NOT HIS REAL HOME
With a history based wholly on tradition a little log structure now standing on a Red River plantation in Louisiana is about to be removed to Chicago and placed on exhibition as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Until the enterprising capitalists of this city got into the habit of making Chicago a home for all the historic structures of this country little was it ever thought that the celebrated work of fiction into which Harriet Beecher Stowe put her heart, soul, mind, and strength would suggest an enterprise of this kind. The question arises whether or not there ever was such a thing as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In none of her writings does Mrs. Stowe state how she happened to give her famous book its title. The foundation for the greater part of her material is placed in Kentucky, as the following extracts, taken from her introduction to the new edition of the book, will show:
Its author had for many years lived in Ohio on the confines of a slave State (Kentucky) and had thus been made familiar with facts and occurrences in relation to the institution of American slavery. Some of the most harrowing incidents related in the story had from time to time come to her knowledge in conversation with former slaves now free in Ohio. . . . She herself had been called on to write letters for a former slave woman, servant in her own family, to a slave husband in Kentucky, who, trusted with unlimited liberty, was free to come and go on business between Kentucky and Ohio, still refused to break his pledge of honor to his master, though that master from year to year deferred the keeping of his promise of freedom to the slave. It was the simple honor and loyalty of this simple black man, who remained in slavery rather than violate a trust, that first impressed her with the possibility of such a character as, years after, was delineated as Uncle Tom. . . .
After many years' residence in Ohio Mrs. Stowe returned to make her abode in New England, just in the height of the excitement produced by the Fugitive Slave Law. . . . She was one day turning over a little bound volume of an anti-slavery magazine edited by Mrs. Dr. Bailey of Washington, and there she read the account of the escape of a woman with her child on the ice of the Ohio River from Kentucky. The incident was given by an eye witness, one who had helped the woman to the Ohio shore. This formed the first salient point to the story. She began to meditate. The faithful slave husband in Kentucky occurred to her as a pattern of Uncle Tom, and the scenes of the story began gradually to form themselves in her mind. . . . In shaping her material, the author had but one purpose, to show the institution of slavery truthfully, just as it existed. She had visited in Kentucky, formed the acquaintance of people who were just, upright, and generous, and yet slaveholders. She had heard their views.
In another review of her work she also states that many incidents given in her book are from actual occurrences as seen by herself or as told to her by friends. She also states that the character Simon Legree was suggested by a letter from her brother—then in New Orleans—who had visited a planter on the Red River whom he found to be an exceeding hard, violent, harsh, and brutal master to his slaves.
Thus it will be seen that Mrs. Stowe had an actual person that suggested her Uncle Tom, but in none of her writings does she state that she knew this colored man in any other State than Kentucky. It is generally presumed that while the incidents and occurrences in the story are all true, the character of Uncle Tom itself is an imaginary one simply suggested at the commencement by the trusted slave referred to in Kentucky. That this particular slave was sold and sent to Louisiana she does not say, and never has she published the actual identity of Simon Legree.
The tradition that tells the story of the cabin that is coming to Chicago, however, says that in 1850 there lived on an old plantation at Natchitochees, on the Red River, a planter named Robert McAlpin, said to have been an exceedingly intemperate person and brutal to his slaves.
Because McAlpin lived in a residence with a double row of China trees in front of it, with a wide double veranda around it, and for the reason that Mrs. Stowe describes Legree's house as one of this kind when she is telling the story of Uncle Tom's arrival at his new home immediately after his purchase by Legree from the St. Clair estate, the residents of that vicinity have put "two and two" together and hit upon a verdict that the old McAlpin plantation is none other than the Legree plantation of her story, and that a certain log cabin on it was Uncle Tom's. Legree died before the war, the plantation fell into the hands of Mr. S. Chopin, the present wealthy owner, who has religiously guarded this cabin as a treasure, and for years has employed a man for the simple purpose of guarding it from the vandalism of relic seekers. It is on a line of the Texas and Pacific railway, and is generally pointed out as Uncle Tom's cabin.
D. B. Corley of Abilene, Tex., is making arrangements for the removal of the cabin to this city, and with him he bears many sworn statements from prominent Louisianians to the effect that the cabin he is dealing with is still extant and generally looked upon as the one that the Uncle Tom of Mrs. Stowe's story lived in and that the planter McAlpin is generally believed to be the Simon Legree of her book. None of the statements are from persons who knew McAlpin, but the facts sworn to regarding his harshness and cruelty are based upon hearsay. Mr. Corley is well-known in Texas, having written the "Lives of the Twelve Apostles," been Justice of the Peace and Mayor of Abilene, and for years been well-known as a lawyer and land agent.
When see by a reporter yesterday he was asked why he believed the cabin on the McAlpin plantation was the one used by the original "Uncle Tom." In reply he said:
"Because the cabin, residence, and location all fit Mrs. Stowe's description so well. They fill the bill to a nicety; and further, it is the only place in the state of Louisiana that does fit her description. Supporting this the sworn statements of old and reliable people who now live around the old plantation to the effect that they have always been told and taught that the plantation was the one occupied by Robert McAlpin, alias Simon Legree. It is conceded generally throughout the State of Louisiana and by many of the old settlers of the City of New Orleans that the cabin in question is the identical one occupied by the slave Tom. The people, both black and white, in that vicinity have such a profound regard for the cabin on account of its history as to convince one of their sincerity, and their lives having been spent there it is reasonable to presume that they are correct about the matter. There is no doubt in their minds and they are and have been in a position to know. This is why I believe it to be the identical cabin."
"As it is a matter of doubt whether the Uncle Tom of Mrs. Stowe's book is the character of one particular person from the first to the last chapter, will you say who you believe this character was?" Corley was asked.
"I think he was a real person who once lived in Kentucky, and was sold to pay his master's debts; his purchaser carried him South and sold him again. There were many slaves in the South that were as truthful and honest as this character was."
Mr. Corley was asked if he would swear that this was the original "Uncle Tom's" cabin, but he frankly stated that while he would not be willing to take an oath on the subject, he firmly believed the tradition that went with the cabin he is going to bring to this city. The plantation formerly owned by McAlpin is now the property of L. Chopin, who is wealthy in many interests. The plantation is a large one, and was bought by his father in 1852, immediately after the death of Robert McAlpin.
The cabin is 16x18 feet, nine logs high, with a pitch roof. The whole structure is of cypress, and the roof is covered with rough-sawn cypress boards fastened on with nails made at the plantation blacksmith shop. All of the material is yet sound, and the whole cabin is intact except the flooring of the loft, which has been removed, although the beams still remain. It has not been used for any purpose for twenty-five years. It stands in the center of a cotton field, and the negro that guards it lives in the old overseer's house nearby. Mr. Corley says that Chopin has been approached dozens of times by would-be purchasers, but stoutly refuses to sell. Corley has a five years' lease, on a percentage of receipts basis, with a privilege of renewal for five years. He proposes to take it to Europe after the World's Fair.
The old McAlpin residence, which so closely fits the description of the Legree residence in Mrs. Stowe's novel, has been partially torn away to make room for the Texas and Pacific railway. On the plantation, surrounded by a cotton field, is an old Methodist church still used for religious services by the negroes in that vicinity.
It has not been definitely settled, by the cabin will probably be placed as an independent exhibit under the direction of the Libby Prison War Museum company upon forty feet of their ground between the prison and Grace Church. Mr. Manasse, who is engineering the deal for the Libby Prison company, said:
"I think that the history of the cabin is fairly well established, but will look into the matter further before closing arrangements. If it is all that it is claimed to be it will be ready for the public by New Year's day."