Francis Fredric was born a slave in Fauquier County, Virginia. When he was fourteen years old, Fredric's master moved to Mason County, Kentucky. Befriended by his master's wife, Fredric became a well-treated house slave. However, after attending a prayer-meeting he was so badly flogged he decided to run away. He was free for nine weeks but was captured and received 107 strokes of the whip.
With the support of a local farmer who opposed slavery, Fredric was put in touch with the Underground Railroad who managed to safely get him to Canada. Francis Fredric later moved to Liverpool in England where he published his autobiography, Fifty Years of Slavery, in1863.
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
© John Simkin, May 2013
(1) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
Many masters possessing large plantations, and some hundreds of slaves, being desirous to divest themselves as much as possible of the cares of managing the estate, hire white men, at a salary of from 1,200 to 1,400 dollars per annum, to look after the whole property. These are the best and most humane overseers. But other slave proprietors, in order to save the cost of an overseer, but chiefly to exact as much work as possible out of the ******s, make a ****** an overseer, who if he does not cruelly work the slaves is threatened with a flogging, which the master cannot give to a white man. In order to save his own back the slave overseer very often behaves in the most brutal manner to the ******s under him.
My grandmother's master was one of the hard kind. He had made her son an overseer. Consequently, my grandmother having committed the crime of attending a prayer-meeting, was ordered to be flogged by her own son. This was done by tying her hands before her with a rope, and then fastening the rope to a peach tree, and laying bare the back. Her own son was then made to give her forty lashes with a thong of a raw cow's-hide, her master standing over her the whole time blaspheming and threatening what he would do if her son did not lay it on.
(2) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
My master had about 100 slaves, engaged chiefly in the cultivation of tobacco, this and wheat being the staple produce of Virginia at that time. The slaves had to work very hard in digging the ground with what is termed a grub hoe. The slaves leave their huts quite early in the morning, and work until late at night, especially in the spring and fall. I have known them very often, when my master has been away drinking, work all night long, husking Indian corn to put into cribs.
(3) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
Slaves every Monday morning have a certain quantity of Indian corn handed out to them; this they grind with a handmill, and boil or use the meal as they like. The adult slaves have one salt herring allowed for breakfast, during the winter time. The breakfast hour is usually from ten to eleven o'clock. The dinner consists generally of black-eyed peas soup, as it is called. About a quart of peas is boiled in a large pan, and a small piece of meat, just to flavour the soup, is put into the pan. The next day it would be bean soup, and another day it would be Indian meal broth. The dinner hour is about two or three o'clock; the soup being served out to the men and women in bowls; but the children feed like pigs out of troughs, and being supplied sparingly, invariably fight and quarrel with one another over their meals.
I remember when a boy I did not care how I was fed, all I was anxious about was to get sufficient. This mode of living is no doubt adopted for the express purpose of brutalizing the slaves as much as possible, and making the utmost difference between them and the white man. Slaves live in huts made of logs of wood covered with wood, the men and women sleeping indiscriminately together in the same room. But English people would be perfectly surprised to see the natural modesty and delicacy of the women thus huddled together; every possible effort being exerted, under such circumstances, to preserve appearances - an unchaste female slave being very rarely found.
(4) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
I had arrived at about my fourteenth year of age, without having been engaged in any definite employment, running errands, tending the corn-fields, looking after the cattle, in short, doing anything and everything in turns about the plantation. My master had determined to give up his plantation in Virginia, and to go to another in Kentucky. I shall never forget the heart-rending scenes which I witnessed before we started. Men and women down on their knees begging to be purchased to go with their wives or husbands, who worked for my master, children crying and imploring not to have their parents sent away from them; but all their beseeching and tears were of no avail. They were ruthlessly separated, most of them for ever. Still, after so many years, their wailings and lamentations and piercing cries sound in my ears whenever I think of Virginia.
(5) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
From Welland we took boats to Maysville, Kentucky. My master had bought a farm in Mason County, about twenty miles from Maysville. When we arrived there we found a great deal of uncultivated land belonging to the farm. The first thing the negroes did was to clear the land of bush, and then to sow blue grass seed for the cattle to feed upon. They then fenced in the woods for what is called woodland pasture. The neighbouring planters came and showed my master how to manage his new estate. They told the slaves how to tap the sugar-tree to let the liquid out, and to boil it down so as to get the sugar from it. The slaves built a great many log-huts; for my master, at the next slave-market, intended to purchase more slaves.
I was taken into the house to learn to wait at table--a fortunate chance for me, since I had a better opportunity of getting food. I shall never forget my first day in the kitchen. I was delighted to see some bread in the pantry. I took piece after piece to skim the fat from the top of the boiling-pot, overjoyed that I could have sufficient.
(6) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
My mistress took a fancy to me, and began to teach me some English words and phrases, for I only knew how to say "dis" and "dat," "den" and "dere," and a few such monosyllables. It is a saying among the masters, the bigger fool the better ******. Hence all knowledge, except what pertains to work, is systematically kept from the field-slaves.
My mistress made me stand before her to learn from her how I was to take a message. "Now, Francis," she said, "I want to make you quite a ladies' man. You must always be very polite to the ladies. You must say, 'I will go and tell the ladies.'" I repeated some hundreds of times, "I will go and tell the ladies." After some days' training, she thought she had made me sufficiently perfect to deliver a message. "Francis!" "Yes, marm," I said. "Go and tell Mrs.---- that I shall feel obliged by her calling upon me at half-past twelve o'clock to-morrow." "Yes, marm," I said; and she made me repeat the message some dozens of times. When perfect, as she thought, away I went, repeating all the way, feel obliged by your calling upon her at half-past twelve; Missis will," &c., until I met a gentleman on the road who had seen and heard me repeating the words over and over again before I saw him. He called out, "Whom are you talking to?" I jumped, and every word jumped out of me, for I forgot it all. I ran back to my mistress and told her I had forgotten it, but did not tell her the reason why.
"Just as I thought," she said. The teaching re-commenced, and, after some scores of repetitions of the message, I started again, determined that no one should hear me. I went whispering the words all the way as fast as ever I could, hastened into the lady's house, and hurriedly said the words over two or three times to the lady, and then ran back.
Upon one occasion my mistress's sister said that she wanted me to do some washing, and gave me a dress to wash. I picked it up, and put it on the wash-board, and immediately tore it on purpose. She had left the room to fetch some thing for me to wash it with, and, returning in a minute, "Francis," she said, "I hope you have not begun to wash that dress yet?" "Oh, yes, missis, I have," I answered, holding up the torn dress at the same time. "You blockhead!" she said, "I shall never be able to teach you anything; I can never drive anything into your thick skull. I have a good mind to take a stick and kill you, you worthless good-for-nothing." But I was sufficiently cunning by this stratagem to escape what appeared to me the degrading womanly occupation of washing.
She attempted to teach me to milk the cow. By no possible ingenuity could she, as she thought, make me learn the right side of the cow to milk upon; consequently, the cow invariably kicked when I was on the wrong side, and upset the milk-pail. I saw one day some cotton drying by the fire; I thought I would try whether I could make it blaze, thinking, if it did, I could easily put it out. I lit a stick, and set the cotton on fire. Every one in and about the house rushed to the kitchen to extinguish the flame; after some time they succeeded. I told my mistress that a spark had fallen upon it and made it blaze. This story seemed to satisfy her at the time. Some weeks afterwards my mistress called me into her room, and gave me some treacle and bread, and asked me if it was sweet. "Yers, missis," I said. "We are very good friends now, are we not?" "Yers, missis." She gave me two more pieces. "Now, Francis," she said, "don't friends always tell one another the truth?" "Yers, missis." "Don't friends tell each other every thought?" "Yers, missis." "Now, Francis," she added, fixing her eyes fully upon mine, "did you not set fire to the cotton?" "Ye-ye-yers, missis," I replied. "Now you shall have a good whipping for your lies and for setting fire to the cotton," she said; and sure enough I was flogged right soundly.
(7) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
Two slaves, who were perhaps not so completely cowed as the rest, said to my master, who was about to flog them, "No, massa, we not going to be flogged so much, we won't submit." "What is that you say?" my master said, starting back. They repeated, "We are not going to allow you to beat us as you have done." "How will you prevent it?" he said. "You'll see, you'll see, massa," speaking half threateningly. He was evidently afraid of them. When they went home at night he spoke mildly to them, and told them, "he only wanted them to do their work, that it would be better if they could get on in the fields without him. Don't hurry yourselves, my boys."
For two or three days he never went much among them, and when he did he spoke in a very quiet, subdued manner. But mounted negroes were sent with letters to all the plantations around. The slaves had been sent to a species of barn where they shell the Indian corn. Suddenly above a hundred slaveholders, armed with revolvers, marched from different points, and at one time, evidently agreed upon, surrounded the place where the negroes were. All the slaves were ordered out, and the two who had refused to be flogged were made to strip, and my master first had one tied up, and flogged him as hard as he could for some time, the poor slave calling out, "Oh, pray, massa! Oh, pray, massa!"
My master, pausing to take breath, one of the slaveholders said, "I would not flog him in that way, I would put him on a blacksmith's fire, and have the slaves to hold him until I blew the bellows to roast him alive." Then my master started again and flogged until the poor fellow was one mass of blood and raw flesh. The other was tied up and served in a similar manner, one of the slaveholders saying he ought to be tied to a tree and burnt alive. And now I would ask, How can an unarmed, an unorganized, degraded, cowed set of negroes prevent this treatment? The slaveholders can and do flog them to death, and nothing more is thought of it than of a dog being killed.
(8) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
I was about twenty-eight or thirty years of age when my old master was seized with a fever. He was upwards of seventy years of age, and, prior to this, had been a healthy man. When he was taken ill, the family wished to send for a doctor. "No," he said, "I know it is of no use; I shall die."
My young master now was about twenty-four or twenty-five years of age; he did not seem to mourn much for his lost father, but said, "You slaves have been living upon white bread, but I will soon teach you something different from that. You shall now have the treatment proper for ******s. I have been wishing for some time to tan your hides for you." Of course his discourse was interlarded with oaths and curses, with which I cannot pollute my page. I soon began to wish that I was a field-hand, for day by day he was drunk and hanging about the kitchen.
I began to have a terrible life of it. A few years before his father's death, he had led a riotous, dissipated life, losing money by gambling, and then borrowing. All his neighbours were astonished at the amount of his debts, for the sheriff's officers were constantly on the premises. No doubt the state of his circumstances made him drink more.
Aunt Aggy was the first slave sold; she had a little boy eight or nine years of age, and when she was driven to the chained gang on the road he ran after her, crying, "Mother, mother; oh my mother." My master ordered one of the slaves to fetch him the waggon whip. He took it and lashed the poor little fellow, round the neck and legs until he fell down, then he flogged him until he got up again, and still my master cut at him until the boy shrieked out dreadfully, writhing in agony, the blood streaming down his little legs. His mother was driven off with the gang, and her little boy never saw her more.
In three or four weeks after this, a "trader" was seen talking to my master. The slaves were in a state of consternation, saying, "Is it me? Is it me? Who'll go next?" One of the slaves said, "See, they are selling the pigs to go to Virginia. They don't seem to care, but we can't be like pigs, we can't help thinking about our wives and children."
The slaves were all taking their dinners in their cabins about two o'clock. My master, the "trader," and three other white men walked up to the cabins, and entered one of them. My master pointed first to one, and then to another, and three were immediately handcuffed, and made to stand out in the yard. One of the slaves sold had a wife and five children on another plantation; another slave had a wife and three children; and the other had a wife and one child. My master, the dealer, and the others then went into another large cabin, where there were eight or nine women feeding the children with Indian-meal-broth. My master said, "Take your pick of the women."
The "trader" said, "I'll give you 800 dollars for that one." My master said, "I'll take it." The "trader," touching her with a long cane he had in his hand, said, "Walk yourself out here, and stand with those men." She jumped up and laid her child out of her arms in an old board-cradle, and walked to the chained men. My master said, "Take your pick of the rest."
(9) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
Even his own child, by a black woman or a mulatto, when the child is called a quadroon, and is very often as white as any English child, is frequently sold to degradation. There are thousands upon thousands of mulattoes and quadroons, all children of slaveholders, in a state of slavery. Slavery is bad enough for the black, but it is worse, if worse can be, for the mulatto or the quadroon to be subjected to the utmost degradation and hardship, and to know that it is their own fathers who are treating them as brutes, especially when they contrast their usage with the pampered luxury in which they see his lawful children revel, who are not whiter, and very often not so good-looking as the quadroon.
(10) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
I had been flogged for going to a prayer-meeting, and, before my back was well, my master was going to whip me again. I determined, therefore, to run away. It was in the morning, just after my master had got his breakfast, I was ordered to the back of the premises to strip. My master had got the thong of raw cow's-hide; when off I ran, towards the swamp.
He saw me running, and instantly called three bloodhounds, kept for the purpose, and put them on my track. I saw them coming up to me, when, turning round to them, I clapped my hands, and called them by name; for I had been in the habit of feeding them. I urged them on, as if in pursuit of something else. They instantly passed me, and flew upon the cattle. I saw my master calling them off, and returning. No doubt, he perceived it was useless to pursue me, with dogs which knew me so well.
I now hurried on further, into a dismal swamp, named the Bear's Wallow; and, at last, wearied and exhausted, I sat down at the foot of a tree, to rest, and think what had best be done. I knelt down, and prayed earnestly to the Almighty, to protect and direct me what to do. I rose from my knees, and looked stealthily around, afraid that the dogs and men were still in pursuit. I listened, and listened again, to the slightest sound, made by the flapping of the wings of a bird, or the rustling of the wild animals among the underwood; and then proceeded further into the swamp. My path was interrupted, every now and then, by large sheets of stagnant, putrid, green-looking water, from which a most sickening, fetid smell arose; the birds, in their flight, turning away from it. The snakes crawled sluggishly across the ground, for it was autumn time, when, it is said, they are surcharged with their deadly poison.
When awake in the morning, I tried to plan out some way of escape, over the Ohio River, which I knew was about thirty miles from where I was. But I could not swim; and I was well aware that my master would set a watch upon every ferry or ford, and that the whole country would be put on the alert, to catch me; for the planters, for self-protection, take almost as much interest in capturing another man's slaves, as they do their own.
At length, driven by hunger and desperation, I approached the edge of the swamp; when I was startled by seeing a young woman ploughing. I knew her, and called her by name. She was frightened, and shocked at my appearance - worn, from hunger, almost to a skeleton; and haggard, from the want of sound sleep. I begged of her to go to get me something to eat. She, at first, expressed her fears, and began to tell me of the efforts which my master was making to capture me. He had offered $500 reward - had placed a watch all along the Ohio River - had informed all the neighbouring planters, who had cautioned all their slaves not to give me any food or other assistance, and he had made it known, that, when I should be caught, he would give me a thousand lashes.
The woman went, and fetched me about two ounces of bread, of which I eat a small portion, wishing to keep the rest to eat in the swamp, husbanding it, as much as possible. When she told me that I should receive a thousand lashes, I felt horrified, and wept bitterly. The girl wept also. I had seen a slave, who had escaped to the Northern States, and, after an absence of four years, had been brought back again, and flogged, in the presence of all the slaves, assembled from the neighbouring plantations. His body was frightfully lacerated. I went to see him, two or three weeks after the flogging. When they were anointing his back, his screams were awful. He died, soon afterwards--a tall, fine young fellow, six feet high, in the prime of life, thus brutally murdered.
(11) Francis Fredric was caught after being free for nine weeks.
At the end of about a month my master, one morning, came into the kitchen; he had a rope and a cow-hide whip in his hands. "Francis!" he said. "Yers, massa," I answered. "Come this way, I will now settle with you; you have been away nine weeks, and I will now reckon with you." I dropped on my knees, and begged hard for mercy. But all in vain. He produced a revolver, and said, "Look here, if you attempt to run away, I will shoot you as sure as you are alive. Strip instantly." I took my clothes off, and he fastened me to an apple-tree behind the house, and flogged me until he was tired. I could not cry any more. The slaves who were watching me told me afterwards that I had received 107 Lashes. He untied me, I could scarcely walk. For one cent he swore he would shoot me. He threatened, if ever I attempted to do so again, he would certainly do for me. I crawled into the kitchen. I thought I should die.
In the evening my mistress came into the kitchen, and said, "Francis, you have had a very severe flogging. I could not prevent it. I hope you will never attempt to run away again. I thought your master would have killed you (she had been watching the flogging from a window); you must not be sullen or sulky to him in any way, or he will flog you again. I shall send you something into the kitchen to rub your back with," and after some more advice and cautions she went away.
(12) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
Since my first attempt to escape I was so uniformly treated badly, that my life would have been insupportable if I had not been soothed by the kind words of the good abolitionist planter who had first conveyed to me a true knowledge of religion. I had been flogged, and went one day to show him the state in which I was. He asked me what I wanted him to do. I said, "To get me away to Canada."
He sat for full twenty minutes thoughtfully, and at last said, "Now, if I promise to take you away out of all this, you must not mention a word to any one. Don't breathe a syllable to your mother or sisters, or it will be betrayed." Oh, how my heart jumped for joy at this promise. I felt new life come into me. Visions of happiness flitted before my mind. And then I thought before the next day he might change his mind, and I was miserable again. I solemnly assured him I would say nothing to any one. "Come to me," he said, "on the Friday night about ten or eleven o'clock; I will wait till you come. Don't bring any clothes with you except those you have on. But bring any money you can get." I said I would obey him in every respect.
I went home and passed an anxious day. I walked out to my poor old mother's hut, and saw her and my sisters. How I longed to tell them, and bid them farewell. I hesitated several times when I thought I should never see them more. I turned back again and again to look at my mother. I knew she would be flogged, old as she was, for my escaping. I could foresee how my master would stand over her with the lash to extort from her my hiding-place. I was her only son left. How she would suffer torture on my account, and be distressed that I had left her for ever until we should meet hereafter in heaven I hoped.
At length I walked rapidly away, as if to leave my thoughts behind me, and arrived at my kind benefactor's house a little after eleven o'clock. He said but little, and seemed restless. He took some rugs and laid them at the bottom of the waggon, and covered me with some more. Soon we were on our way to Maysville, which was about twenty miles from his house. The horses trotted on rapidly, and I lay overjoyed at my chance of escape. When we stopped at Maysville, I remained for some time perfectly quiet, listening to every sound. At last I heard a gentleman's voice, saying, "Where is he? where is he?" and then he put in his hand and felt me. I started, but my benefactor told me it was all right, it was a friend. "This gentleman," he added, "will take care of you; you must go to his house." I got out of the waggon and shook my deliverer by the hand with a very, very grateful heart, you may be sure; for I knew the risk he had run on my account.
He wished me every success, and committed me to his friend, whom I accompanied to his house, and was received with the utmost kindness by his wife, who asked me if I was a Christian man. I answered yes. She took me up into a garret and brought me some food. Her little daughters shook hands with me. She spoke of the curse of slavery to the land. "I am an abolitionist," she said, "although in a slaveholding country. The work of the Lord will not go on as long as slavery is carried on here." Every possible attention was paid to me to soothe my troubled mind. The following night the gentleman and his son left the house about ten o'clock. A little after twelve o'clock the gentleman returned, and said he had got a boat and I was to go with him. His lady bid me farewell, and told me to put my trust in the Lord, in whose hands my friends were, and asked me to remember them in my prayers, since they had hazarded everything for me, and, if discovered, they would be cruelly treated. I was soon rowed across the river, which is about a mile wide in that place.
The son remained with me in the skiff whilst his father went to a neighbouring village to bring some one to take charge of me. After some time, he brought a friend, who told me never to mention the name of any one who had helped me. He took me to his house outside the town, where I had some refreshment, and remained about half-an-hour. A waggon came up, and I was stowed away, and driven about twenty miles that night, being well guarded by eight or ten young men with revolvers.
It would do any real Christian man good to see the enthusiasm and determination of these young Abolitionists. Their whole heart and soul are in the work. A dozen such men would have defied a hundred slaveholders. From having seen over and over again slaves dragged back chained through their country, and having heard the tales of horrible treatment of the poor hopeless captives, some having been flogged to death, others burnt alive, with their heads downwards, over a slow fire, others covered with tar and set on fire, these noble, courageous, self-sacrificing men have been so wrought upon, that they are heroes of the highest stamp, and I verily believe they would willingly lay down their lives rather than allow one fugitive slave to be taken from them.
(13) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
I came at last to a large station of what is called the Underground Railway, about 160 miles from the banks of the Ohio river. At this large station I remained over the winter, from November to the middle of May. I had now got pretty well assured of my safety, and had the range of a large house.
About the middle of May, I was sent to Sindusky city, on the borders of Lake Erie. I heard my friends bargain with the captain of a steamer to take me across the lake. He said, "Have you only one? I wish you had a hundred. I would gladly take them over." A noble, generous-hearted man he was!
I was landed at some town in Michigan, but I forget the name of the town. The mate took me to an Abolitionist's house, who said he would forward me on to Canada. From this town I went to another place in Pennsylvania, and from thence to a minister's house in York State. He said, for fifteen miles round they were all Abolitionists, and I was perfectly safe; that, although he was acting contrary to the Fugitive Slave Law, he did it with pleasure, since he believed that law to be contrary to the law of God, and he willingly trampled it under his feet; that he had had at least thirty fugitive slaves before me.
After a few months, the Abolitionist gentlemen held a Meeting, and I told them some of my sufferings in slavery. They prayed with me; and I remember an old Quaker lady, shaking me by the hand, and speaking kindly, said, "Thee must not, when thee gets to Canada, say, 'I have been smart.' Thee must remember, that it is the Lord who has been thy friend. Ask Him to give thee a portion of His Spirit; and give Him the glory and honour."