William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Montgomery County, Kentucky, about 1814. His mother was ill-used and had children by seven different fathers. One of his brothers was the slave of William Travis, and one of the few survivors of the Alamo.
In 1833, William attempted to escape with his mother. They dreamed of freedom in Canada, away from “Democratic whips—its Republican chains—its evangelical blood-hounds, and its religious slave-holders—when I thought of all this paraphernalia of American Democracy and Religion behind me, and the prospect of liberty before me, I was encouraged to press forward, my heart was strengthened, and I forgot that I was tired or hungry.”
Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (p. 25). Kindle Edition.
They traveled by night but ran short on food. After two days of going hungry, they decided to risk stopping at a farmhouse and asking for food. They were given a place to stay, and food, as well as advice for traveling. They were told it would be safe to travel during the day and listened to the advice. One day’s travel from that house, they ran into a patrol.
Three men came up on horseback, and ordered us to stop. I turned to the one who appeared to be the principal man, and asked him what he wanted. He said he had a warrant to take us up. The three immediately dismounted, and one took from his pocket a handbill, advertising us as runaways, and offering a reward of two hundred dollars for our apprehension, and delivery in the city of St. Louis. The advertisement had been put out by Isaac Mansfield and John Young. While they were reading the advertisement, mother looked me in the face, and burst into tears. A cold chill ran over me, and such a sensation I never experienced before, and I hope never to again. They took out a rope and tied me, and we were taken back about six miles, to the house of the individual who appeared to be the leader.Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (p. 25). Kindle Edition.
William was put in chains. He and his mother traveled four days with the white men under close guard to St. Louis. On arrival, they were separated and put in jail. His master threatened to sell his mother South, to the fever plantations, as a substitute for a public whipping. He’d sworn an oath not to sell William to New Orleans and was aggrieved that William would try to run away.
“I told [him] I had acted according to his orders. He had told me to look for a master, and I had been to look for one. He answered that he did not tell me to go to Canada to look for a master. I told him that as I had served him faithfully, and had been the means of putting a number of hundreds of dollars into his pocket, I thought I had a right to my liberty.”Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (p. 27). Kindle Edition.
His master did not agree and soon sold him to Mr. Willi. Willi was not very wealthy and decided to hire William out as a means of gaining funds. William went to work on a steamboat. He tried every means possible to find and communicate with his mother. At last, he learned which boat would take her South, and appeared at the dock. He saw her, chained in a line with about one hundred other slaves. No one was looking, so he went up to speak to her.
” She finally raised her head, looked me in the face, (and such a look none but an angel can give!) and said, “My dear son, you are not to blame for my being here. You have done nothing more nor less than your duty. Do not, I pray you, weep for me. I cannot last long upon a cotton plantation. I feel that my heavenly master will soon call me home, and then I shall be out of the hands of the slave-holders!” I could bear no more—my heart struggled to free itself from the human form. In a moment she saw Mr. Mansfield coming toward that part of the boat, and she whispered into my ear, “My child, we must soon part to meet no more this side of the grave. You have ever said that you would not die a slave; that you would be a freeman. Now try to get your liberty! You will soon have no one to look after but yourself!” and just as she whispered the last sentence into my ear, Mansfield came up to me, and with an oath, said, “Leave here this instant; you have been the means of my losing one hundred dollars to get this wench back,”—at the same time kicking me with a heavy pair of boots.“Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (p. 28). Kindle Edition.
Wells tells of another incident, on a trip with his master to Natchez, Mississippi.
“I saw a slave very cruelly whipped. He belonged to a Mr. Broadwell, a merchant who kept a store on the wharf. The slave’s name was Lewis. I had known him for several years, as he was formerly from St. Louis. We were expecting a steamboat down the river, in which we were to take passage for New Orleans. Mr. Walker sent me to the landing to watch for the boat, ordering me to inform him of its arrival. While there, I went into the store to see Lewis. I saw a slave in the store and asked him where Lewis was. Said he, “They have got Lewis hanging between the heavens and the earth.” I asked him what he meant by that. He told me to go into the warehouse and see. I went in and found Lewis there. He was tied up to a beam, with his toes just touching the floor. As there was no one in the warehouse but himself, I inquired the reason of his being in that situation. He said Mr. Broadwell had sold his wife to a planter six miles from the city, and that he had been to visit her,—that he went in the night, expecting to return before daylight, and went without his master’s permission. The patrol had taken him up before he reached his wife. He was put in jail, and his master had to pay for his catching and keeping, and that was what he was tied up for. Just as he finished his story, Mr. Broadwell came in, and inquired what I was doing there. I knew not what to say, and while I was thinking what reply to make, he struck me over the head with the cowhide, the end of which struck me over my right eye, sinking deep into the flesh, leaving a scar which I carry to this day. Before I visited Lewis, he had received fifty lashes. Mr. Broadwell gave him fifty lashes more after I came out, as I was afterwards informed by Lewis himself.Brown, William Wells. The Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave (p. 14). Kindle Edition.
William heeded his mother’s wish, and within a year, had managed to escape to freedom.