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Narrative of My Escape from Slavery

Narrative of My Escape from Slavery

by Moses Roper, Thomas Price (Preface by)

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"May this little volume be the instrument of opening the eyes of the ignorant to this system — of convincing the wicked, cruel, and hardened slave-holder — and of befriending generally the cause of oppressed humanity." Moses Roper's hopes for his autobiography were realized upon its 1838 publication; today it is considered among the most important and


"May this little volume be the instrument of opening the eyes of the ignorant to this system — of convincing the wicked, cruel, and hardened slave-holder — and of befriending generally the cause of oppressed humanity." Moses Roper's hopes for his autobiography were realized upon its 1838 publication; today it is considered among the most important and authentic slave narratives. Born a slave in Caswell County, North Carolina, Roper's father was a planter and his mother a black slave. Roper was separated from his mother at the age of six, the first of many transactions in which he was sold or traded to plantation owners throughout the South. His numerous attempts at escape finally met with success in 1833, when the 18-year-old managed to jump ship on a New York-bound packet. In New England, he began his affiliation with the abolitionist movement by signing the constitution of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and he eventually moved to London, where he met several prominent British abolitionists who assisted him in securing an education. Roper remained active in the the antislavery movement, delivering lectures on his slave experiences and impressing listeners with his articulate and moving accounts of the brutality of slave life and his irrepressible longing for freedom. This memoir abounds in the qualities that made Roper a popular speaker, and it offers readers a powerful insider's view of the horrific realities of life in slavery.

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Dover Publications
Publication date:
African American Series
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Product dimensions:
5.38(w) x 8.64(h) x 0.24(d)

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Narrative of My Escape from Slavery

By Moses Roper

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14868-7


Escape, &c.

I was born in North Carolina, in Caswell County, I am not able to tell in what year or month. What I shall now relate, is, what was told me by my mother and grandmother. A few months before I was born, my father married my mother's young mistress. As soon as my father's wife heard of my birth, she sent one of my mother's sisters to see whether I was white or black, and when my aunt had seen me, she returned back as soon as she could, and told her mistress that I was white, and resembled Mr. Roper very much. Mr. R.'s wife being not pleased with this report, she got a large club stick and knife, and hastened to the place in which my mother was confined. She went into my mother's room with full intention to murder me with her knife and club, but as she was going to stick the knife into me, my grandmother happening to come in, caught the knife, and saved my life. But as well as I can recollect from what my mother told me, my father sold her and myself soon after her confinement. I cannot recollect, any thing that is worth notice, till I was six or seven years old. My mother being half white, and my father a white man, I was at that time very white. Soon after I was six or seven years of age, my mother's old master died, that is, my father's wife's father. All his slaves had to be divided among the children. I have mentioned before of my father disposing of me, I am not sure whether he exchanged me and my mother for another slave or not, but think it very likely he did exchange me with one of his wife's brothers or sisters, because I remember when my mother's old master died, I was living with my father's wife's brother-in-law, whose name was Mr. Durham. My mother was drawn with the other slaves.

The way they divide their slaves is this: they write the names of different slaves on a small piece of paper, and put it into a box and let them all draw. I think that Mr. Durham drew my mother, and Mr. Fowler drew me, so we were separated a considerable distance, I cannot say how far. My resembling my father so very much, and being whiter than the other slaves, caused me to be soon sold to what they call a negro trader, who took me to the Southern States of America, several hundred miles from my mother. As well as I can recollect, I was then about six years old. The trader, Mr. Mitchell, after travelling several hundred miles, and selling a good many of his slaves, found he could not sell me very well, (as I was so much whiter than the other slaves were) for he had been trying several months—left me with a Mr. Sneed, who kept a large boarding-house, who took me to wait at table, and sell me if he could. I think I stayed with Mr. Sneed about a year, but he could not sell me. When Mr. Mitchell had sold his slaves, he went to the north, and brought up another drove, and returned to the south with them, and sent his son-in-law into Washington, in Georgia, after me, so he came and took me from Mr. Sneed, and met his father-in-law with me, in a town called Lancaster, with his drove of slaves. We stayed in Lancaster a week, because it was court week, and there were a great many people there, and it was a good opportunity for selling the slaves, and there he was enabled to sell me to a gentleman, Dr. Jones, who was both a Doctor and a Cotton Planter. He took me into his shop to beat up and to mix medicines, which was not a very hard employment, but I did not keep it long, as the Doctor soon sent me to his Cotton plantation, that I might be burnt darker by the sun. He sent for me to be with a tailor to learn the trade, but all the journeymen being white men, Mr. Bryant, the tailor, did not let me work in the shop; I cannot say whether it was the prejudice of his journeymen, in not wanting me to sit in the shop with them, or whether Mr. Bryant wanted to keep me about the house to do the domestic work, instead of teaching me the trade. After several months, my master came to know how I got on with the trade: I am not able to tell Mr. Bryant's answer, but it was either that I could not learn, or that his journeymen were not willing that I should sit in the shop with them. I was only once in the shop all the time I was there, and then only for an hour or two, before his wife called me out to do some other work. So my master took me home, and as he was going to send a load of cotton to Camden, about forty miles distance, he sent me with the bales of cotton to be sold with it, where I was soon sold to a gentleman, named Allen, but Mr. Allen soon exchanged me for a female slave, to please his wife. The traders who bought me, were named Cooper and Linsey, who took me for sale, but could not sell me, people objecting to my being rather white. They then took me to the city of Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he swopt me for a boy, that was blacker than me, to Mr. Smith, who lived several miles off.

I was with Mr. Smith nearly a year. I arrived at the first knowledge of my age when I lived with him. I was then between twelve and thirteen years old, it was when President Jackson was elected the first time, and he has been president eight years, so I must be nearly twenty-one years of age. At this time, I was quite a small boy, and was sold to Mr. Hodge, a negro trader. Here I began to enter into hardships. After travelling several hundred miles, Mr. Hodge, sold me to Mr. Gooch the cotton-planter, Cashaw County, South Carolina, he purchased me at a town called Liberty Hill, about three miles from his home. As soon as he got home, he immediately put me on his cotton plantation to work, and put me under overseers, gave me allowance of meat and bread with the other slaves, which was not half enough for me to live upon, and very laborious work; here my heart was almost broke with grief at leaving my fellow-slaves. Mr. Gooch did not mind my grief, for he flogged me nearly every day, and very severely. Mr. Gooch bought me for his son-in-law, Mr. Hammans, about five miles from his residence. This man had but two slaves besides myself, he treated me very kindly for a week or two, but in summer when cotton was ready to hoe, he gave me task work, connected with this department, which I could not get done, not having worked on cotton farms before. When I failed in my task he commenced flogging me, and set me to work without any shirt, in the cotton field, in a very hot sun, in the month of July. In August, Mr. Condell, his overseer, gave me a task at pulling fodder; having finished my task before night, I left the field, the rain came on which soaked the fodder, on discovering this, he threatened to flog me for not getting in the fodder before the rain came. This was the first time I attempted to run away, knowing that I should get a flogging. I was then between thirteen and fourteen years of age, I ran away to the woods half naked, I was caught by a slave-holder, who put me in Lancaster Gaol. When they put slaves in gaol, they advertise for their masters to own them; but if the master does not claim his slave in six months, from the time of imprisonment, the slave is sold for gaol fees. When the slave runs away, the master always adopts a more rigorous system of flogging, this was the case in the present instance. After this, having determined from my youth to gain my freedom, I made several attempts, was caught, and got a severe flogging of 100 lashes, each time. Mr. Hammans was a very severe and cruel master, and his wife still worse, she used to tie me up and flog me while naked.

After Mr. Hammans saw that I was determined to die in the woods, and not live with him, he tried to obtain a piece of land from his father-in-law, Mr. Gooch; not having the means of purchasing it, he exchanged me for the land.

As soon as Mr. Gooch had possession of me again, knowing that I was averse to going back to him, he chained me by the neck to his chaise. In this manner he took me to his home at Mac Daniel's Ferry, in the County of Chester, a distance of fifteen miles. After which, he put me in a swamp, to cut trees, the heaviest work, which men of twenty-five or thirty years of age have to do, I being but sixteen. Here I was on very short allowance of food, and having heavy work, was too weak to fulfil my tasks. For this I got many severe floggings; and after I had got my irons off, I made another attempt at running away. He took my irons off in the full anticipation that I could never get across the Catarba River, even when at liberty. On this, I procured a small Indian canoe, which was tied to a tree, and ultimately got across the river in it. I then wandered through the wilderness for several days without any food, and but a drop of water to allay my thirst, till I became so starved, that I was obliged to go to a house to beg for something to eat, when I was captured, and again imprisoned.

Mr. Gooch having heard of me through an advertisement, sent his son after me; he tied me up and took me back to his father. Mr. Gooch then obtained the assistance of another slave-holder, and tied me up in his blacksmith's shop, and gave me fifty lashes with a cow hide. He then put a log-chain, weighing twenty-five pounds, round my neck, and sent me into a field, into which he followed me with the cow hide, intending to set his slaves to flog me again. Knowing this, and dreading to suffer again in this way, I gave him the slip, and got out of his sight, he having stopped to speak with the other slave-holder.

I got to a canal on the Catarba River, on the banks of which, and near to a lock, I procured a stone and a piece of iron, with which I forced the ring off my chain, and got it off, and then crossed the river, and walked about twenty miles, when I fell in with a slave-holder, named Ballad, who had married the sister of Mr. Hammans. I knew that he was not so cruel as Mr. Gooch, and, therefore, begged of him to buy me. Mr. Ballad, who was one of the best planters in the neighbourhood, said, that he was not able to buy me, and stated, that he was obliged to take me back to my master, on account of the heavy fine attaching to a man harbouring a slave. Mr. Ballad proceeded to take me back; as we came in sight of Mr. Gooch's, all the treatment that I had met with there, came forcibly upon my mind, the powerful influence of which is beyond description. On my knees, with tears in my eyes, with terror in my countenance, and fervency in all my features, I implored Mr. Ballad to buy me, but he again refused, and I was taken back to my dreaded and cruel master. Having reached Mr. Gooch's, he proceeded to punish me. This he did by first tying my wrists together and placing them over the knees, he then put a stick through, under my knees and over my arms, and having thus secured my arms, he proceeded to flog me, and gave me 500 lashes on my bare back. This may appear incredible, but the marks which they left, at present remain on my body, a standing testimony to the truth of this statement of his severity. He then chained me down in a log-pen with a 40 lbs. chain, and made me lie on the damp earth all night. In the morning, after his breakfast, he came to me, and without giving me any breakfast, tied me to a large heavy harrow, which is usually drawn by a horse, and made me drag it to the cotton field for the horse to use in the field. Thus, the reader will see, that it was of no possible use to my master, to make me drag it to the field and not through it; his cruelty went so far, as actually to make me the slave of his horse, and thus to degrade me. He then flogged me again, and set me to work in the corn field the whole of that day, and at night, chained me down in the log-pen as before. The next morning, he took me to the cotton field, and gave me a third flogging, and set me to hoe cotton. At this time, I was dreadfully sore and weak with the repeated floggings and harsh treatment I had endured. He put me under a black man, with orders, that if I did not keep my row up in hoeing with this man, he was to flog me. The reader must recollect here, that not being used to this kind of work, having been a domestic slave, it was quite impossible for me to keep up with him, and, therefore, I was repeatedly flogged during the day.

Mr. Gooch had a female slave about eighteen years old, who also had been a domestic slave, and through not being able to fulfil her task, had run away; which slave, he was at this time punishing for that offence. On the third day, he chained me to this female slave, with a large chain of 40 lbs. weight round the neck. It was most harrowing to my feelings, thus to be chained to a young female slave, for whom I would rather have suffered 100 lashes, than she should have been thus treated; he kept me chained to her during the week, and repeatedly flogged us both, while thus chained together, and forced us to keep up with the other slaves, although retarded by the heavy weight of the log-chain.

Here again, words are insufficient to describe the misery which possessed both body and mind, whilst under this treatment, and which was most dreadfully increased, by the sympathy which I felt for my poor degraded fellow-sufferer. On the Friday morning, I entreated my master to set me free from my chains, and promised him, to do the task which was given me, and more, if possible, if he would desist from flogging me. This he refused to do, until Saturday night, when he did set me free. This must rather be ascribed to his own interest in preserving me from death, as it was very evident, I could no longer have survived under such treatment.

After this, though still determined in my own mind to escape, I stayed with him several months, during which, he frequently flogged me but not so severely, as before related. During this time, I had opportunity for recovering my health, and using means to heal my wounds. My master's cruelty was not confined to me, it was his general conduct to all his slaves. I might relate many instances to substantiate this, but will confine myself to one or two. Mr. Gooch, it is proper to observe, was a member of a Baptist church, called Black Jack Meeting House, in Cashaw County, which church I attended for several years, but was never inside. This is accounted for, by the fact, that the coloured population are not permitted to mix with the white population. In the Roman Catholic church no distinction is made. Mr. Gooch had a slave named Phil, who was a member of a Methodist church; this man, was between seventy and eighty years of age; he was so feeble that he could not accomplish his tasks, for which, his master used to chain him round the neck, and run him down a steep hill; this treatment, he never relinquished to the time of his death. Another case, was that of a slave named Peter, who, for not doing his task, he flogged nearly to death, and afterwards pulled out his pistol to shoot him, but his (Mr. Gooch's) daughter snatched the pistol from his hand. Another mode of punishment which this man adopted was, that of using iron horns, with bells, attached to the back of the slave's neck. The following, is the instrument of torture:


This instrument he used to prevent the negroes running away, being a very ponderous machine, several feet in height, and the cross pieces being two feet four, and six feet in length. This custom is generally adopted among the slave- holders in South Carolina, and some other slave states. One morning, about an hour before day-break, I was going on an errand for my master, having proceeded about a quarter of a mile, I came up to a man, named King (Mr. Sumlin's overseer), who had caught a young girl that had run away with the above machine on her. She had proceeded four miles from her station, with the intention of getting into the hands of a more humane master. She came up with this overseer nearly dead, and could get no farther, he immediately secured her, and took her back to her master, a Mr. Johnston.

Having been in the habit of going over many slave states with my master, I had good opportunities of witnessing the harsh treatment which was adopted by masters, towards their slaves. As I have never read nor heard of any thing connected with slavery so cruel as what I have myself witnessed, it will be well to mention a case or two.


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