Arnold Gragston ferried slaves across the Ohio River, "freeing other people while remaining enslaved himself"; Nelson Gant was tried for attempting to steal his wife from slavery; Althea Lynch, cook and escaped slave, set off "a crisis that involved one military governor, two posses and a U.S. Marshal." That's just a sampling of the "stories of former slaves and freedmen who were agile enough to... sneak through holes in the system and take what seemed like very little and turn it into more than enough" in award-winning journalist DeRamus's salute to the daring and the inventiveness of those who made history, while not making it into history books. DeRamus's touch is light and journalistic, close in tone to Sunday supplement pieces, and a bit jazzy ("It was love bubbling on a stove, love shouting at the low-slung midnight moon"). Entertaining and easy reading it is, but as DeRamus reaches beyond the famously heroic figures into the lives of the little known, she enriches and alters our perspective on 19th-century African-American daily life. (Feb.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Freedom by Any Means: True Stories of Cunning and Courage on the Underground Railroadby Betty DeRamus
Freedom by Any Means explains how African Americans resorted to using extraordinary methods to maintain their seemingly impossible personal relationships during the antebellum period. Besides running away together or raising money to buy their freedom, loved ones filed successful lawsuits, became military spies or counterspies, and used rumors of voodoo to/i>… See more details below
Freedom by Any Means explains how African Americans resorted to using extraordinary methods to maintain their seemingly impossible personal relationships during the antebellum period. Besides running away together or raising money to buy their freedom, loved ones filed successful lawsuits, became military spies or counterspies, and used rumors of voodoo to create bluffs and tricks in order to survive.
Riveting and surprising, Betty DeRamus captures the tumultuous lives of the humans in inhumane situations who were able to salvage their families and marriages and achieve freedom together against tremendous odds. Freedom by Any Means also features the return of many of the beloved figures from her previous book Forbidden Fruit, including Lucy Nichols, Al and Margaret Wood, and Sylvia and Louis Stark.
This inspiring account, steeped in rich historical research, attests to the resolve of the human spirit and reveals how men and women were willing to risk it all to escape the slavery.
- Atria Books
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)
Read an Excerpt
THE BIG BLUFF
No one yelled for the sheriff when a free black man named John Bowley showed up at a Maryland slave auction in December 1850. To the small crowd at the Dorchester County courthouse, Bowley was just another black man saying good- bye to the enslaved family he was about to lose. But the thirty-four-year- old husband and father hadn't come to the courthouse to smell his children's fear or kiss their tears. He hadn't come to watch his wife shrivel up either all her green hopes gone as a slave trader hauled her away. He wasn't that kind of man. He was a man who could build a ship from prime white oak and tar, pegs and passion, and then make it dance with him across the sea. The kind of man who could sail through storms and laugh at the wind. He brought no cash to the sale of his wife and children on the steps of the old brick courthouse in Cambridge, Maryland, but he brought something equally powerful.
He brought a plan.
His scheme would have made a riverboat gambler grin, drag his chair to the nearest poker table and prepare to bluff. His scheme was brash, tricky, risky and in the eyes of most rational people impossible. Yet it was Bowley's last hope. Unless it worked, his wife and children would be sold on the courthouse steps. Unless it worked, his family would become the property of men who wore good suits, oozed charm, smelled like they'd been born sipping whiskey and gambled on just about everything, including the fate of their slaves.
Cambridge was the seat of Dorchester County on Maryland's Eastern Shore, a place where quiet villages nestled along rivers with names that conjured up images of once- numerous Indian tribes the Nanticoke, the Wicomico, the Pocomoke and, in the case of Cambridge, the two- mile- wide Choptank River. The Choptank churned with crabs so plentiful you could scoop them up from the sea grass at low tide. Bay trout, Spanish mackerel, shad, bluefish, herring, rockfish, white perch and oysters bathed in its waters, too. In the opinion of at least one observer, Cambridge was "the most picturesque town in Maryland in the eighteenth century." It was the home of bald eagles calling to each other, Colonial Revival, Queen Anne and Georgian buildings, black squirrels, red foxes and great blue herons hunting lunch. But Cambridge and the rest of sprawling, river- rich Dorchester County also was the home of many men and women as desperate as John Bowley.
One of Cambridge's most memorable events had been the 1831 hanging of an enslaved woman named Henny. The recently whipped slave threw lye into her mistress's face, fatally stabbed her and stuffed her body into a closet. The two women had argued after Henny's mistress refused to give her sausage for breakfast. Two blacks, one free and one enslaved, also had been tried in Cambridge for trying to trigger a rebellion. The free black man was sentenced to seven years of hard labor in prison while the enslaved man was condemned to hang. Meanwhile, Hugh Hazlett, an Irishman working near Cambridge, would be convicted in 1858 of helping slaves escape and sentenced to forty- five years in the penitentiary. He was pardoned in 1864, but his original sentence surely made an impression. Even thinking about freedom could be dangerous. Reverend Samuel Green, a former slave in Dorchester County, was sentenced to ten years in prison for owning a copy of the antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, the best- selling novel of the nineteenth century. He also had a map of Canada, schedule routes to the North, a railroad timetable and a letter from his son, a runaway slave in Canada, asking him to urge other slaves to flee to the far North. Green served five years of his sentence.
But in December 1850, John Bowley only had one thought, one goal, one wish and one prayer: saving his family. A small crowd of slave buyers gathered a little before lunchtime for the slave auction in front of the old courthouse on High Street at Spring. The sale had been advertised in newspapers before and then canceled: an August 1849 ad described John Bowley's wife, Kessiah, as "Kizziah, aged about twenty- five years. She will be sold for life, and a good title will be given." The county jail sat near the courthouse on Spring Street, housing slaves who had been sold or were about to be sold. Yet out- oftown visitors often clustered at Bradshaw's Hotel on the corner of High and Church streets diagonal to the courthouse.
Slave dealers or their agents came to Cambridge from other states and cities to buy slaves. They would sell them in the Deep South at twice the price they'd paid in Dorchester County where, by the 1850s, large- scale plantations were rare. At Bradshaw's Hotel, the men Frederick Douglass called "Georgia traders" could stand on the veranda and haggle with private sellers, wait for sales to begin, watch the auctions or, perhaps, drink. Methodist Episcopal Bishop John Fletcher Hurst, who lived in Cambridge as a boy, also remembered the "Georgia- man or slave trader, who sat in a splint- bottomed chair in the verandah of Bradshaw's hotel and sunned himself and waited for propositions from slave owners. We boys feared him as a hobgoblin." It is safe to assume that potential slave buyers inspected Bowley's wife and children, peering at their teeth, poking their stomachs, kneading their muscles for signs of broken bones and trading comments on what they saw and felt. According to Douglass, slave traders won and lost slaves "upon the turn of a single card" and while "in a state of brutal drunkenness." So some might have swapped bourbon- scented jokes about what a good breeder Kessiah Bowley would make.
John Bowley was a skilled, free ship's carpenter and most likely lived in a boarding house only a block from the courthouse. Yet he'd been unable to raise the money to buy his family's freedom. In fact, according to a notice he and his two brothers, Major and Richard, posted in a local newspaper in the winter of 1850, the Bowley brothers were waist- deep in debt and struggling to pay off their creditors. In a February 6 notice, they promised to "pay every cent" they owed by August 1, 1850, but it's not known if they managed to do that. It's also not clear what was draining the money of this family of skilled free seamen and tradesmen. At least one local historian believes John Bowley might have been "renting" Kessiah and her children from their owner, one way of keeping the family close together. All the same, cash- short John Bowley brought some not- so- obvious assets to his family's sale. They included a web of resourceful relatives and friends and the self- assurance he'd gained as a member of Maryland's free black community, a group that was then 12.8 percent of the total state population.
And his plot, his plan, would have made the Reverend Samuel Green, Hugh Hazlett and other freedom fi ghters proud. He meant to carry off his enslaved family in the stark light of midday rather than under a blanket of darkness. He intended to whisk Kessiah, James Alfred and Araminta away from courthouse offi cials and slave buyers and sellers without being questioned, stopped, restrained, jailed, whipped or re-enslaved.
John Bowley had no known history of helping to free slaves. Nor was he the kind of person that the first commissioners elected in Dorchester County in 1669 had worried about he was no forger, no extortionist, no drunk, no practitioner of "witchcraft" and "enchantments," no trespasser and no price- gouger. He had been freed while a young boy by Levin Stewart, member of a powerful and wealthy clan, but that freedom didn't take effect until he was thirty- one years old. In the meantime, he and his brothers were trained as ship carpenters. That made them members of the county's black elite. According to the 1850 census, of all 673 free black men in Dorchester County, 78 percent were laborers, 11 percent were farmers, 2 percent were ship's carpenters, 5 percent were sailors, 1 percent worked as blacksmiths and 1 percent were general carpenters.
When the bidding for his family began, Bowley stood in the small crowd, waiting for the right moment to raise his voice and hopes. It is believed that he had managed to stall the sale of his family for about a year while he unsuccessfully tried to raise the money to buy them, but the time for stalling had passed. The value of a slave was determined by age, size, health, sex, disposition, whether the slave would be sold out of state and skills such as shoemaking, blacksmithing or carpentering. As a healthy young female with two children, Kessiah could have sold for as much as $500 to $600, the equivalent of nearly $10,000 in today's dollars. Bowley made a bid that satisfied John Brodess, who was acting on behalf of his mother, Eliza Brodess, who owned Kessiah Bowley. Someone then removed the enslaved woman from the courthouse steps and set her aside while the auctioneer left to eat his noonday meal. That's when John Bowley had to play the starring role in the drama that he and Kessiah's aunt, Harriet Tubman, had plotted while exchanging letters. Bowley, according to later testimony from family members, left the crowd at the courthouse and fled with his wife and children to the nearby home of a white woman. The question is: How in the world did he do it?
"The breakaway occurred on the day his mother (Kessiah) was to be sold at auction to another slave- owner," wrote journalist Earl Conrad, repeating what he'd been told by Kessiah and John's son, Harkless Bowley, who was born after their escape. "During the course of the sale, conducted at the courthouse, the auctioneer went to dinner. Meanwhile (Kessiah) was hidden in a house only a five minutes walk from the courthouse."
It is tempting to dismiss this story as a bowl of oral history seasoned with spicy speculation and then stretched into a whole meal. Harkless Bowley, after all, wasn't alive at the time his parents escaped and was relying on stories he'd heard from Tubman, his great- aunt.
Maryland historical researcher John Creighton still remembers what happened after he told the Bowley escape story to his eighth- grade American history class in the spring of 1972: A black student confronted him after class and insisted that the family's escape from a white crowd in front of the courthouse just did not seem possible.
In those days, doubts dogged Creighton, too. "For over a century before 1850, enslaved people presumably had been sold there under similar circumstances," he said. "Many precautions, probably including handcuffs, must have been taken by the enslaved person's owner and the auctioneer."
Yet, the Dorchester County courthouse contains testimony from a white farmer named Polish Mills that backs up Harkless Bowley's description of his parents' escape. Polish Mills was the brother of John Mills, coadministrator of the personal estate of Edward Brodess, Kessiah Bowley's late owner. Edward Brodess's widow fi led a complaint before the court in 1855, claiming that John Mills had sold some of her slaves but failed to give her any money. After John Mills's death, his brother, Polish, answered these charges. He repeated the story of Kessiah's mysterious escape.
"She was brought out to be sold in front of the Court House door in Cambridge," he testified, "...but it was found after the sale that she was purchased by her husband, a negro man, who when called in failed to comply and they were then proceeding to sell her over, when it was discovered she had run away."
Did John Bowley simply put his arms around his wife and children and slowly walk away from the rear of the courthouse, giving observers the impression that he had paid for them already? Or did one of his accomplices lead them away? Did Bowley manage to convince whoever was guarding his family that he was taking them to the auctioneer to make his payment? Is it possible that they were left unguarded or in the care of someone who was sympathetic to the Bowley family? Or did he have accomplices in even higher places?
"The auctioneer must have been in on it or the clerk of the court," speculates Harriet Tubman biographer Kate Clifford Larson. "It seems inconceivable that [Bowley] would have been allowed to take possession of [Kessiah]. She would have been put somewhere secure. We think that perhaps the auctioneer may have been in on the deal bribed perhaps, [or he was] a friend of Bowley's."
Whatever happened, John Bowley likely had help from several white and black residents of Cambridge, where he and his thirty-five-year-old brother, Richard, lived in the same boarding house and were well- respected craftsmen. When the conveniently absent auctioneer finally returned from his meal and called for the payment for Kessiah and her children, no one stepped forward. The auctioneer then began the bidding for the Bowley family again. Kessiah was "sold twice in one day," according to Harkless Bowley, the second time "sight unseen." By the time the auctioneer fi gured out that the family was missing, the Bowleys were hidden in the home of a white woman living in Cambridge, whose identity remains a mystery but whose house had to be nearby.
She probably was not a member of the Society of Friends or Quakers, a religious group often associated with antislavery movements. Members of that group did help Harriet Tubman move other slaves safely out of Dorchester County to Delaware. However, most Quakers in the Eastern Shore lived on farms distant from Cambridge. Most likely, the woman who hid the Bowleys was a closet abolitionist, someone whose antislavery sympathies weren't known and whose house no one would think of searching.
John Bowley had created his family rescue plan with the long- distance help of Harriet Tubman, a woman often identified as his wife's sister but who really was her aunt and was in Baltimore at the time. Slaves and free blacks had many ways of communicating. They gathered among bushes and in swamps for religious rituals. They swapped information while tending small private vegetable plots. They spread gossip about small and large events along an invisible wire that sometimes traveled for miles. Black educator and former slave Booker T. Washington described how a black man from his plantation who was sent to the post office for mail would linger there and gather gossip from the crowd. Washington called it the "grapevine telegram." In Bowley's case, his grapevine might have been enslaved or free black men who worked as deckhands, cooks or firemen or at other jobs on ships or loaded and unloaded cargo. It was they who spread news, personal messages, escape routes and gossip about people no longer in the area.
After hearing about Kessiah's upcoming sale, Tubman had moved from Philadelphia to Baltimore. John Bowley and Tubman had traded coded messages along the Underground Railroad, an antislavery network that moved information as efficiently as it moved fleeing slaves. Unable to read or write, Harriet would have dictated her letters to Bowley. Standing no more than five feet tall, Tubman was a woman with such a large vision of her role in the freedom movement that she believed God spoke to her directly and would not allow her to fail. She had been born in Dorchester County, not far from Cambridge, and three of her sisters had been sold away by their original owners. Today, Cambridge and the world remember Harriet Tubman with museums, posters, boats, historical markers, parks, tours, children's books, movies and a recent spate of adult books as well. In her day, though, she was a myth, a ghost, a slave rescuer whose existence many white Dorchester residents didn't suspect and whose name they didn't know for years.
"All of her trips...were carefully planned and brilliantly executed," noted Robert W. Taylor, financial secretary of Tuskegee Institute, in a 1901 letter to a newspaper editor. "She told me that when she found her mother unwilling to leave behind her feather bed tick, and her father his broad axe and other tools, she bundled up feather bed, broad axe, mother, father all and landed them in Canada."
But if Tubman was Bowley's trump card in his bid to free his family, it was he who had had to shuffle, cut and play those cards. Though free Maryland blacks lived in a world so restricted that they couldn't captain ships, belong to secret societies or avoid paying property taxes supporting schools their children couldn't attend, a few became blacksmiths and carpenters or infiltrated other trades thereby gaining a broader knowledge of transportation routes and the wider world. John Bowley was such a man. While he and his brothers were apprenticed to Joseph Stewart, brother of their original owner, they'd learned a variety of shipbuilding skills. By 1848 they were all free and by 1850, they were all ship's carpenters. They then hired themselves out as ship's carpenters, benefiting from a tangle of relationships that stretched from Cambridge to Baltimore and beyond.
In most accounts of the Bowley escape, John and his wife and children fled Cambridge on the same night they sneaked away from the slave buyers and sellers in front of the courthouse. It is equally possible that they hid out for a few days, waiting for the outrage over their escape to lose some of its heat. Though harbors were watched at night, the family finally made their way to the Choptank River, where a small sailboat had been left for them. It was most likely a canoe made from several logs lashed together and topped by a sail. If northwest winds were sweeping down from Baltimore, their boat might have had a rough time sailing, but a seaman like John Bowley would have known what to do. He would have veered in and out of various creeks and narrows, following a zigzag course that brought him close to the wind and then away from it. It was a ninety- mile journey sailing from the Choptank River into the Chesapeake Bay and into Baltimore's Patapsco River, and the Bowleys were targets for capture every mile of the way. Slaves were valuable commodities, and county slaveholders paid top prices to catch those who ran. A $150 reward was common for a runaway from the Eastern Shore, but during the 1850s, prices shot up. Fifteen hundred dollars was offered for a man named Joe Bailey, $300 for his brother Bill, and $800 for Peter Pennington in November 1856.
John Bowley's journey took at least a full day of sailing and possibly several days. Once their ship entered the water, he could have held to his course, manipulating the rudder and center board and raising and lowering its sail. Harriet Tubman biographer Kate Larson believed the family "more than likely would have stopped a couple times along the way." They most likely would have hidden in small, predominately black waterfront settlements such as Bellevue in Talbot County.
When the family fi nally reached Baltimore, one of Bowley's brothers, possibly Major Bowley, met them there. The city's thriving harbor provided many jobs that attracted free blacks and gave slaveholders a chance to hire out their slaves. In 1850, Baltimore had 140,666 whites, 25,442 free blacks and 2,946 slaves. John and Kessiah and their two children wound up in Fells Point, a famous downtown waterfront community that was within easy reach of the Patapsco River. Frederick Douglass had spent nine years of his childhood in this ne ghborhood where thousands would gather at shipyards to celebrate a ship's launching. It was a neighborhood that smelled like paint and tar, roasted peanuts and perch; it also was a neighborhood that resounded with the sounds of ship's craftsmen, who hammered, sawed and shouted. It teemed with merchants, shipbuilders and many free and enslaved black caulkers, stevedores, ship builders, carpenters and seamen. Several enslaved and free men from Dorchester County lived and worked in that neighborhood, including Tubman's two brothers- inlaw, Tom and Evans Tubman. Harriet Tubman was there, too, having journeyed to Baltimore from Philadelphia to meet the Bowleys. She hid John and Kessiah and their children among friends and relatives, most of whom lived along Slemmers Alley, which ran for only four blocks and was the home of a cross- section of the city's free blacks.
Yet the southern city of Baltimore had its own trail of snares and traps. A law forbade blacks from leaving Baltimore by rail or water without being "weighed, measured and then given a bond signed by people well known locally." As always, Tubman had to use her knowledge and craftiness to work her way around such hazards. In fact, she and other Underground Railroad conductors had to treat any trip into slave territory as a military campaign, a raid upon an enemy that could result in the harassment, wounding, kidnapping, jailing, return to enslavement or even the hanging of everyone involved. The majority of slave escapes probably failed, in part because slave catchers had so many weapons at their disposal, including the law and its officials, hired slave catchers and freelance bounty hunters.
After the Bowleys rested for a few days, Tubman probably obtained fake passes for the whole group from black female vendors in Baltimore's marketplace. They then moved on to Philadelphia, the first large city north of the traditional slave states. At that moment, the Bowley family joined the ranks of the nearly three hundred slaves who successfully escaped from the border state of Maryland in 1850. In Philadelphia, the Bowleys would have found a city with a strong antislavery movement and activists such as Robert Purvis, who had inherited a fortune from his white South Carolina father, a cotton broker. Purvis's home sheltered fugitives in a concealed room, and he and his wife used no slave- produced goods.
All the same, slave catchers operated in Pennsylvania, just as they did in other free states. In fact, in the days when Maryland's notorious Patty Cannon was still alive, she and members of her gang would hang out in Philadelphia bars and buy drink after drink for black customers. Once these freedmen became too drunk to put up a fight, the Cannon gang would kidnap them. "These unfortunate people...were kept locked up in the tavern's attic or on an island...until they could be loaded aboard schooners and sent away," according to one chronicler of those times.
The Bowleys remained in Philadelphia for nearly a year, working and saving their money. Tubman also worked as a domestic and cook. Late in 1851, though, John and Kessiah and their daughter Araminta moved to Canada, no doubt for the same reason other American fugitives fled to the far North after Congress passed the strict Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. With slave catchers increasingly snatching runaways from the northern United States, the family no longer felt safe either from slave catchers or from the kidnappers of free black people. Many moved to Canada, widely viewed as the Promised Land despite having been a slave society until 1834. Canada had its own set of obstacles, often including racial prejudice and segregated schools. Yet in the 1850s, it provided legal protections and freedom from violence for thousands of American fugitives and a chance for the Bowleys to create lives together.
They settled in Chatham, Ontario, in what was then known as Canada West, a port city some eleven miles north of Lake Erie and sitting on the Thames River. By 1855, it would have an all- black fire brigade, and by 1861, it would have the largest black population and highest proportion of blacks of any city or town in Canada West. Mary Ann Shadd, founder of an antislavery newspaper called the Provincial Freeman, moved from Toronto to Chatham in 1855. Emma Lawrence ran a boarding house there on the corner of William and Church streets. Martin Delany moved to Chatham in 1856 and began a medical practice. During the Civil War, he would return to the United States, help raise the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry Regiment and become a major in command of the 102nd U.S. Colored Troops. During the black community's heyday in Chatham, several blacks also owned blocks large buildings containing businesses. James Charity owned the Charity block on King and Adelaide streets, which housed the offices of the Provincial Freeman and Dr. Samuel C. Watson. Stanton Hunton owned the Hunton block on William Street near King. Nathaniel Murray built the Murray block on King Street East near William.
Chatham's black citizens worked as laborers, field hands on the rich agricultural and fruit- growing lands, artisans, teachers, and ministers as well. Thomas Doston cut hair. John W. Taylor cut hair and also styled it. John Bowley may have tried farming, blacksmithing or other manual labor or worked on the waterfront. In the 1861 Chatham census, he was said to be forty- five years old and Kessiah thirty- seven, while other members of their household ranged in ages from one to seventeen, five of them described as Canadian born. Between the summer of 1855 and spring of 1856, Ben Ross, who had changed his name to James Stewart, and his wife, Catherine, originally named Jane Kane, also lived with John and Kessiah. Ben Ross was Harriet Tubman's brother and Kessiah's uncle.
JAMES ALFRED BOWLEY
Though John and Kessiah brought their baby, Araminta, with them, they left their son, James Alfred, in Philadelphia with Tubman to continue his education. In an 1868 letter to a woman writing a book about Harriet Tubman, James Alfred remembered "the trouble that you [Tubman] have underwent for me in my childhood days when you were compelled to work in service for one dollar a week in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love and then give me [one] half of it for my care."
The family's constant push to educate James Alfred would pay off after the Civil War when he moved to Georgetown, South Carolina. There, he edited a newspaper, taught for the Freedmen's Bureau and was elected to the state legislature. An 1867 newspaper article described him as "a laborer in the educational work." While James Alfred prospered in South Carolina, another son of John and Kessiah's Harkless Bowley became a teacher in Dorchester County, Maryland, during the 1880s. He then moved to Washington, D.C. He had benefited from living for a time with Tubman in Auburn, New York, where she would live for fifty years not knowing that she would become the most celebrated black woman in America and have a street named for her in Ghana, West Africa, or that her rescue of Harkless's parents would wind up in brochures promoting tourism in Maryland.
What happened to John and Kessiah Bowley following the Civil War was almost as dramatic, though, as their near- miraculous escape from a slave sale in front of the Dorchester County courthouse. It began when they decided to return to the United States. It's not known exactly what made them go back, but they might have returned for economic reasons. By the late 1860s and early 1870s, for instance, "black businesses and professionals began to be squeezed out of the market causing a resurgence of the black migration" from Chatham, according to historical researcher Gwen Robinson. The end of American slavery also inspired some black Americans living in Canada to start wanting to believe in America's unfulfi lled yet lofty promises. The desire to fi nd and reunite with relatives spurred some migrations, too, and so, no doubt, did Canada's relatively chilly climate. Yet not even the abolition of slavery in the United States could end John Bowley's career as a slave rescuer.
Sometime between 1865 and 1867, he and his family lived with Tubman for a year or two, in Auburn, New York, the city that nurtured the legal talents of Lincoln's secretary of state, William H. Seward the man who was shot but not killed on the same day as Lincoln's assassination. In 1867 or early 1868, the Bowleys returned to Dorchester County, Maryland, to live with Kessiah's father, Harkless Jolley, until they could buy their own land. That's when John Bowley, who had defied weather and slave traders to steer his family to safety, took on yet another rescue mission. Maryland had written a new constitution in November 1864, banning slavery; however, many slaveholders indentured or pressed the children of their former adult slaves into a short- term form of enslavement that kept parents as well as children tied to former masters. The child apprentice system was supposed to guarantee the necessities of life and training in a trade to black youngsters and orphans but often wound up providing neither. Many people regarded the system as slavery in new clothes.
Once Bowley returned to Maryland, John Stewart one of Harriet Tubman's brothers, who had changed his name from Robert Ross asked Bowley to fi nd his sons. Stewart had escaped to Canada to avoid being sold but had been unable to free his wife and children. He had not seen his sons, John Henry or Moses Ross, in more than a decade. John Bowley twice sailed across the Choptank River to rescue his two nephews, who held apprenticeships near Trappe, Maryland. Both youngsters were then sent to the crowded Tubman household in Auburn, New York.
Why did John Bowley keep risking his freedom and even life to rescue his kin? The answer might be more complicated than simply love for members of his family. As slaves and former slaves, Bowley and others like him would have understood that they could rely on no one but themselves for their continued survival. They also would have cherished the one thing no one could take from them their ties to and memories of close relatives, distant relatives, sold- away relatives, lost relatives, dead relatives and people they had adopted informally on slavery- era plantations and farms.
This might have been why Harriet Tubman brought with her a whole group of family and friends, including two brothers and their families, when she settled near Auburn. This also could have been the reason Alfred Wood, a Civil War civilian scout and spy, brought home a fourteen- year- old boy who'd become separated from his regiment. The boy was wandering through Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the summer of 1864 a place then fi lled with people dazed by the roar of war and the smell of scorched lives. Once Wood decided to take the youngster home, it didn't really matter that, in 1864, home for Al and his wife, Margaret, both runaway slaves from Mississippi, was a Union Army camp.
John and Kessiah spent the rest of their lives in Dorchester County, Maryland, where their people had lived and died. They made their home among folks who went to camp meetings where they embraced visions and wrapped themselves in golden hopes for days.
The Cambridge, Maryland, that John and Kessiah Bowley and their children knew doesn't really exist today. The area's oyster and vegetable packing and canning industries are long gone. The old Dorchester County courthouse on High Street and many of its records burned in a fire in 1852 and the current courthouse replaced it in 1854. The mid- nineteenth- century businesses that once stretched along High Street are history now, too: The street no longer has a silversmith, a coachmaker, a printer, a peddler or a hotel. In the rural parts of the county, the white oaks so valued by ship's carpenters like Bowley virgin trees that stood one hundred feet or more high have all but vanished, too, though, here and there, younger oaks are rising up. Sharpshooter Annie Oakley is dead, though some visitors still recall how she made the town famous in the early twentieth century by shooting at waterfowl from the ledge of her home's second- story windows. In the 1960s, Cambridge became famous for clashes between civil rights activists marching for change and people who wanted to freeze things right where they were. Soon, there will be no one left there who actually heard black power activist H. Rap Brown declare in a 1967 speech, "It's time for Cambridge to explode, baby."
Some things some memories, some habits, some relationships with the natural world endure, though.
People still stand on the banks of the Choptank, fishing for white perch and striped bass, croackers [sic] and spot [sic] and trout. (Is it true that croackers make a sound that is just like their name?) Clusters of fat and forbidding flies still bit unlucky visitors just as they bit white and black laborers working in the fields in eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Dorchester County. Countless creeks and rivers still crisscross the county, though mechanical straw balers and combines have replaced most field laborers. Now and then, a wild turkey crosses a road or a back country church emerges from the shadow of a tree. A highway sign detailing the exploits of Harriet Tubman is an unexpected reminder of the haunting power of history. White- tailed deer are here, too, an animal whom one admirer described in 1909 as "the least migratory, the least polygamous, the least roving, as well as the swiftest, keenest, shyest, wisest, most prolifi c...of our deer." But in much of rural Dorchester County, the farmland stretches on and on, still and vast and now mostly silent.
Yet it doesn't take all that much imagination to picture this land filled with people like John and Kessiah Bowley and Harkless Jolley and James Alfred and Araminta Bowley and all of their brothers and sisters and cousins and other name- changing kin. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear them talking on moon- bathed nights, their words running together and bumping into each other, soft and slurred yet full of purpose. On Madison Canning House Road, travelers can wander past some of Joseph Stewart's endless tracts of land and recall that he helped design a six- or seven- mile- long canal to float cut logs to his shipyard on the west side of Madison Bay, some twelve miles west of Cambridge. From 1810 into the 1830s, enslaved blacks dug the canal through the marsh by hand. Whites and blacks cut, trimmed, hauled, rafted, fl oated or ox-carted timber to market. Mean- while, on Stewart's water- bordering land, a black man named John Bowley not only learned to be a ship's carpenter but to think like one, measuring and planning, plotting and fitting pieces together, always looking for the angle that would make everything work.
John and Kessiah Bowley ran away from this land where people lived close to the sea and the land and understood their ways. Yet they returned to it after a Civil War in which thousands died while frying bacon, reading Bibles or shooting at their opponents from lines sometimes only seventy to eighty yards apart. The Bowleys came back to summer heat as fierce as an invading army. They came back to people who clung to and remembered each other. They came back to religious bands that sang without any music except for the anguish and longing of their funeral chants and moans. They came back to the deep waters of the Choptank and to the more shallow waters of the Chesapeake. They came back to an Eastern Shore culture in which people often shifted jobs with the seasons, doing whatever the warm, green lakes seemed to require. They returned to wooden boats and rivers that rose and fell according to the pull the mood of the moon. This land was the Bowleys to leave and theirs, they must have decided, to take back. They, after all, had worked it, walked it, farmed it, measured it, dug graves in it and in some way that even they might not have fully understood, loved it. It had given them and so many others the chance to turn trouble into triumph and the tragedy of slavery into the chance to learn and become something new.
Copyright © 2009 by Betty DeRamus
Meet the Author
A veteran and award winning journalist, DeRamus was the jury's pick and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. She has been awarded a Michigan Press Association Award, as well as a Deems Taylor award for a profile of Roberta Flack published in Essence.
DeRamus was one of an international group of select journalists who toured Central African refugee camps under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and one of a small group of journalists outside Voerster prison in 1990 when Nelson Mandela finally left his cell.
She has wriiten about African-American history for Essence, Time-Life, North Star Journal, and Black World. She is a former commentator for The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Press, The Michigan Chronicle, and the British Broadcasting Company.
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