that of being denied going “to the lines.”
Oh! how then were my high hopes fallen, and how much more hateful appeared that slavery which had blighted all my military prospects? Nor was Capt. Helm’s heartless and mercenary reply to my humble pleading any antidote to my disappointed feelings and desire for freedom. He said, “you shall not go; I will permit nothing of the kind, so let there be an end to it. The pay is all well enough, I know, but if you get killed your wages will stop; and then who, do you suppose, will indemnify me for the loss? Go about your business, and let me hear no more of such nonsense!”
There was an emergency I had not provided for; and, as I then believed, the master could make no demand on or for the slaves beyond the grave, I was silent; but both master and myself were mistaken on that point; for I have since learned numerous instances where slaves have fought and died in the service of their master’s country, and the slave-owner received his wages up to the hour of his death, and then recovered of the United States the full value of his person as property!
Gen. McClure left soon after for the frontier; my saddened heart followed him, and that was all; my body was in slavery still, and painful though it was, I must quietly submit.
The General, however, reaped but few if any laurels in that campaign; he burned the small village of Newark, in Canada, for which he got very little credit on either side of the lake; so I comforted myself as well as I could with the reflection, that all who “went to the wars” did not return covered with glory and laurels of victory.
I continued to live with the Towers; and in the fall of that year, I had the misfortune to cut my foot badly. While chopping fire wood at the door, I accidentally struck my ax against a post, which glanced the blow in such a manner that it came down with sufficient force to nearly sever my great toe from my left foot, gashing upward completely through the large joint, which made a terrible wound. Dr. Taylor was immediately called, and sewed the flesh together, taking two stitches on the upper, and one on the under, side of the foot, before it began to swell; but when the swelling came on, the stitches on the upper side gave way, which occasioned the toe to fall over so much, that I have been slightly lame from that day to this. For several weeks I was unable to be moved, and was regularly attended by Dr. Taylor, but as soon as it could be done without danger, I was taken back to Capt. Helm’s, where I found things in much the same condition as when I left them over a year before.
On leaving the family of Mr. Tower, I endeavored to express to them as well in my power the gratitude I felt for their kindness, and the attention I had received during my lameness.
We returned to Bath in a sleigh, and arrived without accident or any great suffering. But the kind treatment I had always received from the Messrs. Tower and family, made it very hard for me to reconcile myself to my former mode of living; especially now that I was lame and weak, from sickness and long confinement; besides, it was cold weather. Oh! how hard it did seem to me, after having a good bed and plenty of bed clothes every night for so long time, to now throw myself down, like a dog, on the “softest side” of a rough board, without a pillow, and without a particle of bedding to cover me during the long cold nights of winter. To be reduced from a plentiful supply of good, wholesome food, to the mere pittance which the Captain allowed his slaves, seemed to me beyond endurance.
And yet I had always lived and fared thus, but I never felt so bitterly these hardships and the cruelties of Slavery as I did at that time; making a virtue of necessity, however, I turned my thoughts in another direction.
I managed to purchase a spelling book, and set about teaching myself to read, as best I could. Every spare moment I could find was devoted to that employment, and when about my work I could catch now and then a stolen glance at my book, just to refresh my memory with the simple lesson I was trying to learn. But here Slavery showed its cloven foot in all its hideous deformity. It finally reached the ears of my master that I was learning to read; and then, if he saw me with a book or a paper in my hand, oh, how he would swear at me, sending me off in a hurry, about some employment. Still I persevered, but was more careful about being seen making any attempt to learn to read. At last, however, I was discovered, and had to pay the penalty of my determination.
I had been set to work in the sugar bush, and I took my spelling book with me. When a spare moment occurred I sat down to study, and so absorbed was I in the attempt to blunder through my lesson, that I did not hear the Captain’s son-in-law coming until he was fairly upon me. He sprang forward, caught my poor old spelling book, and threw it into the fire, where it was burned to ashes; and then came my turn. He gave me first a severe flogging, and then swore if he ever caught me with another book, he would “whip every inch of skin off my back,” &c.
This treatment, however, instead of giving me the least idea of giving it up, only made me look upon it as a more valuable attainment. Else, why should my oppressors feel so unwilling that their slaves should possess that which they thought so essential to themselves? Even then, with my back bleeding and smarting from the punishment I had received, I determined to learn to read and write, at all hazards, if my life was only spared. About this time Capt. Helm began to sell off his slaves to different persons, as he could find opportunity, and sometimes at a great sacrifice. It became apparent that the Captain, instead of prospering in business, was getting poorer every day.
DEATH BED AND BRIDAL SCENES.
Neither Capt. Helm nor his wife made any religious pretensions. I hardly know whether or not they were avowed infidels; but they alike ridiculed all religious professions and possessed some very singular notions regarding life and death.
I have often heard the Captain say, that no person need die unless they choose to do so; and his wife was of the same belief. I have frequently heard her remark that if mankind would firmly resist death it would flee from them.
An opportunity, however, was soon after given to test the truth of this strange dogma. Mrs. Helm’s health began to decline, but she would pay no attention to it, following her usual course and regular routine of household duties; but all in vain; she was taken down, alarmingly ill, and it became apparent to all, that the “king of terrors” had chosen his victim.
She tried with all her natural energy of character, to baffle his pursuit and escape his steady approach, but all to no purpose. “The valley and the shadow of death” were before her, and she had no assurance that the “rod and staff ” of the Almighty would sustain and comfort her through the dark passage. She shrank with perfect horror from the untried scenes of the future.
If any one had ever envied Mrs. Helm in her drawing-room, richly attired and sparkling with jewels, or as she moved with the stately step of a queen among her trembling slaves, they should have beheld her on her death bed! They should have listened to her groans and cries for help, while one piercing shriek after another rang through the princely mansion of which she had been the absolute mistress!
Surrounded as she was with every elegance and luxury that wealth could procure, she lay shrieking out her prayers for a short respite, a short lengthening out of the life she had spent so unprofitably; her eyes wandering restlessly about the apartment, and her hands continually clinching the air, as if to grasp something that would prevent her from sinking into the embrace of death! There was not a slave present, who would have exchanged places with her. Not one of those over whom she had ruled so arbitrarily would have exchanged their rough, lowly cabin and quiet conscience, for all the wealth and power she had ever possessed.
Nothing of all she had enjoyed in life, nor all that she yet called her own, could give her one hour of life or one peaceful moment in death!
Oh! what a scene was that! The wind blew, and great drops of rain fell on the casements. The room lighted only with a single taper; the wretched wife mingles her dying groans with the howling of the storm, until, as the clock struck the hour of midnight she fell back upon her pillow and expired, amid the tears and cries of her family and friends, who not only deplored the loss of a wife and mother, but were grieved by the manner in which she died.
The slaves were all deeply affected by the scene; some doubtless truly lamented the death of their mistress; others rejoiced that she was no more, and all were more or less frightened. One of them I remember went to the pump and wet his face, so as to appear to weep with the rest.
What a field was opened for reflection, by the agonizing death of Mrs. Helm? Born and reared in affluence; well educated and highly accomplished, possessed of every means to become a useful woman and an ornament to her sex; which she most likely would have been, had she been instructed in the Christian religion, and had lived under a different influence. As infidelity ever deteriorates from the female character, so Slavery transforms more than one, otherwise excellent woman, into a feminine monster.
Of Mrs. Helm, with her active intellect and great force of character, it made a tyrannical demon. Her race, however is ended; her sun gone down in darkness, and her soul we must leave in the keeping of a righteous God, to whom we must all give an account for the deeds done in the body. But in view of the transitory pleasures of this life; the unsatisfactory realization of wealth, and the certainty of death, we may well inquire, “What shall it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
Some little time after the scene just recorded, there came to Bath a young physician named Henry, who commenced practice under very flattering prospects. He was an accomplished young man, well educated and very skillful in his profession. He was affable and gay in his manners, and very fond of company. An intimate acquaintance was soon formed with Capt. Helm and family, and he called almost daily to chat and drink wine with the Captain, – both being quite fond of a social glass.
One night in the depth of winter, the Doctor was called to see a patient who lived six miles down the Conhocton river. Previous, however, to the call, he had accepted an invitation to attend a party at Capt. Helm’s, and there he was found. They had music and dancing, while the wine passed around very freely. None seemed to join in the dance and other amusements of the evening with more enjoyment than did
Dr. Henry; but after he was sent for, it being a most bitter cold night, he asked the Captain for a horse to ride to see his patient, to which he readily assented, and had his fine race-horse (for the Captain had not left off all his old habits), brought out from the stable, and the Doctor sprang lightly into the saddle. Unfortunately his way led by the race-course, and when the trained animal came to it he started with such speed as to throw the Doctor to the ground, where he lay all that terrible cold night. In the morning, some person going after wood, came in sight of the Doctor as he was trying to creep away on his frozen hands and feet. He was put into the sleigh and taken to the village with all possible speed. All was done for him that could be, but his feet and legs were frozen solid. His uncle, Dr. Henry, was brought as soon as possible, who decided that nothing could save his life but the amputation of both legs, just below the knee. This was done; but what a change in the prospects of this promising young man! Instead of stepping lightly about as he used to do, with a smiling countenance, he at last came forth after a tedious confinement, a cripple for life, hobbling about on his knees, sad and dejected. And what, think you, was the cause of this terrible calamity? What prevented the Doctor from an exertion to save his life? Wine, intoxicating wine, was undoubtedly the occasion of the heedless and reckless conduct of both himself and Capt. Helm.
And should not this circumstance be a warning to parents and guardians, to young men and children, “to look not upon the wine when it is red,” and remember that at last “it will bite like a serpent and sting like an adder?” Should it not also remind those who have guests to entertain, of the sinfulness of putting the cup to their neighbor’s lips? Certainly it should. But I must resume my story.
About this time Major Thornton of Bath, died. He had long been an intimate friend and acquaintance of Capt. Helm, and as the reader is already informed of the death of Mrs. Helm, they will not be surprised to know that he began to look earnestly after the widow of his late friend. It become apparent that his solicitude for the loneliness of Madam Thornton was not so much as a disconsolate widow, as that of making her the future Mrs. Helm; nor was it less observable that the new-made widow accepted the Captain’s attentions with great favor, and more as a lover than comforter.
The result was, after the Major had been dead six weeks, Capt. Helm was married to his widow, and brought her and her servants in great triumph to his house, giving her the charge of it. His own servants were discharged, and hers took their places.
All went on pleasantly for a while; then the slaves began to grow sullen and discontented; and two of them ran away. Capt. Helm started a man named Morrison, a Scotchman, in pursuit, who hunted them ten days, and then returned without any tidings of the absconding slaves. They made good their escape and were never heard from afterwards, by those whose interest suffered by the loss.
I was one afternoon at a neighbor’s house in the village, when I was suddenly taken so violently ill with pain in my head and side, that I had to be carried home. When we arrived there, I was allowed a pallet of straw to lie on, which was better than nothing. Day after day, my disease increased in violence, and my master employed a physician to attend me through my illness, which brought me very low indeed. I was constantly burning with fever, and so thirsty that I knew not what I would have given for a draught of cold water, which was denied me by the physician’s direction. I daily grew weaker until I was reduced to helplessness, and was little else than “skin and bones.” I really thought my time had come to die; and when I had strength to talk, I tried to arrange the few little business affairs I had, and give my father direction concerning them. And then I began to examine my own condition before God. and to determine how the case stood between Him and my poor soul. And “there was the rub.” I had often excused myself, for frequent derelictions in duty, and often wild and passionate outbreaks, on account of the hardness of my lot, and the injustice with which I was treated, even in my best endeavors to do as well as I knew how. But now, with death staring me in the face, I could see that though I was a friendless “slave-boy,” I had not always done as well as I knew how; that I had not served God as I knew I ought, nor had I always set a good example before my fellow-slaves, nor warned them as well as I might, “to flee the wrath to come.” Then I prayed my Heavenly Father to spare me a little longer, that I might serve Him better; and in His mercy and gracious goodness, He did so; though when the fever was turning they gave me up; and I could hear them say, when they came to feel my pulse, “he is almost gone,” “it will soon be over,’ &c., and then inquire if I knew them. I did, but was too weak to say so. I recollect with gratitude, the kindness of Mrs. H. A. Townsend, who sent me many delicacies and cooling drinks to soften the rigor of my disease; and though I suppose she has long since “passed away” and gone to her reward, may the blessing of those who are ready to perish, rest upon the descendants of that excellent woman.
Capt. Helm was driving on in his milling, distillery and farming business. He now began to see the necessity of treating his slaves better by far than he had ever done before, and granted them greater privileges than he would have dared to do at the South. Many of the slaves he had sold, were getting their liberty and doing well.
HIRED OUT TO A NEW MASTER.
While I was staying with my master at Bath, he having little necessity for my services, hired me out to a man by the name of Joseph Robinson, for the purpose of learning me to drive a team. Robinson lived about three miles from the village of Bath, on a small farm, and was not only a poor man but a very mean one. He was cross and heartless in his family, as well as tyrannical and cruel to those in his employ; and having hired me as a “slave boy,” he appeared to feel at full liberty to wreak his brutal passion on me at any time, whether I deserved rebuke or not; nor did his terrible outbreaks of anger vent themselves in oaths, curses and threatening only, but he would frequently draw from the cart-tongue a heavy iron pin, and beat me over the head with it, so unmercifully that he frequently sent the blood flowing over my scanty apparel, and from that to the ground, before he could feel satisfied.
These kind of beatings were not only excessively painful, but they always reminded me of the blows I had so often received from the key, in the hand of Mrs. Helm, when I was but a little waiter lad; and in truth I must say that the effect of these heavy blows on the head, have followed me thus far through life; subjecting me to frequent and violent head-aches, from which I never expect to be entirely free. Even to this day I shudder at the thought, when I think how Robinson used to fly at me, swearing, foaming, and seeming to think there was no weapon too large or too heavy to strike me with.
He and I were at one time logging with a yoke of oxen, which it was my business to drive. At that time rattle-snakes were numerous, and a great terror to the inhabitants. To be bitten by one of these poisonous reptiles was certain and almost instant death; hence, the greatest caution and constant vigilance was necessary to avoid them while at work. I had been sent with the oxen to draw a log to the pile, and when I came up to it, I observed that it appeared to be hollow; but stepping forward, with the chain in my hand, ready to attach it to the log, when, oh, horror! the warning rattle of a snake sounded like a death knell in my ears, proceeding from the log I was about to lay hold of. I was so much frightened by the sound, that I dropped the chain as though it were red hot, left my team, and ran with all the speed in my power, screaming “murder, murder!” as loud as I could.
This proceeding, which was the fearful impulse of the moment, offended Robinson, and gave him another opportunity to beat me most cruelly. He was himself as much afraid of rattle-snakes as I; but he was the master and I the “slave boy,” which made a vast difference. He caught hold of me, and, with horrid oaths, beat me with his fist again and again; threatening me with awful punishment if I did not instantly return and bring the log to the desired spot. I never can forget the mortal agony I was in, while compelled by his kicks and blows to return and fasten the chain around the log containing the deadly serpent. I, however, succeeded with trembling hands, and drove the oxen, but keeping myself at the fartherest possible distance from them and the log. When I finally arrived at the pile, Mr. Robinson and some other men, cut a hole with an ax in the log, and killed the large, venomous rattle-snake that had occasioned me so much alarm and such a cruel beating. Nor was the uncontrolable and brutal passion of Robinson his only deficiency; he was mean as he was brutal.
He had, at one time, borrowed a wagon of a neighbor living two miles distant, through a dense forest. On the day of the total eclipse of the sun, it entered his head that it would be fine sport, knowing my ignorance and superstition, to send me, just as the darkness was coming on, to return the borrowed wagon. I accordingly hitched the ox-team to it and started. As I proceeded through the wood, I saw, with astonishment and some alarm, that it was growing very dark, and thought it singular at that hour of the day. When I reached the place of my destination it was almost total darkness, and some persons, ignorant as myself, were running about, wringing their hands, and declaring that they believed the Day of Judgment had come, and such like expressions.
The effect of all this was, however, very different from what my master had expected. I thought, of course, if the judgment day had come, I should be no longer a slave in the power of a heartless tyrant. I recollect well of thinking, that if indeed all things earthly were coming to an end, I should be free from Robinson’s brutal force, and as to meeting my Creator, I felt far less dread of that than of meeting my cross, unmerciful master. I felt that, sinful as I had been, and unworthy as I was, I should be far better off than I then was; driven to labor all day, without compensation; half starved and poorly clad, and above all, subjected to the whims and caprices of any heartless tyrant to whom my master might give the power to rule over me. But I had not much time for reflection, I hurried home; my mind filled with the calm anticipation that the end of all things was at hand; which greatly disappointed my expectant master, who was looking for me to return in a great fright, making some very ludicrous demonstration of fear and alarm. But after a few months more of hardship I was permitted to return to Capt. Helm’s, where I was treated much better than at Robinson’s, and much better than the Captain used to treat his slaves.
Capt. Helm, not having demand for slave labor as much as formerly, was in the practice of hiring out his slaves to different persons, both in and out of the village; and among others, my only sister was hired out to a professed gentleman living in Bath. She had become the mother of two or three children, and was considered a good servant.
One pleasant Sabbath morning, as I was passing the house where she lived, on my way to the Presbyterian church, where I was sent to ring the bell as usual, I heard the most piteous cries and earnest pleadings issuing from the dwelling. To my horror and the astonishment of those with me, my poor sister made her appearance, weeping bitterly, and followed by her inhuman master, who was polluting the air of that clear Sabbath morning, with the most horrid imprecations and threatenings, and at the same time flourishing a large raw-hide. Very soon his bottled wrath burst forth, and the blows, aimed with all his strength, descended upon the unprotected head, shoulders and back of the helpless woman, until she was literally cut to pieces. She writhed in his powerful grasp, while shriek after shriek cried away in heart-rending moanings; and yet the inhuman demon continued to beat her, though her pleading cries had ceased, until obliged to desist from the exhaustion of his own strength.
What a spectacle was that, for the sight of a brother? The God of heaven only knows the conflict of feeling I then endured; He alone witnessed the tumult of my heart, at this outrage of manhood and kindred affection. God knows that my will was good enough to have wrung his neck; or to have drained from his heartless system its last drop of blood! And yet I was obliged to turn a deaf ear to her cries for assistance, which to this day ring in my ears. Strong and athletic as I was, no hand of mine could be raised in her defence, but at the peril of both our lives; – nor could her husband, had he been a witness of the scene, be allowed any thing more than unresisting submission to any cruelty, any indignity which the master saw fit to inflict on his wife, but the other’s slave.
Does any indignant reader feel that I was wanting in courage or brotherly affection, and say that he would have interfered, and, at all hazards, rescued his sister from the power of her master; let him remember that he is a freeman; that he has not from his infancy been taught to cower beneath the white man’s frown, and bow at his bidding, or suffer all the rigor of the slave laws. Had the gentlemanly woman-whipper been seen beating his horse, or his ox, in the manner he beat my poor sister, and that too for no fault which the law could recognize as an offence, he would have been complained of most likely; but as it was, she was but a “slave girl,” – with whom the slave law allowed her master to do what he pleased.
Well, I finally passed on, with a clinched fist and contracted brow, to the church, and rung the bell, I think rather furiously, to notify the inhabitants of Bath, that it was time to assemble for the worship of that God who has declared himself to be “no respecter of persons.” With my own heart beating wildly with indignation and sorrow, the kind reader may imagine my feelings when I saw the smooth-faced hypocrite, the inhuman slave-whipper, enter the church, pass quietly on to his accustomed seat, and then meekly bow his hypocritical face on the damask cushion, in the reverent acknowledgment of that religion which teaches its adherents “to do unto others as they would be done by,” just as if nothing unusual had happened on that Sabbath morning. Can any one wonder that I, and other slaves, often doubted the sincerity of every white man’s religion? Can it be a matter of astonishment, that slaves often feel that there is no just God for the poor African? Nay, verily; and were it not for the comforting and sustaining influence that these poor, illiterate and suffering creatures feel as coming from an unearthly source, they would in their ignorance all become infidels. To me, that beautiful Sabbath morning was clouded in midnight darkness, and I retired to ponder on what could be done.
For some reason or other, Capt. Helm had supplied every lawyer in that section of country with slaves, either by purchase or hire; so when I thought of seeking legal redress for my poor, mangled sister, I saw at once it would be all in vain. The laws were in favor of the slave owner, and besides, every legal gentleman in the village had one or more of the Captain’s slaves, who were treated with more or less rigor; and of course they would do nothing toward censuring one of their own number, so nothing could be done to give the slave even the few privileges which the laws of the State allowed them.
The Captain sold my aunt Betsy Bristol to a distinguished lawyer in the village, retaining her husband, Aaron Bristol, in his own employ; and two of her children he sold to another legal gentleman named Cruger. One day Captain Helm came out where the slaves were at work, and finding Aaron was not there, he fell into a great rage and swore terribly. He finally started off to a beach tree, from which he cut a stout limb, and trimmed it so as to leave a knot on the but end of the stick, or bludgeon rather, which was about two and a half feet in length. With this formidable weapon he started for Aaron’s lonely cabin. When the solitary husband saw him coming he suspected that he was angry, and went forth to meet him in the street. They had no sooner met than my master seized Aaron by the collar, and taking the limb he had prepared by the smaller end, commenced beating him with it, over the head and face, and struck him some thirty or more terrible blows in quick succession; after which Aaron begged to know for what he was so unmercifully flogged.
“Because you deserve it,” was the angry reply. Aaron said that he had ever endeavored to discharge his duty, and had done so to the best of his ability; and that he thought it very hard to be treated in that manner for no offence at all. Capt. Helm was astonished at his audacity; but the reader will perceive that the slaves were not blind to the political condition of the country, and were beginning to feel that they had some rights, and meant to claim them.
Poor Aaron’s face and head, however, was left in a pitiable condition after such a pummelling with a knotty stick. His face, covered with blood, was so swollen that he could hardly see for some time; but what of that? Did he not belong to Capt. Helm, soul and body; and if his brutal owner chose to destroy his own property, certainly had he not a right to do so, without let or hindrance? Of course; such is the power that Slavery gives one human being over another.
And yet it must be confessed that among the poor, degraded and ignorant slaves there exists a foolish pride, which loves to boast of their master’s wealth and influence. A white person, too poor to own slaves, is as often looked upon with as much disdain by the miserable slave as by his wealthy owner. This disposition seems to be instilled into the mind of every slave at the South, and indeed, I have heard slaves object to being sent in very small companies to labor in the field, lest that some passer-by should think that they belonged to a poor man, who was unable to keep a large gang. Nor is this ridiculous sentiment maintained by the slaves only; the rich planter feels such a contempt for all white persons without slaves, that he does not want them for his neighbors. I know of many instances where such persons have been under the necessity of buying or hiring slaves, just to preserve their reputation and keep up appearances; and even among a class of people who profess to be opposed to Slavery, have I known instances of the same kind, and have heard them apologize for their conduct by saying that “when in Rome, we must do as the Romans do.”
Uncle Aaron Bristol was one of Capt. Helm’s slaves who lad a large amount of this miserable pride; and for him to be associated with a white man in the same humble occupation, seemed to give him ideas of great superiority, and full liberty to treat him with all the scorn and sarcasm he was capable of, in which my uncle was by no means deficient.
At this time the Captain owned a fine and valuable horse, by the name of Speculator. This horse, groomed by uncle Aaron, stood sometimes at Bath and sometimes at Geneva; and at the latter village another horse was kept, groomed by a white man. The white groom was not very well pleased with Aaron’s continual disparagement of the clumsy animal which my uncle called “a great, awkward plow-horse;” and then he would fling out some of his proud nonsense about “poor white people who were obliged to groom their own old dumpy horses,” &c.
Well, things went on in this unpleasant manner for several weeks, when at last the white groom and Aaron met at Geneva, and the horse belonging to the former, designedly or accidentally, escaped from his keeper, and came with full speed, with his mouth wide open, after Speculator. When the fiery fellow had overtaken uncle Aaron he attempted to grasp the wethers of Speculator with his teeth, instead of which he caught Aaron on the inside of his thigh, near the groin, from whence he bit a large piece of flesh, laying the bone entirely bare; at the same moment flinging Aaron to the ground, some rods off; and the next instant he kicked Speculator down a steep embankment. Aaron was taken up for dead, and Dr. Henry sent for, who dressed his wounds; and after several mouths’ confinement he finally recovered. It is probable that the biting and overthrow of Aaron saved his life, as he must have otherwise been killed in the encounter of the two horses.
A while after his recovery, uncle Aaron succeeded in procuring a team and some kind of vehicle, in which he put his wife and children, and between two days, took “French leave” of his master as well as of the lawyer to whom his wife belonged.
The lawyer, however, was far from being pleased when he missed his property, and immediately set his wits to work to reclaim her. All was kept secret as possible, but it was whispered about that it was to be done by a State’s warrant, for removing the clothing and furniture they had taken, and so, being thus arrested, “Madam Bristol” would be glad to return to her work in the lawyer’s kitchen. But Aaron was a smart, shrewd man, and kept out of their reach, where he soon found friends and employment, and could go where he pleased, without having an infuriated master to beat and disfigure him with a knotted stick, until his clothes were bespattered with blood. They appreciated their liberty, and lived and died in peace and freedom.
Capt. Helm continued his old manner of treating slaves, dealing out their weekly allowance of corn or meal; but living as we now did, so much more intimately with white inhabitants, our condition was materially improved. The slaves became more refined in manners and in possession of far greater opportunities to provide for themselves, than they had ever before enjoyed, and yet it was Slavery. Any reverse in the fortunes of our master would be disadvantageous to us. Oh, how this fearful uncertainty weighed upon us as we saw that our master was not prospering and increasing in wealth; but we had not the dismal fears of the loathsome slave-pen, rice swamps, and many other things we should have to fear in Virginia. We were still slaves, and yet we had so much greater chance to learn from the kind, intelligent people about us, so many things which we never knew before, that I think a slave-trader would have found it a difficult task to take any one of us to a Southern slave market, if our master had so ordered it.
The village of Bath is rather an out of-the-way place, hemmed in on all sides by mountains of considerable height, leaving an opening on the north, through a pleasant valley, to the head of Crooked Lake. Produce of every kind, when once there, met a ready sale for the New York market.
In the first settlement of the country this was the only outlet for the country produce, which was transported in rude boats or vessels called arks, built during the winter season to await the spring freshet; then they loaded thorn with wheat or other produce, and sent them to Baltimore or elsewhere. They used also to obtain great quantities of fine lumber, and floated it through the same rivers every spring; but it was attended with great loss of life and property.
Bath assumed a warlike appearance during the last war with Great Britain; the public square was dotted all over with officers, marquees, and soldiers’ tents. Some of these soldiers were unprincipled and reckless men, who seemed to care very little what they did.
One evening I was walking around the encampment in company with a Mr. James Morrison, a clerk in the land office, looking at the soldiers, until we came near a sentinel on duty. He kept his gun to his shoulder until we came near enough, and then he attempted to run me through with his bayonet. Young Morrison sprang forward, and seizing the musket, told me to run; I did so, which probably saved my life.
THOUGHTS ON FREEDOM.
After living sometime in Bath, and having the privilege of more enlightened society, I began to think that it was possible for me to become a free man in some way besidesor running away, as I had often thought of doing. I had listened to the conversation of others, and determined to ask legal counsel on the subject the first opportunity I could find. Very soon after, as I was drawing wood, I met on the river bridge, Mr. D. Cruger, the eminent lawyer before mentioned, and I asked him to tell me if I was not free, by the laws of New York. He started, and looked around him as if afraid to answer my question, but after a while told me I was not free. I passed on, but the answer to my question by no means satisfied me, especially when I remembered the hesitancy with which it was given.
I sought another opportunity to speak with Mr. Cruger, and at last fohund him in his office alone; then he conversed freely on the subject of Slavery, telling me that Capt. Helm could not hold me as a slave in that State, if I chose to leave him, and then directed me to D. Comstock and J. Moore; the first being at the head of a manumission society, and the last named gentleman one of its directors.
Our condition, as I have said before, was greatly improved; and yet the more we knew of freedom the more we desired it, and the less willing were we to remain in bondage. The slaves that Capt. Helm had sold or hired out, were continually leaving him and the country, for a place of freedom; and I determined to become my own possessor.
There is no one, I care not how favorable his condition, who desires to be a slave, to labor for nothing all his life for the benefit of others. I have often heard fugitive slaves say, that it was not so much the cruel beatings and floggings that they received which induced them to leave the South, as the idea of dragging out a whole life of unrequited toil to enrich their masters.
Everywhere that Slavery exists, it is nothing but slavery. I found it just as hard to be beaten over the head with a piece of iron in New York as it was in Virginia. Whips and chains are everywhere necessary to degrade and brutalize the slave, in order to reduce him to that abject and humble state which Slavery requires. Nor is the effect much less disastrous on the man who holds supreme control over the soul and body of his fellow beings. Such unlimited power, in almost every instance transforms the man into a tyrant; the brother into a demon.
When the first of our persecuted race were brought to this country it was to teach them to reverence the only true and living God; or such was the answer of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth of England, when her subjects desired the liberty to bring from their native land the poor, ignorant African. “Let them,” said the Queen, “be brought away only by their own consent, otherwise the act will be detestable, and bring down the vengeance of heaven upon us.” A very different position truly, from the one assumed at the present day by apologists for the traffic in human flesh. But, to return to myself.
I had determined to make an effort to own myself, and as a preliminary step, I obtained permission of Capt. Helm to visit some friends living in Canandaigua and Geneva. This was in the winter of 1814. I went first to Geneva; from there to Canandaigua. Between the two villages I met a company of United States’ troops, returning from Buffalo, where they had been to repel an invasion of the British.
The two villages above named, were small but very pretty, having been laid out with taste and great care. Some wealthy and enterprising gentlemen had come from the East into this great Western country, who were making every improvement in their power. The dense forest had long since fallen under the stroke of the woodman’s ax, and in that section, flourishing villages were springing up as if by magic, where so lately roamed wild beasts and rude savages, both having fallen back before the march of civilization.
I called on James Moore, as directed by Mr. Cruger, and found he was one of the directors of the “Manumission Society,” as it was then called. This was an association of humane and intelligent gentlemen whose object it was to aid any one who was illegally held in bondage. The funds of the society were ample; and able counsel was employed to assist those who needed it. The late lamented John C. Spencer, one of the most eminent lawyers in Western New York, was then counsel for that society.
I soon got an interview with Mr. Moore, to whom I related the history of my life, – the story of my wrongs and hardships. I told him about my having been hired out by Capt. Helm, which he said was sufficient to insure my freedom! Oh! how my heart leaped at the thought! The tears started, my breast heaved with a mighty throb of gratitude, and I could hardly refrain from grasping his hand or falling down at his feet; and perhaps should have made some ludicrous demonstration of my feelings, had not the kind gentleman continued his conversation in another direction.
He said that indispensable business called him to Albany, where he must go immediately, but assured me that he would return in March following; then I must come to him and he would see that I had what justly belonged to me – my freedom from Slavery. He advised me to return to Bath and go on with my work as usual until March, but to say nothing of my intentions and prospects. I returned according to his directions, with a heart so light, that I could not realize that my bonds were not yet broken, nor the yoke removed from off my neck. I was already free in spirit, and I silently exulted in the bright prospect of liberty.
Could my master have felt what it was to be relieved of such a crushing weight, as the one which was but partially lifted from my mind, he would have been a happier man than he had been for a long time.
I went cheerfully back to my labor, and worked with alacrity, impatient only for March to come; and as the time drew near I began to consider what kind of an excuse I could make to get away. I could think of none, but I determined to go without one, rather than to remain.
Just before the time appointed for me to meet Mr. Moore, a slave girl named Milly, came secretly to Bath. She had been one of Capt. Helm’s slaves, and he had a while before sold her to a man who lived some distance west of the village. Milly had now taken the matter into her own hands. She had left her master to take care of himself, and was in short, “running away,” determined as myself, that she would be a slave no longer; resolved on death, or freedom from the power of the slaveholder.
The time I had set for my departure was so near at hand, that I concluded to accompany her in her flight. When the dark night came on, we started together, and traveled all night, and just as the day dawned we arrived at Manchester, where we stopped a short time with one Thomas Watkins.
But I was not to be let go so easily. I had been missed at Capt. Helm’s, and several men started in immediate pursuit. I was weary, and so intent on getting a little rest that I did not see my pursuers until they had well nigh reached the house where I was; but I did see them in time to spring from the house with the agility of a deer, and to run for the woods as for life. And indeed, I so considered it. I was unarmed to be sure, and not prepared to defend myself against two or three men, armed to the teeth; but it would have gone hard with me before I surrendered myself to them, after having dreamed as I had, and anticipated the blessings of a free man. I escaped them, thank God, and reached the woods, where I concealed myself for some time, and where I had ample opportunity to reflect on the injustice and cruelty of my oppressors, and to ask myself why it was that I was obliged to fly from my home. Why was I there panting and weary, hungry and destitute – skulking in the woods like a thief, and concealing myself like a murderer? What had I done? For what fault, or for what crime was I pursued by armed men, and hunted like a beast of prey? God only knows how these inquiries harrowed up my very soul, and made me well nigh doubt the justice and mercy of the Almighty, until I remembered my narrow escape, when my doubts dissolved in grateful tears.
But why, oh why, had I been forced to flee thus from my fellow men? I was guilty of no crime; I had committed no violence; I had broken no law of the land; I was not charged even with a fault, except of the love of liberty and a desire to be free! I had claimed the right to possess my own person, and remove it from oppression. Oh my God, thought I, can the American People, who at this very hour are pouring out their blood in defence of their country’s liberty; offering up as a sacrifice on the battle field their promising young men, to preserve their land and hearthstones from English oppression; can they, will they, continue to hunt the poor African slave from their soil because he desires that same liberty, so dear to the heart of every American citizen? Will they not blot out from their fair escutcheon the foul stain which Slavery has cast upon it? Will they not remember the Southern bondman, in whom the love of freedom is as inherent as in themselves; and will they not, when contending for equal rights, use their mighty forces “to break every yoke, and let the oppressed go free?” God grant that it may be so!
As soon as I thought it prudent, I pursued my journey, and finally came out into the open country, near the dwelling of Mr. Dennis Comstock, who, as I have said, was president of the Manumission Society. To him I freely described my situation, and found him a friend indeed. He expressed his readiness to assist me, and wrote a line for me to take to his brother, Otis Comstock, who took me into his family at once. I hired to Mr. Comstock for the season, and from that time onward lived with him nearly four years.
When I arrived there I was about twenty-two years of age, and felt for the first time in my life, that I was my own master. I cannot describe to a free man, what a proud manly feeling came over me when I hired to Mr. C. and made my first bargain, nor when I assumed the dignity of collecting my own earnings. Notwithstanding I was very happy in my freedom from Slavery, and had a good home, where for the first time in my life I was allowed to sit at table with others, yet I found myself very deficient in almost every thing which I should have learned when a boy.
These and other recollections of the past often saddened my spirit; but hope, – cheering and bright, was now mine, and it lighted up the future and gave me patience to persevere.
In the autumn when the farm work was done, I called on Mr. Comstock for some money, and the first thing I did after receiving it I went to Canandaigua where I found a book-store kept by a man named J. D. Bemis, and of him I purchased some school books.
No king on his throne could feel prouder or grander than I did that day. With my books under my arm, and money of my own earning in my pocket, I stepped loftily along toward Farmington, where I determined to attend the Academy. The thought, however, that though I was twenty-three years old, I had yet to learn what most boys of eight years knew, was rather a damper on my spirits. The school was conducted by Mr. J. Comstock, who was a pleasant young man and an excellent teacher. He showed me every kindness and consideration my position and ignorance demanded; and I attended his school three winters, with pleasure and profit to myself at least.
When I had been with Mr. Comstock about a year, we received a visit from my old master, Capt. Helm, who had spared no pains to find me, and when he learned where I was he came to claim me as “his boy,” who, he said he “wanted and must have.”
Mr. Comstock told him I was not “his boy,” and as such he would not give me up; and further, that I was
free by the laws of the State. He assured the Captain that his hiring me out in the first instance, to Mr. Tower, forfeited his claim to me, and gave me a right to freedem, – but if he chose to join issue, they would have the case tried in the Supreme Court; but this proposition the Captain declined: he knew well enough that it would result in my favor; and after some flattery and coaxing, he left me with my friend, Mr. Comstock, in liberty and peace!
CAPT. HELM – DIVORCE – KIDNAPPING.
The business affairs of Capt. Helm had for some time been far from prosperous; and now he was quite poor. His slave property proved a bad investment, and Madam Thornton a far worse one. She had already applied for a divorce, and a good share of the estate as alimony; both of which she succeeded in getting, the Captain allowing her to take pretty much her own course. These troubles, with costs of lawsuits, bad management, &c., had now emptied the coffers of my old master almost to the last farthing; and he began to cast about him for some way to replenish his purse, and retrieve his fallen fortunes.
Had Capt. Helm been brought up to honorable industry, and accustomed to look after his own pecuniary interests, he doubtless would have sustained his position; or if reverses were unavoidable, he would have by persevering industry, regained what he had lost. But he had been raised in a slave State, and Southern principles were as deeply instilled into his mind, as Southern manners were impressed on his life and conduct.
He had no partiality for labor of any kind; horse-racing and card-playing were far more congenial to his tastes; reduced as he now was, he would deny himself no luxury that his means or credit would procure. His few remaining slaves were given into the hands of an idle, brutal overseer – while they, half fed, half clothed, grew more and more discontented, and ran away on every opportunity that offered.
The Captain at last hit upon a method of making money, which, if it had been carried into operation on the high seas, would in all probability have been called by its right name, and incurred the penalty of the gallows – as piracy. Ought it then to be deemed less criminal because transpiring on the free soil of the American Republic? I think not. Nor was it less censurable on account of its failure.
The Captain’s plan was to collect all the slaves he had once owned, many of whom had escaped to the surrounding villages, and when once in his grasp, to roll them speedily into a slave State, and there sell them for the Southern market. To carry forward this hellish design, it was necessary to have recourse to stratagem. Some person must be found to lure the unsuspecting slaves into the net he was spreading for them. At last he found a scoundrel named Simon Watkins, who for the consideration of fifty dollars, was to collect as many of the slaves as he could at one place; and when he had done so, he was to receive the money, leaving Capt. Helm to do the rest.
Simon set immediately about the business, which was first to go to Palmyra, and in great kindness and generosity, give a large party to the colored people, – desiring that all Capt. Helm’s former slaves, in particular, should be present to have a joyous re-union, and celebrate their freedom in having a fine time generally.
Invitations were sent to all, and extensive preparation made for a large “social party,” at Palmyra, at the house of Mrs. Bristol. My parents were invited; and Simon took the pains to come to Farmington to give me a special invitation. When the time arrived for the party, I went to Palmyra with the intention of attending. I had not the least suspicion of any thing wrong; yet, by some mysterious providence, or something for which I can not account, a presentiment took possession of my mind that all was not right. I knew not what I feared, and could in no way define my apprehensions; but I grew so uneasy, that I finally gave up the party and returned home, before the guests were assembled.
Capt. Helm and his assistants came on to Palmyra in disguise, before evening, and secreted themselves in one of the hotels to await the arrival of their victims.
At the appointed hour the slaves began to assemble in large numbers and great glee, without the least suspicion of danger. They soon began their amusements, and in the midst of their mirth, Capt. Helm and party stealthily crept from their hiding place and surrounded the house; then bursting in suddenly upon the revelers, began to make arrests. Such a tumult, such an affray as ensued would be hard to describe.
The slaves fought for their lives and their liberty, and the Captain’s party for their property and power. Fists, clubs, chairs, and any thing they could get hold of, was freely used with a strength and will of men who had tasted the joys of freedom. Cries and curses were mingled, while blows fell like hail on both sides. Commands from our old master were met with shouts of bold defiance on the part of the Negroes, until the miserable kidnappers were glad to desist, and were driven off – not stealthily as they came, but in quick time and in the best way they could, to escape the threatened vengeance of the slaves, who drove them like “feathers before the wind.” But it was a terrible battle and many were severely wounded; among them was my father. He was taken to his home, mangled and bleeding, and from the effects of that night’s affray he never recovered. He lingered on in feeble health until death finally released him from suffering, and placed him beyond the reach of kidnappers and tyrants.
The Captain and his party, enraged and disappointed in their plans at Palmyra, returned to Bath to see what could be done there toward success, in getting up a gang of slaves for the Southern market. When they came among the colored people of Bath, it was like a hawk alighting among a flock of chickens at noon-day. They scattered and ran in every direction, some to the woods, some hid themselves in cellars, and others in their terror plunged into the Conhocton River. In this manner the majority of the negroes escaped, but not all; and those were so unfortunate as to get caught were instantly thrown into a large covered “Pennsylvania wagon,” and hurried off, closely guarded, to Olean Point. Among those taken were Harry Lucas, his wife, Lucinda, and seven children; Mrs. Jane Cooper and four children, with some others, were also taken.
When Capt. Helm arrived at Olean Point with his stolen freight of human beings, he was unexpectedly detained until he could build a boat, – which, to his great dismay took him several days.
The sorrow and fearful apprehension of those wretched recaptured slaves can not be described nor imagined by any one except those who have experienced a like affliction. They had basked for a short season in the sunshine of liberty, and thought themselves secure from the iron grasp of Slavery, and the heel of the oppressor, when in the height of their exultation, they had been thrust down to the lowest depths of misery and despair, with the, oppressor’s heel again upon their necks. To be snatched without a moment’s warning from their homes and friends, – hurried and crowded into the close slave wagon, regardless of age or sex, like sheep for the slaughter, to be carried they knew not whither; but, doubtless to the dismal rice swamp of the South, – was to them an agony too great for endurance. The adult portion of the miserable company determined at last to go no farther with their heartless master, but to resist unto death if need be, before they surrendered themselves to the galling chains they had so recently broken, or writhed again under the torturing lash of the slave-driver.
Harry Lucas and wife, and Jane Cooper, silently prepared themselves for the conflict, determined to sell their lives as dearly as possible. When they were nearly ready to start, Jane Cooper sent her oldest daughter and younger sister, (she who is now our worthy friend Mrs. P. of Bath), into the woods, and then when the men undertook to get Lucas and the two women on board the boat the struggle commenced. The women fought the Captain and his confederates like a lioness robbed of her whelps! They ran and dodged about, making the woods ring with their screams and shouts of “Murder! Murder! Help! Help! Murder!” until the Captain’s party, seeing they could do nothing to quell them, became so exceedingly alarmed lest they should be detected in their illegal proceedings, that they ran off at full speed, as if they thought an officer at their heels. In their hurry and fright they caught two of Harry’s children, and throwing them into the boat, pushed off as quick as possible, amid the redoubled cries of the agonized parents and sympathizing friends, all trying in every way possible, to recover from the merciless grasp of the man-stealer, the two frightened and screaming children. Guns were fired and horns sounded, but all to no purpose-they held tightly the innocent victims of their cupidity, and made good their escape.
Mr. D. C——, a gentleman of wealth and high standing in Steuben County, became responsible for the fifty dollars which Capt. Helm promised to pay Simon Watkins for his villainy in betraying, Judas-like, those unsuspecting persons whom it should have been his pleasure to protect and defend against their common oppressor, – his own as well as theirs.
In addition to this rascality, it can not appear very creditable to the citizens of Steuben County, that Capt. Helm and Thomas McBirney should both hold high and important offices at the time, and after they had been tried and convicted of the crime of kidnapping. Both of these gentlemen, guilty of a State’s prison offence, were judges of the common pleas. T. McBirney was first judge in the county, and Capt. Helm was side judge; and notwithstanding their participation in, and conviction of, a flagrant outrage on the laws of God and man, they managed not only to escape the penalty, but to retain their offices and their respectable standing in community for years after.
LOCATE IN THE VILLAGE OF ROCHESTER.
I continued to labor in the employ of Mr. O. Comstock, whose son, Zeno, was married during the year 1816, and purchased a farm on the site of the present flourishing village of Lockport, to which he moved his family and effects; but from a mistaken supposition that the Erie Canal, which was then under contemplation, would take a more southern route, he was induced to sell his farm in Hartland, which has proved a mine of wealth to the more fortunate purchaser.
In the winter of that year, I was sent by my employer to Hartland with a sleigh-load of produce, and passed through the village of Rochester, which I had never before seen. It was a very small, forbidding looking place at first sight, with few inhabitants, and surrounded by a dense forest.
I recollect that while pursuing my journey, I overtook a white man driving a span of horses, who contended that I had not a right to travel the public highway as other men did, but that it was my place to keep behind him and his team. Being in haste I endeavored to pass him quietly, but he would not permit it and hindered me several hours, very much to my annoyance and indignation. This was, however, but a slight incident indicating the bitter prejudice which every man seemed to feel against the negro. No matter how industrious he might be, no matter how honorable in his dealings, or respectful in his manners, – he was a “nigger,” and as such he must be treated, with a few honorable exceptions.
This year also, my father died in the village of Palmyra, where, as I have before mentioned, he received injuries from which he never entirely recovered. After about six months severe illness which he bore with commendable patience and resignation, his spirit returned to God who gave it; and his sorrowing friends and bereaved family followed his remains to their final abode, where we laid him down to rest from unrequited labor and dire oppression, until “all they who are in their graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that hear shall live forever,” where the “tears shall be wiped from off all faces” – and where the righteous bondman shall no longer fear the driver’s lash or master’s frown, but freely join in the song of “Alleluia! The Lord God Omnipotent reigneth!”
My father had a good reputation for honesty and uprightness of character among his employers and acquaintances, and was a kind, affectionate husband and a fond, indulgent parent. His, I believe was the life and death of a good man. “Peace be to his ashes.”
The following season I commenced a new business – that of peddling in the village of Rochester such articles as my employer, Mr. Comstock, desired to sell: the products of his farm, – wheat, corn, oats, butter, cheese, meat, and poultry – all of which met a ready sale, generally for cash at liberal prices. That market was then but little known to the generality of farmers, and the enterprising gentlemen of that place, were desirous of encouraging commerce with the surrounding country, offered every encouragement in their power. Hence, we found it a profitable business, which I continued in for several months.
The present flourishing city of Rochester was then, as I have said, but a village in its infancy, situated near the upper falls of the Genesee River, and about seven miles from its mouth. Here, some time previously, three gentlemen from Maryland bought a large tract of land, and as no business man could fail to observe and appreciate its rare advantages they commenced laying out a village. Sirs Fitzhugh, Carroll, and Rochester, composed the company; but the management of the business devolved almost wholly on Col. Rochester, whose wealth, enterprise, and intelligence well qualified him for the undertaking; and as it had been assigned him to cognominate the new village, I have heard it said that he jocularly gave his reason for selecting its present title, as follows: “Should he call it Fitzhugh or Carroll, the slighted gentleman would certainly feel offended with the other; but if he called it by his own name, they would most likely both be angry with him; so it was best to serve them alike.”
There was then two grist mills, – one owned by Mr. Ely, and the other by Mr. Brown; one small building for religious worship, occupied by the Presbyterians on Carroll street (now State street); and but two stone buildings within what now comprises that beautiful city. There were then no brick buildings at all, but business was good; merchants and mechanics from the East soon began to settle there and give it a thriving aspect.
About this time another company was formed, whose moving spirit was Mr. E. Stone, a man of worth and talent; the object of which was to locate another village at the head of navigation and about half way between the mouth of the river and Rochester, which they called Carthage.
The company commenced building and improving the place so rapidly’ that many who came to purchase residences and business stations were at a loss to decide which of the two places would finally become the center of business. It, however, was soon perceivable that the advantage of water privileges, stone, and access to both, was greatly in favor of Rochester. At Carthage the Genesee is narrow and its banks steep and abrupt, rising in many places three hundred feet above the bed of the river, which of course render the privileges and business on it far less easy of access for building purposes. I may have occasion to speak hereafter of the expensive and magnificent bridge at Carthage, which was the wonder and admiration of the times.
The following year I concluded to go into business for myself, and was as much at loss as others, whether to locate at Rochester or Carthage; but after considering the matter in all its bearings, and closely watching the progress of events, my choice preponderated in favor of Rochester, and to that place I went, designing to enter into business on my own account.
It was indeed painful to my feelings to leave the home and family of Mr. Comstock, where I had experienced so much real comfort and happiness, where I had ever been treated with uniform kindness, where resided those kind friends to whom I felt under the greatest obligation for the freedom and quietude I then enjoyed, as well as for the little knowledge of business and of the world that I then possessed.
Thinking, however, that I could better my condition, I subdued, as well as I could, my rising emotions, and after sincerely thanking them for their goodness and favors – wishing them long life and prosperity, – I took my departure for the chosen place of my destination.
Soon after I left Mr. Comstock’s, that gentleman sent his hired man, named John Cline, to Rochester with a wagon load of produce to sell, as had been his custom for some time. In vain the family looked for his return at the usual hour in the evening, and began to wonder what had detained him; but what was their horror and surprise to find, when they arose the next morning, the horses standing at the door, and the poor unfortunate man lying in the wagon, dead! How long they had been there nobody knew; no one had heard them come in; and how the man had been killed was a matter of mere conjecture. The coroner was sent for and an inquest held, and yet it was difficult to solve the whole mystery.
The most probable explanation was, that he was sitting in the back part of the wagon, and fell over on is left side, striking his neck on the edge of the wagon box, breaking it instantly.
The verdict of the jury was, in accordance with these facts, “accidental death,” &c.
When I left Mr. Comstock’s I had acquired quite a knowledge of reading, writing, arithmetic, and had made a small beginning in English grammar.
It had been for some time a question which I found hard to decide, whether or not I should pursue my studies as I had done. If I went into business as I contemplated, I knew it would end my proficiency in the sciences; and yet I felt a desire to accumulate more of the wealth that perisheth. Considering too that I was advancing in age, and had no means of support but by my own labor, I finally concluded to do what I have from that time to this deeply regretted, – give up the pursuit of an education, and turn my attention wholly to business. I do not regret having desired a competency, nor for having labored to obtain it, but I do regret not having spared myself sufficient leisure to pursue some regular system of reading and study; to have cultivated my mind and stored it with useful knowledge.
Truly has it been said, “knowledge is power.” But it is not like the withering curse of a tyrant’s power; not like the degrading and brutalizing power of the slave-driver’s lash, chains, and thumb-screws; not like the beastly, demonical power of rum, nor like the brazen, shameless power of lust; but a power that elevates and refines the intellect; directs the affections; controls unholy passions; a power so God-like in its character, that it enables its possessor to feel for the oppressed of every clime, and prepares him to defend the weak and down-trodden.
What but ignorance renders the poor slave so weak and inefficient in claiming his right to liberty, and the possession of his own being! Nor will that God who is “no respecter of persons,” hold him guiltless who assumes unlimited control over his fellow. The chain of Slavery which fetters every slave south of Mason and Dixon’s Line, is as closely linked arounb the master as the slave. The time has passed by when African blood alone is enslaved. In Virginia as well as in some other slave States , there is as much European blood in the veins of the enslaved as there is African; and the increase is constantly in favor of the white population. This fact alone speaks volumes, and should remind the slave-breeding Southerner of that fearful retribution which must sooner or later overtake him.
In September, 1817, I commenced business in Rochester. Having rented a room of Mr. A. Wakely, I established a meat market, which was supplied mostly by my former employer, Mr. Comstock, and was liberally patronized by the citizens; but there were butchers in the village who appeared to be unwilling that I should have any share in public patronage. Sometimes they tore down my sign, at others painted it black, and so continued to annoy me until after I had one of their number arrested, which put a stop to their unmanly proceedings.
The village was now rapidly increasing, and yet the surrounding country was mostly a wilderness. Mr. E. Stone, who then owned the land on the east side of the river, thought his farm a very poor one; he, however, commenced clearing it in the midst of wild beasts and rattlesnakes, both of which were abundant, and in a few years was richly rewarded for his labor, in the sale of village lots, which commanded high prices.
In the summer of 1818, I commenced teaching a Sabbath School for the neglected children of our oppressed race. For a while it was well attended, and I hoped to be able to benefit in some measure the poor and despised colored children, but the parents interested themselves very little in the undertaking, and it shortly came to nought. So strong was the prejudice then existing against the colored people, that very few of the negroes seemed to have any courage or ambition to rise from the abject degradation in which the estimation of the white man had placed him.
This year, also, I purchased a lot of land, eighteen by fifty feet, situated on Main street, for which I was to pay five hundred dollars. Having secured my land, I began making preparations for building, and soon had a good two story dwelling and store, into which I moved my effects, and commenced a more extensive business.
Some disadvantage as well as sport was occasioned On business men, who resided on the confines of Ontario and Genesee Counties. It was indeed laughable to witness the races and maneuvering of parties in those days when men were imprisoned for debt. If a man in Ontario County had a suspicion that an officer was on his track, he had only to step over the line into Genesee, to be beyond the power of an officer’s precept.
A great deal of trouble as well as unpleasant feeling was engendered by the exercise of that law, which allowed the creditor so great advantage over the debtor. This, together with the fact that very many of the citizens of Rochester were men of small means, the more wealthy portion felt called upon to protect their interests, by forming themselves into what was called a “Shylock Society,” the object of which was to obtain a list of all the names of persons who had been, or were then, on “the limits” for debt. This list of names was printed, and each member of the society furnished with a copy, which enabled him to decide whether or not to trust a man when he came to trade. The formation of this society gave rise to another, whose members pledged themselves to have no dealing with a member of the “Shylock Society,” and also to publish all defaulters in “high life,” which served to check these oppressive measures and restore harmony.
Among others who came to settle in the thriving village of Rochester, was a colored man named Daniel Furr, who came from the East. He soon became acquainted with a very respectable young white lady, of good family, who after a short acquaintance appeared to be perfectly enamored of her dusky swain, and notwithstanding the existing prejudice, she did not scruple to avow her affection for him, – a devotion which appeared to be as sincerely returned by the young “Othello.” They resolved to marry; but to this, serious objections arose, and all that the lady’s family and friends could do to break off the match was done, but without effect. They could, however, prevail on no one to perform the marriage ceremony in the village, and finally concluded to go to a magistrate in the town of Brighton, four miles distant. At this stage of the proceedings I was appealed to, to accompany them. I took the matter into consideration and came to the conclusion that I could take no active part in the affair, nor bear any responsible station in the unpleasant occurrence. Is it no sin in the sight of the Almighty, for Southern gentlemen (?) to mix blood and amalgamate the races? And if allowed to them, is it not equally justifiable when the commerce is prompted by affection rather than that of lust and force? But I at length consented to accompany them, after learning that all the mischief was already done that could be feared, and that the gallant lover desired to marry the lady as the only atonement he could make for the loss of her reputation.
We arrived at the house of the magistrate about one o’clock at night, and all were soundly sleeping. They were, however, aroused, and when our business was made known, an exciting scene followed. The magistrate refused at first to marry them; and the lady the house took aside the intended bride, spending two hours in endeavoring to dissuade her from the contemplated union; assuring her that her house should be freely opened to her, that no attention should be spared during her expected confinement, &c.; but all to no purpose. They returned to the parlor where the magistrate again tried his power of persuasion, but with as little success as his lady had met: and then he reluctantly married them. The newly-made husband paid a liberal fee, and we took our leave. I returned to my home to reflect on the scenes of the past night, and Mr. and Mrs. Furr to the house of a friend of the bride in Penfield.
The report soon reached the village that the marriage had been consummated, which produced a great excitement. Threats of an alarming character were openly made against the “nigger” who had dared to marry a white woman, although at her own request. And there was also a class of persons who associated together, professing great friendship for the persecuted husband, and often drew him into their company, pretending to defend his cause while they were undoubtedly plotting his destruction.
One day, after Furr had been drinking rather freely with his pretended friends, he was taken so violently ill, that a physician was immediately called. I was with him when the doctor arrived. He gazed upon the suffering man with an angry expression, and inquired in a tone of command, “Daniel, what have you been doing?” In vain the poor creature begged for relief, the doctor merely repeating his question. After looking at him for some time, he finally administered a potion and hastily left the room, saying as he did so, “that Furr was as sure to die as though his head had been cut off.” And so it proved, though not so speedily as the medical man had predicted; nor did he ever visit him again, notwithstanding he lingered for several days in the most intense agony. It was a strong man grappling with disease and death, and the strife was a fearful one. But death at last ended the scene, with none of all his professed friends, except his faithful but heart-broken wife, to administer to his necessities. No sound save that of the moaning widow broke the stillness of his death-chamber. A few friends collected, who prepared the emaciated body for the grave; enclosing it in a rude board coffin it was conveyed to its last resting place, followed by three or four men, just as the shades of evening had fallen upon this sin-cursed world; there in darkness and silence we lowered his remains, and left the gloomy spot to return to his disconsolate wife, who had been too ill to join the meager procession.
It has ever been my conviction that Furr was poisoned, most likely by some of his false friends who must have mingled some deadly drug with his drinks or food; nor do I believe that the medicine administered by the physician was designed to save his life. But to Him who knoweth all things, we leave the matter.
His despised, forsaken, and bereaved wife soon followed him to the grave, where she sleeps quietly with her innocent babe by her side; and where probably this second Desdemonia finds the only refuge which would have been granted her by a heartless and persecuting world.
Oh, when will this nation “cease to do evil and learn to do well?” When will they judge character in accordance with its moral excellence, instead of the complexion a man unavoidably bears to the world?