Primary Resource

Narrative of Isaac Williams (1856)

Isaac Williams, a formerly enslaved man, tells the story of his life in slavery in Virginia, his many attempts to escape, and his eventual journey to freedom in Canada, where his story was recorded in The Refugee, or, The narratives of fugitive slaves in Canada.

Transcription from Original

Isaac Williams

My master's farm is in Virginia. When my first master died, his widow married a man who got into debt and was put into prison. The woman gave up her rights to get him out. Then we were sold. Every man came to be sold for her lifetime,—then to revert to the heirs. The heirs bought in all they could—among them my two sisters. They were sent straight to a slave-pen at Richmond. Where they went I know not: that was the last I heard of them; we could not help it,—they went off crying. My purchaser bought also the interest of the heirs in me, and I remained with him ten years—until my escape, near the close of 1854.

Before I was sold I was hired out to work: at one time to a man on the Rappahannock. Three of his men got away—went as far as Bluff Point. Then they were overtaken, tied to his buggy by the overseer, who whipped up, and they had to run home. One, our employer and his overseer whipped, taking turns about it, until they cut him through to his caul, and he died under the lash. The employer, it was said, caused the man's heart to be taken out and carried over the river, so as not to be haunted by his spirit. He was arrested, and heavily fined. The other two runaways were sold south. Then I worked for another person, being hired out to him. Directly after I went to him, I went to a haystack to feed cattle: accidentally I set fire to the haystack which was consumed,—for which I received three hundred lashes with hickory sticks. The overseer gave me the blows and Jo—counted them. His feeding was herrings and a peck of meal a week—never enough—if one wanted more he had to steal it.

My last master's allowance was a peck and a half of corn meal a week, and a small slice of meat for each dinner. If any thing more was got it had to be obtained at night. He had but one overseer, and that for but one year. He was a sharp man—whipped me with a cowhide. I've seen him whip women and children like oxen. My master owned a yellow girl, who, he feared, would run away. I was his head man and had to help do it. He tied her across the fence, naked, and whipped her severely with a paddle bored with holes, and with a switch. Then he shaved the hair off of one side of her head, and daubed cow-filth on the shaved part, to disgrace her—keep her down. I tried hard to avoid the lash, but every year he would get up with me for a whipping in some way. I could not avoid it,—he would catch me on something, do how I would. The last time he whipped me, was for stealing corn for bread for Christmas. George—was with me. He tied our wrists together about a tree, and then whipped us with a carriage whip—that was six years ago. He whipped till he wore the lash off; then he tied a knot in the end, and gave me a blow which laid me up limping three weeks,—the blood ran down into my shoes. After that he used to whip the others. George and others would have their shirts sticking to their backs in the blood. I have seen him strip my wife and whip her with a cobbing board or cowhide … .

One Sunday he sent me into the woods to look for hogs. I could not find them, and I told him so on my return. Said he, "They are killed and eaten, and you know the going of them." I told him the truth that I did not know of it. He then seized me by the collar, and told me to cross my wrists. I did so,—but when he laid a rope across to bind them, I jerked them apart. He then undertook to trip me forward with his foot, and as I straightened back, to avoid it, it threw him. He kept his hold on my collar and called for help. The servants came pouring out,—they seized me, and he tied my wrists together with leading lines, eleven yards long, wrapping them about my wrists as long as there was a piece to wrap. Then he led me to the meathouse and said, "Go in there—I'll lay examples on you for all the rest to go by—fighting your master!" Whilst one was making a cobbing board, and another was gone to cut hickory switches, and he was looking up more leading lines, I got a knife from my pocket, opened it with my teeth, and holding it in my mouth, cut through the lines which bound me. Then I took a gambrel, and broke open the door. I had made up my mind, knowing that he would come wellnigh killing me, to hit with the gambrel any one who came to seize me. When I burst the door open, no one was there,—but master was coming. I sprung for the flats: he hailed me to come back. I stopped and told him that I had worked night and day to try to please him, and I would never come back any more. I stayed away nine days—then he sent me word, that he would not whip me, if I would come back. I went back, and he did not whip me afterward. But he used to whip my wife to spite me, and tell her, "you must make Isaac a good boy." This is true, God knows.

At one time, one of the hands named Matthew was cutting wheat. His blade being dull, our master gave him so many minutes to grind it. But Matthew did not get the blade done in the time allowed. Trouble grew out of this. Matthew was whipped, and kept chained by the leg in one of the buildings. One day when master was at church, I showed Matthew how to get away. He went away with the chain and lock on his leg. The neighbor's people got it off. He then took to the bush. After two or three weeks, my master sent me to look for him, promising not to whip him if I could get him in. I did not see him, but I saw Matthew's sisters, and told them master's promise not to whip. On a Saturday night, soon after, he came in. He was chained and locked in the house until Sunday.

Then he was given in charge to Wallace (a colored man employed in the kitchen) to take care of him. On Monday, he was whipped. Then master got me to persuade Matthew not to run away. He wouldn't tell Matthew he was afraid of his running, but would tell him he couldn't get away,—that times were so straight with the telegraph and railway, that he couldn't get away. And that's what keeps the poor fellows there: that, and knowing that some do set out, and get brought back, and knowing what is done with them. So Matthew stayed on the farm. This occurred last summer, [1854].

In the fall, I was making money to come away, by selling fish which I caught in the creek, and by other means, when a woman on Mr.—'s farm came to see me about some one that she feared would leave. As we talked, she said, "You wouldn't go away from your wife and children?" I said, "What's the reason I wouldn't? to stay here with half enough to eat, and to see my wife persecuted for nothing when I can do her no good. I'll go either north or south, where I can get enough to eat; and if ever I get away from that wife, I'll never have another in slavery, to be served in that way." Then she told her master, and he let on to my master, that I was making money to go away.

By and by I saw Mr. E—, who had a little farm in the neighborhood,—then I said to one of the men, "There's going to be something done with me to-day, either whip me or sell me, one or the other." Awhile after, as I was fanning out some corn in the granary, three white men came to the door—my master, Mr. E—, and a neighboring overseer. My master came walking to me, taking handcuffs out of his pocket,—"Come, Isaac," says he, "it's time for you to be corrected now; you 've been doing wrong this year or two." Said I, "What's the matter now, master—?" He answered, "I'm not going to whip you; I've made up my mind to sell you. I would not take two thousand dollars for you on my farm if I could keep you. I understand that you are getting ready to go off." He had then put his handcuffs on me: "Well, Sir, it is agreed to go as freely as water runs from the spring,"—meaning that I would go with him without resistance or trouble. "I have done all I could for you, night and day, even carting wood on Sunday morning,—and this is what I get for it." "Ah, Sir," said he, "you are willing to go, but 't will be none the better for you." "Well, master—, there's good and bad men all over the world, and I'm as likely to meet with a good man as to meet with a bad one." "Well, Sir, if there's not less of that racket, I'll give you a good brushing over." I was going over to the house then, from the granary. I answered, "Well, master—, you may do as you please, I am your nigger now, but not long." Then I met my wife, coming crying, asking,—"What's the matter?" I told her, "Eliza, no more than what I told you,—just what I expected was going to be done." His word was, "Take her away, and if she don 't hush, take her to the granary, and give her a good whipping." She was crying, you see. He took me to his bedroom, and chained me by one leg to his bedpost, and kept me there, handcuffs on, all night. He slept in the bed. Next morning, he took me in a wagon and carried me to Fredericksburg, and sold me into a slave-pen to George Ayler, for ten hundred and fifty dollars. Here I met with Henry Banks. He entered the slave-pen after I had been there three days. He had run away since May, but was taken in Washington, D. C.

On a Thursday evening, came a trader from the south, named Dr.—. He looked at Henry, and at a man named George Strawden, and at me, but did not purchase, the price being too high. I dreamed that night that he took us three. Next morning I told Henry, "That man is coming to take you, and George, and me, just as sure as the world; so Henry, let's you and me make a bargain to try and get away; for I'm never deceived in a dream,—if I dreamed master was going to whip me, he would surely whip somebody next day." That's as good a sign in the south as ever was.

About breakfast time, Dr.—came and stripped us stark naked to examine us. They frequently do, whether buying women or men. He says, "Well, boys, I'm satisfied with you all, if you are willing to go with me, without putting me to any trouble." He had his handcuffs and spancels (ancle-beads, they call them for a nickname) with him. I said to him, "Yes, we are willing to go with you, and will go without any trouble,—I came without any trouble, and will go without any trouble,"—but he did not know my meaning. "I have no farm to keep you on myself," said he, "I live in Tennessee,—I am going on to Georgia, and will take fifteen hundred dollars apiece for you—I'll get as good places for you as I can—'t is not so bad there as you have heard it is." I said, "Oh, yes, Master—, I know you'll do the best you can; I'm willing to go." "Well, get up all your clothes against the cars come from the Creek, and then we'll go to Richmond." "I suppose, Master—, we'll have time to get 'em,—how long will it be before the cars come along?" "About three quarters of an hour, boy." Then he went to George Ayler to give him a check on the Richmond Bank for $3,400 for the three men. Henry and I then got up our clothes,—I put on two shirts, three pairs of pantaloons, two vests, a thick coat, and a summer coat in the pocket,—Henry did the same with his; so we had no bundles to carry. We were afraid to let George know, for fear he would betray us.

Dr.—left the gate open, being deceived by our apparent readiness to go with him. We told George, "Stop a minute, we are going to get some water. Then we walked through Fredericksburg—having left the city we crossed the bridge to Falmouth, turned to the left, and made for the bush. Then we heard the cars from the creek, as they were running to Fredericksburg. On looking round, we saw a number of men coming after us on horseback. The way we cleared them was, we went into the bush, turned short to the right, leaving them the straightforward road,—we then moved on toward the very county from which I was sold. We were out three weeks, during the last of which we made a cave by digging into a cliff, at the head of the creek. The southern men who saw the cave (as we heard afterward when we were in jail) said they never saw so complete a place to hide in.

All this time I had visited my wife every day, either when the white folks were occupied, or before day. One Saturday night we hunted about for something to eat, without finding any thing until midnight. It then came into my head about the man who had persuaded my master to sell me,—so we went to him, and got a dozen chickens, which we took to our cave. This made us late,—it was sunrise when we reached our cave, and then H—, who was standing in the woods, looking for my brother Horace, saw me, and saw us going into our den. Then he went off and got N—, with a double-barrelled gun, and T—with a hickory club; and himself returned with a six-barrelled revolver.

Then I heard N—asking, "Who is in here?" I looked up, and there was the gun within two feet of my head, up to his face and cocked. "Surrender, or I'll blow your brains out!" I looked out, but saw no way of escape, but by going across the creek,—N—was on one side with his gun, H—on the other with his revolver, and T—over the entrance with his hickory stick. I said to Henry, "What are we to do? I started for death, and death we must try to go through. I want to see the man that bought us, no more." N—hailed me by name, for he had now seen my face, "Surrender, for if you come out, I'll blow your brains out." "Then," said I, "You will have to do it." Then I came out, bringing my broadaxe weighing seven and a half pounds in my hand,—he just stood aside and gave me a chance to come out by the muzzle of his gun. We sprung for the creek, I and my partner. In the middle it was over my depth, but I reached the other side, still holding on to the axe. While I was struggling to get up the bank, N—fired, and shot the broad axe out of my hand, putting twenty-nine shot into my right arm and hand, and seven into my right thigh. I ran until I got through a piece of marsh, and upon a beach near some woods.

I was standing looking at my arm; and on looking around for Henry saw him in the sedge. By this time H—had crossed the creek too. I called to Henry to come on, and as he rose from the hedge, N—shot him. He fell; then he got up, ran a little distance, and fell again. Then he rose up, presently fell a third time, but again recovered himself and came to me.

Finding ourselves wounded and bleeding, so that we could do nothing further towards escape, we gave up. They tied our hands behind us with a leather strap, which was very painful, as my wounded wrist swelled very much. I begged them to loosen it but they would not. They took us to jail in—county. Dr. H. there counted ninety shot in Henry's back, legs, and arms. We stayed in the jail, a month lacking three days,—two weeks in a sort of dungeon in the cellar: then, Henry being sick with fever, from the effects of the shooting, they put us up stairs, one story higher. We were kept on water and collots (outside leaves of cabbage half cooked). I begged the Lord, would I ever get out, and if 't was so that I was to be caught after I got out, not to let me get out. In my dream, I saw myself prying out, and heard a man speaking to me and saying, "As long as there 's breath there 's hope." His voice awoke me. I told Henry, and we got up, and went to the place where I had dreamed of trying, but we could not open it. This was after three weeks. Then the agent of Dr.—came to examine us. He found we were shot so badly, that he would not take us to Richmond, unless he first heard from Dr.—, as there was said to be some dispute between Dr.—and Ayler about the money. On a Thursday, three days before the month of November was out, we expected Dr.—. But he did not happen to come.

I had been trying several days at one of the windows, but despaired of getting out there,—so I took a stove leg and a piece of a fender, and tried at another window facing the jailer's house. Then conscience said to me, "Go and try that window that you left, and see if you can't get out." I looked at Henry to see if he was talking, but he said he had not spoken. I then returned to the first window, and pried off a short plank by the window to see how it was built. The jail was of brick, and the window frame was secured in its place by an iron clamp, spiked. On removing the plank I found behind it a short piece of iron spliced on. This I pried off with the stove leg; then I replaced the plank.

At night, just after dark, I went to work at the window. Henry was too sick to work, but when I needed his help, he would come and aid me. With the piece of iron I had taken from the wall, I got a purchase against the clamp. We took the bedstead to pieces, and using the short or long pieces as was convenient, we started the frame off on one side, splitting the sill at the bottom, where the grates were let in, and bending all the cross bars. Where the sill split off, it left a place so wide, that by removing the bricks underneath the window, we enlarged it sufficiently to get through. I stretched out of the opening full length, and let go, falling to the ground. Henry followed me, I assisting him down.

We walked eight miles that night, to my master's farm, and hid ourselves in the neighborhood, until Saturday night. Then I went out for something to eat. On my return, I saw as many as fifteen men hunting for me, some on horse, some on foot, with four hounds. I squatted close behind a thick cedar bush: the hounds came around me, and I gave them portions of the food I had collected, to keep them quiet, until the white men were out of sight,—then I scared away the hounds. I then rejoined Henry at our tent. If the runaways knew enough they could keep clear of the hounds by rubbing the soles of their shoes with red onion or spruce pine.

It now came on to rain, so that we were obliged to dig a den in the ground, expecting to stay there until spring, as we thought it would be too cold to travel in the winter, and that in the warm season we might live on fruits by the way. About this time, a neighboring farmer had two mules killed by a boar. His overseer, H—, the same who found me before, told him that Henry and I had done it,—then S—D—and others sent to Fredericksburg for men and hounds to drive night and day, and take us, dead or alive, with orders to shoot us down at the very first sight. This we learned from some of our good friends,—and we then determined to leave. Here I come to speak of Kit Nichols, a slave on another farm. Kit had been beaten, and had run away,—he laid down in a wet ditch to avoid his pursuers. I met Kit in the woods. He was anxious to go with us, and we all three started on Monday night, the 1st day of December, 1854.

We walked eighteen miles the first night, to … , kept on through the towns of—and—, up to M—. At M—, I met a colored man, and asked him for food, as I had been fasting a long time. He directed us to a place where he said we could get food. Then he went away, and soon we saw him returning with three white men. Kit and Henry dodged, and I went on and met the white men face to face. Kit and Henry heard them say there were "three boys going to Warrenton." They passed on to the place where the colored man had sent us. We travelled on towards Warrenton, until we struck the railroad, and then footed it to Alexandria. On the way we went up to a house, where was a white man and his wife,—we asked him to sell us some bread. Said he, "Have you got a pass?" Said I, "I have no pass, but we want some bread, and we will pay you for it." He went on, "You can't travel without a pass." We told him we were hungry,—he kept on talking about a "pass." Finding we could get no bread we left him, and he then set his dog on us.

On the Virginia side of the bridge, we bought cigars and a few cakes. We lighted our cigars, and I walked on, swinging a little cane. We passed through Washington city. It now rained. We wandered about all night in the rain in Maryland. Just at daybreak we heard cars, and walked for the railroad. Before reaching it, we went into the bush, and with some matches which I had kept dry in my hat, made a fire and dried our clothes. We remained in the bush all day, watching and sleeping, and at night went on to the railroad. On our way, we met two white men, who asked us, "Where are you going?" I told them, "home." "Where?" "In Baltimore." "Where have you been?" "Chopping wood for John Brown." They asked, "Are you free?" "Yes." "Where are your papers?" "At home, in Baltimore." They went into a shanty to arm themselves. While they were doing this, we ran as fast as we could.

We reached Baltimore just at light, and laid down in a small piece of bush in the corporation. We watched as the trains came in through the day to see where the depot was, as we wished to get on the track for Philadelphia. At night we walked boldly past the depot, but we were bothered by the forking of the roads, and came out at the river. Then we tried back,—by and by we saw a long train moving out from the city. We followed it, and went on to Havre de Grace,—but we did not cross the bridge—we could not cross over as we had wished. We moved in another direction. We concealed ourselves the next day, and again travelled all night. In the morning, we met with a friend, a colored man, who guided us about ten miles, and then directed us to a place where we had abundance of food given us, the first we had tasted since Thursday, although it was now Saturday night. We met with no more trouble. We reached Canada the morning after Christmas, at 3 o'clock.

It is the wickedest thing a man can do to hold a slave—the most unconscionable sin a man can do. If there were any chance to fight for the slaves' freedom, I'd go and stand up at the south and fight as readily as I would now go out of doors. I believe it would be just, and a righteous cause. I feel great pity for the poor creatures there, who long for a way, yet can see no way out. They think if Great Britain were to get into a war with America, it would be the means of freeing them. They would slip round and get on the English side.

If slavery were abolished, I would rather live in a southern State,—I would work for some one, but I should want to have a piece of land of my own.