- Overseers - How they are Armed and Accompanied -
- His Execution at Marksville - Slave
- Appointed Driver on removing to Bayou
Boeuf - Practice makes perfect
- Epps's Attempt to Cut Platt's Throat - The
Escape from him
- Protected by the Mistress - Forbids
Reading and Writing - Obtain a Sheet of Paper after
Nine Years' Effort
- The Letter - Armsby, the Mean White -
Partially confide in him
- His Treachery - Epps' Suspicions - How
they were quieted - Burning the Letter
- Armsby leaves the Bayou - Disappointment
exception of my trip to St. Mary's parish, and my,
absence during the cane-cutting seasons, I was
constantly employed on the plantation of Master
Epps. He was considered but a small
planter, not having a sufficient number of hands to
require the services of an overseer, acting in the
latter capacity himself. Not able to increase
his force, it was his custom to hire during the
hurry of cotton-picking.
On larger estates, employing fifty or a hundred, or
perhaps two hundred hands, an overseer is deemed
indispensable. These gentlemen ride into the
field on horseback, without an exception, to my
knowledge, armed with pistols, bowie knife, whip,
and accompanied by several dogs. They follow,
equipped in this fashion, in rear of the slaves,
keeping a sharp lookout
upon them all. The requisite qualifications in
an overseer are utter heartlessness, brutality and
cruelty. It is his business to produce large
crops, and if that is accomplished, no matter what
amount of suffering it may have cost. The
presence of the dogs are necessary to overhaul a
fugitive who may take to his heels, as is sometimes
the case, when faint or sick, he is unable to maintin
his row, and unable, also, to endure the whip.
The pistols are reserved for any dangerous
emergency, there having been instances when such
weapons were necessary. Goaded into
uncontrollable madness, even the slave will
sometimes turn upon his oppressor. The gallows
were standing at Marksville last January, upon which
one was executed a year ago for killing his
overseer. It occurred not many miles from
Epps' plantation on Red River. The slave
was given his task at splitting rails. In the
course of the day the overseer sent him on an
errand, which occupied so much time that it was not
possible for him to perform the task. The next
day he was called to an account, but the loss of
time occasioned by the errand was no excuse, and he
was ordered to kneel and bare his back for the
reception of the lash. They were in the woods
alone —beyond the, reach of sight or hearing.
The boy submitted until maddened at such injustice,
and insane with pain, he sprang to his feet, and
seizing an axe, liter ally chopped the overseer in
pieces. He made no attempt whatever at
concealment, but hastening to his master, related
the whole affair, and declared himself
ready to expiate the wrong by the sacrifice of his
life. He was led to the scaffold, and while the rope
was around his neck, maintained an undismayed and
fearless bearing, and with his last words justified
Besides the overseer, there are drivers under him the
number being in proportion to the number of hands in
the field. The drivers are black, who, in
addition to the performance of their equal share of
work, are compelled to do the whipping of their
several gangs. Whips hang around their necks,
and if they fail to use them thoroughly, are whipped
themselves. They have a few privileges,
however; for example, in cane-cutting the hands are
not allowed to sit down long enough to eat their
dinners. Carts filled with corn cake, cooked
at the kitchen, are driven into the field at noon.
The cake is distributed by the drivers, and must be
eaten with the least possible delay.
When the slave ceases to perspire, as he often does
when taxed beyond his strength, he falls to the
ground and becomes entirely helpless. It is
then the duty of the driver to drag him into the
shade of the standing cotton or cane, or of a
neighboring tree, where he dashes buckets of water
upon him, and uses other means of bringing out
perspiration again, when he is ordered to his place,
and compelled to continue his labor.
At Huff Power, when I first came to Epps',
Tom, one of Roberts' negroes, was driver.
He was a burly
fellow, and severe in the extreme. After
Epps' removal to Bayou Boeuf, that distinguished
honor was conferred upon myself. Up to the
time of my departure I had to wear a whip about my
neck in the field. If Epps was present,
I dared not show any lenity, not having the
Christian fortitude of a certain well-known Uncle
Tom sufficiently to brave his wrath, by
refusing to perform the office. In that way,
only, I escaped the immediate martyrdom he suffered,
and, withal, saved my companions much suffering, as
it proved in the end. Epps, I soon
found, whether actually in the field or not, had his
eyes pretty generally upon us. From the
piazza, from behind some adjacent tree, or other
concealed point of observation, he was perpetually
on the watch. If one of us had been backward
or idle through the day, we were apt to be told all
about it on returning to the quarters, and as it was
a matter of principle with him to reprove every
offence of that kind that came within his knowledge,
the offender not only was certain of receiving a
castigation for his tardiness, but I likewise was
punished for permitting it.
If, on the other hand, he had seen me use the lash
freely, the man was satisfied. " Practice makes
perfect," truly; and during my eight years'
experience as a driver, I learned to handle the whip
with marvelous dexterity and precision, throwing the
lash within a hair's breadth of the back, the ear,
the nose, without, however, touching either of them.
If Epps was observed at a distance, or we had
reason to ap-
prehend he was sneaking somewhere in
the vicinity, I would commence plying the lash
vigorously, when, according to arrangement, they
would squirm and screech us if in agony, although
not one of them had in fact been even grazed.
Patsey would take occasion, if he made his
appearance presently, to mumble in his hearing some
complaints that Platt was lashing them the
whole time, and Uncle Abram, with an
appearance of honesty peculiar to himself, would
declare roundly I had just whipped them worse than
General Jackson whipped the enemy at
New-Orleans. If Epps was not drunk, and
in one of his beastly humors, this was, in general,
satisfactory. If he was, some one or more of
us must suffer, as a matter of course.
Sometimes his violence assumed a dangerous form,
placing the lives of his human stock in jeopardy.
On one occasion the drunken madman thought to amuse
himself by cutting my throat.
He had been absent at Holmesville, in attendance at a
shooting-match, and none of us were aware of his
return. While hoeing by the side of Patsey,
she exclaimed, in a low voice, suddenly, " Platt,
d'ye see old Hog-Jaw beckoning me to come to him?"
Glancing sideways, I discovered him in the edge of the
field, motioning and grimacing, as was his habit
when half-intoxicated. Aware of his lewd
intentions, Patsey began to cry. I whispered
her not to look up, and to continue at her work, as
if she had not ob served him. Suspecting the
truth of the matter, however, he soon staggered up
to me in a great rage.
"What did you say to Pats?" he demanded, with an
oath. I made him some evasive answer, which
only had the effect of increasing his violence.
"How long have you owned this plantation, say, you d--d
nigger?" he inquired, with a malicious sneer, at the
same time taking hold of my shirt collar with one
hand, and thrusting the other into his pocket.
"Now I'll cut your black throat; that's what I'll
do," drawing his knife from his pocket as he said
it. But with one hand he was unable to open
it, until finally seizing the blade in his teeth, I
saw he was about to succeed, and felt the necessity
of escaping from him, for in his present reckless
state, it was evident he was not joking, by any
moans. My shirt was open in front, and as I
turned round quickly and sprang from him, while he
still retained his gripe, it was stripped entirely
from my back. There was no difficulty now in
eluding him. He would chase me until out of
breath, then stop until it was recovered, swear, and
renew the chase again. Now he would command me
to come to him, now endeavor to coax me, but I was
careful to keep at a respectful distance. In
this manner we made the circuit of the field several
times, he making desperate plunges, and I always
dodging them, more amused than frightened, well
knowing that when his sober senses returned, he
would laugh at his own drunken folly. At
length I observed the mistress standing by the yard
fence, watching our half-serious, half-comical manœuvres.
Shooting past him, I ran directly to her. Epps,
discovering her, did not follow. He remained
about the field an hour or more, during which time I
stood by the mistress, having related the
particulars of what had taken place. Now, she
was aroused again, denouncing her husband and
Patsey about equally. Finally, Epps
came towards the house, by this time nearly sober,
walking demurely, with his hands behind his back,
and attempting to look as innocent as a child.
As he approached, nevertheless, Mistress Epps
began to berate him roundly, heaping upon him many
rather disrespectful epithets, and demanding for
what reason he had attempted to cut my throat.
Epps made wondrous strange of it all, and to
my surprise, swore by all the saints in the calendar
he had not spoken to me that day.
"Platt, you lying nigger, have I?" was
his brazen appeal to me.
It is not safe to contradict a master, even by the
assertion of a truth. So I was silent, and
when he entered the house I returned to the field,
and the affair was never after alluded to.
Shortly after this time a circumstance occurred that
came nigh divulging the secret of my real name and
history, which I had so long and carefully
concealed, and upon which I was convinced depended
my final escape. Soon after he purchased me,
Epps asked me if I could write and read, and
on being informed that I had received some
instruction in those branches of education, he
assured me, with emphasis, if he ever
caught me with a book, or with pen and ink, he would
give me a hundred lashes. He said he wanted me
to understand that he bought " niggers" to work and
not to educate. He never inquired a word of my
past life, or from whence I came. The
mistress, however, cross-examined me frequently
about Washington, which she supposed was my native
city, and more than once remarked that I did not
talk nor act like the other "niggers," and she was
sure I had seen more of the world than I admitted.
My great object always was to invent means of getting a
letter secretly into the post-office, directed to
some of my friends or family at the North. The
difficulty of such an achievement cannot be
comprehend ed by one unacquainted with the severe
restrictions imposed upon me. In the first place, I
was deprived of pen, ink, and paper. In the
second place, a slave cannot leave his plantation
without a pass, nor will a post-master mail a letter
for one without written instructions from his owner.
I was in slavery nine years, and always watchful and
on the alert, before I met with the good fortune of
obtaining a sheet of paper. While Epps was in
New-Orleans, one winter, disposing of his cotton,
the mistress sent me to Holmesville, with an order
for several articles, and among the rest a quantity
of foolscap. I appropriated a sheet concealing
it in the cabin, under the board on which I slept.
After various experiments I succeeded in making ink, by
boiling white maple bark, and with a feather
plucked from the wing of a duck, manufactured a pen.
When all were asleep in the cabin, by the light of
the coals, lying upon my plank couch, I managed to
complete a somewhat lengthy epistle. It was directed
to an old acquaintance at Sandy Hill, stating my
condition, and urging him to take measures to re
store me to liberty. This letter I kept a long
time, contriving measures by which it could be
safely de posited in the post-office. At
length, a low fellow, by the name of Armsby,
hitherto a stranger, came into the neighborhood,
seeking a situation as overseer. He applied to
Epps, and was about the plantation for
severa1 days. He next went over to Shaw's,
near by, and remained with him several weeks.
Shaw was generally surrounded by such
worthless characters, being himself noted as a
gambler and unprincipled man. He had made a
wife of his slave Charlotte, and a brood of young
mulattoes were growing up in his house.
Armsby became so much reduced at last, that he
was compelled to labor with the slaves. A
white man working in the field is a rare and unusual
spectacle on Bayou Boeuf. I improved every
opportunity of cultivating his acquaintance
privately, desiring to obtain his confidence so far
as to be willing to intrust the letter to his
keeping. He visited Marksville repeatedly, he
informed me, a town some twenty miles distant, and
there, I proposed to myself, the letter should be
Carefully deliberating on the most proper manner of
approaching him on the subject, I concluded final-
ly to ask him simply if ho would deposit a letter
for me in the Marksville post-office the next time
he visited that place, without disclosing to him
that the letter was written, or any of the
particulars it contained; for I had fears that he
might betray me, and knew that some inducement must
be held out to him of a pecuniary nature, before it
would be safe to confide in him. As late as
one o'clock one night I stole noiselessly from my
cabin, and, crossing the field to Shaw's,
found him sleeping on the piazza. I had but a
few picayunes — the proceeds of my fiddling
performances, but all I had in the world I promised
him if he would do me the favor required. I
begged him not to expose me if he could not grant
the request. He assured me, upon his honor, he
would deposit it in the Marksville post-office, and
that he would keep it an inviolable secret forever.
Though the letter was in my pocket at the time, I
dared not then deliver it to him, but stating I
would have it written in a day or two, bade him good
night, and returned to my cabin. It was
impossible for me to expel the suspicions I
entertained, and all night I lay awake, revolving in
my mind the safest course to pursue. I was
willing to risk a great deal to accomplish my
purpose, but should the letter by any means fall
into the hands of Epps, it would be a
death-blow to my aspirations. I was "perplexed
in the extreme."
My suspicions were well-founded, as the sequel
demonstrated. The next day but one, while
scraping cotton in the field, Epps seated
himself on the line fence
between Shaw's plantation and his own, in such a
position as to overlook the scene of our labors.
Presently Armsby made his appearance, and,
mounting the fence, took a seat beside him.
They remained two or three hours, all of which time
I was in an agony of apprehension.
That night, while broiling my bacon, Epps
entered the cabin with his rawhide in his hand.
"Well, boy," said he, " I understand I've got a larned
nigger, that writes letters, and tries to get white
fellows to mail 'em. Wonder if you know who he
My worst fears were realized, and although it may not
be considered entirely creditable, even under the
circumstances, yet a resort to duplicity and
downright falsehood was the only refuge that
"Don't know nothing about it, Master Epps, " I
answered him, assuming an air of ignorance and
surprise; "Don't know nothing at all about it, sir."
"No, master," was the reply.
"Hav'nt you asked that fellow, Armsby, to mail a
letter for you at Marksville?"
"Why, Lord, master, I never spoke three words to him in
all my life. I don't know what you mean."
"Well," he continued, "Armsby told me to-day the
devil was among my niggers; that I had one that
needed close watching or he would run away; and when
I axed him why, he said you come over to
Shaw's, and waked him up in the night, and
wanted him to carry a letter to Marksville.
What have you got to say to that, ha?"
"All I've got to say, master," I replied, " is, there
is no truth in it. How could I write a letter
without any ink or paper? There is nobody I
want to write to, 'cause I haint got no friends
living as I know of. That Armsby is a
lying, drunken fellow, they say, and nobody believes
him anyway. You know I always tell the truth,
and that I never go off the plantation without a
pass. Now, master, I can see what that
Armsby is after, plain enough. Did'nt he
want you to hire him for an overseer?"
"Yes, he wanted me to hire him," answered Epps.
"That's it," said I, " he wants to make you believe
we're all going to run away, and then he thinks
you'll hire an overseer to watch us. He just
made that story out of whole cloth, 'cause he wants
to get a situation. It's all a lie, master,
you may depend on't."
Epps mused awhile, evidently impressed with the
plausibility of my theory, and exclaimed,
" I'm d—d, Platt, if I don't believe you tell
the truth. He must take me for a soft, to
think he can come it over me with them kind of
yarns, musn't he? Maybe he thinks he can fool
me; maybe he thinks I don't know nothing—— can't
take care of my own niggers, eh! Soft soap old Epps,
eh! Ha, ha, ha! D—n Armsby! Set the
dogs on him, Platt," and with many other
comments descriptive of Armsby's general
character, and his capability of taking care of
his own business, and attending to his own
"niggers," Master Epps left the cabin.
As soon as he was gone I threw the letter in the
fire, and, with a desponding and despairing heart,
beheld the epistle which had cost me so much anxiety
and thought, and which I fondly hoped would have
been my forerunner to the land of freedom, writhe
and shrivel on its bed of coals, and dissolve into
smoke and ashes. Armsby, the
treacherous wretch, was driven from Shaw's
plantation not long subsequently, much to my relief,
for I feared he might renew his conversation, and
perhaps induce Epps to credit him.
I knew not now whither to look for deliverance.
Hopes sprang up in my heart only to be crushed and
blighted. The summer of my life was passing
away; I felt I was growing prematurely old; that a
few years more, and toil, and grief, and the
poisonous miasmas of the swamps would accomplish
their work upon me —would consign me to the grave's
embrace, to moulder and be forgotten.
Repelled, betrayed, cut off from the hope of succor,
I could only prostrate myself upon the earth and
groan in unutterable anguish. The hope of
rescue was the only light that cast a ray of comfort
on my heart. That was now flickering, faint
and low; another breath of disappointment would
extinguish it altogether, leaving me to grope in
midnight darkness to the end of life.
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