Read CHAPTER XXIII of Twenty-Two Years a Slave‚ and Forty Years a Freeman, free online book, by Austin Steward, on


The settlers in Wilberforce, were in general, industrious and thrifty farmers: they cleared their land, sowed grain, planted orchards, raised cattle, and in short, showed to the world that they were in no way inferior to the white population, when given an equal chance with them. In proof of this let me say, that it was uniformly the practice of persons traveling from London to Goderich, to remain in our settlement over night, in preference to going on to find entertainment among their own class of people. And we believe that the whites are bound to admit, that the experiment of the Wilberforce colony proves that the colored man can not only take care of himself, but is capable of improvement; as industrious and intelligent as themselves, when the yoke is taken from off their necks, and a chance given them to exercise their abilities. True, many of them had just escaped from cruel task-masters; ignorant of almost every thing but the lash, but the air of freedom so invigorated and put new life into their weary bodies, that they soon became intelligent and thrifty.

Among the settlers might be gathered many a thrilling narrative, of suffering and hair-breadth escapes from the slave-land, one of which I will tell as ’twas told to me.

In a small rude cabin, belonging to one of the large plantations in Virginia, sat at a late hour of the night, an afflicted slave-man and his devoted wife, sad and weeping. At length the husband repeated what he before had been saying:

“I tell you, wife, we must flee from this place, without delay. Oh, I cannot endure the idea of seeing you sold for the Southern market, to say nothing of myself; and we shall most likely be separated, which I can’t bear! Oh, Rosa, the thought distracts me, I can’t bear it!”

“Are you sure,” said Rosa, “that master thinks of such a frightful doom for us?”

“Oh yes, I know it; I heard master to-day making a bargain with the slave dealer that has been hanging about here so long; and when it was finished, I heard him reading over the list, and our names, wife, are the first on it.”

“Oh, dear!” sobbed the wife, “we shall certainly be retaken and whipped to death; or else we shall starve in the wilderness! Oh, it is very hard to be compelled to leave all our friends and the old plantation where we were born!”

“Yes; it is both hard and unjust,” said Joe, and an indignant frown contracted his brow, “here is our birth-place, and here, for forty years have I toiled early and late to enrich my master; and you, my poor wife, a few years less; and now we are to be sold, separated, and all without a choice of our own. We must go, Rosa. If we die, let us die together!”

“It shall be as you say, Joe,” she replied, “but it frightens me to think of the hardships of the way, and the danger of being recaptured.”

“Courage, wife: no fate can be worse than the one designed for us; and we have no time to lose. Tomorrow night, then, we must make the first effort to gain our liberty, and leave all that is dear to us except each other!” And they retired to rest, but not to sleep.

The following night was very dark; and as soon as all was quiet on the plantation, they stole out of their cabin and stealthily crept over the ground until they reached the highway; and then, guided only by the north star, they made their way to the nearest woods. So fearful had they been of being suspected, that they took no provision of any kind with them. All night they plunged forward through the tangled thicket and under-brush, surrounded by thick darkness, glancing now and then upward to their only light,

“Star of the North! though night winds drift the fleecy
drapery of the sky,

Between thy lamp and thee, I lift, yea, lift with hope
my sleepless eye.”

When day dawned they threw their weary bodies on the ground, famished and thirsty, and waited for the darkness to again conceal them while they pursued their journey. The second day of their flight, the pain of hunger became almost beyond endurance. They found a few roots which relieved them a little; but frequently they lost their way, and becoming bewildered, knew not which way to go; they pushed on, however, determined to keep as far from their pursuers as possible. Their shoes were soon worn out; but bare-footed, bare-headed, and famishing with hunger, they pressed forward, until the fourth day, when they found themselves too weak to proceed farther. Hope, the anchor of the soul, had failed them! They were starving in a dense forest! No track or path could they find, and even had they seen a human being, they would have been more terrified than at the sight of a wild beast!

Poor Rosa, could go no farther her strength was all gone and as her emaciated husband laid her on the cold earth, he exclaimed, “Oh, dear God! must we, after all our efforts, starve in this dark wilderness! Beside his fainting wife, he finally stretched himself, sheltered only by a few bushes, and tried to compose himself to die! but resting a few moments revived him, and he aroused himself, to make one more effort for life! Stay you here, wife, and I will try once more to find the highway; it cannot be far from here; and if I am taken, I will submit to my fate without a struggle; we can but die.” So saying, he left her, and began to reconnoitre the country around them. Much sooner than he expected he emerged from the wood, and not far distant he saw a house in the direction from whence he came; being, however, as most of the slaves are, superstitious, he thought it would be a bad omen to turn backward, and so continued to look about him. It seemed, he said, that some unseen power held him, for though starving as he was, he could not take a step in that direction; and at last as he turned around, to his great joy, he saw another dwelling a little way off, and toward that he hastened his now lightened footsteps. With a palpitating heart, he approached the door and knocked cautiously. The man of the house opened it, and as soon as he saw him, he said, “You are a fugitive slave, but be not alarmed, come in; no harm shall befall you here; I shall not inquire from whence you came; it is enough for me to know that you are a human being in distress; consider me your friend, and let me know your wants.”

“Bread! Oh, for a morsel of bread!” said the famished creature, while his hitherto wild and sunken eyes, began to distil grateful tears. The “good Samaritan” stepped to another apartment and brought him a piece of bread, which he expected to see him devour at once, but instead, he looked at it wistfully, literally devouring it with his eyes; turned it over and over, and at last stammered out, “my good master, without a piece of bread for my poor starving wife, I can never swallow this, tempting as it is.”

“Poor man,” said his benefactor, “can it be that you have a wife with you, wretched as yourself?” He brought out a loaf of bread, some cheese and meat, and while the fugitive was preparing to return, the kind gentleman said, “I am glad you came to me; had you called at the house you first saw, you would have been betrayed, and immediately arrested. You must remember,” he continued, “that you are young and valuable slaves, and that your master will make every effort in his power to find you, especially since he has made a sale of you. To-day and to-night, remain in the woods, and the next morning you may come to me, if all is quiet; should I see danger approaching you, I will warn you of it by the crack my rifle. Go now, to your poor wife, and listen for the signal of danger; if you hear none, come to me at the appointed time.” He returned, and after feeding his helpless Rosa, she revived, and soon felt quite comfortable and grateful.

When the morning came for them to leave their retreat, they listened intently, but hearing nothing, Joe started for the residence of his friend. He had been gone but a short time, when his wife, who lay in the bushes, thought she heard the tramp of horses, she crept nearer the highway, and peeping through the bush Oh, horror! what was her consternation and sickening fear, to find herself gazing upon the well-known features of her old master, and two of his neighbors, all armed to the teeth! Her heart seemed to stand still, and the blood to chill in her veins. Had she been discovered she would have been an easy prey, for she declared that she could not move a step. In the meantime her husband had got about half way to the residence of his preserver, when his quick ear detected the sound made by the feet of horses, and as he stopped to listen more intently, the sharp crack of a rifle sent him bounding back to his concealment in the forest.

The party of horsemen rode on to the dwelling of the kind hearted gentleman, and inquired whether he had seen any fugitive slaves pass that way.

“I saw,” said he, “a man and woman passing rapidly along the road, but do not know whether they were fugitives, as I did not see their faces.” The human blood-hound, thanked the gentleman for the information, and immediately set out in pursuit; but, just as the informant had intended, in a direction opposite to that the slaves had taken. That night, Joe and Rosa visited the house of their benefactor, where they were supplied with clothing and as much food as they could carry; and next day they went on their way rejoicing. They settled in Cincinnati, where they lived happily, until the mob drove them with others, to the Wilberforce settlement, where they are in no danger of the auction block, or of a Southern market; and are as much devoted to each other as ever.