Escape from slavery: The harrowing story behind an African-American intellectual's break for freedom

William Wells Brown became a leading black thinker and speaker of the 19th century. First he needed his freedom

Published October 19, 2014 10:58AM (EDT)

Excerpted from "William Wells Brown: An African American Life"

William Wells Brown’s growth into early manhood coincided with the dismemberment of his family. As (master) Dr. John Young’s fortunes fell into decline in St. Louis without a corresponding reduction of expenses, he began selling his chief assets: slaves and land. The process probably began during Brown’s year on the rivers with notorious slave trader James Walker and, once begun, accelerated. Brown’s sole account of the most devastating trauma of his early life was severely foreshortened and tantalizingly brief: “My mother, my brothers Joseph and Millford, and my sister Elizabeth, belonged to Mr. Isaac Mansfield, formerly from one of the Free States, (Massachusetts, I believe.) He was a tinner by trade, and carried on a large manufacturing establishment. Of all my relatives, mother was first, and sister next.”

Their new master was Isaac Mansfield, a longtime acquaintance of Young’s, possibly even from the time of his move from Marthasville to St. Louis. Mansfield had witnessed one of the Youngs’ earliest land transactions, and he was named as a party in Young’s final legal act in St. Louis, the drafting of his last will several months before his death. All in all, Mansfield’s role in the affairs of Elizabeth and her children was considerably greater than Brown acknowledged in his "Narrative." A man to whom Young repeatedly turned in making slave deals, Mansfield was an uncanny presence in Brown’s recorded adolescence, casting an ominous shadow over Brown and his entire family during the later St. Louis years. Although little is stated explicitly about their relations in the "Narrative," one fact is clear: Mansfield disliked Brown, and Brown detested Mansfield.

The few facts about Mansfield are sufficient to bring his profile into focus. A hard-working, hard-driving Northerner who migrated to St. Louis no later than 1826, Mansfield devoted himself, as Brown claimed, to his work as a tinsmith and building contractor, carrying on his trade on a large scale. One of his young workers remarked about him approvingly in 1830: “Mansfield has not wanted any work I think for 2 months, though I believe he would rather go peddling himself than discharge me for want of work. Business in our line was never known to be as dull as this season.” But later that year, Mansfield landed a large government contract for installing roof gutters and conducting pipes on the buildings of the Jefferson Barracks, a new federal military post about ten miles downriver from St. Louis. A year later, he contributed to the Missouri Auxiliary Bible Society, an organization dear to Young. He was prospering during this period and might also have been achieving some local influence. Like Young, he was politically active, aligning himself with the city’s Jacksonian Democrats and in 1831 even competing for a seat in the Missouri General Assembly.

His success in business presumably provided the means for his gradual acquisition of the members of Brown’s family, beginning in 1831 or 1832. What purpose he had in buying them, other than speculation, is unclear, since he was not a farmer and did not own a home. According to the 1830 census, he was unmarried, in his forties, and lived in the middle ward of St. Louis in a household consisting of five additional persons, all white males in their twenties and presumably the members of his work crew. Just several houses down the street lived the well-known Mississippi River steamboat captain J. C. Swon, a slave owner on whose boat Brown had accompanied Walker in transporting a coffle of slaves to downstream markets. Next door to Swon lived “Nancy,” likely a free woman of color; and next door to Nancy lived Lavinia Titus, a free woman of color liberated many years earlier via a successful freedom suit. Following in their mother’s footsteps, Lavinia’s children were engaged in 1832 in their own freedom suit about the time Mansfield took possession of Brown’s mother and sister. Since Mansfield was not housing his own slaves, it seems plausible that either Nancy or Lavinia was being paid to do so, and Brown’s mother and sister might have been among them.

Brown considered Mansfield a prime specimen of his view that Northerners made the worst masters. He was, of course, predisposed against anyone who came to own members of his family, particularly those closest to him, but Mansfield would give him special cause for spite. The purchases of his mother and his sister Elizabeth were the first in a series of transactions made between Young and Mansfield that in time came to include two of his five brothers (two more, Solomon and Benjamin, apparently died young, a fact of life not uncommon even among the affluent in a city plagued by disease). Mansfield did not hold the women long, Brown’s sister being the first to go. Brown claims that he first heard word of her sale when he returned from a long steamboat trip; the news devastated him. For a time he was forced to make trips by night to visit her, a task made easier when he worked for masters in St. Louis rather than on Young’s farm or on the river. Bad quickly turned to worse when, within a matter of months in 1832, Brown lost not only his sister but also his mother.

Mansfield’s sale of the younger Elizabeth might have been strictly a business decision; a healthy teenager would have brought a good price. The going rate for young women in Natchez was $350 to $400, according to a leading slave trader doing business there around that time, but Elizabeth might have fetched an even higher price. Mansfield dealt her to a man planning to take her and four other female slaves down to Natchez. Brown assumed the worst not just of the seller but also of a buyer who purchased five females (and only females) to transport to a city notorious as a center for the sex trade. Even if that was not the buyer’s intention, Brown, who had come to know the city well from his time with Walker, could only have feared that the worst would be awaiting his favorite sibling at the end of her journey.

In the local practice typical following slave sales, Elizabeth was locked up in the city jail for safekeeping while awaiting deportation. At first chance, Brown headed to the jail and left a vivid description of their final conversation:

She was seated with her face towards the door where I entered, yet she did not look up until I walked up to her. As soon as she observed me, she sprung up, threw her arms around my neck, leaned her head upon my breast, and, without uttering a word, burst into tears. As soon as she recovered herself sufficiently to speak, she advised me to take mother, and try to get out of slavery. She said there was no hope for herself,— that she must live and die a slave. After giving her some advice, and taking from my finger a ring and placing it upon hers, I bade her farewell forever, and returned to my mother, and then and there made up my mind to leave for Canada as soon as possible.

The strong-minded teenager had already confided to his mother and sister—probably to them alone—his resolve to escape. Following his sister’s incarceration, he lost no time in taking action, although now, given the altered family circumstances, he reconsidered his original intent to travel solo. Instead he urged his mother to join him, implored her that with her daughter already lost and her other sons powerless to help themselves, no less others in the family, she had no reason to remain in St. Louis. At this critical moment in the disintegration of their family life, he spoke with a new degree of authority. He might be her youngest son, but he was the nearest thing to the family caretaker. Reluctantly she agreed.

The timing for an escape, as Brown relates in his "Narrative," was auspicious, since the sale of his sister coincided with Young’s decision finally to sell him: When Brown demanded an explanation, Young claimed financial exigency, adding that in any case all other members of Brown’s family had already been sold off. But in consideration of his pledge to Brown’s father, Young was willing to allow Brown a week to arrange his own sale. The asking price was $500, a figure much less, Young added, than the offer he had rejected from Walker. Why Mansfield’s name as a potential purchaser did not come up goes unmentioned; perhaps Mansfield wanted no part of him. Brown countered by offering to raise the sale money himself by contracting out his services, but Young categorically refused. So, with Young’s permission to go to town to look for a new master, Brown began making active preparations for an escape for two. Once again, as throughout this portion of the Narrative, he gives no dates, but the overwhelming likelihood is that the year was 1832.

They waited one evening until dark before stealing a rowboat and steering directly across the Mississippi River to the Illinois shore. Although Illinois was legally a free state, they anticipated they would be crossing a region not only densely populated by defenders of slavery but also crawling with bounty hunters. Brown’s description of their flight is cagey—he provides no time of year, no landmarks, no flight path, no destination, no mention of (possible) accessories. Given the bare minimum of details, the reader is left to surmise how much they knew about the lay of the land across the treacherous no-slave zone of central Illinois. Although he had previously made multiple trips to Galena, in the northwestern corner of Illinois, it seems certain that they were headed on a northeasterly track, probably toward Chicago or Detroit and maybe beyond to Canada. They fled for about ten days, traveling by night, resting by day, and covering (by Brown’s rough estimation) 150 miles. On the eleventh day, men on horseback rode up and identified them as runaway slaves by handbills put out by Young and Mansfield and offering a $200 reward for the pair—a top-dollar amount. Taking no chances, his captors kept Brown’s hands bound for the duration of their return to St. Louis, a four-day trip by carriage. Once they reached the Mississippi River crossing point, Brown exchanged words with the familiar ferryman Samuel Wiggins, who expressed surprise at seeing someone known to him as a creditable young man brought back to town in handcuffs.

Brown and his mother were immediately taken to the same jail that had housed his sister until four days earlier. She had been removed from jail just about the time of their capture and placed on a boat already well on its way down the river. Brown never saw her again, nor presumably did their mother, whose turn was next. As soon as word of the captives’ return reached Mansfield, the enraged man arrived at the jail to collect Brown’s mother. He would have had anger to spare for Brown, a repeat troublemaker who had cost him time, money, aggravation, and probably an unwelcome and inconvenient trip to a printing office in Illinois. Brown remained confined for an additional week as slave traders poked around the jail making inquiries. The reason for his prolonged incarceration, he eventually ascertained, was that Young was seriously ill. Brown’s spite for Young continued to boil fifteen years after the event: “I prayed fervently for him—not for his recovery, but for his death.” Once recovered enough to sit up in bed, Young sent a servant to town to retrieve Brown and take him to the farm. Despite his precarious position, Brown yielded no ground to his master, responding to Young’s simmering resentment by asserting that he was simply following Young’s orders by heading toward Canada in search of a master. This was hardly the first time he exercised a freedom of presumption, even insolence, toward Young, but it was the last. As soon as he was able to mount a horse, Young settled the matter definitively by riding into town and selling Brown to the St. Louis merchant tailor Samuel Willi for the modest sum of $300.

Willi, a transplant from western Pennsylvania, was in growth mode at the time he purchased Brown. Throughout 1832, he advertised in the Missouri Republican for journeymen and “boys of good morals” to work in his store on Main Street. His store was located next door to the well-established auction house of Savage and Bostwick, whose commission business included a lively trade in slaves. The following January, for instance, while Brown belonged to Willi, they offered for sale “a likely Negro woman and child, a good cook and house servant”; and, five weeks later, “a likely Negro Boy, aged about twelve.” Brown walked by the storefront every day and undoubtedly knew people, possibly his own kin, who had passed through the hands of William Savage. At this time, Willi probably was looking for apprentices rather than slave labor, but he could not refuse the bargain he had gotten in his purchase of Brown—although Young did neglect to mention to Willi that he was buying damaged goods. The two men had known each other for some time; Willi had served Young as a tailor for years (one of his unpaid bills wound up in Young’s probate file). By the same token, Willi and Brown also had prior acquaintance, since Young had hired Brown out to him a few years earlier.

Having no immediate use for Brown’s labor around the store or house, Willi let Brown hire himself out to a steamboat owner. During the interval before his new boat’s scheduled departure, however, Brown had the ultimate reckoning to perform. Mansfield had lost no time exacting retribution against his mother by selling her to a slave trader. Brown tried several times to visit her in jail, where she was being held pending departure, but he was rebuffed. The jailer and the parties to the transaction wanted no part in allowing a troublemaker like him to have access to her. As a result, he had no choice but to time his visit for the hour and place announced for her boat’s departure. On boarding the steamer, he found her chained to another woman, the two of them part of a consignment of more than fifty slaves bound for the slave market of New Orleans. He knew the procedure all too well.

It was his second leave-taking in mere weeks, but this time he approached the dreaded reckoning weighed down by guilt: “On seeing me, she immediately dropped her head upon her heaving bosom. She moved not, neither did she weep. Her emotions were too deep for tears. I approached, threw my arms around her neck, kissed her, and fell upon my knees, begging her forgiveness, for I thought myself to blame for her sad condition; for if I had not persuaded her to accompany me, she would not then have been in chains.” She forgave him unconditionally and urged him to lose no time saving himself. They got no further before Mansfield, spotting Brown from across the boat, hurried over and began kicking him repeatedly, while berating him for having cost him $100 to reclaim his “wench.” As he retreated to the dock, Brown heard the bell tolling for the departure of the boat. He never saw his mother again, but her memory haunted him to the end of his life.


Brown was still working for Willi in late 1832 when John Young prepared for what would be his final move. Things could not have been going well for the prematurely aged fifty-four-year-old man, whose health had been declining for some time. On a single day in early October, he sold most of his extensive landholdings, in two separate transactions, to a local merchant and municipal leader of his acquaintance named Edward Tracy. On November 30, he and Sarah appeared personally in St. Louis Circuit Court to finalize the sales. The next day, he wrote his last will and testament. In a matter of weeks, he and Sarah moved to join her married sister and widowed mother in rural Lawrence County in northern Alabama, where he lived out his several remaining months. As luck would have it, the move likely placed him within twenty miles of his cousin George W. Higgins, probably by then residing in Decatur, Alabama. Perhaps the two men met one final time in Lawrence County, with one physician cousin attending the other. On January 25, 1833, Young signed a codicil to his will; in February or March, he died and was buried at his new home. Sarah did not find common cause enough with her relatives to linger in Alabama, moving back to St. Louis within several months with the ever-portable Martha Ann and whichever additional slaves the Youngs had taken with them.

Brown’s reaction to these final days in his “old master’s” life was silence. Once Young had sold him, Brown cut off all mention of his relative in the "Narrative." Silence, however, was not ignorance; he surely heard the news of Young’s death, which reached St. Louis within weeks. Nor was it indifference; Young remained a lingering presence in Brown’s consciousness for decades. Brown never ceased to harbor bitter disappointment toward a man he felt had neglected the most fundamental responsibility toward him: the obligation to protect and provide for his cousin’s son. Even this was not the entire story. The fatherless adolescent unconsciously saw in Young the substitute for the father he had never had, yet each time he appealed to Young for relief from unbearable conditions, Young turned his back. The pain for Brown was so elemental that it eventually erupted. A generation after Young’s death, Brown reincarnated him as the status-conscious, slave-master doctor and plantation owner Colonel Gaines in his hard-hitting play "The Escape," but in this incarnation he also makes Young double as the stand-in for Brown’s biological father. That craven composite of John Young and George W. Higgins was the lingering bogeyman Brown could exorcise but, despite the play’s title, could never wholly escape.

Brown’s silence about Young was deceptive in a second regard. It obscured the fact that there remained one live connection between him and Young. The tally of his brothers in the St. Louis portion of the "Narrative"—two purchased by Mansfield and two deceased—came up one short. For some reason, Brown failed to mention that, at the time of his death, Young was still the master of Brown’s older brother Leander. In the opening clause of his will, Young attended to Leander’s final disposition: “I will that my negro man Leander be sold if he wishes to buy him to Isaac Mansfield of the province of Texas,” the proceeds to go to the payment of Young’s debts. Should Mansfield reject the offer, Young stipulated that Leander be sold, provided he consented, to another master. But should Leander reject his sale to anyone but Mansfield, Young directed that Leander and any other slaves who could be “spared from the family” be hired out to raise revenue. Leander apparently wanted no part of Mansfield or any other permanent arrangement; instead, he was mortgaged to a local acquaintance of the Youngs, Thomas Biddle. What happened to Leander subsequent to the dealings between Sarah and Biddle is unclear, since his name disappears from local records after 1833.

Why was Brown not just silent but deliberately misleading about the status of this older brother? The most obvious reason seems to be that he was speaking rhetorically in his "Narrative" when he claimed he was the last member of his family to be sold by Young. Simplifying the actual dispersal of his relatives around St. Louis in a single convenient generalization allowed him as a professional antislavery lecturer to emphasize the catastrophic effect of slavery on African American families. Rhetorical leverage alone, however, would not account for his reticence about his own flesh and blood. Brown must also have felt a simmering personal disappointment, even resentment, toward older siblings who did precious little to help a family in acute distress. Even though they too presumably labored under arduous circumstances, he must have felt that the burden to take collective responsibility fell unnaturally on the shoulders of the youngest brother.

Willi turned out to be a less authoritarian master than Young, and their relationship was less fraught. Brown had relatively little to do with his new master, a man to whom he had no personal ties and from whom he was generally distanced by long periods of service on the river. Nor did Willi have any particular investment in Brown other than the expectation of good financial return, which must have accrued for at least a year from the labor of so productive an asset. Then, over a two-week period in autumn 1833, Willi closed his books with the Young estate. On September 16, he signed a receipt with Robert Renick, Young’s brother-in-law and executor, acknowledging delayed payment for a suit he had made for Young. Then, on October 2, he sold Brown to Enoch Price, a St. Louis steamboat owner and commission merchant. The price was $650, netting Willi a return on his investment too handsome to turn down.

Brown represents himself as preoccupied at the time of that transaction with only one thought: his escape. He could not have abstracted himself, however, from the altered terms of his existence. Overnight he found himself in service to a new owner who, though well known locally and on the river, might have been a stranger to him. Price, a native of the river port of Maysville, Kentucky, had come to St. Louis in 1819 and been active for years as a steamboat pilot on the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers. Earlier in his career, he had conveyed troops up the Missouri to Fort Leavenworth and other western outposts, as well as cargoes for John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company. One of the best-known pilots on the Mississippi at the time he purchased Brown, Price was vigorously pursuing the St. Louis–New Orleans trade, transporting merchandise and people (including slaves) on the new steamboat he owned, the Chester. He purchased Brown, however, not as a hand for his boat but as a household domestic. His family at the time comprised three people: Price; his wife, Almira, a native of Long Island; and their three-year-old daughter, Virginia, who died the following December. Brown joined the other two slaves, both female, in attendance on the family at its residence at 55 North Sixth Street in St. Louis. Although he performed general service around the house, his primary occupation was as a coachman, driving this respectable family to church and other destinations around town in their newly purchased carriage.

Now about nineteen, Brown understood that he bore a potential multiplier value to Mrs. Price, who was eager to match and mate him with her slave “girl” Maria. Brown insisted he objected to that particular match but knew well enough not to state that his real opposition was to any slave match whatsoever. Having witnessed the fates of his mother and sister, and no doubt countless other female slaves transported in coffles down the river, he could not have seen Mrs. Price’s matchmaking as anything but “a trap” for a young man resolved to attain his freedom and aware that the best way to gain it was to travel solo. Furthermore, he had already formed a romantic attachment with a young woman from town, one more person among the ranks of African American acquaintances from his past life who went unnamed in the "Narrative." Knowing the delicacy of his situation, he allowed Mrs. Price to believe he was attracted to a local young slave named Eliza, whom Mrs. Price persuaded her husband to purchase.

The Prices had their calculations; Brown had his. From the moment he entered their household, he was carefully weighing his options for escape. Escape on foot from the city, he already knew from experience, was difficult. Escape by water, he knew from his time on the river, improved his chances. While waiting for his opportunity, he sought out the advice of a venerated figure among the local slave population, an emaciated seventy-year-old man known familiarly to both blacks and whites as Uncle Frank. The property of a well-known, French-speaking St. Louis merchant named Sarpy, Uncle Frank lived on his own in a hut in town and earned a little pocket money by telling fortunes. Brown plunked down his quarter and listened earnestly to the old man, who peered into his gourd and told the teenager exactly what he wished to hear: One day he would be free, though not without suffering. As an older man distanced from his roots by self-improvement as well as time and space, Brown would remark that Uncle Frank had “the name, and that is about half of what one needs in this gullible age.” In 1833, however, he took the old man’s forecast far more credulously than he was later willing to admit.

This wry story about Uncle Frank expresses something quite fundamental about Brown’s mindset at the time: Those autumn days under the Prices’ roof marked a period of deep soul-searching. The nineteen-year-old young man who had all but skipped from boyhood to adulthood sensed he was fast approaching a turning point in his life. For one so young, he had witnessed and suffered extraordinary emotional and psychic pain. He had lived for nearly two decades but could not recall a stable household he could regard as his own. He had been shuttled from master to master, situation to situation, with utter disregard for his feelings, wishes, or welfare. He had witnessed the routine commission of horrors, often from a vantage too close for personal or psychic comfort. He had lived with his deepest personal, emotional, and sexual longings unreciprocated. He had lost his beloved sister to the worst scenario of female trafficking his mind was capable of imagining. And, possibly more painful yet, he had lost his beloved mother to the worst scenario of servitude he could imagine for her—and by his own admission considered himself at least partly to blame. He was also losing what little contact remained with his brothers, those same brothers about whom he had said so little perhaps because he felt there was so little to say. Yet, for all his misery, he found himself among the fortunate few, as he, better than anyone else, must have known. He was a survivor. He had survived Young, he had survived Willi, and he meant sooner rather than later to survive Price. As autumn days came on, he sensed a better day might finally be coming.

Brown’s term of service to the Prices proved short lived. Just weeks after purchasing Brown, Captain Price decided to take his family on a holiday excursion in which he mixed business with pleasure. His wife and daughter were to join him on the voyage down to New Orleans; Brown and his intended were to accompany them to serve the family needs. As the Chester pulled out of its berth in St. Louis the third or fourth week of November in 1833, Brown must have felt excruciatingly mixed emotions. The movement of the boat onto open water advanced him closer to freedom, but it also stirred agonizing memories about his mother’s and sister’s final trips down the river. The best testimony to the state of his mind came from the panoramic antislavery painting he commissioned in London in 1851 to exhibit across the British Isles. Among its twenty-four “views” was a richly symbolic one of St. Louis, conjured in surreal terms that anticipated a later St. Louis writer (T. S. Eliot’s) imagination of an “unreal city.” Its view of the city and river came from the Illinois shore, which Brown had witnessed just that one time as he and his mother were being forcibly returned to slavery. The city was vividly illuminated that particular evening by a combination of moonlight and fire from a burning flatboat, which silhouetted the city’s vertical profile. In the painting’s foreground was the steamboat Chester, just pulling out of port to begin its descent to New Orleans—but it was only one of two boats Brown fished up out of the depths of his memory. Just astern of the Chester was a small rowboat carrying Brown and his mother on their flight to freedom. Even while living within smelling distance of the rancid Thames, Brown’s nighttime memory was still roaming the Mississippi. Memory of life on the Mississippi was as inescapable for him as it would one day be for Twain.

The Chester arrived in New Orleans via Natchez on November 29, carrying 145 passengers and a cargo of the usual staples—buffalo robes, cotton, flour, mustard seed, beef, and rope. Whether it was also transporting slaves to market, as it commonly did, is unknown. It remained in port for several weeks, taking on cargo for the return trip while the Price family enjoyed the shopping and allure of the city. Brown says nothing in his "Narrative" about what he did during this interlude, but a reasonable guess would be that, as soon as he managed to shake himself free from the Prices, he went looking for news or signs of his mother. Many slaves tried to find their lost relatives in New Orleans; very few succeeded. One who did was his future friend Milton Clarke, a Kentucky slave who secured employment on a Mississippi steamer expressly to find traces of his sister Delia, sold down the river in the early 1830s. It took Clarke numerous attempts, graphically told in "Narratives of the Sufferings of Lewis and Milton Clarke," but against all odds he finally succeeded in 1838.If Brown did a search, he had no such luck.

During their stopover in New Orleans, Price was offered an extravagant sum ($2,000, he claimed) for Brown, but, with his wife’s likely objection in mind, he declined. Before embarking on the return trip, Price made the calculated gamble to bypass St. Louis and head up the Ohio River toward Cincinnati, as he had done the previous winter. This extended itinerary might not have been his original intention, to judge from the notice published by a St. Louis newspaper on December 20 that the Chester was expected home any day. Before Price committed himself to transporting Southern cargo to Northern ports, however, he took the requisite precaution to have a slave master’s frank conversation with his most valuable property. Brown recounted that classic interracial game of “puttin’ on ole massa” with arch pleasure: “Captain Price had some fears as to the propriety of taking me near a free State, or a place where it was likely I could run away, with a prospect of liberty. He asked me if I had ever been in a free State. ‘Oh yes,’ said I, ‘I have been in Ohio; my master carried me into that State once, but I never liked a free State.’” When Mrs. Price, no less suspicious, took her turn at probing Sandy’s loyalty to her family, he responded just as coyly by reaffirming his love for Eliza: “Nothing but death should part us.” The Prices took the bait.

Throughout the first week of December, Price put out advertisements in both French and English for passengers and freight. By mid-December, the Chester was steaming back up the river, stopping along the way to trade and to let off and take on passengers. At the intersection of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers in Cairo, Illinois, it reversed the western turn that Brown might have made in 1817 when the Young party migrated downstream from Kentucky. It made a penultimate stop at Louisville on one of the last days of the year, discharging cargo and passengers. If Price’s account is to be trusted, he was once again offered an extravagant sum ($1,500, he claimed) for his impressive male slave, and once again he declined. He would have twenty years to rue his mistake.

Brown was unaware of this proposition. He was too busy to focus on Price while his imagination was already racing up the river, miles ahead of his circumstances. He had been readying himself for days, possibly weeks. He had saved whatever money he could before the departure, sewed a cotton pouch to hold his few possessions, and gathered his best clothes. He would tell a post–Civil War gathering of the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York City that he stole his master’s coat, but it is more likely he made his escape wearing little winter clothing of any sort. He paced the deck that last evening of the year with the ship docked alongside his native soil as he made his final preparations for escape.


At the time of Brown’s escape , Cincinnati was a thriving river port of nearly 30,000, the largest Northern city outside the Atlantic corridor and a major crossroads for the flow of goods and people between North and South, East and West. The city directory reported that 1,200 of its residents were “blacks and mulattoes,” and another 1,500 a transient population comprising river men, travelers, and sundry others. Of the many people who passed through the city, an invisible percentage would have been fugitive slaves, since, as a major river port and border town, Cincinnati was one of the most important interior stations on the Underground Railroad.

Given its strategic location and size, Cincinnati was bound to play a major role in the national conflict over slavery. Just a month after Brown’s flight, one of the most important early nineteenth-century debates about US slavery erupted on Walnut Hill, a theological redoubt overlooking the commercial downtown from its northeast heights. They took place at the fledgling Lane Theological Seminary, founded in 1829 as an institution for training indigent young men for the Presbyterian ministry. Neither the Lane brothers of New Orleans who originally bankrolled it nor their trustees foresaw the radical fervor that broke out on their campus during its fifth winter. Word of the great slavery debates quickly circulated around the country through newspapers sympathetic and unsympathetic alike.

The president of the seminary was Lyman Beecher, a renowned minister fervent about divinity but not about slavery. In 1832, the seminary had lured Beecher west from Boston, along with his family, to add luster to the institution. Prominent among the seminary trustees was Arthur Tappan of New York, a recent convert himself to abolitionism and the president of the newly organized American Anti-Slavery Society. Beecher, however, took a backseat in the debates to a core group of talented, idealistic students zealous to serve God and the common good. These young men came from all across the country—from the East Coast to Arkansas and Missouri, and from both sides of the Ohio River. Among them was a black man, James Bradley, born in Africa and a slave in South Carolina and Arkansas before purchasing his freedom through extraordinary perseverance. Seven of the seminarians, by contrast, were the sons of slaveholders. Out of this diverse group, one extraordinarily talented student emerged as its leader: the charismatic Theodore Dwight Weld. Born in Connecticut and descended from a Puritan lineage running back to Jonathan Edwards and Timothy Dwight, Weld had come west fired by a mission, as a friend encouraged him, to convert the Ohio River Valley into “the great battlefield between the powers of light and darkness.” Weld combined two of the most potent ingredients of the time, each flammable but together combustible: messianic evangelicalism and radical abolitionism.

He leveled his attack against the moderate position held by Beecher and the seminary, which held that slavery was an evil inconsistent with American ideals but whose proper redress was for a people unequally endowed with whites and incapable of assimilation to return to its African homeland. Weld, Henry Stanton, and other radical leaders argued vehemently that the only moral solution was immediate abolition and subsequent preparation for African Americans to take their just positions in American society. Over the course of eighteen nights of speeches and sermons, that radical position, which had been held previously by few whites outside the just-formed American Anti-Slavery Society, converted the Lane student body en masse. Students who had considered themselves colonialists came over to Weld’s views, and some students even moved from words to action. A Lane Seminary antislavery society was organized, with two sons of the slaveholding South in leadership positions: Alabaman William Allan as president and Kentuckian James Thome as treasurer. Putting into practice Weld’s conviction that “faith without works is dead,” some students forged connections as teachers with the African American community down the hill.

Student leaders then took their case to the rest of the country. Thome and Stanton represented the seminary’s antislavery society at the first annual meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, held that June in New York. There they interacted with national leaders, such as founding president Arthur Tappan and founding member William Lloyd Garrison, Boston’s leading antislavery activist, who had covered the Lane Seminary developments with avid interest in his abolitionist newspaper, the Liberator. Thome quickly emerged as a center of attention at the New York meeting, a specimen convert from the slaveholding South who delivered one of its highlighted addresses. Speaking as “a living witness” from Kentucky, Thome attacked the institution of slavery from both inside and outside. He even revealed its intimate practices, such as the fact that slave quarters “are exposed to the entrance of strangers every hour of the night, and that the sleeping apartments of both sexes are common.”

Back on Walnut Hill and across Cincinnati, reaction soon set in. Beecher and most of the trustees were mortified by the debates, which not only challenged their principles but, worse yet, endangered the seminary’s delicate relations with the downtown merchants, some of them Southerners and most of them engaged in business across the river. A rift was inevitable, and seminary authorities expelled many of the most outspoken students by year’s end. A core group, including trustee Asa Mahan, eventually joined the progressive Oberlin Institute, which Mahan later served as president. Others, like Weld, spread out and traveled across the Northern states as antislavery lecturers. In time, Brown would come to interact with a number of the Lane Seminary outcasts. Influenced by Weld’s bestselling "American Slavery As It Is" (1839), he quoted from it extensively in his "Narrative" and later books. He and Mahan would travel to Paris in 1849 as fellow delegates to the International Peace Congress. He would write "Clotel," his antislavery novel, under the inspiration of Lyman Beecher’s daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe. And he would have to refute accusations made by Arthur (and Lewis) Tappan of personal and sexual impropriety that threatened his career as a public speaker.


The escape took place on New Year’s Day in 1834—the one entirely trustworthy date in this portion of Brown’s "Narrative." As the Chester neared Cincinnati, he paced the deck, scanning the riverfront for the best escape route. While Price, the crew, and passengers were preoccupied attending to the landing, Brown acted with dispatch. In the rush and confusion of disembarkation, he slipped clear of the family, lifted a trunk onto his shoulders, and headed down the gangplank and across the wharf. Dropping the trunk, he moved quickly beyond the crowd and, avoiding the city, headed toward the woods for cover. The most likely guess is that he veered off around the western side of town, the side less built up and the one he would have observed as the boat approached the Public Landing.

He waited in a marshy area until dark before setting out on the long trip north. His destination was Canada, probably via Cleveland. He had no map, compass, or guide—only, in line with the songs and lore he loved, the North Star. He moved fast that first night, later estimating his progress as twenty or twenty-five miles. But that was not a pace he could maintain for long, as his small supply of food grew depleted and his strength gave way. Worse yet, he had not anticipated the severe effect a northern climate would have on his progress. According to one local newspaper, the first week of the year brought the bitterest weather of the season. The temperature dropped to near zero Fahrenheit in the depths of the weeklong cold snap and did not rise above freezing. Canals and rivers froze, closing navigation across the region. Ice blocks formed, turning the Ohio River into the land bridge vaunted in Underground Railroad fact and legend.

That first week, Brown suffered terribly from a combination of exposure and hunger as he made his way northeast. He eventually became sick, his feet probably frostbitten. Although afraid to trust any white person, he finally succumbed to desperation in venturing out for help. Hiding behind a pile of logs near the road, he let each of two white men pass by before he took his life in his hands by stepping out into the road and approaching a third, an elderly man in a Quaker-styled broadbrimmed hat who was leading a horse. The man took one look at the disheveled youth and asked point-blank whether he was a runaway slave. Brown conceded the point, but only after receiving assurance that the man would aid him. He so doubted the man’s probity that the hours he spent waiting for his return with a covered wagon were the longest of his life. But Brown had found a white man true to his word, and in his later account of the story in his "Narrative," that man and his wife saved his life. The old man took Brown in the covered wagon to his house, where he and his wife fed, clothed, fitted him out in proper boots, and harbored him two weeks until his strength was restored.

His rescuer was Wells Brown, a Quaker living somewhere in central Ohio, an area of the state containing scattered communities of Friends. Brown claimed in his "Narrative" that his “adopted father” lived about “fifty or sixty” miles from Dayton, but that assertion needs to be taken cautiously. He also claimed that he was then “between one and two hundred” miles from Cleveland. Writing at a time when unprecedented numbers of fugitives were trekking north across Ohio in search of freedom, he might have been deliberately vague. Or he might simply have been unsure of his numerical units about a state with which he was unfamiliar. Either way, a safer unit of calculation is his count of days spent on the road, which would put the location of the Wells Brown homestead roughly midway along a shaky line between Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Besides giving humanitarian assistance and practical advice, Wells Brown tendered one special service, according to Brown’s"Narrative": He offered to rename the young man after himself, as though bestowing upon him a patrimony previously lacking. Whether or not he was a particularly discerning person able to read Brown’s history and temperament, he found a young man in a keenly receptive mood. Deprived, like nearly all slaves, of self-determination and autonomy, Brown had felt the keenest connection between name and identity from the moment Dr. Young stripped him of his birth name. In his flight to freedom, he wrote, he was “not only hunting for my liberty, but also hunting for a name.” The first life-determining decision he had made after passing north of Cincinnati was to discard both the hated slave name Sandy and the patrimonial legacy of George W. Higgins: “And as for my father, I would rather have adopted the name of ‘Friday,’ and been known as the servant of some Robinson Crusoe, than to have taken his name.” It was as William that he entered the Quaker household, trailing no patronymic, and as William Wells Brown that he departed. In his "Narrative," he recalled one of the most decisive moments in his life by imparting biblical overtones to the informal naming ceremony conducted by his adopting father: “ ‘I will call thee William Wells Brown.’ ‘So be it,’ said I; and I have been known by that name ever since I left the house of my first white friend, Wells Brown.” As a fully consenting adult son, Brown paid his adopting father the ultimate tribute by dedicating his life story to him. That dedication remained in all subsequent editions, even those published in England.

Safe in body and spirit under his hosts’ roof, Brown felt free to conjure his past. Memories from St. Louis and Cincinnati washed over him as he entered into vicarious conversation with some of the significant people from his past. First and foremost he addressed his mother and sister, as though by informing them of his liberation he could redeem their suffering (and maybe also ease his survivor’s guilt). He then addressed fellow slaves left behind in St. Louis, who he wished could see him in his new state of being. Then, as though by contrast, he called up Captain and Mrs. Price, who he wished could see him now as a free man. They must sorely have wished to get a look at him too, as they bided their time in icebound Cincinnati waiting for news or return delivery of their fugitive property. Even if Price had entertained any thought of continuing up the river to his hometown of Maysville, he would have been hindered by the deep freeze. But that does not mean he was inactive; a man as determined as Captain Price would have spared no effort to retrieve his lawful property.

Brown, reinvigorated and renamed, returned to the road. The food and money from his benefactors sustained him for the next four days, until he approached an inn. No sooner had he entered to warm himself than he overhead conversation in the barroom about fugitive slaves having recently passed through the neighborhood. Fearing that the men were referring to him, he retreated inconspicuously from the inn and took cover in the woods until nightfall. Several more days of flight left him tired and starved, so he stopped at a farmhouse to ask for food. Elbowing aside her begrudging husband, the farmwife let him in, fed him, and gave him a little pocket money for his way. Thus readied for the final push, Brown resumed his journey northeastward. At some point on the third day, peering through the bare woods, he could see the Cuyahoga River and, rising on the far bluff, the small town of Cleveland.

Excerpted from "William Wells Brown: An African American Life" by Ezra Greenspan. Published by W.W. Norton and Co., Inc. Copyright © 2014 by Ezra Greenspan. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

By Ezra Greenspan

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