In contrast to the enormous strides taken in the 19th century, backwardness and oppression continued to exist during Lane's life in America. The existence of slavery is perhaps the best example of this wicked side of America, and it is still amazing that this form of dehumanization existed as late as 1865, not even one hundred and fifty years ago. Lane was born into a country where not every person had the right to his or her own life but he was able to witness the eventual freeing of this oppressed population and made clear in his manuscript that he was indeed on the side of equality and freedom for the enslaved.
Lane, in his early adult life, traveled to the South for business and was exposed to the slave culture long enough to conclude that he, along with many other Northerners of the mid-19th century, disapproved of the “business” of selling humans as stock.
Upon his arrival at Charleston, South Carolina, in 1834, Lane recounts his first experience in a slave territory:
This being my first experience in a slave state, every thing seemed very odd and strange to me, indeed. Charleston more resembled a great prison, than an ordinary city. The buildings, both business blocks and private residences, were of brick, built flush with the street, and all yards and gardens were enclosed by high brick walls, with heavy iron barred gates, the top of the walls bristling with sharp iron spikes, or broken glass bottles, points upward, to prevent the negroes from climbing over, either for purposes of plunder or escape. (Lane 63-64)
It is widely known that many slaves attempted to escape from the possession of their owner. Some were successful in their reaching free soil while others were not so lucky. Lane witnessed both types of these escape scenarios.
This first incident represents the not-so-fortunate runaway slave:
… a bright young mulatto, about twenty years of age, from a neighboring plantation, who had come to this way-side Inn, to visit his “gal”. He was very kind, in helping us to unhitch, and feed and water our horses, +c, and when, during the familiar little chat we had with him, he found that we were from “de Norf”, he seemed to be very greatly delighted, the slaves, even at that early day, seeming to consider Northerners their peculiar friends.
After “beating around the bush” awhile, he boldly proposed that we should steal him. On questioning him, he stated that his “ole massa”, who had always treated him very kindly, had recently died, and that he had “done been sold” to a “new massa” who “done whipped” him so often that he could’nt “done stan it no mo’ no how”. We told him that we were not going North but further South, so that we could not take him to the Land of Freedom, even if it would be safe for us to attempt to do so. He said that he did’nt care about being free, if he only had a “good massa like ole massa”, and that if we would “only jes let him done go along” with us, after we “done got over into Alabama”, we might “done sell” him, and have all the money we could “done get” for him, if we would only “done” find him a “good massa”. I asked him what he considered himself worth, and he replied that his new master had “only done” paid eight hundred dollars for him at “de public sale”; but that “befor’ ole massa had “done gone dead” he had “fused” to take a thousand dollars for him “ebber so many times”. We told him that the thing would’nt work – that if we made the attempt and got caught at it, it would cost us our lives; the laws being then, as always, very severe on “nigger stealers”. But he urged that there would be no danger, for he could “fix it dat nobody would nebber done know nothing about what had done gone with him”. I asked him how he could do that? “Why, you see, massa”, said he, “on de udder side ob de nex’ town, whar you’s guine ter stay ober night, dar’s a big piece o’ timber. I’ll jes done run away ter night, and be in dat ar timber when yous come along in de mornin’. Den I’ll jes done git in de wagon, back o’ dem big boxes and trunks, I can ride tree or fo’ days ‘ thout nobody a knowin’ I’m dar. Den I can done come out an’ be your driver, an’ take car ob your horses, an’ when you done gits ‘way off ober inter Alerbam you can done sell me, an hab all de money you can git for me, as I done tell you befo’”. “But”, enquired I, “supposing they put the bloodhounds on your track and follow us, what then?” “Why, massa”, he replied, “dem dogs could’nt done foller us, not no how. Dey could foller me as far as I runned, or walked; but when I done git in de wagon, dey lose de smell, and arter dat dey could’nt done find it agin, not no how”. It was decidedly a cunning scheme, and might, possibly, have been successfully carried into execution; but we were not disposed to engage in “nigger stealing” as a means of making money, while the chances of detection were too great for us to take the risk in a humanitarian point of view. I really felt sorry for the poor fellow, on our finally telling him that he could not take him along with us, he seemed to be so sadly disappointed. But we cheered him up by telling him that by kindness and obedience to his new master he could win kind treatment from him, and that, perhaps, before many years, freedom would come to all the slaves, so that he could choose a master for himself, and perhaps become his own master, so that when we finally parted from him there was an expression of hope upon his swarthy, but shining, countenance that, if living, he has probably long since realized. (Lane 84-86)
Within this dialogue, one can see the sympathy Lane felt towards the young man as well as his personal belief that slavery was wrong, but like many other Americans it was not Lane’s way to break the law, albeit an unjust one.
The second instance of runaway slaves was a much brighter story in Lane’s autobiography. Here Lane recalls his journey back to the East after spending a bit of time in California during the Gold Rush years.
Lane witnessed the following on his stay on the Steamer “Winfield Scott”:
Col. Scales, from Tennessee, had taken two of his slaves with him to California, in 1850, with the promise, as they asserted, that if they would stick by him for two years he would give them their freedom. They performed their part of the contract faithfully, helping him to accumulate a nice little fortune, and then he undertook to repudiate his part of the agreement, and compel them to return with him to Tennessee. By the aid of two or three other returning Tennesseeans, he got them as far as San Francisco without any difficulty. There, however, certain freedom-loving parties took the case in hand, and brought the matter before the Courts, through a writ of Habeas Corpus, asking the Colonel to show by what authority he thus restrained the two colored men of their freedom, and on final hearing they were ordered by the Court to be put at liberty. Anticipating this result, warrants were procured from the Judge of another Court, of pro-slavery proclivities, whose counter decision remanded them to the custody of their “Master,” which was purposely so well-timed that they were hustled on board a tug, which sailed out of the harbor from another part of the City, a few minutes before the Winfield Scott left Long Wharf, coming alongside a short distance out, and placing the “chattels”, and their triumphant master, securely on board. After we had been had out some five or six days, one of them – a thin faced, spare-built, saffron colored young fellow, was taken sick, rapidly growing worse as the vessel neared Acapulco, so that on coming to anchor in the Bay, it seemed extremely doubtful whether he ever could be any better. His chum, a thick-set, chuckle-headed, cool, black darkey seemed to feel very badly about the sickness of his companion, and devoted every moment of his time to taking care of him; administering medicines and nourishment, rubbing, bathing, +c, under the direction of the steamer’s surgeon. Not dreaming of any possible danger, under the circumstances, the master and his confederates, took a boat and went into the city, to spend the day. No sooner had they disappeared from view, into the city, on reaching the shore, than a very remarkable change came over the sick darkey. His hitherto lack lustre eyes instantly brightened; his enervated frame became instinct with life and vigor; and in an incredible short space of time, the “invalid”, and his “nurse”, were both over the side of the steamer, and into a four-oared boat that was conveniently along side, and speeding for a point at least five miles from the city, by the circuit of the Bay, where, on landing, they immediately disappeared in the chaparal, under the guidance of one of the native boatmen, who had taken them on shore. The Colonel, on returning to the Steamer, about the middle of the afternoon, was soon made aware of the situation, and a more angry man I never saw. Could he have been assured that any one person on board had aided the escape, he would undoubtedly have killed him on the spot. But “Know-nothing-ism” was largely prevalent, about that time, and he could get no satisfaction on the subject. The irate Master again hurried on shore, and endeavored to procure the aid of the Mexican authorities in hunting up his missing chattels, by offering a large reward for their capture, but without avail. Mexico was not Slave territory, and the authorities not only refused to engage in slave-hunting themselves, but would not even permit the Doughty Colonel to do so himself, on Mexican Soil. The discomfited Slave-driver, and his sympathizers, were very savage, during the balance of the journey to Panama, after which we lost sight of them; they probably taking a steamer on this side to New Orleans, instead of New York, as we did. (Lane 223-225)
What one can easily conclude from both instances Lane described is that the slave’s life was not a happy one. However, Lane attempted in his writing to find a silver lining in the dark cloud that was slavery by recounting all the positive things he witnessed in his time in the South, in a brief chapter entitled, “The Bright Side of Slavery”.
In this excerpt he describes the activities of slaves during the times when they were not obligated to work:
… several shanties, for the house servants, were located near to, and in the rear of, the family mansion; the “nigger quarters”, or the shanties for the plantation hands, and their families, being located some distance off; frequently from one-eighth to one-fourth of a mile. I used, frequently, to accompany some of the “young masters”, in the evening, on their “grand rounds”, to see that all was right among the “niggers”. We generally found them hugely enjoying themselves, either engaged in some athletic sports, singing or dancing “juba” by the light of pitch-pine torches – this mode of illumination then being the only one in vogue among the slaves, and, in fact, among a large proportion of the white population, instead of candles, lamps +c, as at the north. A “juba” dance is where, in the absence of a musical instrument, some lusty negro slaps out a tune, with his brawny hands, upon his right thigh, at the same time vigorously keeping time with his huge foot upon the ground. Sometimes a rudely constructed one-string banjo was made use of, in addition to the “juba”, and occasionally there would be an unintelligible vocal accompaniment, by the entire “troupe”. Some of their gymnastic exercises were very supple, and muscular, indeed; almost rivaling those of the most expert athletes of the present day. Their singing, though uncultivated, and wierd, in the extreme, was always very melodious, and their dancing comical and grotesque, beyond description. I often attended slave meetings, in the villages, on Sunday, and, in two or three instances, their camp meetings, in the country. Their sermons and exhortations were both solemn and comical, and their singing – both the words and the tunes – an odd mixture of ludicrousness and pathos. (Lane 68-69)
But one should not mistake Lane for a sympathizer of “slave driving” for he asserts his position on the matter quite clearly in his following chapter titled:
“The Horrors of Slavery”:
I … witnessed many of the horrors of slavery, as well as its brighter features, in the course of my travels in the South. The separation of families, by the sale of husband and wife to different parties, living at a distance from each other; and the sale of their children to still other parties, widely separate from each other, was of very common occurrence. The rushing through, of field hands, under the lash of a cruel overseer, was also an almost every day affair. The hunting for fugitives, with blood-hounds, was several times witnessed. In one instance, just as I came to a plantation, the hunters were coming in with their “game” – a splendid looking young negro, about sixteen years of age, who, on account of some harsh treatment received or impending, had attempted to runaway. Though every plantation was literally swarming with savage looking dogs, in almost endless variety of breed and species, trained blood-hounds, for hunting runaway slaves, were only kept by professional slave-hunters, from six to ten, perhaps, in each county, or district. On the disappearance of a “boy” or “girl”, of any age, from five to a hundred, one of these “professors” would be forthwith summoned. Arriving upon the plantation, if there was any garment that the “boy” or “girl” had worn, or anything – hoe, axe, broom, mop +c, that they were in the habit of using, the hounds were permitted to smell of it, when they would almost immediately strike upon the track and follow the scent, with unerring certainty, until the fugitive was overtaken. And though no such article could be produced, by performing a few rapid gyrations around the plantation it would be but a short time before the track of the runaway could be singled out from among those of the other negroes on the plantation, and followed with equal certainty and precision. The older “boys”, or “girls”, on finding that the hounds were closing in on them, would generally manage to get up into some tree, or otherwise protect themselves from the ruthless teeth of the savage animals, only, perhaps, to be worse mutilated at the hands of their equally savage masters, or still more blood-thirsty overseers. In the case alluded to, the “boy” being young and inexperienced in the absconding line, suffered himself to be run down by the dogs, each planting his savage teeth deep in the calves of the poor fellow’s legs, and holding him fast until the two legged brutes came up with them. After reaching the plantation, the mistress of the boy, with the assistance of the boy’s weeping mother – one of the house servants – carefully bound up the lacerated legs, after which, notwithstanding his own and his poor mother’s piteous pleadings for mercy, he was tied with his hands above his head to a tree, and another “boy”, forty or fifty years of age, was compelled to give him some fifty or sixty lashes with a triple-thonged whip, upon the bare back, causing the blood to run far more copiously, than did the teeth of the blood hounds, from his mangled legs.
Another instance of the cruel barbarity of the institution of slavery came under my observation. A girl, some 19 or 20 years old, apparently perfectly white, had, several months before my visit there, came into the village of Clarksburg, and hired herself as superintendent of the dining room of the principal hotel of the village, representing herself as a Northern girl whose parents lived in Savannah. So carefully had she concealed her real origin, and so circumspect had been her conduct, that a white native blacksmith of the village had courted and engaged to marry her. A short time before the marriage was to take place, a large middle-aged man, a wealthy planter from one of the South-Eastern counties of the State, made his appearance at the hotel, and claimed the young lady as his slave. The indignation of even the slaveholders of the village– to say nothing of the intensity of feeling among such Northerners as happened to be sojourning there – was very great, but the “Colonel’s” proofs were so undoubted, and the slave-code was so stringent, that no person dared to interfere. An effort was made to purchase the “chattel”, was to give her her freedom, and permit her to marry the young blacksmith, who was still willing and anxious to fulfill his engagement; but the villainous old curmudgeon utterly refused to sell her, besides which, when he got ready to start for home, he not only made her walk and carry her clothing in a bundle, but he actually tied her, with a cord about her neck, to the pommel of the saddle. (Lane 69-72)
Lane’s emotional and graphic descriptions of the terrors and injustices of such a cruel system is representative of the progressive thinking many Abolitionists were doing at the time. Lane’s future involvement with the Abolitionist Party further proves his true feelings and social agenda; that being liberty for one and all regardless of racial differences. This progressive sentiment was finally made official on September of 1862, when the first order of the Emancipation Proclamation, was issued by President Lincoln declaring the freedom of all slaves in any state of the Confederate States of America that did not return to the Union by January 1st 1863. The following year, the second order of the Emancipation Proclamation was issued granting further freedom to the slave population. It was not until the passing of the 13th Amendment that non-judicial slavery was finally made illegal.
Eltis, D. (2000). The rise of African slavery in the Americas. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Eltis, D. (2004). Slavery in the development of the Americas. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Berlin, I. (1983). Slavery and freedom in the age of the American Revolution. Charlottesville: Published for the United States Capitol Historical Society by the University Press of Virginia.
1. S. M. Africanus. The Fugitive Slave Law. Hartford, Connecticut, 1850.
[London]: Society's Offices, 1859. Pamphlet.
3. William Reynolds. Reynolds's Political Map of the United States . .
New York: Wm. C. Reynolds, 1856.
4. Angelina Lester, an ex-slave 1937
Ohio Historical Center Archives Library
5. Samuel Diberts, an ex-slave 1937
Ohio Historical Center Archives Library
6. Elsie Ross, an ex-slave
Ohio Historical Center Archives Library
7. Illustration from "The Child's Anti-Slavery Book": Containing a Few Words about American Slave Children. .
New York: Carlton and Porter, 1859.
Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Washington, D.C. 20540
8. Cleveland Gazette: Georgia - How Negroes were Sold in 1833
Ohio Historical Center Archives Library
9. Illustrations of the American anti-slavery almanac for 1840. [New York, New York]
Printed Ephemera Collection; Portfolio 248, Folder 1.
10. Advertisement dated July 12 (year unknown) announcing a reward for the apprehension of a runaway slave named Tom who belonged to B.L. Boston of Fayette County, Kentucky.
Ohio Historical Center Archives Library