Ch. 3: Escape From Slavery

On the following Saturday night, after hearing this news, I hired a horse from an old colored man, Jim Willmer, for a bushel of oats. These were waste oats that I had saved from time to time from the horse’s feed. That night I rode to George Town Cross Oats, the place of my nativity. I went in search of a colored man by the name of Joe Brown, arriving at his house about eleven o’clock that night. He had not gone to bed but was smoking his pipe; his wife had retired for the night, so everything was favorable as the business was highly important and only required two to discuss it at this time. I had known him ever since I was a boy, and he appeared kindly disposed toward me, so there was no feeling of scrupulousness in telling him what I intended and wanted. I related all my troubles to him, and finally told him that I wanted to get away and that he must assist me. He listened attentively to my statement and wishes, then he asked how many there were of us. I told him I thought I could bring two more with me. He arranged that I was to come to his house a week from that night, and if there were three to bring along with us nine dollars, and if we stood by him he would stand by us, landing us safely in Philadelphia. The coming Thursday from this night would be Christmas day, consequently the day of meeting would be in Christmas week during the holidays, when slaves are generally allowed to visit their friends for one or two days. Our business being over I left Joe Brown to enjoy his pipe a little longer and then retire to take his rest, while I joined the company of Jim Willmer’s horse. There was not much time to linger on the road to meditate on the future. My faithful horse, moved by instinctiveness, made light of his burden and soon covered the distance between the two places. About two o’clock Sunday morning the horse was in the barn and I on my master’s premises. Nobody knew that I had been from home, much less out of the city.

Mr. Mansfield had secured from his father’s estate a young fellow by the name of Joshua. He had been with him about two years this Christmas. We were very intimate and I had placed the utmost confidence in him. Feeling he would not betray my secret, I ventured to inform him where I had been and what I had done. He felt much elated over the project and said he would go with me. We had a little money saved up that was earned by sawing wood and doing odd jobs at night for some of the neighbors, but that was not sufficient, therefore we had to enter into ways and means to secure the balance. We solicited work and were fortunate enough to find it, and by Saturday night our treasury showed the sum of $12. At last Christmas day had come—the bright and hopeful day of all Christendom when master and mistress with their friends were to make merry, and the poor slave to hope that he might be happy for a few hours at least. Mrs. Mary Mansfield attempted to make her slaves feel cheerful by giving them a Christmas breakfast, consisting of one quart of molasses, being one and one-third of a gill for each servant as there were six of us, about six pounds of sausage meat, which was the scrapings of the meat-block, and, after we had extracted the wood of the suffering block from it, we had, approximately, three pounds of meat, allowing each one-half of a pound. Along with this her bountiful heart permitted her to give a pan of middlings. This constituted our Christmas breakfast. While we were eating this festive meal Mr. Mansfield made his appearance and gave us each fifty cents, and at the same time told me I could go and see my father and mother on Saturday morning, but be sure and get back by Monday night without fail. If I had known that by casting decayed meat to the dog would have cost me so much trouble I would not have attempted it; and if he had known of my plans for making my escape he would not have given me money nor permission to visit the very place at the very time I wanted to go.

The young man George that I made mention of as coming to take my place, came to Chestertown on Friday, as he thought, to spend Christmas. I informed him that he was sold to Mansfield to take my place, and that the plot was to send me to New Orleans; that Joshua and myself had made arrangements to run away, and if he wanted to go with us he could do so. It did not take him long to decide to make one of the number. There was one difficulty in the way with him—he had no money. In order to obviate that difficulty Joshua and myself agreed to furnish it. I told George to return home and meet us at a certain place about nine o’clock with a boat to take us across the creek. Instead of my going away in the morning as permitted I remained until Saturday night, in order that we might be together, as Joshua was not acquainted with the route.

When night came we bade farewell to the Mansfield house with its cares and lashes, and started for the land of liberty and a city where we could breathe the refreshing air of freedom. When we reached our place of meeting, according to previous arrangement, about nine o’clock George was there with the boat waiting for us. The creek was soon crossed and our course was shaped for George Town Cross Oats, a distance of about twenty miles. We reached the town about two o’clock in the morning. The most interesting place to be found by us was the house of our guide, Joe Brown. To the horror of all we found Joe lying on the floor dead drunk. Joshua and George did not know Brown’s failings; they became alarmed at the situation and talked strongly about going back home. This increased my anxiety considerably, for if they went back my plans would be destroyed and I returned into the hands of my enemies, or else hunted down and killed. I at last prevailed on them to go with me to my mother’s and stay a few hours. This was Sunday morning, the distance was but half a mile, and we were soon sheltered and out of sight of Joe Brown. We stayed there all day concealed away up in the attic. This was a day of great suspense. No one could advise what would be the next best step to take. We were three helpless beings fleeing from the cruel chains of bondage.

To my happy surprise that afternoon Joe Brown put in his appearance. He did not remain long nor have much to say, but told us to meet him that night at Price’s Woods at seven o’clock. As a signal of our meeting in safety he would give the sign by crying out, “yea! yo!” and we were to answer “Friend to the guard!” The place was well known to me and could be easily found. At seven o’clock, as near as we could judge, we were on the spot. The sign and countersign were exchanged, and we met. Brown was master of ceremonies. The first business to be done was the invocation and pledge. We all four knelt down and prayed and then took an oath that we would fight for each other till we died. This done, the next was to pay over the liberation money, nine dollars. Next came the hasty-eaten but substantial meal of bread and meat that was provided for us by our guide. We remained there half an hour. The ground was well covered with snow, making good sleighing.

The night of march had come, and with our anxious faces directed northward we started for Wilmington, Delaware, it being about thirty-five miles away. When we had arrived within eight miles of Wilmington, Brown took us to the house of an old colored man who was an acquaintance of his. I did not understand why he went there, but I judged it was to seek for information; and we did receive some very important news. The old man told him not to go any further on that road as there was a gang of body-snatchers waiting by the bridge to mob every colored person that came that way. He directed him to return about eight miles and take the first left hand road he came to, and that would bring him into Wilmington another way where he would not meet with any trouble. The old man’s advice was heeded. We accordingly went back, and by the time we got there the grey dawn of morning began to appear. Day was breaking, and travelers like the three of this band had to seek a hiding-place while the glorious rays of the king of light prevailed, and men were abroad upon the face of the earth.

Fortune, thus far, had bountifully smiled on our path, and nature had lent us her aid, bidding us good-speed on our journey. As daylight lifted the sable curtain of night we saw but a short distance from us a dense wood, and we made for it in haste. On entering this forest we found a very large white oak tree that could not endure the mighty winds of the early fall, and it had been ruthlessly torn up by the roots before its leaves had fallen. There it lay, forming a complete arbor and place of safety. When the full light of day came, under it we crept, not knowing how long we were to remain, nor what might be the result. Joe Brown left us with strict orders to remain where we were until his return, that he was going to Wilmington. We had voluntarily placed ourselves under his care and direction for the safety of our escape, consequently it was no more than just that we should submit to his judgment and obey orders for the time being. We stayed all day—or as long as daylight lasted. This was the greatest and most memorable day in this undertaking for liberty. Fugitives from slavery.

While lying on the cold ground under this tree, our “city of refuge,” we were greatly surprised at seeing a number of fox hounds, numbering, I suppose, from twenty to fifty, running about the forest near to us. They were accompanied by about fifty men on horseback, who were all white. The reader may judge the terrible anxiety we had to endure. We were slaves fleeing from bondage, they were freemen, and to have fallen into their hands would have been so much added to their gain, and to us, perhaps, a more sorrowful condition than the one we were fleeing from. They rode and hunted after a fox throughout the whole day. Several times the fleeing fox made his unwelcome appearance under the tree that secreted us from the horsemen’s view, and to my great astonishment I discovered we were lying over the hole that led to reynard’s den. He made two or three attempts to get into the hole but we succeeded in beating him off, and the result was he did not return any more that day. Our anxiety became more and more intense as we recognized among the band of hunters some well-known faces, who, it cannot be claimed, were “a terror to all evil doers,” but to all honest, trustworthy slaves. Had Mister Fox succeeded in entering the hole we would have been caught, and our jig would have been up sure. It was in this large, dense forest, in the State of Delaware, that I was led to see my own fate compared with that of the wild beast of the forest. True, there was some difference; the fox was free, and I was seeking for freedom; its pursuers were near by, but mine were, for all I knew, afar off. Our much-dreaded visitors remained in the neighborhood all day. It was almost dark before they relieved us of their presence. This was a day of “foes without and fears within,” for while I wondered how this day’s events would end from outward appearances, my two companions became so badly frightened that my words failed to comfort them. Their fears were so great that they determined to go back—not to the “flesh pots of Egypt,” but to the stinted fare and cowhide of slavery. I determined differently. I longed for the home of the free. Finally, to quiet their fears, I promised if they would only keep silent I would take them back home.

After it got dark, I waited until the north star had risen, for I determined, as Joe Brown had not returned, that the journey should be continued. One day in a place like those woods, with two tired, discontented companions, was long enough to remain there. As my star of hope, the guide of the night, came fully in view, we started on our tramp, as the boys thought for our former home; but not so with me. I had gained some early knowledge of the north star for the express purpose for which I was now about to use it. An old man by the name of Charley Miller had told me where that star was, and if “I could follow it it would guide me north, that the Lord had placed it there to lead people out of slavery.” I used it that night, believing what he told me was true. I followed it for about five miles, when, to my great astonishment, I met Joe Brown, our leader. He had with him another man who proved, afterwards, to be our guide for the remainder of the journey. Joe had with him something to appease our hunger and to cheer us on, in the substance of a boiled hog’s head and a loaf of corn bread. He fed us, and we were truly glad to receive it, for we had been without food the whole day. The fear of being captured and returned to our masters, or else sold to new ones, had, no doubt, kept under the desire to eat. But now the evil threatenings of the day were over, and in the presence of help we could do justice to the nourishment our pilot had brought us. We stopped and talked for awhile, and Brown placed us under the care of this new comer, and he continued his journey homeward.

Having taken leave of our former friend and guide we continued to the goal of our ambition under the care of our new leader. There are a great many venturesome things a man will do, when determined to escape from danger or an evil, that he would not do when otherwise situated. To think that we had placed our fate in the hands of a man who was, to us, an utter stranger. The confidence that had been reposed in the integrity of Brown concerning our welfare was, simply, a transferable one. His deep interestedness in rescuing his race from the cruel chains of slavery, had established the faith that he would not permit us to be betrayed into the hands of a friend or advocate of the cruel institution. The experience of the past had taught us the lesson to trust and go forward, and forward we went. About midnight of that same day we passed by Wilmington unmolested by any one, and, as near as I can judge, it was three o’clock that morning when the dividing line that runs between the States of Delaware and Pennsylvania were crossed. No words can depict the joy and gratitude that filled the bosom of one who had, as it were—not rather as it actually was—stepped from bondage into liberty, from darkness into light.

I had no means of keeping the days of the month, but was fortunate enough to remember the day of the week. So it was on a Tuesday morning that our eyes rested on a State where liberty for the negro slave could be enjoyed. Perry Augustus, our guide, with much seeming satisfaction and delight, informed us that we had crossed out of slavery into freedom. We had had our faithful guides, and they had discharged their obligations to us to the letter; but I had not forgotten my early impressions of the existence of an ever kind Providence, for which gratitude should be shown, consequently I suggested that we should have a season of prayer and return thanks to God for this safe deliverance. The old man readily consented to the proposal, and we all knelt down on the snow-covered ground and offered up humble thanksgiving, and petitions for future protection and guidance, to the Great Supreme Ruler of heaven and earth. Those who have been under some heavy burden, weighing them down by continued torture and misery, when to their relief has come some happy event, or some sympathising friend who has removed the torturing evil, may form some idea of the felicity enjoyed by us on that memorable morning.

When the other two boys learned that we had been successful in crossing into the land of freedom, they became reconciled, and expressed themselves as being sorry for the unnecessary trouble they had caused me, especially while concealed in the forest. We journeyed on for a distance of about ten miles when we came to a place called New Garden. At this place we were made acquainted with an old man by the name of Nelson Wiggins. This we found also to be the resting place of Perry Augustus. Further developments showed that it was more than a resting place, it was a temporal home, a little heaven on earth for a fugitive. The old man had two daughters, who had charge of the house, as his wife was dead; one of these tender-hearted and benevolent ladies, with her father, bid us welcome and make ourselves at home. The invitation was readily accepted and we were comfortably housed and seated. Her agile step and busy hands were soon employed in preparing a breakfast for the weary travelers. When it had been prepared we were bid to partake of it. Breakfast over we were directed to go up stairs where we would find beds upon which to rest ourselves. The directions were soon followed, and we laid us down to rest and sleep, to dream of the past and plan for the future. We remained there all day.

The next night a great number of persons called to see us and congratulate us on our successful venture. Some of them we had known in by-gone days. This was delight added to pleasure. Companions in slavery once, now companions in freedom. Two days were spent in this state of ease and comfort, and on the third day it was deemed best that we should start out in search of employment. It being winter time, work, as a general thing, was very scarce; there did not seem to be anything to do in New Garden, so we concluded to make our way to Philadelphia.

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