Ch.1: Earliest Recollections

In Kent County, in the northern part of the State of Maryland, there was at the time of my earliest recollections (and I suppose it yet remains), a small town known as George Town Cross Oats, having a population of about 500 or 600. It was in this town, on the 14th day of May, 1822, A. D., that I inhaled my first supply of air, that my eyes, for the first time, were brought in contact with the beautiful light surrounding the terrestrial world, the earthly home of mankind, and the first sound of my infant voice was raised in shrill cries for a mother’s tender care and parental affection. This was the place of my nativity and the date of my birth. It was also the time that my mistress became the owner of one more slave and so much richer by my birth. My mother was, unfortunately, numbered in the family of slavedom, belonging to one Mrs. Hannah Woodland, and according to the institution of slave law, I legally, or illegally, became her property. Though my father was a free man still he had no claim to me. My mother’s name was Sophia Thompson, and she served in the capacity of house servant. She was the mother of five children, four sons and one daughter, of whom I was the first born, and William Anderson, of the city of Worcester, Mass., the second. My father, Zekiel Thompson, was, as I said, a free man, and most of his time served as a farm hand on one of the farms owned by my mistress. Whether from his activity and knowledge of farm work or as an inducement to remain near his wife, I do not know, but he was permitted to hold the position of overseer of the work and farm hands.

My mistress, Mrs. H. Woodland, was a widow—her husband being a sea captain and lost at sea before I was born or had any knowledge of him. They were both natives of Scotland. He owned two farms, and at his death his wife became the owner of both, carrying on business until the time of her death. She was the mother of five children, one son and four daughters. The son, Samuel Woodland, who was said to be rich, owning two farms, several houses, and from one hundred to one hundred and fifty slaves, was, as near as language can express it, a lifetime tyrant to his farm hands and house servants. His tyranical passion was so great that on the day of his death he called in the men from their work, and with a stick in his dying hand struck each one across their hands. As each one received the parting gift he had to file out and another take his place. This ceremony continued to within two hours of his death, when from exhaustion he had to cease. Those who were on the end of the line of march on that day fortunately lost their master’s parting blessing. My mistress was naturally of a good disposition, just the reverse of her son, or he from her. My grandfather (my mother’s father) had charge of the farm hands and all that pertained to the farm, as he was considered faithful and trustworthy. The principal products of the farms were corn, wheat and oats. Infant years rapidly passed by and the time drew near when little Will, alias Isaac, had to leave his mother’s knee and childish play to enter upon the duties of serving his owners.

Accordingly, when between five and six years of age, I was assigned to the duties of housework, to wait on my mistress and to run errands. When she went out driving I had to accompany her in the capacity of a page, to open the gates and to take down guard fences for her to drive through. That I might be found at night as well as by day my sleeping apartment was in her chamber on a truckbed, which was during the day time snugly concealed under her bedstead and drawn out at night for the reposing place of Isaac’s weary body while he dreamed of days yet to come. I remained in this distinguished position until I was about fifteen years old, when a change in common with all slave life had to be made either for the better or for the worse.

On the day that proved to be her last to be spent on this earth I was required to accompany her on a visit to the farm, the second farm, which was not so frequently visited, where she spent the afternoon in looking over the stock and products which detained her until towards evening. Her examinations were completed and she returned home. This visit was made in the gig drawn by the old black mare. My place was, as customary, by her side. We arrived home about seven o’clock in the evening. She told me to “take care of the old mare”; that meant to unharness and put her in the stable, and when I had completed my task to “come to her, as she wanted me to go on an errand.” I obeyed her orders and went direct to her chamber, where I found her lying on the floor in an unconscious state and unable to speak.

I immediately ran down stairs and informed my mother how I had found mistress. She sent me at once after Mrs. Island, a daughter of Mrs. H. Woodland, who lived about half a mile from us. Upon hearing the sad news she hurried with me back to the house and sent for the doctor. He lost no time in attending to the call, and did all he could to restore her to consciousness and life, but his medical skill failed to produce a favorable result. About 11 o’clock that night she died, as the doctor said, from a stroke of paralysis. The last words she was known to utter were the orders she gave me that evening. Thus ended the life of mistress at the age of ninety years.

My grandfather, Richard Graham Grimes, was sent down that night to a place called Morgan’s Creek, to a man by the name of Hugh Wallace, to come up immediately and make arrangements for the funeral. His first wife was the daughter of my mistress. He lost no time in answering the summons and attended to all the necessary requirements for the obsequies, and on the third day after her death my mistress was consigned to mother earth.

At last the day dawned when this group of slaves had to part, not only from the old homestead but from each other, and to go to scenes and climes unknown to them. At last the sunshine was passing and the gloom fast overspreading. Mother and children, brothers and sisters to separate, perhaps forever.

The farm with all of its contents were left, for the time being, under the care and supervision of my grandfather. He continued to hold charge till July of the same year, about the space of three months, at which time Mr. H. Wallace appeared on the estate to make arrangements for settling the affairs. Everything belonging to the estate excepting the slaves were sold. The farm with its contents was bought by a man by the name of Isaac Taylor. My grandfather, in consideration of his old age and the time being past for useful labor, was handsomely rewarded with his freedom, an old horse called the “old bay horse”—which was also past the stage of usefulness—and an old cart; but, alas! no home to live in or a place to shelter his head from the storm.

My father, as I said before, was a free man and had the privilege of purchasing my mother and my sister, who was then about a year old, for $600. My mother at this time was in very ill health, and it was thought by many she could not live very long. My father not being able to pay the amount asked, had to find a sufficient security before he could obtain a bill of sale. He was fortunate enough to find that assistance in the person of Dr. Hyde, with whom I was soon to become personally acquainted. The remainder of the slaves each received a note from the hands of Mr. H. Wallace, and were directed by him to carry it to a certain person named by him, which act showed that each slave had been previously disposed of. Some were sold and some were hired out for a certain time to pay debts due by the estate.

I received my little note and was told to carry it to Dr. Hyde, who was living in the same place where I was born. I was not sold, but only hired out to pay a small bill of $25 which would not take very long as regards to time, but by an economical table of work I was destined to fill the place of more than one servant. The Doctor and his considerate wife were determined to utilize my whole time in their service. My work at this place consisted in cooking, washing, sweeping, taking care of the horses, attending to the garden, which contained about half an acre of land, and milking two cows. The good training of my former mistress had very materially fitted me for the varied duties of this house. By hard work early and late I could accomplish my daily tasks.

Some persons may suppose that by accomplishing all this work in one day would satisfy an employer, master or mistress, but satisfaction was hard to find. I was only the property of another, working to pay the debt of another, who I suppose thought he ought to receive interest on his bill; and that interest had to be paid by me in addition to the daily labor, by receiving a whipping every day besides losing a meal—either a breakfast, a dinner, or a supper—according to their best judgment. Some may wonder which I regretted most, the whipping or the meal. I sorrowed the loss of the meal more than anything else. To me this certainly was a great punishment.

The last day I stayed with the Doctor he told me that he wanted me to stay at home for he was going away and would not be back till after nightfall. I had made arrangements with some other boys to go rabbit hunting. Knowing it was Christmas week, and I was not bound to stay there, as my time was out, I concluded to have my rabbit hunt as agreed; so off I went with my associates. I did not get back to the house till after dark. Wanting to complete my day’s work before the Doctor arrived I made my way into the kitchen, as I thought unseen by any person, to get the milk pail which was always kept in there, and milk the cows. Mrs. Hyde, the Doctor’s wife, saw me, skipped out from somewhere and locked the kitchen door behind me. This was not a very pleasant situation, for a slave and the mistress to be locked up in the same room. She had a purpose in view, but I had none just then; my future actions had to be governed by what she was about to do. She told me to take off my coat so that she could give me a whipping for going off. According to her orders I obeyed; then she commenced work in right good earnest with her well roasted hickory wottels. Their smarting pains did not feel pleasant on my head and shoulders, so I laid hold of them and contested my strength with the fair feminine tyrant. In the struggle for victory I managed to jerk her down to the floor, and before she could regain her feet I jumped out of the window; and as the Doctor had not yet arrived home I made good my safety.

I went to the barn and crept away under the back part of the hay, where I knew I would be secure for the night. I stayed there lamenting over my stripes till midnight; then I came out and went to my mother’s, which was about half a mile off. She told me the Doctor had been there hunting for me. Thinking he might soon return I did not stay there very long. I next started off for my grandfather’s, which was about four miles away. I found him at home and he let me in. I did not learn that my pursuer had been to this place, so I thought myself safe for a while. He told me he had received a letter from Mr. H. Wallace directing him to bring me down to Morgan’s Creek, as the Doctor had nothing more to do with me and that I was going to another place.

Next morning grandfather arose, shelled a bushel of corn and was going to Headchester to dispose of it for other necessary comforts, telling me I might go along with him. Soon the old bay horse and cart, the legacy from the Woodland estate, were hitched together and started on the journey. On our way I was surprisingly met by the Doctor on horseback. As soon as I saw him I crouched down in the bottom of the old cart thinking to avoid him, but I was much mistaken. His keen eye had caught sight of me, and no doubt his breast was burning with revenge on account of his wife having to kiss the kitchen floor. He drew near to my hiding-place and strove his best to cut me with his horsewhip, but he missed me. I jumped out of the cart and hid in the fields till I thought he was gone. When I came out of my hiding-place he could not be seen, so I joined the old man in the cart once more, pursuing our journey. He told my grandfather, “If he did not have me back to his house before four o’clock that day he would have an officer after me and have me back.” The officer failed to come, consequently I have not seen the Doctor nor his wife since.

This Doctor Hyde had become security for the payment of the $600 required from my father for the purchase of my mother and sister. He was so much enraged on account of this trouble with me, that he demanded immediate payment of the money. This brought a gloom over my father and mother’s humble but happy home. He had no money nor the means of getting it. The spiteful bondsman could soon find the way to get it, and that was by selling mother and sister. This means was well understood by them, and plans were considered to avoid this sacrifice when mother resolved to take her young child and flee to Baltimore, Md. Her conclusions were soon put in practice, and it was not long before she found herself and child in that famous city. There she found a philanthropic Quaker, who had saved a great number of families from being separated under such circumstances. He told her he would furnish her with the money if her husband would make out a bill of sale for the child she had with her. She sent father word of what she found in way of a partial relief. The opportunity was readily embraced by him and he hastened to Baltimore and gave the bill of sale for my sister, which was to last till she was eighteen years old. My parents further agreed that in the event of my sister’s death before the expiration of that time, they were to finish out the time or give sufficient work to the value of the amount. All was finally settled and they returned to George Town Cross Oats, minus their only daughter that they had to sell to save themselves. My father had paid H. Wallace $200 down, which left $400 to be raised by the Quaker. To the great astonishment of the Doctor father called and paid the amount. He was so much perplexed that he wanted to know where the money came from—supposing it had been stolen. My sister remained with the Quaker family till she was sixteen years old, when they gave her two years off her time. This generous friend sent for my father to come to Baltimore and emancipate both my mother and sister, as they were sold under debt. He did so, and consequently they were all three free people according to the laws of the State of Maryland.

To return to my own personal narrative—by jumping from the old cart to escape from Dr. Hyde and rejoining grandfather. We rode on to Headchester, which is now known as Millerton, remained there until night and then returned home. I stayed there all night and next morning after breakfast we started for Morgan’s Creek, which was to be my new home. We had to ride a distance of twenty-two miles, arriving there about night. This was New Year’s eve. I had an uncle living at this place by the name of Joe Grimes. His wife lived in Chestertown with the same man I was destined to live with. Mr. H. Wallace gave Uncle Joe a note, with instructions to deliver it and Isaac into the hands of Mr. James Mansfield, jr. He arrived there about eight o’clock that night, a distance of three miles, when I for the first time saw my new master. His wife was named Mary. They had two children—a girl and a boy; the former was about five years of age and the latter three years. He was a cabinet-maker by trade and worked with his father who followed the same business. He very soon bought his father out, taking the business into his own hands, and began to thrive very rapidly.

Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.