Lewis Clarke

Lewis Clarke

Lewis Clarke was born in Madison County, Kentucky in 1812. His father was from Scotland but his mother was a slave. On the death of their owner, William Campbell, Lewis became the property of Betsy Branton. His mother was sold to a plantation owner who lived thirty miles away.

In August 1841 Clarke escaped from his plantation and eventually reached Canada. 1845 Clark published his book, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark.

Lewis Clarke died in 1897.

Primary Sources

(1) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

My father was from Scotland, and by trade a weaver. He had been married in his own country, and lost his wife, who left to him, as I have been told, two sons. He came to this country in time to be in the earliest scenes of the American Revolution. He was at the Battle of Bunker Hill, and continued in the army to the close of the war. About the year 1800, or before, he came to Kentucky, and married Miss Letitia Campbell, then held as a slave.

Mr. William Campbell promised my father that his daughter Letitia should be made free in his will. It was with this promise that he married her. I have no doubt that Mr. Campbell was as good as his word, and that by his will, my mother and her nine children were made free. But ten persons in one family, each worth three hundred dollars, are not easily set free among those accustomed to live by continued robbery. We did not, therefore, by an instrument from the hand of the dead, escape the avaricious grab of the slaveholder. It is the common belief that the will was destroyed by the heirs of Mr. Campbell.

My father died, as near as I can recollect, when I was about ten or twelve years of age. He had received a wound in the war which made him lame as long as he lived. I have often heard him tell of Scotland, sing the merry songs of his native land, and long to see its hills once more.

(2) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

William Campbell always claimed me as his property. At the age of six or seven years I fell into the hands of his sister, Mrs. Betsey Banton, whose character will be best known when I have told the horrid wrongs which she heaped upon me for ten years.

There were four house-slaves in this family, including myself, and though we had not, in all respects, so hard work as the field hands, yet in many things our condition was much worse. We were constantly exposed to the whims and passions of every member of the family; from the least to the greatest their anger was wreaked upon us. Nor was our life an easy one, in the hours of our toil or in the amount of labor performed. We were always required to sit up until all the family had retired; then we must be up at early dawn in summer, and before day in winter. If we failed, through weariness or for any other reason, to appear at the first morning summons, we were sure to have our hearing quickened by a severe chastisement. Such horror has seized me, lest I might not hear the first shrill call, that I have often in dreams fancied I heard that unwelcome call, and have leaped from my couch and walked through the house and out of it before I awoke. I have gone and called the other slaves, in my sleep, and asked them if they did not hear master call. Never, while I live, will the remembrance of those long, bitter nights of fear pass from my mind.

But I want to give you a few specimens of the abuse which I received. During the ten years that I lived with Mrs. Banton, I do not think there were as many days, when she was at home, that I, or some other slave, did not receive some kind of beating or abuse at her hands. It seemed as though she could not live nor sleep unless some poor back was smarting, some head beating with pain, or some eye filled with tears, around her. Her tender mercies were indeed cruel. She brought up her children to imitate her example. Two of them manifested some dislike to the cruelties taught them by their mother, but they never stood high in favor with her; indeed, any thing like humanity or kindness to a slave, was looked upon by her as a great offence.

Her instruments of torture were ordinarily the raw hide, or a bunch of hickory-sprouts seasoned in the fire and tied together. But if these were not at hand, nothing came amiss. She could relish a beating with a chair, the broom, tongs, shovel, shears, knife-handle, the heavy heel of her slipper ; her zeal was so active in these barbarous inflictions, that her invention was wonderfully quick, and some way of inflicting the requisite torture was soon found out.

One instrument of torture is worthy of particular description. This was an oak club, a foot and a half in length and an inch and a half square. With this delicate weapon she would beat us upon the hands and upon the feet until they were blistered. This instrument was carefully preserved for a period of four years. Every day, for that time, I was compelled to see that hated tool of cruelty lying in the chair by my side. The least degree of delinquency either in not doing all the appointed work, or in look or behavior, was visited with a beating from this oak club. That club will always be a prominent object in the picture of horrors of my life of more than twenty years of bitter bondage.

(3) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

After I had lived with Mrs. Banton three or four years I was put to spinning hemp, flax and tow, on an old fashioned foot wheel. There were four or five slaves at this business a good part of the time. We were kept at our work from daylight to dark in summer, from long before day to nine or ten o'clock in the evening in winter. Mrs. Banton for the most part was near or kept continually passing in and out to see that each of us performed as much work as she thought we ought to do. Being young and sick at heart all the time, it was very hard work to go through the day and evening and not suffer exceedingly for want of more sleep. Very often too I was compelled to work beyond the ordinary hour to finish the appointed task of the day. Sometimes I found it impossible not to drop asleep at the wheel.

On these occasions Mrs. Banton had her peculiar contrivances for keeping us awake. She would sometimes sit by the hour with a dipper of vinegar and salt, and throw it in my eyes to keep them open. My hair was pulled till there was no longer any pain from that source. And I can now suffer myself to be lifted by the hair of the head, without experiencing the least pain. She very often kept me from getting water to satisfy my thirst, and in one instance kept me for two entire days without a particle of food.

But all my severe labor, bitter and cruel punishments for these ten years of captivity with this worse than Arab family, all these were as nothing to the sufferings experienced by being separated from my mother, brothers and sisters; the same things, with them near to sympathize with me, to hear my story of sorrow, would have been comparatively tolerable. They were distant only about thirty miles, and yet in ten long, lonely years of childhood, I was only permitted to see them three times.

My mother occasionally found an opportunity to send me some token of remembrance and affection, a sugar plum or an apple, but I scarcely ever ate them-- they were laid up and handled and wept over till they wasted away in my hand. My thoughts continually by day and my dreams by night were of mother and home, and the horror experienced in the morning, when I awoke and behold it was a dream, is beyond the power of language to describe.

(4) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

We had however but two meals a day, of corn meal bread, and soup, or meat of the poorest kind. Very often so little care had been taken to cure and preserve the bacon, that when it came to us, though it had been fairly killed once, it was more alive than dead. Occasionally we had some refreshment over and above the two meals, but this was extra, beyond the rules of the plantation. And to balance this gratuity, we were also frequently deprived of our food as a punishment. We suffered greatly, too, for want of water. The slave drivers have the notion that slaves are more healthy if allowed to drink but little, than they are if freely allowed nature's beverage. The slaves quite as confidently cherish the opinion, that if the master would drink less peach brandy and whisky, and give the slave more water, it would be better all round. As it is, the more the master and overseer drink, the less they seem to think the slave needs.

In the winter we took our meals before day in the morning and after work at night. In the summer at about nine o'clock in the morning and at two in the afternoon. When we were cheated out of our two meals a day, either by the cruelty or caprice of the overseer, we always felt it a kind of special duty and privilege to make up in some way the deficiency. To accomplish this we had many devices. And we sometimes resorted to our peculiar methods, when incited only by a desire to taste greater variety than our ordinary bill of fare afforded. This sometimes lead to very disastrous results. The poor slave, who was caught with a chicken or a pig killed from the plantation, had his back scored most unmercifully. Nevertheless, the pigs would die without being sick or squealing once, and the hens, chickens and turkeys, sometimes disappeared and never stuck up a feather to tell where they were buried. The old goose would sometimes exchange her whole nest of eggs for round pebbles; and patient as that animal is, this quality was exhausted, and she was obliged to leave her nest with no train of offspring behind her.

(5) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

There are certain kinds of work which are respectable for Sabbath day. Slaves are often sent out to salt the cattle, collect and count the pigs and sheep, mend fences, drive the stock from one pasture to another. Breaking young horses and mules to send them to market, yoking young oxen and training them, is proper Sabbath work. Piling and burning brush on the back part of the lot, grubbing brier patches that are out of the way, and where they will not be seen. Sometimes corn must be shelled in the corn-crib; hemp is baled in the hemp-house. The still-house must be attended on the Sabbath. In these and various other such like employments, the more avaricious slaveholders keep their slaves busy a good part of every Sabbath. It is a great day for visiting and eating, and the house servants often have more to do on that than on any other day.

(6) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

The death of a large owner is the occasion usually of many families being broken up. Bankruptcy is another cause of separation, and the hard-heartedness of a majority of slaveholders another and a more fruitful cause than either or all the rest. Generally there is but little more scruple about separating families than there is with a man who keeps sheep in selling off the lambs in the fall. On one plantation where I lived, there was an old slave named Paris. He was from fifty to sixty years old, and a very honest and apparently a pious slave. A slave-trader came along one day, gathering hands for the South. The old master ordered the waiter or coachman to take Paris into the back room, pluck out all his grey hairs, rub his face with a greasy towel, and then had him brought forward and sold for a young man. His wife consented to go with him, upon a promise from the trader that they should be sold together, with their youngest child which she carried in her arms. They left two behind them, who were only from four to six or eight years of age. The speculator collected his drove, started for the market, and before he left the State he sold that infant child to pay one of his tavern bills, and took the balance in cash. This was the news which came back to us, and was never disputed.

I saw one slave mother, named Lucy, with seven children, put up by an administrator for sale. At first the mother and three small children were put up together. The purchasers objected: one says, I want the woman and the babe, but not the other children; another says, I want that little girl; and another, I want the boy. Well, says the Administrator, I must let you have them to the best advantage. So the children were taken away ; the mother and infant were first sold, then child after child - the mother looking on in perfect agony; and as one child after another came down from the auction block, they would run, and cling weeping to her clothes. The poor mother stood, till nature gave way; she fainted and fell, with her child in her arms. When she came to, she moaned woefully, and prayed that she might die, to be relieved from her sufferings.

(7) In August 1841 Lewis Clarke managed to escape from slavery. He recorded his thoughts in his book Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

I saddled my pony, went into the cellar where I kept my grass seed apparatus, put my clothes into a pair of saddlebags, and them into my seed-bag, and thus equipped set sail for the North Star. What a day was that to me. This was on Saturday, in August, 1841. I wore my common clothes, and was very careful to avoid special suspicion, as I already imagined the administrator was very watchful of me. The place from which I started was about fifty miles from Lexington. The reason why I do not give the name of the place, and a more accurate location, must be obvious to any one who remembers that in the eye of the law I am yet accounted a slave, and no spot in the United States affords an asylum for the wanderer. True, I feel protected in the hearts of the many warm friends of the slave by whom I am surrounded, but this protection does not come from the laws of any one of the United States.

Monday morning, bright and early, I set my face in good earnest toward the Ohio River, determined to see and tread the north bank of it, or die in the attempt. I said to myself, one of two things, freedom or death. The first night I reached Mayslick, fifty odd miles from Lexington. Just before reaching this village, I stopped to think over my situation, and determine how I would pass that night. On that night hung all my hopes. I was within twenty miles of Ohio. My horse was unable to reach the river that night. And besides, to travel and attempt to cross the river in the night, would excite suspicion. I must spend the night there. But how? At one time, I thought, I will take my pony out into the field ,and give him some corn, and sleep myself on the grass. But then the dogs will be out in the evening, and if caught under such circumstances, they will take me for a thief if not for a runaway. That will not do. So after weighing the matter all over, I made a plunge right into the heart of the village, and put up at the tavern.

After seeing my pony disposed of, I looked into the barroom, and saw some persons that I thought were from my part of the country, and would know me. I shrunk back with horror. What to do I did not know. I looked across the street, and saw the shop of a silversmith. A thought of a pair of spectacles, to hide my face, struck me. I went across the way, and began to barter for a pair of double eyed green spectacles. When I got them on, they blind-folded me, if they did not others. Every thing seemed right up in my eyes. I hobbled back to the tavern, and called for supper. This I did to avoid notice, for I felt like any thing but eating. At tea I had not learned to measure distances with my new eyes, and the first pass I made with my knife and fork at my plate, went right into my cup. This confused me still more, and, after drinking one cup of tea, I left the table, and got off to bed as soon as possible. But not a wink of sleep that night. All was confusion, dreams, anxiety and trembling.

(8) Lewis Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)

At Cincinnati I found some old acquaintances, and spent several days. In passing through some of the streets, I several times saw a great slave dealer from Kentucky, who knew me, and when I approached him, I was very careful to give him a wide berth. The only advice that I here received, was from a man who had once been a slave. He urged me to sell my pony, go up the river to Portsmouth, then take the canal for Cleveland, and cross over to Canada. I acted upon this suggestion, sold my horse for a small sum, as he was pretty well used up, took passage for Portsmouth, and soon found myself on tire canal-boat, headed for Cleveland.

I was detained at Cleveland several days, not knowing how to get across the Lake into Canada. I went out to the shore of the lake again and again, to try and see the other side, but I could see no hill, mountain, nor city of the asylum I sought. I was afraid to inquire where it was, lest it would betray such a degree of ignorance as to excite suspicion at once. One day I heard a man ask another, employed on board a vessel, "and where does this vessel trade?" Well, I thought, if that is a proper question for you, it is for me. So I passed along and asked of every vessel, "Where does this vessel trade ?" At last the answer came, "over here in Kettle Creek, near Port Stanley." And where is that, said I. "Oh, right over here in Canada." That was the sound for me, "over here in Canada." The captain asked me if I wanted a passage to Canada. I thought it would not do to be too earnest about it, lest it would betray me. I told him I some thought of going, If I could get a passage cheap. We soon came to terms on this point, and that evening we set sail. After proceeding only nine miles the wind changed, and the captain returned to port again. This I thought was a very bad omen. However, I stuck by, and the next evening at nine o'clock we set sail once more, and at daylight, we were in Canada.

When I stepped ashore here, I said, sure enough I am free. Good heaven! what a sensation, when it first visits the bosom of a full grown man - one, born to bondage - one, who had been taught from early infancy, that this was his inevitable lot for life.