They were born enslaved on a mountain top but never stepped away from a fight.
They were beaten so severely at one point by their enslaver that they sustained a large hole in their skull throughout their long lifetime.
They returned the favor, and beat their enslaver near to death in a barroom.
They managed a ferry across the Susquehanna River and bragged they could “beat any man” along the waterway.
Meet the indomitable Silvia Dubois, shown on the right in the photo.
She was interviewed in her dotage in the early 1880s by a local physician in Ringoes, New Jersey, who went on to publish her life story. That is how we learned of her adventures. However, it is not an easy matter to read the original material. Dr. Cornelius Larison was a proponent of phonetic spelling, and consequently published the book in a challenging format. I transcribed about half of the interview, and relied on a previously published transcription. Oddly, only every other page was visible, thus my attempt at translation. You will find her easily accessible story at the end of this essay.
You may be surprised to learn that there was slavery in New Jersey, but it did not end legally in the state until 1865 with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. The state had the dishonorable distinction of being the last northern one to eradicate servitude for life (Smith).
New Jersey practiced a gradual emancipation. In 1804, babies born to enslaved women after Independence Day were declared free, but the law went on to say that they “shall remain the servant of the owner of his or her mother . . . and shall continue in such service, if a male, until the age of twenty-fives, and if a female until the age of twenty-one.” Sounds like slavery of a different stripe. And what of those born before 1804?
The good doctor wrote down Dubois’ words as best he could in shorthand. You now have an opportunity to indulge in the fruit of his labor, in the “Biografy of the Slav Who Whipt Her Mistres and Gand Her Fredom,” Silvia Dubois’s story as told by the one and only:
“I was born on this mountain [Sourland Mountain] in an old tavern that used to stand near the Rock Mills; it stood upon the land now owned by Richard Scott. The old hotel was owned and kept by Richard Compton. It was torn down a long while ago, and now you can’t tell the spot on which it stood.
My parents were slaves, and when my master moved down to Neshanic, I went along with them, and when my master went to Great Bend on the Susquehanna, I went with him there. Afterwards I lived in New Brunswick, and in Princeton, and in other places. I came back to the mountain because I inherited a house and a lot of land, at my grandfather’s death. That’s what brought me back to the mountain.
Who was your father?
My father was Cuffy Baird, a slave to John Baird. He was a fifer in the Battle of Princeton. He used to be a fifer for the minutemen in the days of the Revolution.
Who was your mother?
My mother was Dorcas Compton, a slave to Richard Compton, the proprietor of the hotel at Rock Mills. When I was two years old, my mother bought her time of Richard Compton, Minical Dubois going her security for the payment of the money. As my mother failed to make payment at the time appointed, she became the property of Minical Dubois. With this failure to make payment, Dubois was greatly disappointed and much displeased, as he did not wish to fall heir to my mother and her children, as slaves to him. So he treated mother badly—oftentimes cruelly. On one occasion, when her babe was but three days old, he whipped her with an ox-goad, because she didn’t hold a hog while he yoked it. It was in March; the ground was wet and slippery, and the hog proved too strong for her under the circumstances. From the exposure and the whipping she became severely sick with puerperal fever. But after a long while she received.
Under the slave laws of New Jersey, when the slave thought the master too severe, and the slave and the master did not get along harmoniously, the slave had a right to hunt a new master. Accordingly my mother Dorcas went in quest of a new master, and as Mr. William Baird used to send things for her and her children to eat when Dubois neglected or refused to furnish enough to satisfy their craving stomachs, she asked him to buy her. This he did. And she liked him well, but she was ambitious to be free. Accordingly, she bought her time of Baird, but failed to make payment, and returned to him his slave.
She was then sold to Miles Smith, who was a kind master and a good man but she was ambitious to be free—so of Smith she bought her time and went away to work and to live with strangers. But as she failed to make payment at the appointed time, she was taken back a slave and spent the remainder of her days with him, and was buried about 45 years ago upon his homestead.
Of course, I remained a slave to Minical Dubois. He did not treat me cruelly. I tried to please him and he tried to please me and we got along together pretty well—except sometimes I would be a little refractory, and then he would give me a severe flogging. When I was about five years old, he moved upon a farm near the village of Flagtown. While there I had good times—a plenty to eat, a plenty of clothes, and a plenty of fun—only my mistress was terribly passionate and terribly cross to me. I did not like her and she did not like me, so she used to beat me badly. On one occasion, I did something that did not suit her. As usual she scolded me. Then I was saucy. Hereupon she whipped me until she marked me so badly I will never lose the scars. You can see the scars here upon my head today, and I will never lose them if I lived another hundred years.
When I was about ten years old, the Battle of Monmouth occurred. I remember very well when my master come home from that battle. Cherries were ripe and we were gathering harvest. He was an officer, but I do not know his rank. He told great stories about the battle, and of the bravery of the New Jersey Militia, and about the conduct of General Washington. He said they whipped the British badly, but it was a desperate fight. He told us that the battle occurred on the hottest day he ever saw; he said he came near perishing from the excess of heat and from thirst, and that a great many did die for the want of water.
I also remember when my father and others returned from the battles of Trenton and Princeton—but I was younger then and only remember that it was winter, and that they complained that they had suffered much from cold and exposure.
Before the Battle of Princeton, my master had been a prisoner of war. He had been captured while fighting on the water, somewhere near New York. I used to hear him tell how he and several others were crowded into a very small room in the hold of a vessel—the trap door securely fastened down and the supply of fresh air so completely shut off that almost all who were imprisoned died in a few hours. In this place they were kept two days. Dubois, by breathing with his mouth in close contact with a nail hole, held out until he was removed. Two or three others were fortunate enough to find some other defects in the woodwork, through which a scanty supply of air came.
When I was in my fourteenth year, my master moved from Flagtown to his farm along the Susquehanna River. This farm is the land on which the village called Great Bend [Pennsylvania] has been built. When we moved upon the farm, there was but one other house in the settlement for the distance of several miles. These two houses were built of logs. The one upon my master’s farm had been kept as a tavern, and when he moved into it he kept it as a tavern. The place was known as Great Bend. It was an important stopping place for travelers on their way to the Lake Countries and to other places westward. Also, it was a place much visited by boatmen going down and up the river. Here, too, came great numbers of hunters and drovers. In fact, even in these days Great Bend was an important place.
In moving to Great Bend, we went in two wagons. We took with us two cows; these I drove all the way there. After we crossed the Delaware at Easton, the road extended through a great forest, with only here and there a cleared patch and a small log hut. Even the taverns were only log huts—sometimes with but one room downstairs and one upstairs. Then there would be two or three beds in the room upstairs, and one in the room downstairs.
The great forest was called the Beech Woods. It was so big that we was six days in going through it. Sometimes we would go a half day without passing a house or meeting a person. The woods was full of bears, panthers, wildcats, and the like. About these I had heard a great many wild stories. So I made sure to keep my cows pretty close to the wagons. Usually we stopped overnight at a hotel. But, as the houses were small, often it would happen that others had stopped before we arrived, and the lodging rooms would all be occupied. Then we would sleep in our wagons, or in the outbuildings. In those days travelers had to get along the best way they could.
As my master saw that the site upon which he lived was favorable to business, during the third summer after our arrival he erected a large new frame house—the first house, not built of logs, in Great Bend. Then he began to do a large business and became a very prominent man there, as he was while he lived in New Jersey.
Already several people had moved to the neighborhood, had erected log houses, cleared the lands, and begun to cultivate fields and raise stock. Very soon, in the village, storehouses and mills were built. Indeed, Great Bend began to be the center of a large and thriving settlement.
At this time hunters used to come to this point to trade—to sell deer meat, bear meat, wild turkeys, and the like, and to exchange the skins of wild animals for such commodities as they wished. At our tavern they used to stay,and they were a jolly set of fellows. I liked to see them come; there was fun then.
There was a ferry across the Susquehanna at Great Bend. The boat upon our side was owned by my master; the one upon the other side was owned by Captain Hatch. I soon learned to manage the boat as well as anyone could, and often used to ferry teams across alone. The folks who were acquainted with me used to prefer me to take them across, even when the ferrymen were about. But Captain Hatch did not like me. I used to steal his customers. When I landed my boat upon his side, if anybody was there that wanted to come over to the Bend, before he knew it I would hurry them into my boat and push off from the shore, and leave him swearing. You see, the money I got for fetching back a load was mine, and I stole many a load from old Hatch; I always did, every time I could.
Along with the ferry boat always were one or two skiffs. These we took along to have in readiness in case of accident. When the load was heavy, or when it was windy, two or more ferrymen were required. At such times, I would help them across, but I always come back alone in a skiff. In this way I got so that I could handle the skiff first rate, and was very fond of using it. Oftentimes I used to take single passengers over the ferry in a skiff; sometimes two or more at once. This I liked, and they used to pay me well to do it. I had a good name for managing the skiff—they used to say that in using the skiff I could beat any man on the Susquehanna—and I always did beat all that raced with me.
Often times when the ferrymen were at dinner, someone would come to the ferry to cross. They would holloa to let us know that someone wanted to cross. Then there would be a race. I’d skip out and down to the wharf so soon that I’d have ‘em loaded and pushed off before anyone else could get there—and then I’d get the fee. I tell you, if they did not chuck knife and fork and run at once, ‘t was no use—they couldn’t run with me—the fee was gone. I’ve got many a shilling that way, and many a good drink too.
I asked, ‘Was your master willing that you should cheat the ferryman out of his fees in that way?
She replied, ‘He did not care; he thought I was smart for doing it. And sometimes, if I had not been in the habit of hurrying things up in this way, people would have waited at the ferry by the hour—but you see, they didn’t have to wait when I was about, and this is why they liked me, and why my master liked me too.
Well, Sylvia, what kind of times did you have while at Great Bend?
What kind of times? Why, first rate times. There were plenty of frolics, and I used to go and dance all night—folks could dance then. Why, there were some of the best dances up there I ever saw. Folks knew how to dance in those days….
[She goes on about how poorly the younger generation doesn’t know how to dance properly, a time she got drunk from brandy …]
Well, your mistress was always kind to you, wasn’t she?
Kind to me? Why, she was the very devil himself. Why, she’d level me with anything she could get hold of—club, stick of wood, tongs, fire-shovel, knife, axe, hatchet, anything that was handiest—and then she would so damned quick about it too. I tell you, if I intended to sauce her, I made sure to be off always.
Well, did she ever hit you?
Yes, often. Once she knocked me till I was so stiff that she thought I was dead. Once after that, because I was a little saucy, she leveled me with the fire-shovel and broke my pate. She thought I was dead then, but I wasn’t.
Broke your pate?
Yes, broke my skull. You can put your fingers here, in the place where the break was, in the side of my head, yet. She smashed it right in—she didn’t do things in the halves.
(Hereupon I examined Sylvia’s head and found that at some time long ago the skull had been broken and depressed for a space not less than three inches, that the deepest fragment had not been elevated as surgeons now do, and that in consequence there is to this day a depression in which I can bury a large part of the index finger.)
Well, Sylvia, what did your master say about such as was done by your mistress?
Say? Why, he knew how passionate she was. He saw here kick me in the stomach one day so badly that he interfered. I was not grown up then; I was too young to stand such. He didn’t tell her so when I was by, but I have heard him tell her when they thought I was not listening that she was too severe—that such work would not do—she’d kill me next.
Well, did his remonstrating with her make her any better?
Not a bit—made her worse. Just put the devil in her. And then, just as soon as he was out of the way, if I was a little saucy, or a little neglectful, I’d catch hell again. But I fixed her. I paid here up for all her spunk. I made up my mind that when I grew up I would do it, and when I had a good chance, when some of her grand company was around, I fixed her.
Well, what did you do?
I knocked her down and blamed near killed her.
Well, where and how did that happen?
It happened in the barroom. There was some grand folks stopping there, and she wanted things to look pretty stylish, and so she set me to scrubbing up the barroom. I felt a little glum and didn’t do it to suit her. She scolded me about it and I sauced her. She struck me with her hand. Thinks I, it’s a good time now to dress you out, and damned if I won’t do it. I set down my tools and squared for a fight. The first whack, I struck her a hell of a blow with my fist. I didn’t knock her entirely through the panels of the door, but her landing against the door made a terrible smash, and I hurt her so badly that all were frightened out of their wits, and I didn’t know myself but that I’d killed the old devil.
Were there anyone in the barroom then?
It was full of folks. Some of them were Jersey folks who were going from the Lake Countries home to visit their friends. Some were drovers on their way west. And some were hunters and boatmen staying a while to rest.
What did they do when they saw you knock your mistress down?
Do? Why they were going to take her part, of course. But I just sat down the slop bucket and straightened up, and smacked my fists at ‘em, and told ‘em to wade in if they dared and I’d thrash every devil of ‘em, and there wasn’t a damned a one that dared to come.
Well, what next?
Then I got out and pretty quick too. I knew it wouldn’t do to stay there, so I went down to Chenaug Pont and there went to work.
Where was your master during this fracas?
He? He was gone to tend court at Wilkes-Barre. He was a grand jury man and had to be gone a good many days. He often served as grand jury man, and then he was always gone a week or two. Things would have gone better if he had been home.
When he came home what did he do?
He sent for me to come back.
Did you go?
Of course I did; I had to go. I was a slave, and if I didn’t go, he would have brought me, and in a hurry too. In those days the masters made the n*****s mind, and when he spoke I knew I must obey.
Them old masters, when they got mad, had no mercy on a n*****—they’d cut a n***** all up in a hurry—cut ‘em all up into strings, just leave the life, that’s all. I’ve seen ‘em do it, many a time.
Well, what did your master say when you came back?
He didn’t scold me much. He told me that as my mistress and I got along so badly, if I would take my child and go to New Jersey and stay there, he would give me free. I told him I would go. It was late at night; he wrote me a pass, gave it to me, and early the next morning I set out for Flagtown, new Jersey.
It seems that you go along with your master much better than you did with your mistress?
Yes, I got along with him first rate. He was a good man and a great man too; all the grand folks like Minical Dubois. When the great men had their meetings, Minical Dubois was always invited to be with ‘em, and he always went, too. He was away from home a great deal; he had a great deal of business and he was known all over the country. I like my master and everybody liked him.
He never whipped me unless he was sure I deserved it. He used to let me go to frolics and balls and to have good times away from home, with other black folks, whenever I wanted to. He was a good man and a good master. But when he told me I must come home from a ball at a certain time, when the time came, the jig was out. I knew I must go; it wouldn’t do to disappoint Minical Dubois.
Did parties often occur?
Yes, and I always went, too. Old Minical would always let me go, because I was a good negress and always tried to please him. I had good times when he was around, and he always done things right. But you mustn’t get him mad.
In the long nights of winter, we often had frolics, almost every week. We’d hardly get over one frolic when we’d begin to fix for another. Then there was the holidays—Christmas, and New Year, and Easter, and the Fourth of July, and General Training. But the biggest of ‘em all was General Training. That was the biggest day for the n*****—I tell you that was the biggest day. The n*****s were all out to General Training—little and big, old and young; and then they’d have some rum—always had rum at general trainings—and then you’d har ‘em laugh a mile. And when they got into a fight, you’d hear ‘em yell more than five miles.
Did the n*****s yell when they fought?
The cowards did, worse than anything you ever heard—worse than anything but a cowardly n*****.
Where did you hold your frolics?
There was a great many n*****s around the neighborhood of Great Bend, and sometimes we’d meet at on master’s house, and sometimes at another’s. We was sure to have a fiddle, and a frolic, and a first rate time; but none of ‘em had a better time than myself—I liked frolics. I could dance all night and feel as jolly as a witch all next day. I never tired of frolics—not I—nor at General Training, neither.
Did you say your master used to make his own brandy?
[She discusses making brandy.]
How did you go to Flagtown?
On foot, to be sure. I came right down through the Beech Woods, all alone, excepting my young one in my arms. Sometimes I didn’t see a person for half a day; sometimes I didn’t get half enough to eat, and never had any bed to sleep in; I just slept anywhere. My baby was about a year and a half old, and I had to carry it all the way. The wood was full of panthers, bears, wildcats, and wolves; I often saw ‘em in the daytime, and always heard ‘em howling in the night. O! That old panther—when he howled it made the hair stand up all over my head.
In Easton, I went on board of a raft to go down the Delaware. A man by the name of Brink had his wife and family on board of a raft, bound for Philadelphia. I went on board to help the wife, for my passage. They were nice folks and I had a good time; I left the raft not far from Trenton, but I do not know exactly where—there was no town at the place at which I got off the raft.
Then I proceeded directly to Flagtown, to see my mother. I did not find her there—she had moved to New Brunswick. On my way, a man called to me, asking me ‘Whose n***** are you? I replied ‘I’m no man’s n***** —I belong to God—I belong to no man.’
He then said ‘Where are you going?’ I replied ‘That’s none of your business. I’m free. I go where I please.’
He came toward me. I sat down my young one, showed him my fist, and looked at him; and I guess he saw it was no use. He moseyed off, telling me that he would have me arrested as soon as he could find a magistrate.
You see that in those days the negroes were all slaves, and they were sent nowhere, nor allowed to go anywhere without a pass; and when anyone met a negro who was not with his master, he had a right to demand of him whose negro he was; and if the negro did not show his pass, or did not give good evidence whose he was, he was arrested at once, and kept until his master came for him, paid whatever charges were made, and took him away. You see, in those days, anybody had authority to arrest vagrant negroes. They got pay for arresting them, and charged for their keeping this their master redeemed them. But, he didn’t arrest me—not a bit.
When I got to New Brunswick, I found my mother; soon after, I went to work and remained in New Brunswick several years. From New Brunswick I went to Princeton to work for Victor Toulan. I remained in his family a long while; I worked for him when paul Toulan was a child; I worked there when he was born. Victor Toulan was a great man, and a good man; and he used his servants well; and Paul was a nice boy, and Madam Toulan was a good woman; and I liked ‘em all, and all the servants liked ‘em.
After a while, I visited my grandfather, Harry Compton, who lived at the forks of the road, near this place; he was then a old man; they say he was more than a hundred years old, and I guess he was; but he was yet quite active; he wanted me to stay with him and take care of him, and I stayed; and at his death, I inherited his property. I lived on the old homestead until a few years ago, when them damned democrats set fire to my house, and burned up my home and all that I had. Since that time, I have lived at this place, with my youngest daughter.
Well, Silvia, you have lived a long while, and have suffered a great many hardships, and, I expect that you are tired of living.
No, I aint; I’d like to live another hundred years yet—and I don’t know but I will, too; my teeth are good, and if I can get enough to eat, I don’t know why I should die; there’s no use in dying—you ain’t good for anything after you are dead.
Well, Silvia, I expect you are well acquainted with this mountain, and with all the folks that live on it.
Yes, I know every foot of it—every hole and corner of it; every place where anybody lives, or ever has lived. And I know the folks, too; and some of them are pretty bad ones, too; in fact, they are all bad, and some of them are worse. What the devil will ever do with them when he has to take ‘em, I don’t know. Surely he don’t want ‘em, and wouldn’t have ‘em if he could help it. The only reason that some of these folks up here don’t die sooner than they do is, the devil won’t have them; He just puts off takin’ them, because he knows what a time he’ll have when he gets ‘em. Why! Some of them are starved to death long enough before they die—there’s no place for them to go to after they are dead. They ain’t fit to go to heaven, and the devil won’t have ‘em, and so they have to stay here. Why, this mountain is worse than hell itself; why, if some of these folks don’t behave better, after they go into the infernal regions than they do while here, the devil will have a time of it. He’ll never manage ‘em; he’ll have to call a congress and have an amendment fixed to the constitution. A brimstone fire won’t do; it will never faze ‘em; it don’t here. I’ve seen it tried, and it don’t do at all—only makes ‘em worse.
Well, Silvia, you tell a pretty hard story about your neighbors.
Tell a hard story! I tell the truth; and I could tell more of it; why, you don’t know ‘em, there is more folks killed up here than anybody knows of; and you know somebody is killed up here every year; and nobody is ever hanged for it; and it gets worse and worse. If they kill anybody up here, they just take the murderers off to Flemington and keep them in jail awhile till they have a trial, and then they turn ‘em out to come back here, and then they are worse than they were before. They just kill anybody then.
And they steal! Why, you wouldn’t believe how much they steal; they don’t steal much of one another, because that wouldn’t do; if they were caught at that, they’d get killed damned soon, and then they ain’t got much to be stoled. But they go off from the mountain , down into the valleys, and they steal anything they can find—sheep and chickens, and grain, and meat, and clothes—and anything else that they can eat or wear; and, nobody can find anything that has been stolen by the foks up here, for, when anything is to be stolen, they all know about it, and they all lie for each other, and they all know where it is to be hid, and they all help to keep folks from finding it; so it does no good to hunt up her stolen goods. And then they know so damned well how to hide things, too; they know so damned well how to hide things, too; they don’t hide what they steal in their houses, until all the houses have been searched; when they steal anything they hide it in some hole that nobody but mountaineers know of; or else under some rocks, or under some wood, where nobody but the mountaineers would think of looking. That is the way they do business up here; and if you tell ‘em of it, they’ll kill you—damned if they won’t.
And Silvia, you have lived right here, in the midst of them for fifty years without falling into their ways?
Yes; and longer too. I know ‘em; I’ve been to ‘em—but they have never troubled me much—they know it wouldn’t do; they know I’d give ‘em that.
(So saying, she brought her right fist into her left hand until the smack could be heard fifty yards.)
Well, Silvia, what do you think ought to be done with these bad folks?
Ought to be done with ‘em? Why, some of ‘em ought to be hanged right up by the neck; and some of ‘em ought to be tied up and licked nearly to death—tied right up to a post and licked ‘til within an inch of the life. That’s what ought to be done with ‘em—that’s the way I’d serve ‘em. I’d take ‘em up to Flemington, and lick ‘em ‘til they’d never want to be licked again.
Have you ever been to Flemington, Silvia?
Been to Flemington?
Been to that damned Flemington?—Yes, I’ve been there; and it is the damndest place in the world.
Why, Silvia, what have you against Flemington?
I’ve got enough against it. You can’t get anything there without money; nobody is considered anything there unless he has money; nobody will tell you anything there unless you give ‘em money; if you ask a lawyer anything, he won’t tell you a bit until he get’s your money. You can’t get justice there unless you have some money; and you can’t get it then—because, if another person has more money than you have, they’ll all of ‘em—every damned lawyer, the judge, and the jury, go for him, and a poor body has no show at all. I know ‘em—I’ve been to ‘em—they’re a bad set.
Have you been to the lawyers at Flemington, Silvia?
Yes, I have—but, it didn’t do any good; these damned S———’s have been trying to get my property away from me for many years, and I wanted to consult a lawyer to get him to put these devils through; but I couldn’t; not a damned lawyer would take my case, because I had no money; they “seed” they could not talk without money; they couldn’t do anything for me unless I paid ‘em some money.
Why didn’t you pay them some money?
Pay ‘em! I couldn’t—I hadn’t a cent to my name.
Well, Silvia, how did you feel when they told you that they could do nothing for you without you gave them some money?
Feel! I felt like kicking their damned tripes out. They think they are so damned big because they are dressed up a little; and they are too damned proud to be decent. If they’d come over on the mountain we’d show ‘em; we’d skin every devil of ‘em—I’d do it myself, as old as I am. I’d just like to put my fist against their eyes.
(So saying, she brought the fist against the hand, until it smacked aloud.)
Were you ever in Flemington when you were not consulting lawyers?
Yes, often. I used to go whenever there was any doings there; whenever there was general training,and whenever the big men had their meetings there. All the n*****s used to go to Flemington on those days; and then they’d get licked—good God, how they’d get licked! Why, they’d tie ‘em right up and lick’em to death—cut ‘em into pieces—cut ‘em into pieces—cut ‘em all into strings.
Did you ever see them whip the negroes?
See ‘em! Yes, I have; see ‘em like a dozen of ‘em at a time. Tie ‘em right up to a post, and give ‘em hell, right on the bare back—fetch the blood every time; and they’d holler! Good God! They’d howl til you could here ‘em a mile; and then,when they cut the back all in slits, they’d put salt in the gashes; and then they’d howl, Lord God! No panther in the beech woods ever made half so much noise.
That’s the way they fixed the n***** in old times, them damned Flemingtoners—they think they are so damned big.
What did the negroes do, that they whipt them so badly?
Why, of course they’d get some whiskey,and then they’d get into kinty-koy,
[NOTE: Kinty-koy” was not an Africanism, but rather a corruption of the Algonquian “kinticoy,” a ceremonial dance or festival; https://d.lib.msu.edu/etd/32268/datastream/FULL_TEXT]
and make a noise perhaps; they’d get into a row or a fit, and then somebody would get hurt; and then the one that got hurt would complain to the authorities, and then the constables would be after the n*****s;—and when they caught ‘em they’d tie ‘em right up without just or jury, and pull off the shirt, and put it right on the bare hide. My God, how they’d lick ‘em—cutthe hide all in gashes.
That’s the way they used to fix the old slaves; give ‘em a holiday to have a little sport, and then if they had any fun, lick ‘em ‘til they’d have a sore back ‘til the next holiday come.
Well, Silvia, would they want to go to the next holiday?
Yes, the n*****s always wanted to go, back sore or well; never knew one to miss when his master told him he could go. Then he’d be sure to get licked worse than he was before; because some n*****s couldn’t have a holiday without getting into a fight, then he’d be sure to get tied up and licked.
[The author adds commentary.]
Were you at Flemington when the little negro was hanged for murdering his mistress?
Yes; and that was the damndest time I ever saw. The n*****s quarreled and fought, and pounded each other, and bit each others ears off; and then pounded each others’ noses down, bunged each others eyes and some got blamed near killed. And then them damned Flemingtoners got after ‘em, and they tied ‘em up, and licked ‘em without mercy—cut ‘em all up—cut ‘em all in strings; just left the life—no more.
That was a great time, I’ll never forget that.
Well, Silvia, did the negroes not deserve to be whipt sometimes?
Yes, sometimes—most always, I expect. They had to lick ‘em, there was no other way; The n*****s that behaved well never got licked, but some wouldn’t behave. They’d always get into a row, or steal something, and then they’d be sure to get licked.
Sylvia, they say that you are very old, over a hundred years old. Do you know how old you are?
Not exactly—can’t tell exactly. They didn’t used to keep a record of the birth of n*****s; they hardly kept a record of the birth of n*****s; they hardly kept a record of the birth of their children—they didn’t no more keep the date of a young n***** than they did a calf or a colt; the young n*****s were born in the Fall or in the Spring, in the Summer or in the Winter, in cabbage time or when cherries were ripe,, when they were planting corn or when they were husking corn, and that’s all the way they talked about a n*****’s age.
But, Sylvia, is there no way to tell approximately when you were born?
To be sure, there is, and that’s what makes folks say that I am a hundred and fifteen years old. They tell this by the record of the birth of Richard Compton. My mother and many other old folks used to tell me that, when my mother was a slave to Richard Compton, there was born to him a son, whom they called Richard after his father. When this son RIchard was two days old, I was born; so there is but two days difference between the date of Richard Compton’s birth and my birth.
In an old Bible which is now in the possession of Mr. Richard Gomo who lives near Rock Mills, is the record of the Compton family. By referring to this record they tell how old I am—I can’t read, but expect they tell me right. I know that I am older than anybody else around here—older than their parents were; and in most cases I knew their great-grandparents.
I remember that while we were small children, I and Richard Compton were about of a size, and that we used to play together. My mother and his mother used to tell me that we both nursed the same bread, alternately, the same day. As we were so near the same age, when his mother wished to go away to visit, or upon business, Richard was left in the care of my mother; and while his mother was away, he used to nurse my mother with me. Once, Mrs. Compton and one of the neighbors was gone to the city a whole week; and while gone, Richard was left in charge of my mother. Then she sued to take us both upon her lap, and while he was nursing one breast, I was nursing the other. THey used to say that this was the reason Richard and I got along so well together. As long as he lived, he always claimed to be about my age, and we always visited, and we used to talk over the circumstances that we used to be together when we were babies, and when we were children, and that we had always visited, and always intended to visit.
A great many old folks used to tell me that they had seen me nurse my mother at the same time that Richard Compton was nursing her; and that he and I were about the same age. As we lived at a tavern, I expect folks saw us more, and that more folks noticed us than would have done so in a less public place.31
[Author adds commentary.]
Sylvia, you have an unusually strong frame, and you have lived to an exceedingly great age; you must have been very properly fed in childhood, or else these things could not be. Upon what did they use to feed you, that you have grown so large and so strong?
They gave us Indian dumplings, samp, porridge, corn-bread, potatoes, pork, beef, mush and milk, and n***** butter; and we didn’t get a bellyful of these, sometimes—I’ve often gone to bed hungry, but, twas no use to complain;—you had your measure and you got no more. That’s the way they fed young n*****s, in old times, but they made ‘em grow.
Tell me how the dumplings, porridge, corn-bread and n***** butter were made.
To make Indian dumplings, scald the Indian meal, work it into a ball, and then boil until done, in the liquor that meat—pork or beef—has been boiled in. These were eaten without any dip, butter or sauce.
To make samp porridge: Boil equal parts of beef and pork together, until done; remove the meat and stir into the liquor in which the meat was boiled, coarse Indian meal, and boil ‘til done.
Corn-bread was made by mixing equal measures of Indian meal and rye meal together, and baking in an oven.
N***** butter was made by mixing two parts of lard with one part of molasses.
This n***** butter was what we had to use on our bread; and we did well if we didn’t have to spread it deuced thin. The bread was so hard that it needed greasing; and this was all that we had to grease it with rye meal together, and baking in an oven. We had no gravy.
We used to have pies occasionally. Sometimes they were made out of sweet apples; sometimes out of sour ones, without any sugar or molasses; didn’t feed n*****s sugar and molasses much in those days; the white folks didn’t get much of ‘em—their pies were almost as sour as ours; and there was very little sugar in their coffee, and the sugar that they used was as black as my hide.
We never drank coffee or tea. Sometimes we got some cider. The white folks only drank tea and coffee on Sunday, or when they had company.
They used to boil, or roast our potatoes, with the skins on, and then we didn’t take the skins off, we ate ‘em skins and all. And the white folks ate theirs just so; but they had gravy, or butter, to put on theirs. The white folks didn’t eat wheat bread only only on Sunday, or when they had company. They ate rye bread; they didn’t cultivate much wheat, ‘twouldn’t grow; never had more than enough to make pie-crust and cakes, out of. They ate a great deal of mush and samp porridge; and Indian cakes, and these were good enough if you had a plenty of good milk and butter, and gravy to eat with ‘em.
I expect folks now-a-days, think that this was hard fare, but ‘twas good enough—when we had enough of it; but sometimes we didn’t get a bellyful—that went a little hard. If the folks now-a-days would live as we used to, they’d be a good deal stronger, more healthy, and wouldn’t die so soon. They eat so many dainties; too much sugar, too many sweet puddings and pies, too much rich cake,and too much fresh bread; and they drink too much coffee and tea; and they don’t dress warm enough; that calico ain’t the thing for health. We used to wear woolen under clothes, and our skirts were always made of lindsey-woolsey. Our stockings were woolen and our shoes were made of good thick leather, so heavy that you could kick a man’s tripe out with ‘em.
This is the way we used to dress, and it was a good way too. The old masters knew how to take care of their n*****s.
We had good beds to sleep in; the ticks were filled with *straw, and we had plenty of woollen blankets and coverlets, as they used to call ‘em. The fires were all made of wood, and usually they were big. The fire places usually extended entirely acrost one end of the kitchen—15 to 20 feet side, with large stone jambs that made ‘em three or more feet deep, provided with a chimney that two or three could climb up and stand in, side by side. In the back part of this huge fireplace a large back-log—as much as two or three could carry—was placed, and upon the handirons another log called a fore-stick, as much as a man could carry, was placed; and then between this back-log and fore-stick was piled smaller wood, until it made a fire that would scare the young folks of this generation out of their wits. This big fire not only warmed, but it also lighted the room. As a rule, the n*****s had no other light, and no other fire than this—they had to stay in the kitchen—this was their part of the house, and here they had good times, too. The white folks were in another part of the house, where the fireplace was not quite so big. Sometimes the white folks had stoves, and then they lighted their room with tallow candles. There was no kerosene then, nor any coal; they didn’t know how to use such things.”
Larison, Cornelius Wilson; Dubois, Silvia; Lobell, Jared. Biografy of the Slav Who Whipt Her Mistres and Gand Her Fredom.
PHOTOGRAPH: Hatala, Greg. “Glimpse of History: A woman from Hunterdon County who escaped slavery: A Woman From Hunterdon County Who Escaped Slavery.” Updated Mar 29, 2019; Posted Feb 17, 2014. Photo courtesy of the East Amwell Historical Societyhttps://www.nj.com/somerset/2014/02/glimpse_of_history_a_woman_from_hunterdon_county_who_escaped_slavery.html
Smith, Geneva. “Legislating Slavery in New Jersey.” Princeton & Slavery Project. Princeton University. Accessed 16 January 2021.