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 a 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 threatenings 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 uncontrollable 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 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 died 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 pummeling 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 had 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 months' 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 them 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 besides going into the army or 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 found 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 freedom,—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!
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 run 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 of—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 his 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 around 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 naught. 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 of 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?
INCIDENTS IN ROCHESTER AND VICINITY.
After long petitioning, the inhabitants of that section succeeded in having the new county of Monroe set off from Genesee and Ontario Counties, in 1821, which gave a new impulse to the business interests of the already flourishing town, which had heretofore labored under some disadvantages in consequence of having all public business done at Canandaigua or Batavia.
About this time, too, was the Carthage bridge built by a company of enterprising gentlemen of that village which at that day was considered one of the wonders of the age; but as its history is well known to all interested in the enterprises of those days, it is only necessary to say, that the magnificent structure, so grand in its appearance, such a pattern of mechanical ingenuity, exhibiting in all its vast proportions, both strength and beauty, combined with utility and grandeur; and erected at such an enormous expense of time, labor, and cash, was destined soon to fall.
It had cost some ten thousand dollars; and had been warranted by the builders to stand one year. How great then must have been the loss and disappointment when in a little more than twenty-four hours after the time specified, the ruins of that beautiful structure were found floating on the broad bosom of the Genesee! And yet when we take into consideration the vast amount of human life which hourly passed over its solid surface, we can but wonder at the intervention of a kind Providence which prevented any loss of life at the time of its fall. A child had but just passed over it, when with one general crash it sank to the waters below; mocking in its rapid flight, the wisdom of the architect and foresight of frail humanity. The fall of Carthage bridge was indeed a calamity felt by the public generally, and sounded the death-knell of all future greatness to Carthage, or at least for some years to come.
About this time the village was thrown into a state of excitement by the arrest of a colored woman named Ellen, who it was charged had escaped from service due to a Mr. D., south of Mason and Dixon's Line. She had been arrested in accordance with a law passed by Congress in 1793, which forbids persons owing service in one State to flee to another; and which also obliges those receiving such service, to render to the claimant any fugitive from labor due, &c. Poor Ellen! She had many friends and able counsel, but nothing short of an open violation of the law of the land, could prevent her return to the house of bondage. She was tried and given up to him who claimed dominion over her. Hopeless and heart-broken, she was escorted from the boasted land and village of freedom, by a company of the "Light Horse," under the command of Capt. Curtis. One poor, persecuted slave woman, upon whose heart had fallen a shadow darker than death's; driving every earthly hope of liberty from her wounded spirit; helpless and forlorn! She indeed must have required this military parade—this show of power! And that too, by men who throw up their caps with a shout for freedom and equal rights! Oh, "consistency, thou art a jewel!"
As I recollect but one other incident of the kind occurring in Rochester, I will now name it.
A colored man named Davis, generally known as "Doctor Davis," with a reputation unsullied for industry, truth and sobriety, was arrested as a fugitive from slave labor in Kentucky. Two men came on from that State, acting in the double capacity of agents for the claimant and witnesses against the slave. They employed Mr. L. as counsel, and hastened on the trial of the afflicted African. When it became generally known that Davis was arrested, and about to be tried, the excitement grew intense among all classes; but more particularly among the colored people. When the trial came on, the Court room was crowded to overflowing, and every avenue leading to it densely thronged with deeply anxious persons, assembled to witness the result. It became evident, however, that the poor man must be given up to his grasping master, unless some means were devised to rescue him from the power of an unjust law. His friends were on the alert, and as the trial proceeded, the colored men found an opportunity to get him into a corner of the crowded apartment; where, while the officers stood at the door, they dressed him in disguise, and otherwise so completely changed his personal appearance, that he passed out of the Court room, undetected by the officers, and as all supposed was safely pursuing his way to Canada.
The hawk-eyed counsel for the Kentuckians, however, too soon observed exultation written on every dusky countenance, to keep quiet. Starting to his feet in great alarm, he cried out "Where is Davis?" And oh, how that question startled every one present. Every eye gazed hither and thither, and every ear intently listened for the answer. After a moment of breathless silence, the excited counselor was assured that the "bird had flown," which announcement was received with a rapturous shout of joy by the audience, greatly, however, to the discomfiture of the gentlemen from Kentucky, who had thought themselves so sure of their prize. Nor would they be thwarted now. It was not yet too late to overtake their victim, and slavery required at their hands a sacrifice which they were ready to make. Hand-bills were in immediate circulation, offering a reward of fifty dollars for the apprehension of the flying fugitive. Fifty dollars, for the body and soul of a man to plunge into the degradation of Slavery! Fifty dollars for the ruin of a fellow being, for whom Christ gave his precious life! Yes, fifty dollars are offered to any human blood-hound who will hunt and worry the poor slave, who must fly from this boasted land of liberty, to seek protection in the dominion of England's Queen!
Unfortunately for Davis, some of these hand-bills were thrown on board the very packet on which he had embarked for Buffalo; nor was this all. The bills would have left him uninjured, but a scoundrel—an apology for a man—was there also, who, for the consideration of fifty dollars was willing to compromise all pretensions to manhood and humanity, and drag from the boat the panting slave, whom he cast beneath the heel of his oppressor. When Davis was finally retaken, those Kentucky dealers in human chattels, held him with a grasp that banished all hope of escape by flight; and then in his sorrow and despair the wretched, hopeless man cried out "Oh, my God, must I return to the hell of Slavery? Save me, Oh, dear Lord, save this, thy helpless, friendless servant, from a fate so dreadful! Oh, Christian friends and neighbors, I appeal to you to rescue me from a life far more terrible than death in any form! Oh, God, is there no protection for me in the laws of New York? I claim it, by all that is sacred in her past history! Give me liberty or death! or death!" he repeated, with a shudder; then casting one glance of hopeless agony on his persecutors, he secretly drew from his pocket a razor, and before he could be prevented he drew it across his throat, and fell gasping in the midst of his slave-hunting tormentors, while a collection of bystanders cried "Shame! shame! on the institution of Slavery!"
Poor Davis was not dead, but supposing he soon would be, these gentlemen were requested to give security, and indemnify the town for all expenses it might incur on Davis' account. But instead of giving their bond as requested, they took a sudden start for Kentucky, where it was very generally desired they might remain.
With good treatment, Davis, after a long time, recovered sufficiently to be removed by his friends to a place of safety; and when so far restored as to be able he returned to Rochester, where he received assistance which enabled him to reach Canada. I have often heard from him during his residence in that country, where no slaves exist and he has done well, having quite an extensive practice in medicine, and lives in the quiet enjoyment of that liberty which he struggled so hard to obtain and came so near losing; yet, to this day he prefers death to Slavery. And who does not? None, who have breathed the air of freedom after an experience of unrequited toil to enrich a brutal and selfish master. Truly is it said, "a contented slave is a degraded being."
SAD REVERSES OF CAPT. HELM.
I must again introduce to the kind reader my old master, Capt. Helm, who we left residing in Bath, several years ago. And as I have before intimated he had now become a very poor man; indeed so reduced was he now that he lived with one of his slave women, and was supported by public charity! Learning, too, that I had saved by my industry a few hundred dollars, it seemed very congenial with his avaricious habits to endeavor to obtain what I possessed. In accordance with his plan he employed a lawyer named Lewland to come to my place of business, which he did, and demanded of me to pay Capt. Helm two hundred dollars. He also left a notice, forbidding all persons to take or destroy any property in my possession; and then impudently inquired how I expected to gain my freedom; if I thought of applying for a writ of habaeus corpus; and many other questions; to which I replied that I should pay no money on the order of Capt. Helm; apply for no writ; but should continue to maintain my personal rights and enjoy the freedom which was already mine, and which I designed to keep, assuring him that the Captain had forfeited his claim, if he had any, to me or my services, when he hired me to Mr. Tower.
He hung about me for a day or two, and then left me to pursue my business —I saw no more of him. Some time afterward Mr. H.E. Rochester informed me that he had a subpoena for me, which I found was issued by the direction of Capt. Helm. By Mr. Rochester's counsel, I took it to Mr. A. Sampson, who assured me that my old master had commenced a suit against me in the Court of Equity, and the case would be tried before Wm. B. Rochester, Esq., who was one of the circuit judges. Capt. Helm claimed every particle of property I possessed; a claim that occasioned me great anxiety and some cost.
Mr. Sampson encouraged me to hope, however, that the case would be dismissed as two other cases of that kind had been.
I labored to the best of my ability to prepare myself for the trial, which was to decide whether I had a right to possess myself and command my own services and earnings, or whether all belonged to Capt. Helm. As I looked forward with anxious forebodings to the day appointed for the suit to commence, I was startled by the announcement of my old master's death! Yes, Capt. Helm was dead; and with him died the law suit. He who had so wronged me, who had occasioned me so much suffering and sorrow had gone to his account. He who had once been thought to be one of the wealthiest as well as one of the greatest men in the county, died a pauper—neglected and despised, and scarcely awarded a decent burial. Like his wife, who died such a horrid death, he had been reared in affluence and was an inheritor of vast possessions, but his home was in a slave State; he was raised on a plantation, and nurtured in the atmosphere of Slavery.
In his youth he had contracted the habit of drinking to excess, beside that of gambling, horse-racing and the like, which followed him through life. Forgotten and scorned in his poverty by many who had partaken of his abundance, sipped his wine, and rode his fast horses.