William Grimes was born a slave in King George County, Virginia in 1784. His mother was a slave, but his father was Benjamin Grymes, a wealthy slave owner. Because his mother was owned by a man named Dr. Steward, he was also owned by Dr. Steward.
Until he was thirty years old, Grimes was a slave, bought and sold from master to master across three states. But even with his escape to the free states, he was not safe. After moving north, he opened a business, but was discovered by his former master, who extorted money out of him, costing Grimes all he owned. He wrote Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave in 1825 to help raise enough money to take care of himself and his family. What follows are excerpts from those memoirs.
Doct. Steward kept me until I was ten years old. I used to ride behind his carriage, to open gates, and hold his horse. He was very fond of me, and always treated me kindly. This made my old mistress, his wife, hate me; and when she caught me in the house, she would beat me until I could hardly stand. Young as I was then, I can yet remember her cruelty with emotions of indignation that almost drive me to curses. She is dead, thank God, and if I ever meet her again, I hope I shall know her.
When I was ten years of age, Col. William Thornton came down from the mountains, in Culpepper County, to buy negroes, and he came to my master’s house, who was his brother-in-law, and seeing me, thought me a smart boy. He asked my master what he would take for me; he replied, he thought I was worth £60. Col. Thornton immediately offered £65, and the bargain was made. The next morning I started with him for Culpepper. It grieved me to see my mother’s tears at our separation. I was a heart-broken child, although too young to realize the afflictions of a tender mother, who was also a slave, the hopes of freedom for her already lost; but I was compelled to go and leave her. After two days travel on horseback, we arrived at my new master’s plantation, which was called Montpelier.
Early Life as a Slave
I had always made the coffee to the satisfaction of my mistress, until one morning, my young master, George Thornton, after taking two or three sips at it, observed, this coffee has a particular taste; and Doct. Hawes, whom I shall hereafter mention, being then at the table, observed the same, adding that it tasted as if some medicine had been put in it. Upon this remark of the Doctor, my mistress rose up from the table and went to the cupboard, where the medicine was kept; and after examining, said, “here is where he has just taken it from, this morning.”
My master then rose up in anger, and took me behind the ice-house, and whipped me severely, in the following manner: First, he caused me to be what they call horsed up, by being raised upon the shoulders of another slave, and the slave to confine my hands around his breast; in this situation they gave me about forty of fifty lashes; they whipped me until I hardly had any feeling in me.
It indeed sometimes happened, that every morning I was taken and whipped severely, for this very act of that malicious (I must call her brute,) when I was entirely innocent. There without friends, torn from the arms of my mother, who has since died in slavery, not being allowed to see me, her only son, during her illness: (I knew of course she would suffer for what she wanted while confined and unable to help herself, and no one willing to help her that could be allowed to see her,) this, together with my suffering, is sufficient to convince my readers, that any boy of my age would endeavor to find, and also improve an opportunity to clear themselves from the house of bondage.
I remained on the plantation about two years, under a black overseer, by the name of Voluntine, who punished me repeatedly, to make me perform more labour than the rest of the boys. My master then procured another overseer, a white man, by the name of Coleman Thead; he treated us somewhat better than old Voluntine, but he was very severe, flogged me severely several times, for almost nothing. The overseers have an unlimited controul over the slaves on the plantation, and exercise their authority in the most tyranical manner.
I worked under this overseer about nine months, when he left us and went to Georgia. I then worked under old Voluntine again for about six months, when my master engaged a new overseer by the name of Burrows: he was more severe than either of the former. After working with him some time, he set us to making fence, and would compel us to run with the rails on our backs, whipping us all the time most unmercifully. This hard treatment continuing for some time. I at length resolved to run away.
First Escape Attempt
I accordingly repaired to the cabin of a slave called Planter George, and informed him that I intended to run away the next morning. I asked him for an old jacket and some meal, both of which he promised to give me. I then baked what meal I had, for my supper, and went to sleep. Old George immediately repaired to the house of the overseer and informed him of my intention to run away in the morning. The overseer came directly to the cabin and sent in George to question me, while he should listen without. George asked me if I intended to run away, provided he would give me the jacket and some meal; being partly asleep I answered that I did not know. He repeated the question several times and still received the same answer. The overseer then hallowed out, hey, you son of a bitch, you are going to run away are you, I’ll give it to you: bring him out here. So they brought me out and horsed me upon the back of Planter George, and whipped me until I could hardly stand, and then told me if I did not run away, he would whip me three times a day, and make me carry three rails to one, all day.
In this manner do the overseers impose on their Planters, and compel their slaves to run away, by cruel treatment. The next morning came, and I knew not what to do. If I went to the field, I was sure to be whipped, and to run away I did not like to. However, like most, I presume, in my situation, I chose the latter alternative, so away I ran for the mountain. I passed close by the field where my young master, Philip Thornton was shooting. His gun burst, and blew off part of his thumb. I crept along under the fence, and got to the mountains, where I staid until night: then I began to be hungry, and thought I would go to some of the neighbors to get something to eat. I went to Mr. Pallam’s, and asked for some tobacco seed for my master, for an excuse, and stayed there all night. I got some corn bread for my supper, and picked up a little about the kitchen for the next day.
The next morning I went to the mountain, and staid till night again, when I went down to Mr. Pallam’s to get something to eat, pretending that I had come on an errand from my master. Mr. Pallam immediately seized me, and called to Daniel to bring the hame strings. He had been down to my master’s that day, and they told him I had gone off, and if I came there again, to take me, which he did, and would have carried me home that night, but his wife persuaded him to wait till morning I was then put under the care of old Daniel. Mr. Pallam told me if I run away from him, he would catch me with his dogs, for they would track me any where Daniel took me to his hovel, and for greater security took away my shoes.
I lay peaceable till near morning, when the fear of my master came over me again, and I wished to get away. I begged old Daniel to let me go out, under pretence of necessity, but he refused. He finally gave me one of his shoes, and I went to the door to look out. It was just the dawn of day. I had been waiting the cock crowing all night, and it was now time to go if I went at all. The ground was covered with a light snow. I gave a jump, and Daniel after me, but my step was as light as the snow flake, and the last glimpse I had of Daniel showed him prostrate over a log. I escaped to a corn field in sight of my master’s house, and secreted myself in an old log which I had picked out before. While in the log I fell asleep, and dreamed they had caught and was tying me to be whipped; and such was my agony, that I awoke, from a dream, indeed, but to reality not less painful.
I stayed in that place about three days, when I became so pinched with hunger, that I thought I might as well be whipped to death as to starve; so I concluded to give myself up, if I could get to my master before the overseer should get me. In that I succeeded. They gave me something to eat, and Doct. Hawes, my master’s son-in-law, who was at the house, advised them not to whip me. My master asked me what made me go off: I told him the cruelty of the overseer. He then told the overseer not to whip me again without his knowledge I was so hungry that they were afraid to give me as much as I wanted, lest I should kill myself. Not long after, however, the overseer came into the field where we were at work, and after trying to find some fault, whipped us all round. This was the first time he had done it since my master told him not; but I dare not tell my master, for if I did, the overseer would whip me for that.
If it were not for our hopes, our hearts would break; we poor slaves always cherish hopes of better times. We are human beings, sensible of injuries, and capable of gratitude towards our masters. This overseer whipped me a great many times before I escaped from his hands.
Page after page of Mr. Grimes’ book relates the life of a slave in the early 1800s. He was sold and bought at least ten times to as many masters, taken from Virginia to Maryland, and finally to Georgia. Each he recalls with honest apprasal. Some were good to him, others were inhuman. Through this, he was renamed at least three different times.
His final master, Mr. Welman, bought Grimes so that he might rent him out. He worked for Oliver Sturges, a former master. Though still owned by Welman, who went to live in Bermuda with his family. Grimes was given three dollars a week, but not his freedom.
We’ll pick back up with the narrative when Grimes was thirty years old and working on the docks at Savannah, Georgia.
The Final Escape of Grimes
During this time, the Brig Casket from Boston arrived. I went with a number more to assist in loading her. I soon got acquainted with some of these Yankee sailors, and they appeared to be quite pleased with me. Her cargo chiefly consisted of cotton in bales. After filling her hold, they were obliged to lash a great number of bales on deck. The sailors growing more and more attached to me, they proposed to me to leave in the centre of the cotton bales on deck, a hole or place sufficiently large for me to stow away in, with my necessary provisions. Whether they then had any idea of my coming away with them or not I cannot tell, but this I can say safely, a place was left, and I occupied it during the passage, and by that means made my escape.
The evening before the Brig was to sail, I went with a coloured man (a sailor on board) up into town and procured some bread, water, dried beef, and such other necessaries that I should naturally want. It was late in the evening and he being a Yankee sailor, I directed him to walk behind me in the capacity of a servant. (as they would consider me his master, the watch or guard being all on their posts,) He did so, and we procured every thing necessary for me, took them on board and I stowed them away in the hole left for me, where I myself went and remained until we arrived at the quarantine ground New York.
I will here mention that during my passage I lay concealed as much as possible; some evenings I would crawl out and go and lie down with the sailors on deck, the night being dark, the captain would not distinguish me from the hands, having a number on board of different complexions. He or some one would often in the night when there was something to be done, come on deck and call, forward, there, boys. Aye, aye sir, was the reply; then they would immediately be at their posts, I remaining on the floor not perceived by him.
We cast off from the wharf at Savannah Saturday night, and remained in the Savannah river until Monday morning; we then crossed the bar near the light-house. After we had got into the ocean the sailors gave three cheers, and gave me to understand that I was clear; we were out of sight of land they said. Nothing more of any consequence occurred until we arrived at the quarantine ground New-York. I remained concealed from the Captain, Mate, and Steward, until after we arrived.
One morning after I had left my place of concealment and was in the forecastle of the vessel, intending to change my clothes, as I was putting on a clean shirt, the mate came down; (the captain and passengers having gone before to New-York,) he percieved me with my shirt half on, (being so frightened that I stood motionless,) said, why Grimes, how came you here? I could make him no answer. He then called some of the crew and enquired of them how I came there. They replied, poor fellow he stole aboard. He then enquired if the steward knew that I was aboard. I told him that he did not. He replied know well that you do not let him know it. He then enquired if the captain knew it. I answered him, no sir. He then said to me, let no one know any thing of it, I wish that I myself knew nothing of it; here boys put him over the bows and set him ashore on Staten Island.
Upon that, one of the sailors took me ashore in the boat. On landing, he found another sailor with whom he was acquainted, and told him my circumstances, requesting him to assist me in getting to New-York. He promised him that he would. After staying on the Island a few hours, this man told me to follow him down to the river where the packet boat lay, as she would sail soon. There being some of the crew on board the Casket sick, it was necessary that all who passed from the Island, having been on board of her and all other persons who went from the Island to New-York, should be examined by a Doctor, stationed there for that purpose. This was what I most feared.
I perceived the Doctor had his head turned a little to the left, looking at something in that direction. He perceived the sailor who was my conductor, and recognized him as one he had examined; but not noticing me, I slipped aboard without being interrogated at all. I was in the greatest fear of being detected, so much so that I almost fainted; but when I heard the word given to push off, I rejoiced
In the course of the afternoon I saw a coloured girl near the house in the street, I enquired of her if she would walk with me a little ways, in order to see the town, and that I could again find my lodgings. I being a stranger there was afraid of being lost.
The New Freedom
We walked about the city some time; at length, as we were walking up Broadway, who should I see but Mr. Oliver Sturges, of Fairfield, who once had been my master in Savannah. To my great astonishment, he came up to me, and said, why, Theodore; how came you here? I lied to him, and told him I had been there about two weeks; being so frightened, I knew not what to say, never intending to tell a lie, wilfully or maliciously. He asked me how all things were going on at his yard in Savannah. I answered, all well, I just came from there, sir. After a few moments conversation, he passed on one way, and I went on towards my lodgings, where I rested that night.
The next morning, after purchasing a loaf of bread, and a small piece of meat, I started on foot for New-Haven. I could often get an opportunity to ride; sometimes behind the stage, at others, I could sometimes persuade a teamster to take me on for a short distance. In this manner, I arrived at New-Haven. After I arrived there, and even before, every carriage or person I saw coming behind me, I fancied were in pursuit of me. Lying still on board the vessel so long, made it fatiguing for me to walk far at a time without stopping to rest: my situation there being quite confined, and no opportunity for exercise. I often was obliged to go off the road and lie down for some time; and whenever I saw any person coming on, that I suspected, I took that opportunity for a resting spell, and went out of sight until they passed by.
Finding my money growing short, I found that I must live prudent. I met a couple of boys on the road who had some apples. I bought them, which together with what little provision I took with me, was all I had to subsist on until I arrived at New-Haven, which was three days. I lodged the two nights I was on the road at private houses. When I arrived at New-Haven, I found that all the money I had left amounted to no more than seventy-five cents. That night I lodged at a boarding house, kept by a certain Mrs. W. who took me to be a white man; and although I have lived in New-Haven since that time a number of years, she never knew to this day, but what it was a white man that lodged there that night.
Grimes went on to work at various odd jobs. At one, he met yet another former master. After an awkward conversation, the danger was quickly passed. Eventually, Grimes moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where he, along with a friend, opened a barber shop. Once that partnership dissolved, it was back to various work in a number of different places. He also met his wife, and together they had several children.
But it was the trade of being a barber which stuck. In New London, Connecticut, he purchased a set of barbers tools. With tools in hand, he returned to New Haven, plying his trade upon students at Yale. Before too long (and after quite a bit of drama), Grimes opened his own shop, taking over for an ailing barber, much to the ire of the locals who “took pains to prejudice the college steward against me.”
Because of this continued pressure, though the students supported him, he was driven out of New Haven, being forced to pay a fine on trumped up charges. Because he maintained his inncence, he refused to pay, and instead left with his family for Litchfield.
Being a barber to students might have been his undoing. Many students from the South attended Yale, and many recognized him. It was only a matter of time before he was discovered by his master.
The Master Returns
After I returned to Litchfield, Mr. Thompson came on as I had anticipated, with power from my master, to free me or take me back. He said he would put me in irons and send me down to New-York, and then on to Savannah, if I did not buy myself. I instantly offered to give up my house and land, all I had. The house was under a mortgage to Dr. Cottin. A Mr. Burrows, from the south had before this, seen me in New-Haven, and said my master would send on for me.
I got a gentleman in Litchfield to write to my master, to know what he would do, and he wrote back he would take five hundred dollars for me, tho’ I was worth eight. Mr. Thompson had now come on, with discretionary power. My house would sell for only $425, under the incumbrance. Mr. T. wished me to give my note for fifty dollars, in addition. I went to the Governor [of Yale], and told him the whole story: and the governor said, not so, Grimes; you must have what you get hereafter, for yourself. The governor did pity my case, and was willing to assist me, for such is his feeling to the poor.
To be put in irons and dragged back to a state of slavery, and either leave my wife and children in the street, or take them into servitude, was a situation, in which my soul now shudders at the thought of having been placed. It would have exhibited an awful spectacle of the conduct and inconsistency of men, to have done it; yet I was undoubtedly the lawful property of my master according to the laws of the country, and though many would justify him, perhaps aid in taking me back, yet if there is any man in God’s whole creation, who will say, with respect to himself, (only bring the case home) that there are any possible circumstances in which it is just that he should be at the capricious disposal of a fellow being, if he will say, that nature within him, that feeling, that reason tells him so, or can convince him so, that man lies!
The soul of man cannot be made to feel it, to think it, to own it, or believe it. I may give my life for the good or the safety of others. But no law, no consequences, not the lives of millions, can authorize them to take my life or liberty from me, while innocent of any crime.
I have to thank my master, however, that he took what I had, and freed me. I gave a deed of my house to a gentleman in Litchfield. He paid the money for it to Mr. T., who then gave me my free papers. Oh! how my heart did rejoice, and thank God! From what anxiety, what pain and heart ache did it relieve me. For even though I might have fared better the rest of life under my master, yet the thought of being snatched up and taken back, was awful. Accustomed as I had been to freedom, for years, the miseries of slavery which I had felt, and knew, and tasted, were presented to my mind in no faint image.
The full text of Life of William Grimes, the Runaway Slave is available to read here.