edsanders.com - Charles Stewart - My Life as a Slave" - Part 1

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The following autobiographical narrative has been taken down almost verbatim from the lips of its hero, an old negro man, who has dictated or told the whole of it with absolutely no help but his own memory. He does not read at all, or, of course, write either, though he once knew his alphabet, and there are none of his contemporaries alive in this part of the country, all the older members of his last owner's family, with whom he still remains, being dead, and none of those among them, to whom old Charles has been a life-long servant and friend, I might almost say necessity, knowing anything about the names and dates of races and race-horses, which are given exactly as he remembers them. Nothing throughout has been altered in any way except to make the details as consecutive and the dialect as intelligible as possible, and perhaps it may be as well to add here the facts necessary to complete his story. He does not exaggerate in any way his life in Virginia; he was the favorite and trusted servant of Colonel Johnson during his whole career with him, was in charge of first one training stable, then another, and for several years was employed with the entire care of valuable race-horses and stud-horses, which he took from place to place and course to course in Kentucky, among others, as he mentions, Monsieur Tonson and Medley. At such a distance from his master, and unable even to read his letters of instruction himself, he yet discharged his duties excellently, keeping long accounts in his head, and handling the large sums of money which were constantly passing through his hands with scrupulous accuracy and care. All these facts about him are gathered from letters, family tradition, and the direct report of his masters to the writer's mother, all of which confirm his own perfectly literal and impartial statements. When purchased by Judge Porter, of Louisiana, he was at once placed in charge of a racing establishment where there were never less than twelve horses in training, and which kept forty or forty-five men and boys constantly employed. It was a position of much care and responsibility, for there was a race-course on the plantation which was a favorite centre for turfmen, and Charles was called upon to train horses for this or that gentleman so frequently that he was compelled to establish a system, and undertake so much and no more.


After Judge Porter's death, in 1843, Charles remained in his new home in the service of his late owner's brother, who left him where he found him, as head trainer; and in that position, travelling every spring and autumn to one course or another as the horses went to fulfill their engagements, he continued until his master's death, and the consequent breaking up of the racing establishment, reduced him to the less glorious level of family coachman, and general "boss" of everything in the way of horseflesh on the place. During the war he never left his mistress, who was alone on the plantation during the whole period, for a single day, and since its close he has been the constant, never-failing factotum, adherent, and, as he calls it, "'pendence" of the whole family.

About ten days ago the writer said to him: "Uncle Charles, I want you to come in this evening and tell me all you can remember that ever happened to you, from the very beginning, and let me see if I can not write it down so that people can read it. You have told me so many things about when you were young, I want to put it all down together in black and white." The old man was deeply interested at once, and when he fully understood the object in view, his pride and delight exceeded all bounds. He went off to his own house, which is quite near, and for the rest of the day refused to speak or be spoken to, on the plea that he was "studyin'."


In the evening, at what he calls early candle-light, he appeared, arrayed in his Sunday clothes, and it being a warm night in June, the feeling of self-respect must have been genuine indeed which compelled him to put on a plush waistcoat reaching nearly to his knees, heavy white velveteen trousers ending in a pair of shooting gaiters, the whole surmounted by a long black frock-coat, a spotted silk cravat of vast size, and a small jockey's cap.


It was a brilliant, clear evening, and his own cabin not two hundred yards off, yet he carried a blue cotton umbrella of the very largest size. In this costume he has presented himself every evening since for the se'ances whose results are given in this sketch, although during the day he works about the place in an airy suit of guinea blue much better adapted to the weather. In spite of his eighty-four or five years, Charles is an extremely active, hard-working man, always busy at carpentering, gardening, shoe-making, or "horse-doctoring," in which branch of medicine he is a great authority. His third wife, whom he married after he came to Louisiana, is still living, and has three grown children, who are of little assistance or profit to their father. But he has a nice little homestead of five or six acres, with a cabin on it, which he has almost entirely. built himself within the past two years, and he has already planted the place, of which he only two years ago became owner, with fruit trees and vines and shrubs of every description.

De fust thing dat I remembers of is de little town of Pocahontas, 'crost de river from Petersburg, en Virginia, an' ef you sarched dat whole town troo from eend to eend you couldn't ha' lit down on no bigger little yaller rascal dan me when I fust begin to take good notice of myself. Dat I was! A rascal, hide an' hyar, sho's you born. My father--dat is, I hear folks say dat was my daddy, an' he 'lowed so hisself; but mummy she lived with Aunt Mary Stevens, an' 'cept fur her being his full sister she neber let on no more'n dat --he lived en a good, large house, an' he was a sea-farrin man, a mighty light mulatter; he looked like one o' dese yere Mexikin somebodies. His wife an' chillen staid right dar all de time, an' I 'vided my time 'twixt dar an' Aunt Mary Stevens's, what mummy staid when she warn't out home at ole Marster Enoch Vaughan's, what she belonged to, an' I took a spell o' stayin' out dar sometimes. Mammy's name was Sally; father his name was Charles Stewart; he was free, on' so was all his folks. I lived amongst 'em all, jes' as limber an' mischievious as any little 'coon dat eber stole corn. Colonel Enoch Vaughan's place was two miles from town, on de heights near Major Butts's, ole Gin'ral Harrison's fatherin-law. I neber knowed which I liked de best: to hear de white gen'lemen out dar tellin' 'bout de rebelspishonary wars, an' all de elyments dat tuk place when dey was fightin' agin the British mens, or to set en de chimbley-corner en my daddy's house an' hear him a-tellin' an' narratin' all about dem whalin' vyages he went on, what de fishes has got calves, an' gives milk same as cows, and cuts up dat fat! dar ain't no hog ever waIlered in de mud dat could give a drap for bucket, even countin', wid one o' dem almighty fat critters. He was mighty good to me, I kin rieolleck now how it was share an' share alike wid his yother chillen, an' how his sister, Aunt Mary Stevens, was allers givin' me cake an' clo's an' candy.

You see, de ole Colonel Vaughan died when I was a baby-child, an' de 'state was sort of all sproshered [mixed] up, so dey jes' left me at my daddy's, an' he tried time an' agin to buy me; but dey wouldn't sell me, nor hear about it. Well, arter I was goin' on 'bout ten or 'leven year old, my young mistis, Miss Lizzie Pace, what used to be Miss Lizzie Vaughan, dat I done fell arr to when her pa done died, she got broke en conserkerwenz of her husband losin' money--something I neber could unnerstan', kase I allers heerd he neber had none, nohow--an ,'so my daddy he gone, an' dey jes' up an' sole me en my tracks ter Colonel William R. Johnson, De Napoleon of de Turf was de name he went by from Dandy to Queen o' Sheba. Lord I he was a great man, sho enuff. Ef he didn't hub more stables an' more horsesI De place where he lived was a mighty fine farm' an' house named Oakland, jes' eighteen mile rum Petersburg an' twenty-two rum Richmond; but I neber staid dar--no, sir. De Colonel he jes' dashed his eyes ober me--I was monst'ous lean an' peart fur twelve year ole--an' says to some of de quality dat was a-settin' 'longside: "Here's a light weight for my New Market stables, an' Arthur Taylor's handling. Do you know a horse when you see one, boyr' "Yas, sir," I says; "I knows a horse rum a mule jes' as far as I kin see 'em bofe walk." Dey all larfs at dat, an' de nex' thing dey gives me some new clo's all fixed up, an' I was sarnt down to de great big training stables my new marster owned at New Market, an' I was set to wuk--de fust wuk I eber done sence I was foaled--to rub down Reality, own sister to Vanity, what was owned by Colonel Allen. De head manager of de stable den was a Englishman named Arthur Taylor, an' dough he only had eight horses en trainin' at dat time, dar was a big force of boys an' men at wuk on 'em, two boys to each horse, an' another white man second in charge, named Peter. Jehu! how we did wuk on dem horsesl Dey was John Stanley, sired by Sir Harry, imported by Harry Haxall, Esq., an' dar was a Sir Archy gray filly dat I can remember well kase she warn't no 'count till she was four year ole, when she jumped ober creation. We had another dar belonging to Collyer Minn, named Moses, half-brother to John Stanley by Sir Harry.

How I did love dem horses! It 'peared like dey loved me too, an' when dey turned deir rainbow necks, all slick an' shinin', aroun' sarchin' fur me to come an' give 'em deir gallops, whew-e-e! how we did spin along dat old New Market course, right after sunrise in de cool summer mornings! In dem times New Market was 'bout de head place in de Nu-ninted States fur horse-racin', an' all de gen'lemen fum far an' near used to come. Nobody dat was anybody staid away, an' it was a fine sight when de spring an' autumn races come, I tell you.. My marster, was de picter of a fine ole gen'leman; he was a fa'r-lookin' man, with thick white hyar, an' eyes datjes' snapped fire at you; he was what you calla plain gen'leman, an' didn't b'lieve his coat an' pants was de makin' of him; he treated his servants like dey was de prime cut, an' dey all loved him. He was a yearthly gen'leman, an' ef dere is' any good place anywhere, it 'pears to me like he ought to be in it. An' as fur horses, ef he jes' only walked by a horse to look at it, he could tell you jes' how far dat horse could run. Why, dere was a mar' named Clary Fisher, an' a nag called Bonnets of Blue, dat I raised myself, which was Reality's daughter. When dry was runnin', de ole man walked by Clary Fisher an' looked at her fore-legs, an' he seed a sign in one of her fore-legs dat she would lay down in runnin' a mile an' three-quarters; he role Mr. Crowell to go back an' bet every dollar he had, an' Mr. Crowell went back an' bet his three plantations, an' won de wuth of 'em, jes' as Colonel Johnson tole him. Den dere was General Wynne an' Billy Wynne, Billy Badger and Sam Badger, John C. Stevens, Mr. Van Rauce, an' plenty more what used to fotch deir stables down to New Market ebery spring an' autumn, jes' as reg'lar as clock-wuk, de second Tuesdays in May an' October. Dem was de grandest times dat eber lived. King of Heaven ! it was a sight to see my ole marster, an' yothers like him, a-struttin' up an' down wid deir shirts all frilled an' ruffled down de front. Why, den you could build a ball-room as long as fum here to de stable, an' fill it wid folks, an' ebery one of 'em de real stuff. But nowadays what's it like ? Name o' Heaven! blue trash, red trash, green trash, speckled trash, dar's plenty of ebery qualinfication, but nary one dat washes in lye soap an' dries on de grass widout fadin'. Why, dar was Otway Hare, Parker Hare, John C. Goode, Mr. Corbin, Mr. Taylor, Colonel Peter Mason (we used to walk our horses ebery evenin' pas' his house), John Drummond an' Allen Drummond, the two brothers dat raised Sir Charles, all belonged to the New Market Jockey Club. Lord I how proud dis nigger was when dry called me "Johnson's Charles," an' I used to come a-clippin' down de track en a two-mile heat! De fust real race eber I rid was in a sweepstake, a mile an' a repeat, on John Stanley, trained by Arthur Taylot, when I was 'bout thirteen year ole, an' weighed in at seventy pounds. I was one o' dese yer fever-an'-ague little fellers what ain't got no flesh to take off nohow; an' ef I warn't de proudest nigger! One of de horses was Mr. Green's nag fum Norfolk. My king ! it skeers me a'most to talk 'bout it' all, it looks so fur back; it looks wicked to ricolleck all dese yere dead an' buried things. It seems kin' o' like shakin' up de speerits too hard.

It warn't long arter dis here fust race when I was sarnt down to Norf Kyallina to ride fur Mr. Peter Davis, an' dat was de fust journey eber tuk. I went all alone, an' when I got up on de stage at Petersburg in my new suit o' store clo's, wid ten dollars in my pocket an' more to come, I was "high come up," I tell you. De stage was a high flyer, an' I was sorry enough when she stopped at Warrenton, whar I got out, right at Mars' William Faulkner's, Colonel Johnson's sister's son. A heap o' fine 'folks lived 'bout dar besides him in dem times--ole Major Dancy, Bob Ransom, Judge Jones, an' Heyward Johnson, an' John Johnson, besides ole Marmaduke Johnson, de daddy of 'era all, what was married three times, an' imported Diomed, the sire of Sir Archy, an' one of de finest horses--dough dry tell me he was twenty-one year old when dry fotched him fum England--dat eber knocked de wind in de face. De race I rid was on a nag called Aggy-up, agin a chestnut Colt named Scott, by Timoleon. Dar was three o' dem Aggy nags. Dey was Aggy-up, Aggy-down, an' Oh-Aggy, an' dey was all three sarnt up to New Market to be trained even-tully. I staid down dar near Warrenton fur nigh on to six months, an' den I got a notion to go home, an' I done went. Den I staid pretty quiet at home, clost to marster, trainin' en de stables under Arthur Taylor, an' goin' back an' forth 'twixt de stables an' Oakland, or Petersburg, or maybe Richmond, wharsomeber me an' de Colonel mought be livin' en residence at de time. Ebery spring an' autumn I rid stakes for him, an' 'bout dese years we trained Bonnets o' Blue, BlackStar, Jeannette Lafayette, Flyin' Childers, Betsey Richards, John Richards, an' Sir Henry. John Warlin an' me was de two best light weights. I kep' down to eighty pound. De day of de great race on Long Island 'twixt Eclipse an' Henry, me an' marster an' all on us was there en course. My king! What a crowd an' noise an' screechin' an' hallooin' dar was dat day! When de third heat come roun', Arthur Taylor rid Sir Henry, what John Warlin had rid de two fust, an' ole Purdy he jumped on Eclipse, kase he 'lowed dat Sam Laird couldn't git de jump out of him dat he could. Dat same time I rid de stake fur John C. Stevens on his Young Sir Arehy, an' los' it by jes' eighteen inches; but I made my three hundred dollars an' de fines' suit o' clo's you eber see. I tell you, I walked roun' like a ole gobbler wid a reti flannel tail tied on to his hind-leg when we got back home agln. By de time I was twenty year ole, 'bout de time Van Buren was President, marster he calls to me one day, an' he says: "Charley, my boy, I has layed out fur you to hab a stable of your own separate 'pinting. You is ole enough, an' done seed de rights of things long enough, to be my depritty yourself, so I is goin' to send you ober to my stable one mile fum New Market, an' I specs you to take everything into your own keer, an' send home some o' dem lazy scoundrels dat is hidin' out dar, too thick to shake a stick at, an' jes' waiting fur me to go an' scrattle [seatter] 'em home."

So sho' enough I went to de stable outside o' New Market, an' dar I was de "boss" ober nine little niggers an' four big ones, 'sides two white trash dey called "helpers." Wa'al, I had a nice stable full of nags. Dar was Medley, an' Slender, an' Tariff, an' Arab, an' more too, but I disricollecks de oders now. Dat was de fust of my turnin' out, an' I tell you I felt so fine dat my own mudder wouldn't ha' knowed me fur her son. I had plenty o' money, an' nobody to say nothin' to me. I jes' had to train an' exercise my horses, an' send 'em up when dey was wanted. Wa'al, after a couple of year pass away, I begin to think 'bout gittin' married. I says to myself dat I was lonesome en dat big hamsome cabin, dat I was well off fur eberything 'ceptin' a good nigger to cook an' wash fur me, an' as I neber had no notion o' wastin' victuals on a woman I didn't love, or pomperin' up one wid love an' victuals bofe what didn't belong to me, hide an' hyar, I jes' made up my mind to ax Coloilel Burford to let me look ober a lot of mighty likely young gals he had on a place not very far fum whar I lived. It was a little slip of a farm, clost to Rock Spring meetin'-house, he had put a whole lot of South Kyallina nigger wenches dar till he could git 'em settled on his yother places. I had done looked all roun' Chesterfield County ready to pick up de fust dat 'peared like she would suit; but de minute I drove up to de quarters on Colonel Burford's place I see de gal fur me. She was standin' on de step of de corn-crib sharpenin' a hoe, an' seed dat she was as strong as a mule an' as sharp as pepper seeds, befo' I lit down out of de buggy. I axed her her name; an' she 'lowed dat dey called her Betsey Dandridge; so I axed fur de honor of pursentment to her daddy, ole nigger Dandridge dey called him, an' by sundown de mahter was fixed dat I was to git Colonel Burford's say-so right off, an' we would hab de weddin' when de corn was bent, for Scripter says, "As de corn is bent, so is de wife inclined," an' also, "Feed me wid food convenient fur me", an' 'bout dat time de summer apples would be ripe, an' de peaches.

So I started off to Petersburg, but while I was huntin' all round fur Colonel Burford, lo an' git up! what does I hear but Sim Jackson a-tellin' somebody dat he heerd dat Colonel Burford was goin' to sell de whole kit an' bilin' of 'em, track o' land an' all, to Major Isham Puckett, Esq. So I jes' rid ober de nex' day to whar ole nigger Dandridge an' his folks was a-waitin' fur me' to come an' be 'fianced--what dey allers does up in Virginny befo' de marriage--an' de ole gen'leman he steps out, wid his ole black head a-shinin' like a Kentucky walnut, an' says to me, "Why, Colonel Stewart," says he (kase I had done tuk my marster's title), "we espected to see you here dis mornin' sooner dan dis; you is not so peryactical en yo' courtin' as we had espected." So wid dat Ijes' steps up an' makes him a low bow, an' says I, "Mr. Dandridge, sir, you will allow me de privily of obsarvin' dat I intends to be 'fianced to yo' darter, Miss Betsey, when I gits ready, an' not befo'; an' let me tell you, sir, dar is a heap o' difference 'twixt axin' a lady fur to be your spouse, an' buyin' a gal dat you don't know de price of." Kase, you see, dat was what was troublin' me. I knowed Colonel Burford like a book, an' could calkilate on his sayin', "Wa'al, Stewart, you can hab Betsey a year or so fust to see ef she will suit you, an' den we kin talk 'bout de price," but Major Puckett an' me was on diff'unt sort o' turns. He was an old-school Whig, I was one of de newschcol ones, an' we had to git acquainted better befo' I could tell what kind o' bargain he would make. But, hi! I needn't ha' bothered none 'bout dat. Jes' as soon as I steps up to him en Richmond, what I found him en front o' de Court-house, an' interjuces myself as being" Colonel Johnson's Charles," he was jes' as affable as a settin' hen. I seed two or three gen'lemen I knowed well a-standin' by, but I didn't ax nobody to speak fur me; I up an' speaks for myself, an' jes' as soon as I had sensed him wid what I was sayin', he laughs an' says, "Why, Charley, you can have her jes' as she stands fur three hundred and fifty dollars." I tell you I was pleased. Befo' a mule could kick, I jumped round to Mr. Jefferson Balls's office (he was Major Puckett's brother-inlaw, an', besides dat, he was de money agent for Colonel Johnson, an' dat's how come he was my agent too). I drawed out three hundred an' fifty dollars, fur I had made a heap dat las' year, more'n I could spend in clo's an' tobacco, more spesherly, too, by reason dat de Colonel always. give 'em bofe to me; so as soon as I had drawed de money out I jes' hands it back agin to Mr. Balls for Major Puckeft, an' says, "Dis yere sum is for de ackisition of Miss Betsey Dandridge, an' all de chillen we can raise: is dat so, Mr. Balls, sir? An' he arnsers "yes," an' give me de papers, to hab an' to hole her as long as she behave herself.

So jes' as soon as I could I put back to de Rock Spring farm, an' sho enough we was married at de 'pinted time, an' I tuk her home. I had de best kind of a house ajinin' my trainin' stable, an' you neber seed de like of all de grand things as was give to us. I hauled home three cart-loads o' weddin' presents. Sech furniture an' fixin's was as fine as dey could be. Lord when I look back to dem days an' think 'bout all de money, an' dogs, an' chickens, an' ducks, an' geese, an' pigs I had, an' whole chists full of fine cIo's, an' more chaney dan we could eat out of en a year, an' de Colonel ready to hand me out a hundred dollars ebery time I ax fur it, an' think no more 'bout 'em dan 'bout spittin' out a chaw of tobacco! I neber did treat none o'my wives after dat wid de same respex, kase I was right dar what all de folks knowed me, an' I had a heap more truck dan I eber could colleck after I lef' Virginny. I don' know persackly what year dat was, but it was somewhars 'bout eight year 'fo' I married my second wife down en Kentucky, an' I know de year dat happened was de same year Queen Victorlore tuk up wid Prince Albert an' married him, an' made sech a talkin' an' palaveerin' as neber was heered befo'. Click here for part 2

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Copyright 1997 by Ed Sanders.