Slavery in the United States/Chapter 9


By the laws of the United States I am still a slave; and though I am now growing old, I might even yet be deemed of sufficient value to be worth pursuing as far as my present residence, if those to whom the law gives the right of dominion over my person and life, knew where to find me. For these reasons I have been advised, by those whom I believe to be my friends, not to disclose the true names of any of those families in which I was a slave, in Carolina or Georgia, lest this narrative should meet their eyes, and in some way lead them to a discovery of my retreat.

I was now the slave of one of the most wealthy planters in Carolina, who planted cotton, rice, indigo, corn, and potatoes; and was the master of two hundred and sixty slaves.

The description of one great cotton plantation will give a correct idea of all others; and I shall here present an outline of that of my master.

He lived about two miles from Caugaree river; which bordered his estate on one side, and in the swamps of which were his rice fields. The country hereabout is very flat; the banks of the river are low; and in wet seasons large tracts of country are flooded by the superabundant water of the river. There are no springs; and the only means of procuring water, on the plantations, is from wells, which must be sunk in general about twenty feet deep, before a constant supply of water can be obtained. My master had two of these wells on his plantation; one at the mansion house, and one at the quarter.

My master's house was of brick, (brick houses are by no means common amongst the planters, whose residences are generally built of frame work, weather boarded with pine boards, and covered with shingles of the white cedar or juniper cypress,) and contained two large parlours, and a spacious hall or entry on the ground floor. The main building was two stories high; and attached to this was a smaller building, one story and a half high, with a large room, where the family generally took breakfast; with a kitchen at the farther extremity from the main building.

There was a spacious garden behind the house, containing, I believe, about five acres, well cultivated, and handsomely laid out. In this garden grew a great variety of vegetables; some of which I have never seen in the market of Philadelphia. It contained a profusion of flowers, three different shrubberies, a vast number of ornamental and small fruit trees, and several small hot houses, with glass roofs. There was a head gardener, who did nothing but attend to this garden through the year; and during the summer he generally had two men and two boys to assist him. In the months of April and May this garden was one of the sweetest and most pleasant places that I ever was in. At one end of the main building was a small house, called the library, in which my master kept his books and papers, and where he spent much of his time.

At some distance from the mansion was a pigeon house, and near the kitchen was a large wooden building, called the kitchen quarter, in which the house servants slept; and where they generally took their meals. Here, also, the washing of the family was done; and all the rough or unpleasant work of the kitchen department,—such as cleaning and salting fish, putting up pork, &c. was assigned to this place.

There was no barn on this plantation, according to the acceptation of the word barn in Pennsylvania; but there was a wooden building, about forty feet long, called the coach-house; in one end of which the family carriage, and the chaise in which my master, rode were kept. Under the same roof was a stable, sufficiently capacious to contain ten or twelve horses. In one end of the building the corn intended for the horses was kept; and the whole of the loft, or upper story, was occupied by the fodder, or blades and tops of the corn.

About a quarter of a mile from the dwelling-house were the huts or cabins of the plantation slaves, or field hands, standing in rows, much like the Indian villages which I have seen in the country of the Cherokees. These cabins were thirty-eight in number, generally about fifteen or sixteen feet square, built of hewn logs, covered with shingles, and provided with floors of pine boards. These houses were all dry and comfortable, and were provided with chimnies, so that the people when in them, were well sheltered from the inclemencies of the weather. In this practice of keeping their slaves well sheltered at night, the southern planters are pretty uniform; for they know that upon this circumstance, more than any other in that climate, depends the health of the slave, and consequently his value.

In these thirty-eight cabins were lodged two hundred and fifty people, of all ages, sexes, and sizes. Ten or twelve were generally employed in the garden, and about the house.

At a distance of about one hundred yards from the lines of cabins stood the house of the overseer; a small two-story log building, with a yard and garden attached to it of proportionate dimensions. This small house was the abode of a despot, more absolute, and more cruel than were any of those we read of in the Bible, who so grievously oppressed the children of Israel. In one corner of the overseer's garden stood the corn crib, also a log building, in which was stored up the corn, constituting the yearly provisions of the coloured people. In another corner of the same garden was a large vault, covered with sods, very like some ice-houses that I have seen. This was the potato-house, and in it were deposited the sweet potatoes, also intended to supply the people.

At a short distance beyond the garden of the overseer stood a large building, constituting the principal feature in the landscape of every great cotton plantation. This was the house containing the cotton-gin, and the sheds to contain the cotton, when brought from the field in the seed; and also the bales, after being pressed and prepared for market.

As I shall be obliged to make frequent references to the cotton-gin, it may perhaps be well to describe it. Formerly there was no way of separating the cotton from the seed, but by pulling it off with the fingers—a very tedious and troublesome process—but a person from the north, by the name of Whitney, at length discovered the gin, which is a very simple though very powerful machine. It is composed of a wooden cylinder, about six or eight feet in length, surrounded at very short intervals, with small circular saws, in such a manner that as the cylinder is turned rapidly round, by a leather strap on the end, similar to a turner's lathe, the teeth of the saws, in turning over, continually cut downwards in front of the cylinder, which is placed close to a long hopper, extending the whole length of the cylinder, and so close to it that the seeds of the cotton cannot pass between them. This cylinder revolves, with almost inconceivable rapidity, and great caution is necessary in working with the gin, not to touch the saws. One end of the cylinder and hopper being slightly elevated, the seeds as they are stripped of the wool, are gradually but certainly moved toward the lower end, where they drop down into a heap, after being as perfectly divested of the cotton as they could be by the most careful picking with the fingers.

The rapid evolutions of the cylinder are procured by the aid of cogs and wheels, similar to those used in small grist mills.

It is necessary to be very careful in working about a cotton-gin; more especially in removing the seeds from before the saws; for if they do but touch the hand the injury is very great. I knew a black man who had all the sinews of the inner part of his right hand torn out—some of them measuring more than a foot in length—and the flesh of his palm cut into tatters, by carelessly putting his hand too near the saws, when they were in motion, for the idle purpose of feeling the strength of the current of air created by the motions of the cylinder. A good gin will clean several thousand pounds of cotton, in the seed, in a day. To work the gin two horses are necessary; though one is often compelled to perform the labour.

There was no smoke-house, nor any other place, for curing or preserving meat, attached to the quarter; and whilst I was on this plantation no pork was ever salted for the use of the slaves.

After remaining in the kitchen some time, I went into the garden, and remained with the gardener, assisting him to work until after sundown; when my old master came to the gate, and called one of the garden boys to him. The boy soon returned, and told me I must go with him to the quarter, as his master had told him to take me to the overseer. When we arrived at the overseer's house he had not yet returned from the field; but in a few minutes we saw him coming at some distance through a cotton field, followed by a great number of black people. As he approached us, the boy that was with me handed him a small piece of paper, which he carried in his hand, and without saying a word, ran back toward the house, leaving me to become acquainted with the overseer in the best way I could. But I found this to be no difficult task; for he had no sooner glanced his eye over the piece of paper, than, turning to me, he asked me my name; and calling to a middle-aged man who was passing us at some distance, told him he must take me to live with him, and that my supper should be sent to me from his own house.

I followed my new friend to his cabin, which I found to be the habitation of himself, his wife, and five children. The only furniture in this cabin, consisted of a few blocks of wood for seats; a short bench, made of a pine board, which served as a table; and a small bed in one corner composed of a mat, made of common rushes, spread upon some corn husks, pulled and split into fine pieces, and kept together by a narrow slip of wood, confined to the floor by wooden pins. There was a common iron pot, standing beside the chimney; and several wooden spoons and dishes hung against the wall. Several blankets also hung against the wall upon wooden pins. An old box, made of pine boards, without either lock or hinges, occupied one corner.

At the time I entered this humble abode the mistress was not at home. She had not yet returned from the field; having been sent, as the husband informed me, with some other people late in the evening, to do some work in a field about two miles distant. I found a child, about a year old, lying on the mat-bed, and a little girl about four years old sitting beside it.

These children were entirely naked, and when we came to the door, the elder rose from its place and ran to its father, and clasping him round one of his knees, said, "Now we shall get good supper." The father laid his hand upon the head of his naked child, and stood silently looking in its face—which was turned upwards toward his own for a moment—and then turning to me, said, "Did you leave any children at home?" The scene before me—the question propounded—and the manner of this poor man and his child, caused my heart to swell until my breast seemed too small to contain it. My soul fled back upon the wings of fancy to my wife's lowly dwelling in Maryland; where I had been so often met on a Saturday evening, when I paid them my weekly visit, by my own little ones, who clung to my knees for protection and support, even as the poor little wretch now before me, seized upon the weary limb of its hapless and destitute father, hoping that, naked as he was, (for he too was naked, save only the tattered remains of a pair of old trousers,) he would bring with his return at evening its customary scanty supper. I was unable to reply; but stood motionless, leaning against the walls of the cabin. My children seemed to flit by the door in the dusky twilight; and the twittering of a swallow, which that moment fluttered over my head, sounded in my ear as the infantile tittering of my own little boy; but on a moment's reflection I knew that we were separated without the hope of ever again meeting; that they no more heard the welcome tread of my feet, and could never again receive the little gifts with which, poor as I was, I was accustomed to present them. I was far from the place of my nativity, in a land of strangers, with no one to care for me beyond the care that a master bestows upon his ox; with all my future life, one long, waste, barren desert, of cheerless, hopeless, lifeless slavery; to be varied only by the pangs of hunger and the stings of the lash.

My revery was at length broken by the appearance of the mother of the family, with her three eldest children. The mother wore an old ragged shift; but the children, the eldest of whom appeared to be about twelve, and the youngest six years old, were quite naked. When she came in, the husband told her that the overseer had sent me to live with them; and she and her oldest child, who was a boy, immediately set about preparing their supper, by boiling some of the leaves of the weed called lambs-quarter, in the pot. This, together with some cakes of cold corn bread, formed their supper. My supper was brought to me from the house of the overseer by a small girl, his daughter. It was about half a pound of bread, cut from a loaf made of corn meal. My companions gave me a part of their boiled greens, and we all sat down together to my first meal in my new habitation.

I had no other bed than the blanket which I had brought with me from Maryland; and I went to sleep in the loft of the cabin which was assigned to me as my sleeping room; and in which I continued to lodge as long as I remained on this plantation.

The next morning I was waked, at the break of day, by the sound of a horn, which was blown very loudly. Perceiving that it was growing light, I came down, and went out immediately in front of the house of the overseer, who was standing near his own gate, blowing the horn. In a few minutes the whole of the working people, from all the cabins were assembled; and as it was now light enough for me distinctly to see such objects as were about me, I at once perceived the nature of the servitude to which I was, in future, to be subject.

As I have before stated, there were altogether on this plantation, two hundred and sixty slaves; but the number was seldom stationary for a single week. Births were numerous and frequent, and deaths were not uncommon. When I joined them I believe we counted in all two hundred and sixty-three; but of these only one hundred and seventy went to the field to work. The others were children, too small to be of any service as labourers; old and blind persons, or incurably diseased. Ten or twelve were kept about the mansion-house and garden, chosen from the most handsome and sprightly of the gang.

I think about one hundred and sixty-eight assembled this morning, at the sound of the horn—two or three being sick, sent word to the overseer that they could not come.

The overseer wrote something on a piece of paper, and gave it to his little son. This I was told was a note to be sent to our master, to inform him that some of the hands were sick—it not being any part of the duty of the overseer to attend to a sick negro.

The overseer then led off to the field, with his horn in one hand and his whip in the other; we following—men, women, and children, promiscuously—and a wretched looking troop we were. There was not an entire garment amongst us.

More than half of the gang were entirely naked. Several young girls, who had arrived at puberty, wearing only the livery with which nature had ornamented them, and a great number of lads, of an equal or superior age, appeared in the same costume. There was neither bonnet, cap, nor head dress of any kind amongst us, except the old straw hat that I wore; and which my wife had made for me in Maryland. This I soon laid aside to avoid the appearance of singularity; and, as owing to the severe treatment I had endured whilst travelling in chains, and being compelled to sleep on the naked floor, without undressing myself, my clothes were quite worn out, I did not make a much better figure than my companions; though still I preserved the semblance of clothing so far, that it could be seen that my shirt and trousers had once been distinct and separate garments. Not one of the others had on even the remains of two pieces of apparel. Some of the men had old shirts, and some ragged trousers, but no one wore both. Amongst the women, several wore petticoats, and many had shifts. Not one of the whole number wore both of these vestments.

We walked nearly a mile through one vast cotton field, before we arrived at the place of our intended day's labour. At last the overseer stopped at the side of the field, and calling to several of the men by name, ordered them to call their companies and turn into their rows. The work we had to do today was to hoe and weed cotton, for the last time; and the men whose names had been called, and who were, I believe, eleven in number, were designated as captains, each of whom had under his command a certain number of the other hands. The captain was the foreman of his company, and those under his command had to keep up with him. Each of the men and women had to take one row; and two, and in some cases where they were very small, three of the children had one. The first captain, whose name was Simon, took the first row,—and the other captains were compelled to keep up with him. By this means the overseer had nothing to do but to keep Simon hard at work, and he was certain that all the other must work equally hard.

Simon was a stout, strong man, apparently about thirty-five years of age; and for some reason unknown to me, I was ordered to take the row next to his. The overseer with his whip in his hand walked about the field after us, to see that our work was well done. As we worked with hoes, I had no difficulty in learning how the work was to be performed.

The fields of cotton at this season of the year are very beautiful. The plants, amongst which we worked this day, were about three feet high, and in full bloom, with branches so numerous that they nearly covered the whole ground—leaving scarcely space enough between them to permit us to move about, and work with our hoes.

About seven o'clock in the morning the overseer sounded his horn; and we all repaired to the shade of some perscimmon trees, which grew in a corner of the field, to get our breakfast. I here saw a cart drawn by a yoke of oxen, driven by an old black man, nearly blind. The cart contained three barrels, filled with water, and several large baskets' full of corn bread, that had been baked in the ashes. The water was for us to drink, and the bread was our breakfast. The little son of the overseer was also in the cart, and had brought with him the breakfast of his father, in a small wooden bucket.

The overseer had bread, butter, cold ham, and coffee for his breakfast. Ours was composed of a corn cake, weighing about three quarters of a pound, to each person, with as much water as was desired. I at first supposed that this bread was dealt out to the people as their allowance; but on further inquiry I found this not to be the case. Simon, by whose side I was now at work and who seemed much pleased with my agility and diligence in my duty, told me that here, as well as every where in this country, each person received a peck of corn at the crib door, every Sunday evening, and that in ordinary times, every one had to grind this corn and bake it, for him or herself, making such use of it as the owner thought proper; but that for some time past, the overseer, for the purpose of saving the time which had been lost in baking the bread, had made it the duty of an old woman, who was not capable of doing much work in the field, to stay at the quarter, and bake the bread of the whole gang. When baked, it was brought to the field in a cart, as I saw, and dealt out in loaves.

They still had to grind their own corn, after night; and as there were only three hand-mills on the plantation, he said they experienced much difficulty in converting their corn into meal. We worked in this field all day; and at the end of every hour, or hour and a quarter, we had permission to go to the cart, which was moved about the field, so as to be near us, and get water.

Our dinner was the same, in all respects, as our breakfast, except that, in addition to the bread, we had a little salt, and a radish for each person. We were not allowed to rest at either breakfast or dinner, longer than while we were eating; and we worked in the evening as long as we could distinguish the weeds from the cotton plants.

Simon informed me, that formerly, when they baked their own bread, they had left their work soon after sundown, to go home and bake for the next day, but the overseer had adopted the new policy for the purpose of keeping them at work until dark.

When we could no longer see to work, the horn was again sounded, and we returned home. I had now lived through one of the days—a succession of which make up the life of a slave—on a cotton plantation.

As we went out in the morning, I observed several women, who carried their young children in their arms to the field. These mothers laid their children at the side of the fence, or under the shade of the cotton plants, whilst they were at work; and when the rest of us went to get water, they would go to give suck to their children, requesting some one to bring them water in gourds, which they were careful to carry to the field with them. One young woman did not, like the others, leave her child at the end of the row, but had contrived a sort of rude knapsack, made of a piece of coarse linen cloth, in which she fastened her child, which was very young, upon her back; and in this way carried it all day, and performed her task at the hoe with the other people.

I pitied this woman; and as we were going home at night, I came near her, and spoke to her. Perceiving as soon as she spoke that she had not been brought up amongst the slaves of this plantation—for her language was different from theirs—I asked her why she did not do as the other women did, and leave her child at the end of the row in the shade. "Indeed," said she, "I cannot leave my child in the weeds amongst the snakes. What would be my feelings if I should leave it there, and a scorpion were to bite it? Besides, my child cries so piteously, when I leave it alone in the field, that I cannot bear to hear it. Poor thing, I wish we were both in the grave, where all sorrow is forgotten."

I asked this woman, who did not appear to be more than twenty years old, how long she had been here, and where she came from. "I have been here," said she, "almost two years, and came from the Eastern Shore. I once lived as well as any lady in Maryland. I was born a slave, in the family of a gentleman whose name was Le Compt. My master was a man of property; lived on his estate, and entertained much company. My mistress, who was very kind to me, made me her nurse, when I was about ten years old, and put me to live with her own children. I grew up amongst her daughters; not as their equal and companion, but as a favoured and indulged servant. I was always well dressed, and received a portion of all the delicacies of their table. I wanted nothing, and had not the trouble of providing even for myself. I believe there was not a happier being in the world than I was. At present none can be more wretched.

"When I was yet a child, my master had given me to his oldest daughter, who was about one year older than I was. To her, I had always looked as my future mistress; and expected that whenever she became a wife, I should follow her person, and cease to be a member of the family of her father. When I was almost seventeen, my young mistress married a gentleman of the Eastern Shore of Virginia, who had been addressing her, more than a year.

"Soon after the wedding was over, my new master removed his wife to his own residence; and took me and a black boy of my own age, that the lady's father had given her, with him. He had caused it to be reported in Maryland, that he was very wealthy; and was the owner of a plantation, with a large stock of slaves and other property. It was supposed at the time of the marriage, that my young mistress was making a very good match, and all her friends were pleased with it. When her lover came to visit her, he always rode in a handsome gig, accompanied by a black man on horseback, as his servant. This man told us in the kitchen, that his master was one of the most fashionable men in Virginia; was a man of large fortune, and that all the young ladies in the county he lived in, had their eyes upon him. These stories I repeated carefully to my young mistress; and added every persuasion that I could think of, to induce her to accept her lover, as her husband. My feelings had become deeply interested in the issue of this matter; for whilst the master was striving to win the heart of my young mistress, the servant had already conquered mine.

"It was more than a hundred miles from the residence of my old master, to that of my young one; and when we arrived at the latter place, my mistress and I soon found, that we had been equally credulous, and were equally deceived. We were taken to an old dilapidated mansion, which was quite in keeping with every thing on the estate to which it was attached. The house was almost without furniture; and there were no servants in it, except myself and my companion. The black man who had so effectually practiced upon me, belonged to one of my new master's companions,—and had a wife and three children in the neighbourhood.

"My mistress, soon discovered that her husband's companions were gamblers and horse racers; who frequently convened at her house, to concert or mature some scheme, the object of which was to cheat some one.

"My old master was a member of the church, and was very scrupulous in the observance of his moral duties. His precepts had been deeply implanted in the mind of my young mistress; and the society of these sportsmen, (as the friends of my young master denominated themselves,) became so revolting to her feelings, that after she had been married nearly a year, and had exhausted all her patience, and all her fortitude, in endeavouring to reclaim her husband from the vile associations and pursuits, by which his time and his affections were engaged, she determined at last to return to her father, for a time, and to take me with her, for the purpose of ascertaining whether this would not bring him to reflect upon the wrong he had done her, as well as himself.

"She communicated to me her designs, and we were waiting for an opportunity of carrying them into effect, when one evening, near sundown, my master came to me in the kitchen; and told me he wished me to go to the house of a gentleman who lived about a mile distant, and deliver a letter for him; without letting my mistress know any thing of the matter, I immediately set out, expecting to return in half an hour. As I left the house I saw my mistress in the garden; and I never saw her again.

"Between the house of my master, and that to which he had sent me, was a grove of young pine trees, that had grown up in a field, that had formerly been cultivated; but which had been neglected, on account of its poverty, for many years. Through this thicket, the path which I had to travel led; and when near the middle of the wood, I saw a white man step into the path, only a few yards before me, with a rope in his hand. Sometime before this, my mistress had told me, that she wished to get me back to her father's house in Maryland, because she was afraid that my master would sell me to the negro buyers; and the moment I saw the man with the rope, in my path, the words of my mistress were recollected.

"I screamed, and turned to fly towards home; but at the first step was met by the coloured man, who had attended my master, as his servant, when he visited Maryland, at the time he was courting my mistress—and who had made so deep an impression on my heart. This was the first time I had seen him, since I came to live in Virginia; and base as I knew he must be, from his former conduct to me, yet at sight of him, my former affection for a moment revived, and I rushed into his arms which were extended towards me, hoping that he would save me from the danger I so much dreaded from behind. He saw that I was frightened, and had fled to him for protection, and only said, 'Come with me.' I followed him, more by instinct than by reason, and holding to his arm, ran as fast as I could—I knew not whither. I did not observe whether we were on the path or not. I do not know how far we had run, when he stopped, and said—'We must remain here for some time.'

"In a few minutes the white man whom I had seen in the path, came up with us, and seizing me by the hands, he and my pretended protector bound them together, at my back, and to suppress my cries, tied a large handkerchief round my head, and over my mouth. It was now becoming dark, and they hurried out of the wood, and across the fields, to a small creek, the water of which fell into the Chesapeake Bay. Here was a boat; and another white man in it. They forced me on board; and the white men taking the oars, whilst the black managed the rudder, we were quickly out in the bay, and in less than an hour, I was on board a small schooner, lying at anchor; where I found eleven others, who like myself, had been dragged from their homes and their friends, to be sold to the southern traders.

"I have no doubt, that my master had sold me without the knowledge of my mistress; and that he endeavoured to persuade her, that I had run away: perhaps he was successful in this endeavour.

"I heard no more of my mistress, for whom I was very sorry, for I knew she would be greatly distressed at losing me.

"The vessel remained at anchor where we found her that night, and the next day until evening, when she made sail, and beat up the bay all night against a head wind. When she approached the western shore, she hoisted a red handkerchief at her mast head, and a boat came off from the land, large enough to carry us all, and we were removed to a house on the bank of York river, where I found about thirty men and women, all imprisoned in the cellar of a small tavern. The men were in irons, but the women were not bound with any thing. The cords and handkerchief had been taken from me, whilst on board the vessel. We remained at York river more than a week; and whilst there, twenty-five or thirty persons were brought in, and shut up with us.

"When we commenced our journey for the south, we were about sixty in number. The men were chained together, but the women were all left quite at liberty. At the end of three weeks, we reached Savannah river, opposite the town of Augusta, where we were sold out by our owner. Our present master was there, and purchased me and another woman who has been at work in the field to-day.

"Soon after I was brought home, the overseer compelled me to be married to a man I did not like. He is a native of Africa, and still retains the manners and religion of his country. He has not been with us to-day, as he is sick, and under the care of the doctor. I must hasten home to get my supper, and go to rest; and glad I should be, if I were never to rise again.

"I have several times been whipped unmercifully, because I was not strong enough to do as much work with the hoe, as the other women, who have lived all their lives on this plantation, and have been accustomed from their infancy to work in the field.

"For a long time after I was brought here, I thought it would be impossible for me to live, on the coarse and scanty food, with which we are supplied. When I contrast my former happiness with my present misery, I pray for death to deliver me from my sufferings."

I was deeply affected by the narrative of this woman, and as we had loitered on our way, it was already dark, whilst we were at some distance from the quarter; but the sound of the overseer's horn, here interrupted our conversation—at hearing which, she exclaimed, "We are too late, let us run, or we shall be whipped;" and setting off as fast as she could carry her child, she left me alone. A moment's reflection, however, convinced me that I too had better quicken my pace—I quickly passed the woman, encumbered with her infant, and arrived in the crowd of the people, some time, perhaps a minute, before her.