Slavery in the United States/Chapter 18

CHAPTER XVIII.

The country I now lived in was new, and abounded with every sort of game common to a new settlement. Wages were high, and I could sometimes earn a dollar and a half a day by doing job work on Sunday. The price of a day's work here was a dollar. My master paid me regularly and fairly for all the work I did for him on Sunday, and I never went anywhere else to procure work. All his other hands were treated in the same way. He also gave me an old gun that had seen much hard service, for the stock was quite shattered to pieces, and the lock would not strike fire. I took my gun to a blacksmith in the neighbourhood, and he repaired the lock, so that my musket was as sure fire as any piece need be. I found upon trial, that though the stock and lock had been worn out, the barrel was none the worse for the service it had undergone.

I now, for the first time in my life, became a hunter, in the proper sense of the word; and generally managed my affairs in such a way as to get the half of Saturday to myself. This I did by prevailing on my master to set my task for the week on Monday morning.

Saturday was appropriated to hunting, if I was not obliged to work all day, and I soon became pretty expert in the use of my gun. I made salt licks in the woods, to which the deer came, at night, and I shot them from a seat of clapboards that was placed on the branches of a tree. Rackoons abounded here, and were of a large size, and fat at all seasons. In the month of April I saw the ground thickly strewed with nuts, the growth of the last year. I now began to live well, notwithstanding the persecution that my mistress still directed against me, and to feel myself, in some measure, an independent man.

Serpents of various kinds swarmed in this country. I have killed more than twenty rattle-snakes in a day, and copper-heads were innumerable; but the snake that I most dreaded was the moccason, which is quite as venomous as the copper-head or rattle-snake, and much more active and malicious. Vipers and other poisonous reptiles were innumerable; and in the swamps was a monstrous serpent, though of rare occurrence, which was really dangerous on account of its prodigious size. This snake is of a brown colour, with ashy white spots distributed over its body. It lives by catching rabbits and squirrels, rackoons and other animals. I have no doubt that some of this species would attack and swallow children several years old. I once shot one of these snakes that was more than eight feet long, and as thick as the leg of an ordinary man. When coiled up it appeared as large as a small calf lying in its resting place. Panthers, wolves, and other beasts of prey, were common in the woods.

I had always observed that snakes congregate, either in large groups or in pairs; and that if one snake is killed, another is soon after seen near the same place. I one day killed an enormous rattlesnake in the cotton field near my master's house. This snake was full six feet in length, of a corresponding thickness, and had fangs an inch and three-quarters in length. When dead, I skinned it, and stretched the skin on a board. A few days after, having occasion to cross a fence near where I had killed the large snake, and jumping from the top of the fence upon the ground, without looking down, I alighted close beside another rattle-snake, quite as large as the one I had killed. This one was lying at full length, and I was surprised that it did not attempt to bite me, nor even to throw itself into coil. It only sounded its rattles, making a noise sufficiently loud to be heard a hundred yards. I killed this snake also, and seeing it appear to be full of something that it had eaten, I ripped it open with my knife, and found the whole cavity of its body stuffed full of corn meal that it had eaten in the house where my master kept his stores, to which it had found access through some aperture in the logs of the house. The snake was so full of meal that it could not coil itself, and thus saved my life, for the bite of such a snake as this was, is almost certain death. I knew a white man, some time afterwards, who was bitten by one of these large rattle-snakes in the hand, as he was trying to punch it to death with a stick in a hollow stump, and he died before he could be taken to his own house, which was little more than a mile from the place where he was bitten.

A neighbour of my master was one day hunting deer in the woods with hounds; and hearing one of his hounds cry out as if hurt by something, the gentleman proceeded to the spot, and found his dog lying in the agonies of death, and a great rattle-snake near him. On examining the dog, it was found that the snake had struck him with its fangs in the side, and cut a deep gash in the skin. The dog being heated with running, death ensued almost instantly.

I had a dog of my own which I had brought with me from Carolina, and which was an excellent hunting dog. He would tree rackoons and bears, and chase deer, and was so faithful, that I thought he would lose his life, if necessary, in my defence; but dogs, like men, have a certain limit, beyond which their friendship will not carry them, at least it was so with my dog.

Being in the woods one Sunday, at a place called the goose-pond, a shallow pool of water to which wild geese resorted, my dog came out of the cane to me, with his bristles raised, and showing by his conduct that he had seen something in the canes of which he was afraid. I had gone to the pond that day for the purpose of cutting and putting into the water some sticks of a tree that grows in that part of Georgia, of which very good ropes can be made. The timber is cut and thrown into the water until the bark becomes soft and loose, and it is then peeled off, beaten, and split to pieces; and of this bark ropes can be made nearly equal to hempen ropes. I got a good deal of money by making ropes of this bark and selling them. At the time I speak of, I had my axe with me, but was without my gun. I endeavoured in vain to induce my dog to enter into the cane-brake, and started on my way home, my dog keeping a little in advance of me, and frequently looking back. I had not proceeded far before the cause of my dog’s alarm became manifest. Looking behind me, I saw a huge panther creeping along the path after me, in the manner that a cat creeps when stealing upon her prey. I felt myself in danger, and again endeavoured to urge my dog to attack the panther, but I could not prevail on him to place himself between me and the wild beast. I stood still for some time, and the panther lay down on the ground, still, however, looking attentively at me. When I again moved forward, the panther moved after me; and when I stopped and turned round, it stopped also. In this way I proceeded, alternately advancing and halting, with the panther sometimes within twenty steps of me, until I came in view of my master's clearing, when the panther turned off into the woods, and I saw it no more. I do not know whether this panther was in pursuit of me or my dog; but whether of the one or the other, it showed but little fear of both of us; and I believe that, if alone, it would not have hesitated to attack either of us. As soon as the panther disappeared I went home and told my master of my adventure. He sent immediately to the house of a gentleman who lived two miles distant, who came, and brought his dogs with him. These dogs, when joined to my master's made five in number. I went to the woods, and showed the place where the panther had left me, and the dogs immediately scented the trail. It was then late in the evening, and the chase was continued until near day-break the next morning, when the panther was forced to take a tree ten miles from my master's house. It was shot by my master with his rifle, and after it was dead, we measured it, from the end of the nose to the tip of the tail, and found the whole length to be eleven feet and ten inches.

In the fall of this year I went with my master to the Indian country, to purchase and bring to the settlement cattle and Indian horses. We travelled a hundred miles from the residence of my master, nearly west, before we came to any Indian village.

The country where the Indians lived was similar in soil and productions to that in which my master had settled; and I saw several fields of corn amongst the Indians of excellent quality, and well enclosed with substantial fences. I also saw amongst these people several log-houses, with square hewn logs. Some cotton was growing in small patches in the fields, but this plant was not extensively cultivated. Large herds of cattle were ranging in the woods, and cost their owners nothing for their keeping, except a small quantity of salt. These cattle were of the Spanish breed, generally speckled, but often of a duty or mouse colour, and sometimes of a leaden gray. They universally had long horns, and dark muzzles, and stood high on their legs, with elevated and bold fronts. When ranging in droves in the woods, they were the finest cattle in appearance that Lever saw. They make excellent working oxen, but their quarters are not so heavy and fleshy as those of the English cattle. The cows do not give large quantities of milk.

The Indian horses run at large in the woods like the cattle, and receive no feed from their owners, unless on some very extraordinary occasion. They are small, but very handsome little horses. I do not know that I ever saw one of these horses more than fourteen hands high; but they are very strong and active, and when brought upon the plantation, and broken to work, they are hardy and docile, and keep fat on very little food. The prevailing colour of these horses is black; but many of them are beautiful grays, with flowing manes and tails, and, of their size, are fine horses.

My master bought fifty horses, and more than a hundred of the cattle; and hired seven Indians, to help us to drive them into the settlement. We had only a path to travel in—no road having been opened to the Indian country, of width sufficient for wagons to pass upon it; and I was often surprised at the agility of the Indians, in riding the unbroken horses along this path, and through the cane-brakes, which lined it on either side, in pursuit of the cattle, when any of them attempted to leave the drove. With the horses we had but little trouble, after we had them once started on the path; but the cattle were much inclined to separate and wander in the woods, for several days after we set out from the Nation,—but the greatest trouble was experienced at the time we halted in the evening, for the night. Some of the cattle, and many of the horses, would wander off from the fire, to a great distance in the woods, if not prevented; and might attempt to return to the Indian country. To obviate this, as soon as the fire was kindled, and the Indians had taken their supper, they would take off into the woods in all directions, and, stationing themselves at the distance of about half a quarter of a mile from the fire, would set up such a horrible yelling and whooping, that the whole forest appeared to be full of demons, come to devour us and our drove too. This noise never failed to cause both horse and cattle to keep within the circle formed by the Indians; and I believe we did not lose a single beast on the whole journey.

My master kept many of the cattle, and several of the horses, which he used on the plantation, instead of mules. The residue he sold among the planters, and I believe the expedition yielded him a handsome profit in the end; it also afforded me an opportunity of seeing the Cherokee Indians in their own country, and of contrasting the immense difference that exists between man in a state of civilization and industry, and man in a state of barbarism and indolence.

Ever since I had been in the southern country, vast numbers of African negroes had been yearly imported; but this year the business ceased altogether, and I did not see any African who was landed in the United States after this date.

I shall here submit to the reader, the results of the observations I have made on the regulations of southern society. It is my opinion, that the white people in general, are not nearly so well informed in the southern states, as they are in those lying farther north. The cause of this may not be obvious to strangers; but to a man who has resided amongst the cotton plantations, it is quite plain.

There is a great scarcity of schools, throughout all the cotton country, that I have seen; because the white population is so thinly scattered over the country, and the families live so far apart, that it is not easy to get a sufficient number of children together to constitute a school. The young men of the country, who have received educations proper to qualify them for the profession of teachers, are too proud to submit to this kind of occupation; and strangers, who come from the north, will not engage in a service that is held in contempt, unless they can procure large salaries from individuals, or get a great number of pupils to attend their instructions, whose united contributions may amount, in the aggregate, to a large sum.

Great numbers of the young men of fortune are sent abroad to be educated: but thousands of the sons of land and slave-holders receive very little education, and pass their lives in ignorant idleness. The poor white children are not educated at all. It is my opinion, that the women are not better educated than the men.

A few of the great families live in a style of luxury and magnificence on their estates, that people in the north are not accustomed to witness; but this splendour is made up of crowds of slaves, employed as household servants, and a gaudy show of silver plate, rather than in good houses, or convenient furniture. Good beef and good mutton, such as are seen in Philadelphia and New-York, are not known on the cotton plantations. Good butter is also a rarity; and, in the summer time, sweet flour, or sweet wheaten bread, is scarcely to be looked for. The flour is imported from the north, or West; and in the hot, damp climate of the southern summer, it cannot be kept from souring, more than four or five weeks.

The temper of my mistress grew worse daily—if that could grow worse, which was already as bad as it could be—and her enmity against me increased, the more she observed that my master confided in me. To enhance my misfortunes, the health of my master began, about this time, visibly to decline, and towards the latter end of the autumn of this year, he one day told me, that he believed he should not live long, as he already felt the symptoms of approaching decay and death.

This was a source of much anxiety and trouble to me; for I clearly foresaw, that if ever I fell under the unbridled dominion of my mistress, I should regret the worst period of my servitude in South Carolina. I was much afraid, as the winter came on, that my master might grow worse, and pass to the grave in the spring, for his disease was a consumption of the lungs; and it is well known, that the spring of the year, which brings joy, gladness, and vitality, to all creation, animate and inanimate, except the victim of consumption, is often the season that consigns him to the grave.