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Chapter 16: the Underground railroad

The prescribed penalties for assisting in the escape of fugitive slaves were severe. By the terms of the Fugitive Slave Act, as it was called, any one convicted of that offense, besides a liability for one thousand dollars damages recoverable in a civil action, was subject to a five-hundred-dollars fine and imprisonment in a penitentiary for one year. As the writer has not “done time” for participation in certain transactions dating back to his earlier days, in which the legal rights of slave-owners were indifferently respected, he thinks it advisable to be somewhat reserved in his recital of personal experiences when taking the public into his confidence. The Fugitive Slave Law-and for that fact we should give “most hearty thanks” --is about as dead as any statute can be, but as in the case of a snake that has been killed, it may be the wiser course not to trifle with its fangs. Therefore, instead of telling my own story in the first person singular, I offer as a substitute the confession of one John Smith, whose existence no one will presume to dispute. Here is his statement:

There was an old barn on my father's farm. It was almost a ruin. One end of the roof had fallen [122] in, pretty much all the windows were gone, and there was a general air of dilapidation about the place. A dwelling-house, to which it was an appendage, had been burned and not rebuilt, and the barn had been left to fight a battle with the elements and other foes in pretty much its own way.

Not that it was wholly abandoned. There was one mow that was kept pretty well supplied with grass, and there were two or three horse stalls that were in tolerable order, although but rarely used. There were a number of excellent hiding-places about the old rookery. In the basement all sorts of rubbish, including unused vehicles and machinery, had been stored away, and so wedged and packed was it that it would have taken hours to uncover man or beast seeking concealment there.

One of the curious features of the situation was that the building was in sight of none of the roads in the neighborhood, while less than a hundred feet from it was a strip of woods in which the removal of the larger trees had stimulated a sturdy and densely matted undergrowth that was penetrable only by means of paths that had been made by the cattle. It was what was called a “woods pasture.” With this cover for his movements any one could approach or leave the old barn with little danger of discovery.

Naturally enough, such a ramshackle was in ill-repute. There were tales about it in the neighborhood. Some children had gone there to play on one occasion, and had been badly frightened by a big — as big as a half-bushel, they asserted-black face that was seen to be watching them. They fled [123] from the premises in great alarm, and for a time there was talk of an investigation by their friends. The incident, however, was soon forgotten.

That old barn was a regular station on one of the underground railroads that extended from the Ohio River to Canada. To but few persons was its true character known, and they were very closemouthed about it. I was one of the few that were in the secret. Being the youngest member of the family, it fell to my lot to drive the horses and cows to and from the pasture in which the old barrack was located, and while there it was an easy matter to visit that establishment and ascertain if it sheltered any fresh arrivals.

One day I had to report that two fugitives were in the barn, being a mother and child. Then came the question — which in that instance was a difficult one to answer — as to who should convey them to the next station on the line, twenty miles away. A brother, between five and six years older than I was, and who was something of a dare-devil, did the most of the work of transportation, but he was in bed with typhoid fever. A hired man, who was employed partly because he was in hearty accord with the humanitarian views of the household, and who on several occasions had taken my brother's place, was absent. There was nobody but myself who was ready to undertake the job, and I was only eleven years old. There was no help for it, however. The slaves had to be moved on, and I was greatly rejoiced in the prospect of adventure that was opened up to me. The journey had to be made at night, but for that I cared nothing, as I [124] had repeatedly gone over the route by daylight, and thought I knew the road perfectly.

Midnight found me on the highway, and on the driver's seat of one of our farm wagons, to which was attached a span of horses moving in the direction of the north star. That luminary was not on this occasion visible. The sky was heavily overcast and the night was very dark. A light rain was falling. With all the confidence I had in my own ability, more than once would I have lost the way, but for the sagacity of the horses, which had gone over that route a number of times under similar circumstances. They acted as if altogether familiar with it. Those horses proved themselves to be excellent Abolitionists.

The inclemency of the night was in one respect a great advantage. It kept at home those who might incline to be too inquisitive. The few travelers we met passed on with a word of greeting, while I whistled unconcernedly.

Over the bottom of the wagon was scattered some hay that might be used either as feed for the horses or as a bed for weary travelers. There was also an old-fashioned buffalo-robe, somewhat dilapidated, that could serve for concealment or as shelter from the elements. Two or three empty baskets suggested a return from the market. There was another article that one would hardly have looked for. This was a smoke-cured ham loosely wrapped in some old sacking. It had gone over that route a number of times. Its odor neutralized the smell by which the presence, immediate or recent, of negroes might be detected. [125]

My fellow-travelers, as my passengers might be called, were interesting companions. Both, in one sense, were children, the mother certainly not being over seventeen years old. She was a comely half-breed mulatto. Her baby — a pretty boy of two years--was one degree nearer white.

The girl was inclined to be confidential and talkative. She said she was ‘old mas'ras’ daughter. Her mother had been one of ‘old mas'r's’ people. She had grown up with the other slave children on the place, being in no way favored because of her relationship to her owner. The baby's father was ‘young mas'r’-old master's son, as it appeared-and who, consequently, was a half-brother of the youthful mother. Slavery sometimes created singular relationships.

As the story ran, all the people, including the narrator and her baby, when ‘ole mas'r’ died were “leveled” on by the Sheriff's man. She did not quite understand the meaning of it all, but it was doubtless a case of bankruptcy.

‘Young mas'r,’ she said, “tole” her she had to run away, taking the baby of course. “Oh, yes,” she said very emphatically, “I never would have left Kentuck without Thomas Jefferson” --meaning her little boy. “Young mas'r,” according to her account, arranged the whole proceeding, telling her what course to take by night, where to stop and conceal herself by day, and what signal to give when she reached the “big river.”

When the Ohio had been crossed her young master met her, evidently to the great delight of the poor creature. He gave her some money, and [126] told her that when she reached her destination he would send her some “mo.” After putting her in charge of some kind people, evidently representatives of the underground line, they had parted, according to her description of the incident, in an affecting way. “He kissed me and I cried,” was her simple statement. Notwithstanding the boasted superiority of one race over another, human nature seems to be very much the same, whether we read it in a white face or in a black one.

The little girlish mother was very much alarmed for the safety of her boy and herself when we began our journey, wanting to get out and conceal herself whenever we heard any one on the road. After several detentions from that cause, the weary creature stretched herself upon the hay beside her sleeping infant and almost immediately fell into a heavy slumber. She could stand the strain no longer. I drew the buffalo-robe over the two sleepers, and there they rested in blissful unconsciousness until the journey was ended.

Half-way between the termini of my route was a village in which lived a constable who was suspected of being in the employ of the slave-owners. It was thought advisable that I should avoid that village by taking a roundabout road. That I did, although it added an extra half to my trip. The result was that the sun was just peeping over the eastern hills, as I reached a set of bars showing an entrance into a pasture lot on one side of the highway. Removing the bars, I drove into the field, and passing over a ridge that hid it from the road, I stopped in front of a log cabin that had every [127] appearance of being an abandoned and neglected homestead. That was the station I was looking for. Arousing my sleeping passengers, I saw them enter the old domicile, where I bade them goodby, and received the tearful and repeated thanks of the youthful slave mother, speaking for herself and her offspring. I never saw them again, but in due time the news came back, over what was jocularly called the “grape-vine telegraph,” that they had safely reached their destination.

At the home of the station agent I was enthusiastically received. That a boy of eleven should accomplish what I had done was thought to be quite wonderful. I was given an excellent breakfast, and then shown to a room with a bed, where I had a good sleep. On my awakening I set out on the return journey, this time taking the most direct route, as I had then no fear of that hireling constable.

Subsequently I passed through several experiences of a similar kind, some of them involving greater risks and more exciting incidents, but the recollection of none of them brings me greater satisfaction than the memory of my first conductorship on the Underground.

All of which is respectfully submitted by

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