William Wells Brown



William Wells Brown 1814 to 1884


from Brown's early autobiography: chapter 11

Before leaving this good Quaker friend, he inquired what my name was besides William. I told him that I had no other name. "Well," said he, "thee must have another name. Since thee has got out of slavery, thee has become a man, and men always have two names."

I told him that he was the first man to extend the hand of friendship to me, and I would give him the privilege of naming me.

"If I name thee," said he, "I shall call thee Wells Brown, after myself."

"But," said I, "I am not willing to lose my name of William. As it was taken from me once against my will, I am not willing to part with it again upon any terms.

"Then," said he, "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.

After giving me some little change, I again started for Canada. In four days I reached a public house, and went into warm myself. I there learned that some fugitive slaves had just passed through the place. The men in the bar-room were talking about it, and I thought that it must have been myself they referred to, and I was therefore afraid to start, fearing they would seize me; but I finally mustered courage enough, and took my leave. As soon as I was out of sight, I went into the woods, and remained there until night, when I again regained the road, and travelled on until next day.

Not having had any food for nearly two days; I was faint with hunger, and was in a dilemma what to do, as the little cash supplied me by my adopted father, and which had contributed to my comfort, was now all gone. I however concluded to go to a farm-house, and ask for something to eat. On approaching the door of the first one presenting itself, I knocked, and was soon met by a man who asked me what I wanted. I told him that I would like something to eat. He asked me where I was from, and where I was going. I replied that I had come some way, and was going to Cleaveland.

After hesitating a moment or two, he told me that he could give me nothing to eat, adding, "that if I would work, I could get something to eat."

I felt bad, being thus refused something to sustain nature, but did not dare tell him that I was a slave.

Just as I was leaving the door, with a heavy heart, a woman, who proved to be the wife of this gentleman, came to the door, and asked her husband what I wanted. He did not seem inclined to inform her. She therefore asked me herself. I told her that I had asked for something to eat. After a few other questions, she told me to come in, and that she would give me something to eat.

I walked up to the door, but the husband remained in the passage, as if unwilling to let me enter.

She asked him two or three times to get out of the way, and let me in. But as he did not move, she pushed him on one side, bidding me walk in! I was never before so glad to see a woman push a man aside! Ever since that act, I have been in favor of "woman's rights!"

After giving me as much food as I could eat, she presented me with ten cents, all the money then at her disposal, accompanied with a note to a friend, a few miles further on the road. Thanking this angel of mercy from an overflowing heart, I pushed on my way, and in three days arrived at Cleaveland, Ohio.

Being an entire stranger in this place, it was difficult for me to find where to stop. I had no money, and the lake being frozen, I saw that I must remain until the opening of the navigation, or go to Canada by way of Buffalo. But believing myself to be somewhat out of danger, I secured an engagement at the Mansion House, as a table waiter, in payment for my board. The proprietor, however, whose name was E. M. Segur, in a short time, hired me for twelve dollars a month; on which terms I remained until spring, when I found good employment on board a lake steamboat.

I purchased some books, and at leisure moments perused them with considerable advantage to myself. While at Cleaveland, I saw, for the first time, an anti-slavery newspaper. It was the "Genius of Universal Emancipation," published by Benjamin Lundy; and though I had no home, I subscribed for the paper. It was my great desire, being out of slavery myself, to do what I could for the emancipation of my brethren yet in chains, and while on Lake Erie, I found many opportunities of "helping their cause along."

It is well known that a great number of fugitives make their escape to Canada, by way of Cleaveland; and while on the lakes, I always made arrangement to carry them on the boat to Buffalo or Detroit, and thus effect their escape to the "promised land." The friends of the slave, knowing that I would transport them without charge, never failed to have a delegation when the boat arrived at Cleaveland. I have sometimes had four or five on board at one time.

In the year 1842, I conveyed, from the first of May to the first of December, sixty-nine fugitives over Lake Erie to Canada. In 1843, I visited Malden, in Upper Canada, and counted seventeen in that small village, whom I had assisted in reaching Canada. Soon after coming north I subscribed for the Liberator, edited by that champion of freedom, William Lloyd Garrison. I had heard nothing of the anti-slavery movement while in slavery, and as soon as I found that my enslaved countrymen had friends who were laboring for their liberation, I felt anxious to join them, and give what aid I could to the cause.

I early embraced the temperance cause, and found that a temperance reformation was needed among my colored brethren. In company with a few friends, I commenced a temperance reformation among the colored people in the city of Buffalo, and labored three years, in which time a society was built up, numbering over five hundred out of a population of less than seven hundred.

In the autumn, 1843, impressed with the importance of spreading anti-slavery truth, as a means to bring about the abolition of slavery, I commenced lecturing as an agent of the western New York Anti-Slavery Society, and have ever since devoted my time to the cause of my enslaved countrymen.

Brown's autobiography: chapter 12

During the autumn of 1836, a slaveholder by the name of Bacon Tate, from the State of Tennessee, came to the north in search of fugitives from slavery. On his arrival at Buffalo he heard of two of the most valuable of the slaves that he was in pursuit of. They were residing in St. Catharine's, in Upper Canada, some twenty-five miles from Buffalo. After hearing that they were in Canada, one would have supposed that Tate would have given up all hope of getting them. But not so. Bacon Tate was a man who had long been engaged in the slave-trade, and previous to that had been employed as a negro-driver. In these two situations he had gained the name of being the most complete "negro-breaker" in that part of Tennessee where he resided. He was as unfeeling and as devoid of principle as a man could possibly be. This made him the person, above all others, to be selected to be put on the track of the fugitive slave. He had not only been commissioned to catch Stanford and his wife, the two valuable slaves already alluded to, but he had the names of some twenty others.

Many slaves had made their escape from the vicinity of Nashville, and the slaveholders were anxious to have some caught, that they might make an example of them. And Tate, anxious to sustain his high reputation as a negro-catcher, left no stone unturned to carry out his nefarious objects.

Stanford and his little family were as happily situated as fugitives can be, who make their escape to Canada in the cold season of the year. Tate, on his arrival at Buffalo, took lodgings at the Eagle Tavern, the best house at that time in the city. And here he began to lay his plans to catch and carry back into slavery those men and women who had undergone so much to get their freedom. He soon became acquainted with a profligate colored woman, who was a servant in the hotel, and who was as unprincipled as himself. This woman was sent to St. Catharine's, to spy out the situation of Stanford's family. Under the pretence of wishing to get board in the family, and at the same time offering to pay a week's board in advance, she was taken in. After remaining with them three or four days, the spy returned to Buffalo, and informed Tate how they were situated. By the liberal use of money, Tate soon found those who were willing to do his bidding. A carriage was hired, and four men employed to go with it to St. Catharine's, and to secure their victims during the night.

The carriage, with the kidnappers, crossed the Niagara river at Black Rock, on Saturday evening, about seven o'clock, and went on its way towards St. Catharine's; no one suspecting in the least that they were after fugitive slaves. About twelve o'clock that night they attacked Stanford's dwelling by breaking in the door. They found the family asleep, and of course met with no obstacle whatever in tying, gagging, and forcing them into the carriage.

The family had one child about six weeks old. That was kept at its mother's breast, to keep it quiet. The carriage re-crossed the river, at the same place, the next morning at sunrise, and proceeded to Buffalo, where it remained a short time, and after changing horses and leaving some of its company, it proceeded on its journey. The carriage being closely covered, no one had made the least discovery as to its contents. But some time during the morning, a man, who was neighbor to Stanford, and who resided but a short distance from him, came on an errand; and finding the house deserted, and seeing the most of the family's clothes lying on the floor, and seeing here and there stains of blood, soon gave the alarm, and the neighbors started in every direction, to see if they could find the kidnappers. One man got on the track of the carriage, and followed it to the ferry at Black Rock, where he heard that it had crossed some three hours before. He went on to Buffalo, and gave the alarm to the colored people of that place. The colored people of Buffalo are noted for their promptness in giving aid to the fugitive slave. The alarm was given just as the bells were ringing for church. I was in company with five or six others, when I heard that a brother slave with his family had been seized and dragged from his home during the night previous. We started on a run for the livery-stable, where we found as many more of our own color trying to hire horses to go in search of the fugitives. There were two roads which the kidnappers could take, and we were at some loss to know which to take ourselves. But we soon determined to be on the right track, and so divided our company, -- one half taking the road to Erie, the other taking the road leading to Hamburgh. I was among those who took the latter.

We travelled on at a rapid rate, until we came within half a mile of Hamburgh Corners, when we met a man on the side of the road on foot, who made signs to us to stop. We halted for a moment, when he informed us that the carriage that we were in pursuit of was at the public house, and that he was then in search of some of his neighbors, to assemble and to demand of the kidnappers the authority by which they were taking these people into slavery.

We proceeded to the tavern, where we found the carriage standing in front of the door, with a pair of fresh horses ready to proceed on their journey. The kidnappers, seeing us coming, took their victims into a room, and locked the door and fastened down the windows. We all dismounted, fastened our horses, and entered the house. We found four or five persons in the bar-room, who seemed to rejoice as we entered.

One of our company demanded the opening of the door, while others went out and surrounded the house. The kidnappers stationed one of their number at the door, and another at the window. They refused to let us enter the room, and the tavern-keeper, who was more favorable to us than we had anticipated, said to us, "Boys, get into the room in any way that you can; the house is mine, and I give you the liberty to break in through the door or window." This was all that we wanted, and we were soon making preparations to enter the room at all hazards. Those within had warned us that if we should attempt to enter, they would "shoot the first one." One of our company, who had obtained a crow-bar, went to the window, and succeeded in getting it under the sash, and soon we had the window up, and the kidnappers, together with their victims, in full view.

One of the kidnappers, while we were raising the window, kept crying at the top of his voice, "I'll shoot, I'll shoot!" but no one seemed to mind him. As soon as they saw that we were determined to rescue the slaves at all hazards, they gave up, one of their number telling us that we might "come in."

The door was thrown open, and we entered, and there found Stanford seated in one corner of the room, with his hands tied behind him, and his clothing, what little he had on, much stained with blood. Near him was his wife, with her child, but a few weeks old, in her arms. Neither of them had anything on except their night-clothes. They had both been gagged, to keep them from alarming the people, and had been much beaten and bruised when first attacked by the kidnappers. Their countenances lighted up the moment we entered the room.

The most of those who made up our company were persons who had made their escape from slavery, and who knew its horrors from personal experience, and who had left near and dear relatives behind them. And we knew how to "feel for those in bonds as bound with them."

The woman who had betrayed them, and who was in the house at the time they were taken, had been persuaded by Tate to go on with him to Tennessee. She had accompanied them from Canada, and we found her in the same room with Stanford and his wife. As soon as she found that we were about to enter the room, she ran under the bed. We knew nothing of her being in the room until Stanford pointed to the bed and said, "Under there is our betrayer." She was soon hauled out, and it was as much as some of us could do to keep the others from lynching her upon the spot. The curses came thick and fast from a majority of the company. But nothing attracted my attention at the time more than the look of Mrs. Stanford at the betrayer, as she sat before her. She did not say a word to her, but her countenance told the feelings of her inmost soul, and we could but think, that had she spoken to her, she would have said, "May the world deny thee a shelter! earth a home! the dust a grave! the sun his light! and Heaven her God!"

The betrayer begged us to let her go. I was somewhat disposed to comply with her request, but I found many to oppose me; in fact, I was entirely alone. My main reason for wishing to let her escape was that I was afraid that her life would be in danger. I knew that, if she was taken back to Buffalo or Canada, she would fall into the hands of an excited people, the most of whom had themselves been slaves. And they, being comparatively ignorant of the laws, would be likely to take the law into their own hands.

However, the woman was not allowed to escape, but was put into the coach, together with Stanford and his wife; and after an hour and a half's drive, we found ourselves in the city of Buffalo. The excitement which the alarm had created in the morning had broken up the meetings of the colored people for that day; and on our arrival in the city we were met by some forty or fifty colored persons. The kidnappers had not been inactive; for, on our arrival in the city, we learned that the man who had charge of the carriage and fugitives when we caught up with them, returned to the city immediately after giving the slaves up to us, and had informed Tate, who had remained behind, of what had occurred. Tate immediately employed the sheriff and his posse to re-take the slaves. So, on our arrival in Buffalo, we found that the main battle had yet to be fought. Stanford and his wife and child were soon provided with clothing and some refreshment, while we were preparing ourselves with clubs, pistols, knives, and other weapons of defence. News soon come to us that the sheriff, with his under officers, together with some sixty or seventy men who were at work on the canal, were on the road between Buffalo and Black Rock, and that they intended to re-take the slaves when we should attempt to take them to the ferry to convey them to Canada. This news was anything but pleasant to us, but we prepared for the worst.

We returned to the city about two o'clock in the afternoon, and about four we started for Black Rock ferry, which is about three miles below Buffalo. We had in our company some fifty or more able-bodied, resolute men, who were determined to stand by the slaves, and who had resolved, before they left the city, that if the sheriff and his men took the slaves, they should first pass over their dead bodies.

We started, and when about a mile below the city, the sheriff and his men came upon us, and surrounded us. The slaves were in a carriage, and the horses were soon stopped, and we found it advisable to take them out of the carriage, and we did so. The sheriff came forward, and read something purporting to be a "Riot Act," and at the same time called upon all good citizens to aid him in keeping the "peace." This was a trick of his, to get possession of the slaves. His men rushed upon us with their clubs and stones and a general fight ensued. Our company had surrounded the slaves, and had succeeded in keeping the sheriff and his men off. We fought, and at the same time kept pushing on towards the ferry.

In the midst of the fight, a little white man made his appearance among us, and proved to be a valuable friend. His name was Pepper; and he proved himself a pepper to the sheriff and his posse that day. He was a lawyer; and as the officers would arrest any of our company, he would step up and ask the officer if he had a "warrant to take that man;" and as none of them had warrants, and could not answer affirmatively, he would say to the colored man, "He has no right to take you; knock him down." The command was no sooner given than the man would fall. If the one who had been arrested was not able to knock him down, some who were close by, and who were armed with a club or other weapon, would come to his assistance.

After it became generally known in our company that the "little man" was a lawyer, he had a tremendous influence with them. You could hear them cry out occasionally, "That's right, knock him down; the little man told you to do it, and he is a lawyer; he knows all about the law; that's right, -- hit him again! he is a white man, and he has done our color enough."

Such is but a poor representation of what was said by those who were engaged in the fight. After a hard-fought battle, of nearly two hours, we arrived at the ferry, the slaves still in our possession. On arriving at the ferry, we found that some of the sheriff's gang had taken possession of the ferry-boat. Here another battle was to be fought, before the slaves could reach Canada. The boat was fastened at each end by a chain, and in the scuffle for the ascendency, one party took charge of one end of the boat, while the other took the other end. The blacks were commanding the ferryman to carry them over, while the whites were commanding him not to. While each party was contending for power, the slaves were pushed on board, and the boat shoved from the wharf. Many of the blacks jumped on board of the boat, while the whites jumped on shore. And the swift current of the Niagara soon carried them off, amid the shouts of the blacks, and the oaths and imprecations of the whites. We on shore swung our hats and gave three cheers, just as a reinforcement came to the whites. Seeing the odds entirely against us in numbers, and having gained the great victory, we gave up without resistance, and suffered ourselves to be arrested by the sheriff's posse. However, we all remained on the shore until the ferry-boat had landed on the Canada side. As the boat landed, Stanford leaped on shore, and rolled over in the sand, and even rubbed it into his hair.

I did not accompany the boat over, but those who did informed us that Mrs. Stanford, as she stepped on the shore, with her child in her arms, exclaimed, "I thank God that I am again in Canada!" We returned to the city, and some forty of our company were lodged in jail, to await their trial the next morning.

And now I will return to the betrayer. On our return to Buffalo, she was given over to a committee of women, who put her in a room, and put a guard over her. Tate, who had been very active from the time that he heard that we had recaptured the carriage with the slaves, was still in the city. He was not with the slaves when we caught up with them at Hamburgh, nor was he to be found in the fight. He sent his hirelings, while he remained at the hotel drinking champagne. As soon as he found the slaves were out of his reach, he then made an offer of fifty dollars to any person who would find the betrayer. He pretended that he wished to save her from the indignation of the colored people. But the fact is, he had promised her that if she would accompany him to the south, that he would put her in a situation where she would be a lady. Poor woman! She was foolish enough to believe him; and now that the people had lost all sympathy for her, on account of her traitorous act, he still thought that, by pretending to be her friend, he could induce her to go to the south, that he might sell her. But those who had her in charge were determined that she should be punished for being engaged in this villanous transaction.

Several meetings were held to determine what should be done with her. Some were in favor of hanging her, others for burning her, but a majority were for taking her to the Niagara river, tying a fifty-six pound weight to her, and throwing her in. There seemed to be no way in which she could be reached by the civil law. She was kept in confinement three days, being removed to different places each night.

So conflicting were the views of those who had her in charge, that they could not decide upon what should be done with her. However, there seemed to be such a vast majority in favor of throwing her into the Niagara river, that some of us, who were opposed to taking life, succeeded in having her given over to another committee, who, after reprimanding her, let her go.

Tate, in the mean time, hearing that the colored people had resolved to take vengeance on him, thought it best to leave the city. On Monday, at ten o'clock, we were all carried before Justice Grosvenor; and of the forty who had been committed the evening before, twenty-five were held to bail to answer to a higher court. When the trials came on, we were fined more or less, from five to fifty dollars each.

During the fight no one was killed, though there were many broken noses and black eyes; one young man, who was attached to a theatrical corps, was so badly injured in the conflict that he died some three months after.

Thus ended one of the most fearful fights for human freedom that I ever witnessed. The reader will observe that this conflict took place on the Sabbath, and that those who were foremost in getting it up were officers of justice. The plea of the sheriff and his posse was, that we were breaking the Sabbath by assembling in such large numbers to protect a brother slave and his wife and child from being dragged back into slavery, which is far worse than death itself.

read the entire autobiography here: William Wells Brown Narrative