Research Guide: Slavery in Pennsylvania

This research guide offers digital tools for teachers and students to explore the history of slavery and abolition in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania County Slave Records

Pennsylvania Laws and Court Cases

Slavery and Northern Colleges

Letters and Diaries

Speeches and Anti-Slavery Conventions

Research Journal: Enslaved Labor and the Founding of Dickinson

Expanding off a previous research journal post, I continued searching the Dickinson College archives for references to slave labor in the construction of the first two college buildings. The Board of Trustees Papers (RG 1/1) are where Georgetown University’s Cory Young first discovered a mention of “Black James, Mr. Holmes’ Negro” who was paid 15 shillings for work on the college on July 26, 1799.

I first wanted to follow up on John Holmes, who as a slave owner was more likely to generate records than the bondsman James. To do so, I used the record group’s finding aid, available online. There, each series within the group is broken down into boxes and then folders, with brief descriptions of their contents. Looking through the finding aid for Series 6, (the Financial Affairs records) I found a folder labeled “Bill of John Holmes for expenses incurred while collecting subscriptions in Baltimore.” True to the description, the folder contained a bill submitted on April 16, 1799, listing Holmes’ expenses on a trip collecting subscriptions to fund the new college’s construction. The first slip showed Holmes’ request to be reimbursed for “2 Horses” and “36 Gallons of Oats,” but on the second slip the otherwise mundane document assumed a new light. Tallying the expenses, Holmes also sought reimbursement “for Jem and two horses for Sixteen Days,” almost certainly the same “Black James” who would appear again, just three months later, in the financial ledger already discovered by Cory Young. [1]

John Holmes’ bill for expenses, April 16, 1799. (Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections)

Holmes asks to be reimbursed for “Jem and two horses for Sixteen Days” (Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections)

This record suggests that James, the slave of John Holmes, accompanied his master to Baltimore, and that Holmes billed the college for James’s time. It is an indication that enslaved people were hired out to Dickinson College not just within the limits of Carlisle, but also in the course of larger fundraising efforts. [2]

These records, from 1799, pertain to New College, the initial college building constructed between 1798-1803. As it neared completion, however, the structure burned in early 1803, and a new fundraising campaign was launched to build what is today know as West College, or Old West. I sought to broaden the scope of my research by looking into contracts arranged for the building of West College, and see if any enslaved labor was used in its construction.

Using the same finding aid, I noticed a file named “Contracts for goods and services, including a partial list of contractors.” Inside was a handwritten list of contractors whom the college had hired, as well as the material they were to supply. I referenced the names against those of slave owners appearing in the Cumberland County Slave Returns to see which of the suppliers owned slaves. While at least three of the contractors had registered slaves in 1780, it proved more difficult to verify whether or not they still owned slaves some 23 years later. There was one exception: Charles McClure, a farmer from neighboring Middleton township, who had served as a Trustee of the college since 1794. McClure, who had agreed to deliver 3,000 bushels of sand for the building of West College, had previously registered seven slaves in 1780, and more recently the birth of a “Negro Child named Grace” in 1802. [3]

Charles McClure registers 7 slaves in October 1780. (Cumberland County Archives)

Charles McClure registers another slave birth in 1802, shortly before he was contracted to work on Old West. (Cumberland County Archives)

While McClure’s slave registrations are far from definitive proof that enslaved labor was used to deliver materials for the building of West College, it does show that the college hired a local slaveholder to supply materials. What remains to be seen is if any more definitive connections between the construction of Old West and slave labor can be made.



[1] Bill of John Holmes, April 16, 1799, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 6.4.33, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[2] As noted in my previous post, a man named William Holmes registered a “Negroe boy named Jim” in October 1780. Georgetown University’s Cory Young has found that William Holmes died within several years of registering “Jim,” sometime prior to August 1785. (See Estate Advertisement, Carlisle Gazette, August 17, 1785, Readex Early American Newspapers Database). It is possible that “Jim” went from William Holmes to his brother, John Holmes. Regardless, what remains clear is that by 1799, John Holmes owned an enslaved man of working age known alternatively as “James” or “Jem.”

[3] Contracts for Goods and Services, West College 1803, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 5.4.4, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections; Carla Christiansen, “Samuel Postlethwaite: Trader, Patriot, Gentleman of Early Carlisle,” Cumberland County History, 31 (2014): 34.

Research Journal: The Charity School, 1787

In order to properly explain the relationship between slavery and the founding of Dickinson, I needed to provide context about slavery in Cumberland County during the college’s formative years. To do so, I turned to the Early American Newspapers database (Readex), made available via the Waidner Spahr library. Using the advanced search option, I entered “Negro” in on of the search bars (“Negro” is often used in place of “slave” in runaway advertisements) and set the place of publication as Carlisle. Most of the ensuing results were from the Carlisle Gazette, a paper established around 1785 that served as the town’s main organ during the period of Dickinson College’s founding.

Immediately, I found a record that tied Dickinson College even closer to slavery. It was a June 1787 notice placed by Trustee John Montgomery, one of the key figures in the college’s founding. He sought to sell a “strong, healthy Negro Wench, and a female Child six months old,” along with “two negro Boys, one about six and the other about four years old.” [1] Prospective buyers would have paid close attention to the ages of the enslaved children, knowing that those born after March 1, 1780, would eventually gain their freedom when they turned 28. Still, until then, the three children Montgomery had put up for sale could be sold legally within state lines and treated in the same way as those who were slaves for life.

Dickinson Trustee John Montgomery advertises four enslaved people for sale. (Carlisle Gazette, July 25, 1787, Readex Early American Newspapers Database)

Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Abolition law, and the oftentimes muddied status of bondsmen in places like Cumberland County, led to considerable confusion. In late 1796, a man named James was arrested “on suspicion of being a Runaway” and housed in the Carlisle jail. “The negro says that he was not recorded,” read the notice, an indication that local African-Americans were using the Gradual Abolition law and its strict requirements on registration to their advantage. [2]

Beyond glimpses into local slavery, I had also hoped to find reference to the school for enslaved children founded around 1788, which I wrote about in a previous post. The school was intended to offer a Christian education for the children of “those people laboring under the unfortunate condition of slavery” in Carlisle and the surrounding region. [3] Remembering that one of the pledges on the school’s founding document, held in the Dickinson College Archives, came from the firm Kline and Reynolds (the printers of the Gazette), I speculated that they may have mentioned the school in their paper.

Modifying the search terms to “School,” with the place set as Carlisle and specifying the year as 1788, I found a specific mention to the school, which the editors of the Gazette referred to as the Charity School. It described a meeting of the subscribers, in which “it was agreed to set aside that part of the original plan, which respects the negroes.” This decision may reflect the second document contained in the Dickinson archives, where the school was shifted from a weekday school to an exclusively Sunday evening school, evidently geared more towards the poor white children than those of slaves. “It is hoped that many parents, unable to educate their children themselves,” read the notice in the Gazette, “will embrace this opportunity of obtaining the aid of the benevolent.” [4]

Notice of the founding of the Charity School. (Carlisle Gazette, November 28, 1787, Readex Early American Newspapers Database)

Now armed with a name, I added the term “Charity” to “School,” and removed the date restriction. With these new terms, I found what I had originally sought—a notice of the school’s founding. The Charity School began in November 1787, “intended for the purpose of instructing poor persons in reading, who are engaged during the week in the business of their employers or masters,” and was held initially on Sunday evenings at the Court House. During its inaugural session, 23 “scholars” were addressed by Dickinson College president Dr. Charles Nisbet, who encouraged them to “acquire a knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, imbue the precepts of the Savior of mankind, and converse as it were with his Holy Apostles[.]” [5] Using the same terms, I found yet another allusion to the Charity School in January 1789, announcing that the “subscribers” (those who had pledged money to sustain it) were to meet at Dickinson College, tying Dickinson even closer to the school. [6] What remains to be discerned is why the school’s subscribers (many of whom were Dickinson Trustees) decided to “set aside that part of the original plan, which respects the negroes,” and what that can tell us about the complicated relationship Dickinson’s founders had to slavery.



  1. “To be Sold,” Carlisle Gazette, July 25, 1787, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.
  2. “Committed,” Carlisle Gazette, February 15, 1797, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.
  3. List of Subscribers, c. 1788. O-Original-1788-1, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections, Carlisle, Pa.
  4. Carlisle Gazette, June 4, 1788, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.
  5. Carlisle Gazette, November 28, 1787, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.
  6. Carlisle Gazette, January 7, 1789, Readex Early American Newspapers Database.

Research Journal: Dickinson’s Founding Board

Continuing my research on Dickinson College’s early ties to slavery, I turned to the trustees themselves. My first objective was to discover how many founding trustees were slaveholders. To do so, I first found a list of the trustees in A Sketch of Dickinson College authored by Charles Himes.

Fortunately, the 38 founding trustees were prominent men in their time, increasing the likelihood that both records about their lives, and their relations to slavery, exist. Among the first I investigate is Henry Hill. A few brief Google searches inform me that Hill was a prominent wine merchant from Philadelphia. In fact, some of the first hits generated for his name are from Founders Online, a website run by the National Archives that holds transcriptions of the correspondence of George Washington and other Founding Fathers. One such letter indicated that Hill had been providing Washington with “fine wine” for many years. So friendly were the two that in August 1777, Washington chose to encamp his Continental Army on Hill’s country estate near Germantown, Pennsylvania, establishing his headquarters in Hill’s elegant home. [1]

I recommence my search with the added benefit of Hill’s birth and death years, obtained in the editors’ footnotes on Founders Online. I uncover that the Maryland State Archives has a page on the Hill family. There, I learn that Hill was born in 1732 on a tobacco plantation near Annapolis, Maryland, known as “Hill’s Point,” where his father, Quaker Dr. Richard Hill, owned “at least” 40 enslaved people. Dr. Hill, who sold 37 of his slaves in 1737, later willed an enslaved man named Valentine to his son Henry. [2] Knowing that Henry Hill later became a Pennsylvania resident, I sought to verify if Valentine or any other enslaved people showed up on Pennsylvania tax records. To do so, I went to Pennsylvania Archives, a gargantuan series of state records edited and printed around the turn of the 20th century. Fortunately, they are all conveniently available online through Internet Archive, although it’s important to consult an online index beforehand to know which volume is relevant for your research. The first volume I consult shows that in 1774, Hill was taxed for two servants (race not specified). In a later volume, I find he was taxed for one slave in 1783. [3]

Henry Hill, 1732-1798, a founding trustee of Dickinson College and slaveholder. (Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and his Children, 1854).

Although he would later die during a yellow fever epidemic in 1798, Hill’s contributions as a trustee were by no means marginal. Returning to the Board of Trustees Papers in the Dickinson College Archives, Hill surfaces repeatedly. At the very first board meeting held on September 15, 1783, at John Dickinson’s Philadelphia home, Hill formed part of a committee “requested to make enquiry for a proper Lot not less than 12 acres in the Borough of Carlisle for Erecting the College, having a particular attention to the health & pleasantness of the Situation[.]” The committee was also “to prepare a Drawing of the College, & to make an Estimate of the Expense of purchase and building.” [4] True to this task, on March 27, 1793, Hill wrote to General William Irvine, a Cumberland County slaveholder closely associated with the developing college. The subject of Hill’s letter was how to “conduce the compliance” of John Penn (1760-1834) who “holds 3/4 of the property we wish to be accommodated with[.]” [5]

Philadelphia wine merchant and trustee Henry Hill writes to Carlisle General William Irvine about securing land for the building of Dickinson College, 1793. (Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections).

I applied this same method to the other 37 board members. As all were residents of Pennsylvania in 1783, the research is simplified by one commonality—Pennsylvania’s 1780 Gradual Abolition law. Even if tax records contained in the Pennsylvania Archives tomes proved inconclusive, all 38 men—if they owned slaves—would have been affected by the law, which required them to register their human property at their respective county seats. Fortunately, many county archives have taken the proactive step of digitizing those records, including Cumberland and Chester, where I found slave returns pertaining to many trustees. Still, other data can be found through simple Google searches, such as the one I ran for “Bucks County slaves.” The query turned up a University of Pennsylvania-produced spreadsheet documenting slave ownership in Bucks County, drawn from the county’s slave register. There I found trustee Reverend James Boyd, who registered four enslaved people.

Still, not all counties have made their slave registers digitally available. As a result, I turned to another great resource, the Pennsylvania State Archives’ website. The State Archives does not hold original slave registers, but maintains microfilm copies of most county records, many of which they have conveniently posted online. There, I find copies of the Lancaster County register, where trustee James Jacks records a “mulatto child” on August 12, 1788. Using the same resource, I was able to locate one of the board’s largest slaveholders, Col. William G. McCleary of Washington County, who registered 7 slaves in 1782.

Synthesizing this data, I was able to verify that at least 23 of Dickinson’s 38 founding trustees owned slaves at some point in their lives—60% percent of the founding board. However, even more explicit evidence of the board’s relation to slavery came from a 1788 document buried deep in the college archives, which I located using the physical card catalog. Board members John Armstrong, John Montgomery, James Wilson and Stephen Duncan all donated funds to establish a “free school and Sunday evening school” for children of “those people laboring under the unfortunate condition of slavery” in Carlisle–signed by many men who bought and sold slaves themselves. College president Dr. Charles Nisbet, who pledged 20 shillings, was to be one of the “managers,” while donations of one pound each came from slaveholding college trustees such as Montgomery, Duncan, Armstrong and Wilson.  [6]

The school’s stated purpose was to inform the enslaved of “the principles of morality & the Christian Religion” which “can only be obtained by reading and studying for themselves the Holy Scriptures and other good Books.” Demanding such intensive study, however, the “free school” apparently struggled. A subsequent document noted that “bound servants slaves and others are in general precluded (by the necessary attendance during the Week upon the business of their Employers)” from regularly attending. Abandoning the “free school” during the week, the signatories instead decided to “Engage a School Master of good character” to teach “such persons as shall be sent to a Sunday Evening School.” [7]

An interesting name appearing on both school documents was that of John Hunter. I immediately recognized his name from earlier research in the Board of Trustees Papers, where a signed note from Hunter provided trustees with a bid to supply “a sufficient quantity of good and sufficient stone lime for the purpose of building and creating a new College[.]” [8] Hunter was also a slaveholder himself, registering a “Negro slave Tom” in 1780. With that in mind, the subject of future research will be if Hunter was awarded the contract, and if so, was slave labor used in laying limestone for the first college building? Further, the unlikely alliance between Nisbet and slaveholding board members to create a school for enslaved children will require additional research. What were Nisbet’s views on slavery, and were they the source of the underlying tension between the Scotsman and Dickinson’s majority-slaveholder board?



[1]  Henry Hill to George Washington, June 22, 1773, Washington Papers, Founders Online [WEB] ; General Orders, August 4, 1777, Washington Papers, Founders Online [WEB] ; Henry Hill to George Washington, March 4, 1797, Washington Papers, Founders Online, [WEB] ; Harold Donaldson Eberlein and Horace Mather Lippincott, The Colonial Homes of Philadelphia and its Neighbourhood, (Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott, 1912), 257-261, [WEB]; John Jay Smith, Letters of Doctor Richard Hill and His Children, (Philadelphia: Privately published, 1854), [WEB].

[2] Sarah Hartge, “Richard Hill,” Archives of Maryland (Biographical Series), [WEB].

[3] William Henry Egle (ed.), Pennsylvania Archives, (Harrisburg: William Stanley Ray, 1897), Series 3, vol. 14, 271, [WEB]; Egle (ed.), Pennsylvania Archives, Series 3, vol. 16, 651, [WEB].

[4] Minutes, September 15, 1783, Minutes of the Board of Trustees, 1783-1809, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 3, Box 1, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[5] Henry Hill to William Irvine, March 27, 1793, Correspondence Related to the “New College,” 1793-1803, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 5, Box 3, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[6] Founding of Carlisle Free and Sunday Evening School, 1788, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[7] Subscription, c. 1788, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

[8] Bid, John Hunter, November 24, 1798, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 5, Box 3, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.

Research Journal: Building Dickinson

As I begin my next project, it is important to organize the research into a coherent structure for the best effect. My task is to document the connections between Dickinson’s founders and slavery, a subject that holds particular relevance today as many colleges and universities such as Brown, Georgetown and Harvard are examining their own ties to the institution.

First, I sought out biographical information concerning four individuals who were crucial in Dickinson’s early years—Benjamin Rush, the college’s founder, John Dickinson, its chief financier and namesake, John Montgomery, a Carlisle resident and early board member and Dr. Charles Nisbet, a Scotsman who served as Dickinson’s first president. All but Nisbet owned slaves at one point in their lives, and with the apparent exception of Montgomery, they all leveled at least some criticism towards slavery, even if their words did not appear to match their actions.

Examining their roles within the college, I found that Montgomery and Rush were particularly close. When problems arose with the new college, Rush frequently leaned upon Montgomery for assistance. A generic search of their names through the Dickinson College Archives’ JumpStart Catalog turned up a student essay from 1982, which further fleshed out the relationship between the founder and the prominent townsman. It was clear, after just some preliminary research, that the stories of Montgomery and Rush might be told best together. Both were slave owners and Dickinson founders, yet each characterized his slaveholding in a vastly different light.

To better understand both men (particularly Montgomery), I began to further explore their connections to slavery in Cumberland County. Montgomery was one of the largest Cumberland County slaveholders, and both men frequently associated with other local slave owners. I started my research in the Board of Trustees papers in the Dickinson archives (RG 1/1), where I found evidence of many slaveholding families—the Montgomerys, the Duncans, the Wilsons to name a few—serving on the board or making important contributions. For instance, in 1800, Revolutionary War veteran William Irvine (another Carlisle slaveholder) was given power of attorney by the Board. [1] The point—Dickinson’s early operating Board was heavily dominated by slaveholders. In order to explain this, I might employ a visual representation of board seats and demonstrate how many were occupied by members of slaveholding households.

Then, Cory Young, a graduate student from Georgetown University specializing in slaveholder migration, shared his newest finding with me—evidence in Dickinson’s financial records (kept by Treasurer John Montgomery) that slave labor was used in constructing the college. On July 26, 1799, records show a single 15 shilling payment made to”Black James, Mr. Holmes’s Negro.” [2] This could be the same “Negroe Boy named Jim” who was about 10 years old when he was registered by William Holmes of Carlisle in October 1780, under the state’s Gradual Abolition Law. Nevertheless, this represents an important point of research. Young informed me that there are many other payments made by the college to local slaveholders, leaving the potential that more enslaved people were involved in building Dickinson. (He has experience in this. As a student at Georgetown, he worked on finding records of Georgetown’s use of slave labor, which included the hiring out of college-owned slaves). As all funds were approved by the Board, an important aspect of my research going forward will be to determine how widespread slave labor was in Dickinson’s construction, and if the Board consistently contracted with local slaveholders.

On July 26, 1799, “Black James,” an enslaved man, was hired out to the college by his master. Dickinson’s early financial ledgers show a 15 shilling payment for work done on the initial college building, which burned down in 1803. (Dickinson College Archives)

Turning to Charles Nisbet, I find that he and college namesake John Dickinson had a less than amiable relationship. Apparently not a fan of Nisbet, Dickinson wrote several disheartening letters to the Scotsman, attempting to put the brakes on his trans-Atlantic voyage to assume the college presidency. The delaying tactics angered Rush and Montgomery, who wondered on paper if Dickinson was seeking to sabotage the school. [3] Nisbet’s views on slavery are often considered set in stone—in 1792, he penned a frequently quoted letter in which he predicted that a “Negro war… may probably break out soon” and would do much to further the anti-slavery cause. [4] Perhaps not surprisingly, once he arrived the cantankerous Nisbet made few friends among Dickinson’s majority slaveholder Board. By 1787, one correspondent claimed that “[t]he whole board of Trustees condemn” Nisbet, for having “reflected upon some persons in Carlisle most grossly maliciously and falsely[.]” According to the correspondent, the Duncan family in particular (a slaveholding family) were “very angry” at Nisbet. [5] One important theme of this project will be to discover what was the source of underlying tension between Nisbet and the Board, and if his reputed abolitionist proclivities played any role in estranging him from men such as the slaveholding Duncans and Montgomerys.



  1. Power of Attorney from Board of Trustees to William Irvine, January 14, 1799, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 3, Box 2, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.
  2. Financial Ledger, RG 1/1 Board of Trustees Papers, Series 6, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.
  3.  Lisa Rainier, “Benjamin Rush and his Relationship with John Montgomery in the Founding of Dickinson College,” November 15, 1982, Essays, History, Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections.
  4. Charles Nisbet, quoted in Merton L. Dillon, Slavery Attacked: Southern Slaves and their Allies, 1619-1865, (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1990), 48.
  5. Unknown correspondent to Benjamin Rush, September 1787, Photoduplicate in Benjamin Rush Drop File, Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections.

A “Doubtful Character”: James Williams and the Authenticity of Slave Narratives

By Cooper Wingert

In early December 1837, James Williams, a fugitive slave from Alabama, found his way to a stable near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. At first offering to hire himself out as “a house-servant or coachman,” Williams was met with a chorus of unsympathetic responses—until, that is, a group of black men approached him. “[T]aking me aside,” Williams later recalled, they “told me that they knew that I was from Virginia, by my pronunciation of certain words—that I was probably a runway slave—but that I need not be alarmed, as they were my friends, and would do all in their power to protect me.” With their assistance, Williams was placed in a wagon and driven some fifteen miles to Harrisburg, where he was informed he “should meet with friends.” He would not be safe in Harrisburg, however, but must travel “directly to Philadelphia” and along the way speak to no white man “unless he wore a plain, straight collar on a round coat, and said ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’”[1]

The Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave, published in 1838, remains a controversial (and often discarded) historical resource. Much of what Williams recounted was soon afterwards proved false, and even the abolitionists who had taken down and published his narrative grew uneasy over Williams, labelling him a “doubtful character[.]”[2] Nevertheless, there are teachable moments in observing what Williams chooses to conceal. Further, abolitionist reactions prompt us to reexamine how anti-slavery propaganda was created and defended (or abandoned) against the attacks of pro-slavery Southerners.

The story which Williams had recounted to his African-American “friends” in Carlisle, Quakers on the route to Philadelphia and, ultimately to influential abolitionists in New York such as Lewis Tappan, James Birney and the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, was a heartrending tale of the domestic slave trade. Born and raised in Virginia, James had been a faithful servant who had accompanied his master (and some 200 other slaves) to Alabama, on the pretense that once his master’s affairs were settled in Greene County, Alabama, he too would return home to Virginia. But on reaching Alabama, Williams was “cruelly deceived,” and left behind at the mercy of a hard-drinking, violent overseer. After remaining “for several years,” he had run away in a dramatic escape through the heart of the deep South spanning multiple months.[3]

Soon after its publication, John Beverly Rittenhouse, editor of the Alabama Beacon, a paper published in Greene County, denounced the Narrative as a “lying abolition pamphlet[.]” Rittenhouse was quick to note that no slaveholder of the name given by Williams had recently moved into Greene County. Nor had a sudden arrival of 200 slaves (as described by Williams) been recorded.[4]

In the wake of Rittenhouse’s attacks, much of Williams’ support melted away. Even Whittier, from his new post as editor of the Pennsylvania Freeman (the official organ of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society), declared that “[o]ur cause needs no support of a doubtful character[.]” Reluctant to discard Williams altogether, he noted that “we are still disposed to give credit in the main to his narrative,” but from a strategic standpoint, backing Williams would give “the slaveholders of Virginia and Alabama” a critical opportunity to assail abolitionist credibility.[5]

The abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier, an abolitionist poet, took down Williams’ narrative. (National Park Service)

Williams’ account was generally discarded as a fraud, until 2014, when the Narrative was finally reevaluated by researcher Hank Trent. In doing so, Trent was forced to confront a complex reality—he found that while Williams had genuinely been a slave, he had fabricated much of the Narrative. Born as Shadrach Wilkins in Essex County, Virginia, Williams had changed not only his own name, but those of his owners, and the counties in which he resided (Essex County, Virginia, became Powhatan County; Dallas County, Alabama, where he was actually held in slavery, became Greene County). Two reasons prompted these changes—first, Williams’ had been implicated in a scheme to poison the owner of a neighboring plantation. While two other slaves involved were hanged, Williams escaped the noose, and was instead sold south to Alabama. Secondly, Williams sought to cover up his involvement with a huckster. To do so, he changed the date of his escape to the fall of 1837, by which time he was already on free soil. Williams had actually escaped in October 1835, falling in with James B. White, a self-proclaimed abolitionist, although Trent labels him a “con artist.” With White, Williams engaged in a racketeering business—the two travelled, posing as master and slave, with White “selling” Williams into slavery, only to return, aid his escape, and repeat the act at another location. All the while, the two pocketed the money.

Their arrangement unraveled in Baltimore on April 12, 1836, when White sold Williams to James Franklin Purvis, a slave trader. Williams confessed in full, and White was quickly jailed. Returned to his owner’s family, Williams was soon sold, transported to New Orleans, where he was purchased. Intent on freedom, however, Williams made his escape up the Mississippi on the steamer Henry Clay in January 1837, acting the part of a waiter. Once the boat docked near Illinois soil, Williams departed, and disappears from the historical record until the fall of 1837, when he appears in Cincinnati.[6] By early December, Williams was in Carlisle, with a well-developed story of his escape by land through the deep South.

Even falsified, the Narrative offers key insights into abolitionist propaganda. Williams goes to great lengths to portray himself as an obedient servant who was wronged by the slave system, when in fact it was his involvement in a poisoning plot that resulted in his sale south. As portrayed in the narrative, Williams’ story of being “cruelly deceived” by his master was fodder to antislavery activists, cutting right through the heart of Southern paternalistic ideology.[7] The complex truth, however, would not produce such an effect. Williams understood this, and thus incorporated elements of his real life experiences into a framework he felt best suited an anti-slavery message. His breathtaking depictions of going weeks without hearing “the sound even of my own voice,” although placed in a false narrative, came from actual events.[8]

The Narrative also challenges us to reexamine our notions of abolitionists. Williams’ understandable reluctance to disclose his actual life story to the abolitionists he met during the winter of 1837-1838 suggests a more nuanced relationship between anti-slavery activists and the fugitives they helped. Escaped slaves who had something to hide (such as Williams) routinely changed the names, dates and locations of their life stories, to protect against recapture. Abolitionists were faced with the challenge of sifting truth from fiction. In both New York and Boston, Vigilance Committee members trained themselves to spot “discrepancies” in fugitives’ stories that would reveal them as impostors, either seeking money or working as the agents of slaveholders. [9]

Despite its variations between biography and story-telling, Williams’ Narrative challenges us to consider how escaped slaves presented themselves to abolitionists, and also how abolitionists then presented them to the world. It is, therefore, a crucial piece to understanding the production of abolitionist propaganda in the decades leading up to the Civil War.



[1] James Williams, Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave, who was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama, (New York: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1838), 97-99.

[2] “Narrative of James Williams,” The Liberator, September 21, 1838, quoting the Pennsylvania Freeman.

[3] Williams, Narrative, 68.

[4] James Williams, Hank Trent (ed.), Narrative of James Williams, An American Slave, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2014), xviii-xxiii.

[5] “Narrative of James Williams,” The Liberator, September 21, 1838, quoting the Pennsylvania Freeman; for a defense of Williams, see, “Narrative of James Williams,” The Liberator, September 28, 1838.

[6] Williams, Trent (ed.), Narrative, xxvi-xxxv.

[7] Williams, Narrative, 68.

[8] Williams, Narrative, 96.

[9] Eric Foner, Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2015), 106, 174; John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 65, 118, 131-132, 289.