The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe
Boston: Jewett, 1854



  THE atrocious and sacrilegious system of breeding human beings for sale, and trading them like cattle in the market, fails to produce the impression on the mind that it ought to produce, because it is lost in generalities.

  It is like the account of a great battle, in which we learn, in round numbers, that ten thousand were killed and wounded, and throw the paper by without a thought.

  So, when we read of sixty or eighty thousand human beings being raised yearly and sold in the market, it passes through the mind, but leaves no definite trace.

  Sterne says that when he would realise the miseries of captivity, he had to turn his mind from the idea of hundreds of thousands languishing in dungeons, and bring before himself the picture of one poor, solitary captive pining in his cell. In like manner, we cannot give any idea of the horribly cruel and demoralising effect of this trade, except by presenting facts in detail, each fact being a specimen of a class of facts.

  For a specimen of the public sentiment, and the kind of morals and manners which this breeding and trading system produces, both in slaves and in their owners, the writer gives the following extracts from a recent letter of a friend in one of the Southern States.

  DEAR MRS. S—, The sable goddess who presides over our bed and wash-stand is such a queer specimen of her race, that I would give a good deal to have you see her. Her whole appearance, as she goes giggling and curtseying about, is perfectly comical, and would lead a stranger to think her really deficient in intellect. This is, however, by no means the case. During our two months' acquaintance with her, we have seen many indications of sterling good sense, that would do credit to many a white person with ten times her advantages.

  She is disposed to be very communicative; seems to feel that she has a claim upon our sympathy, in the very fact that we come from the North; and we could undoubtedly gain no little knowledge of the practical workings of the “peculiar


institution,” if we thought proper to hold any protracted conversation with her. This, however, would insure a visit from the authorities, requesting us to leave town in the next train of cars; so we are forced to content ourselves with gleaning a few items now and then, taking care to appear quite indifferent to her story, and to cut it short by despatching her on some trifling errand; being equally careful, however, to note down her peculiar expressions as soon as she has disappeared. A copy of these I have thought you would like to see, especially as illustrating the views of the marriage institution, which is a necessary result of the great human property relation system.

  A Southern lady, who thinks “negro sentiment” very much exaggerated in “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” assures us that domestic attachments cannot be very strong where one man will have two or three wives and families on as many different plantations (!) And the lady of our hotel tells us of her cook having received a message from her husband, that he has another wife, and she may get another husband, with perfect indifference; simply expressing a hope that “she won't find another here during the next month, as she must then be sent to her owner, in Georgia, and would be unwilling to go.” And yet, both of these ladies are quite religious, and highly resent any insinuation that the moral character of the slaves is not far above that of the free negroes at the North.

  With Violet's story, I will also enclose that one of our waiters, in which I think you will be interested.

  Violet's father and mother both died, as she says, “'fore I had any sense,” leaving eleven children; all scattered. “To sabe my life, Missis, couldn't tell dis yer night where one of dem is. Massa lib in Charleston. My first husband—when we was young—nice man; he had seven children; den he sold off to Florida—neber hear from him 'gain. Ole folks die. Oh, dat's be my boderation, Missis—when ole people be dead, den we be scattered all 'bout. Den I sold up here—now hab 'noder husband—hab four children up here. I lib bery easy when my young husband 'libe—and we had children bery fast. But now dese yer ones tight fellers. Massa don't 'low us to raise noting; no pig, no goat, no dog, no noting; won't allow us raise a bit of corn. We has to do jist de best we can. Dey don't gib us a single grain but jist two homespun frocks—no coat 't all.

  “Can't go to meetin', 'cause, Missis, get dis work done—den get dinner. In summer, I goes ebery Sunday ebening; but dese yer short days, time done get dinner dishes washed, den time get supper. Gen'lly goes Baptist church.”

  “Do your people usually go there?”

  “Dere bees tree shares ob dem; Methodist gang, Baptist gang, 'Piscopal gang. Last summer, used to hab right smart* meetins in our yard, Sunday night. Massa Johnson preach to us. Den he said couldn't hab two meetins; we might go to church.”


  “Gracious knows. I lubs to go to meetin allers—'specially when dere's good preaching. Lubs to hab people talk good to me. Likes to hab people read to me, too. 'Cause don't b'long to church, no reason why I shan't.”

  “Does your master like to have others read to you?”

  “He won't hinder; I an't bound tell him when folks reads to me. I hab my soul to sabe—he hab his soul to sabe. Our owners won't stand few minutes and


read to us; dey tink it too great honour; dey's bery hard on us. Brack preachers sometimes talk good to us and pray wid us; and pray a heap for DEM too.

  “I jest done hab great quarrel wid Dinah, down in de kitchen. I tells Dinah, 'De way you goes on spile all de women's character.' She say she didn't care, she do what she please wid herself. Dinah, she slip away somehow from her first husband, and hab 'noder child by Sambo (he b'long to Massa D.); so she and her first husband dey fall out somehow. Dese yer men, yer know, is so queer, Missis, dey don't neber like sich tings.

  “Ye know, Missis, tings we lub, we don't like anybody else hab 'em. Such a ting as dat, Missis, tetch your heart so, ef you don't mind, 'twill fret you almost to death. Ef my husband was to slip away from me, Missis, dat ar way, it ud wake me right up. I'm brack, but I wouldn't do so to my husband, neider. What I hide behind de curtain now, I can't hide it behind de curtain when I stand before God—de whole world know it den.

  “Dinah's (second) husband say what she do for her first husband noting to him, —now, my husband don't feel so. He say he wouldn't do as Daniel do—he would 'nt buy tings for de oder children—dem as has de children might buy de tings for dem. Well, so dere dey is.—Dinah's first husband come up wheneber he can, to see his children; and Sambo, he come up to see his child, and gib Dinah tings for it.

  “You know, Missis, Massa hab no nigger but me and one yellow girl, when he bought me and my four children. Well, den Massa, he want me to breed; so he say, 'Violet, you must take some nigger here in C.'

  “Den I say, No, Massa, I can't take any here.' 'Den he say, 'You must, Violet;' 'cause you see he want me breed for him; so he say plenty young fellers here, but I say I can't hab any ob dem. Well, den, Missis, he go down Virginia, and he bring up two niggers—and dey was pretty ole men—and Missis say, 'One of dem's for you, Violet;' but I say, 'No, Missis, I can't take one of dem, 'cause I don't lub 'em, and I can't hab one I don't lub.' Den Massa, he say, 'You must take one of dese—and den, ef you can't lub him you must find somebody else you can lub.' Den I say, 'O, no, Massa! I can't do dat—I can't hab one ebery day.' Well, den, by-and-by, Massa he buy tree more, and den Missis say, 'Now, Violet, ones dem is for you.' I say, 'I do' no—maybe I can't lub one dem neider;' but she say, You must hab one ob dese.' Well, so Sam and I we lib along two year—he watchin' my ways, and I watchin' his ways.

  “At last, one night, we was standin' by de wood-pile togeder, and de moon bery shine, and I do' no how 'twas, Missis, he answer me, he want a wife, but he didn't know where he get one. I say, plenty girls in G. He say, 'Yes—but maybe I shan't find any I like so well as you.' Den I say maybe he wouldn't like my ways, cause I'se an ole woman, and I hab four children by my first husband; and anybody marry me, must be jest kind to dem children as dey was to me, else I couldn't lub him. Den he say, 'Ef he had a woman 't had children'—mind you, he didn't say me—'he would be jest as kind to de children as he was to de moder, and dat's 'cordin to how she do by him.' Well, so we went on from one ting to anoder, till at last we say we'd take one anoder, and so we've libed togeder eber since—and I's had four children by him—and he neber slip away from me, nor I from him.”

  “How are you married in your yard?”

  “We jest takes one anoder—we asks de white folks' leave—and den takes one anoder. Some folks, dey's married by de book; but den, what's de use? Dere's my fus husband, we'se married by de book, and he sold way off to Florida, and


I's here. Dey wants to do what dey please wid us, so dey don't want us to be married. Dey don't care what we does, so we jest makes money for dem.

  “My fus husband—he young, and he bery kind to me—O Missis, he bery kind indeed. He set up all night and work, so as to make me comfortable. O, we got 'long bery well when I had him; but he sold way off Florida, and, sence then, Missis, I jest gone to noting. Dese yer white people dey hab here, dey won't 'low us noting—noting at all—jest gibs us food, and two suits a year—a broad stripe and a narrow stripe; you'll see 'em, Missis.”

  And we did “see 'em;” for Violet brought us the “narrow stripe,” with a request that we would fit it for her. There was just enough to cover her, but no hooks and eyes, cotton, or even lining; these extras she must get as she can; and yet her master receives from our host eight dollars per month for her services. We asked how she got the “broad stripe” made up.

  “O Missis, my husband—he working now out on de farm—so he hab 'lowance four pounds bacon and one peck of meal ebery week; so he stinge heself, so as to gib me four pounds bacon to pay for making my frock.”

  [Query.—Are there any husbands in refined circles who would do more than this?]

  Once, finding us all three busily writing, Violet stood for some moments silently watching the mysterious motion of our pens, and then, in a tone of deepest sadness, said—

  “O! dat be great comfort, Missis. You can write to your friends all 'bout ebery ting, and so hab dem write to you. Our people can't do so. Wheder dey be 'live or dead, we can't neber know—only sometimes we hears dey be dead.”

  What more expressive comment on the cruel laws that forbid the slave to be taught to write!

  The history of the serving-man is thus given:

  George's father and mother belonged to somebody in Florida. During the war, two older sisters got on board an English vessel, and went to Halifax. His mother was very anxious to go with them, and take the whole family; but her husband persuaded her to wait till the next ship sailed, when he thought he should be able to go too. By this delay an opportunity of escape was lost, and the whole family were soon after sold for debt. George, one sister, and their mother were bought by the same man. He says, “My old boss cry powerful when she (the mother) die; say he'd rather lost two thousand dollars. She was part Indian—hair straight as yourn—and she was white as dat ar pillow.” George married a woman in another yard. He gave this reason for it:— “'Cause, when a man sees his wife 'bused, he can't help feelin' it. When he hears his wife's 'bused, 'tan't like as how it is when he sees it. Then I can fadge for her better than when she's in my own yard.” This wife was sold up country, but after some years became “lame and sick—couldn't do much—so her Massa gabe her her time, and paid her fare to G.”—[The sick and infirm are always provided for, you know.]—“Hadn't seen her for tree years,” said George; “but soon as I heard of it, went right down—hired a house, and got some one to take care ob her—and used to go to see her ebery tree months.” He is a mechanic, and worked sometimes all night to earn money to do this. His master asks twenty


dollars per month for his services, and allows him fifty cents per week for clothes, &c. J. says, if he could only save, by working nights, money enough to buy himself, he would get some one he could trust to buy him; “den work hard as eber, till I could buy my children, den I'd get away from dis yer.”


  “Oh! Philadelphia—New York—somewhere North.”

  “Why, you'd freeze to death!”

  “Oh, no, Missis, I can bear cold. I want to go where I can belong to myself, and do as I want to.”

  The following communication has been given to the writer by Captain Austin Bearse, ship-master in Boston. Mr. Bearse is a native of Barnstable, Cape Cod. He is well known to our Boston citizens and merchants:

  I am a native of the State of Massachusetts. Between the years 1818 and 1830, I was, from time to time, mate on board of different vessels engaged in the coasting-trade on the coast of South Carolina.

  It is well known that many New England vessels are in the habit of spending their winters on the southern coast in pursuit of this business. Our vessels used to run up the rivers for the rough rice and cotton of the plantations, which we took to Charleston.

  We often carried gangs of slaves to the plantations, as they had been ordered. These slaves were generally collected by slave-traders in the slave-pens in Charleston—brought there by various causes, such as the death of owners and the division of estates, which threw them into the market. Some were sent as punishment for insubordination, or because the domestic establishment was too large, or because persons moving to the North or West preferred selling their slaves to the trouble of carrying them. We had on board our vessels, from time to time, numbers of these slaves—sometimes two or three, and sometimes as high as seventy or eighty. They were separated from their families and connexions with as little concern as calves and pigs are selected out of a lot of domestic animals.

  Our vessels used to lie in a place called Poor Man's Hole, not far from the city. We used to allow the relations and friends of the slaves to come on board and stay all night with their friends, before the vessel sailed.

  In the morning it used to be my business to pull off the hatches and warn them that it was time to separate; and the shrieks and heart-rending cries at these times were enough to make anybody's heart ache.

  In the year 1828, while mate of the brig “Milton,” from Boston, bound to New Orleans, the following incident occurred, which I shall never forget:—

  The traders brought on board four quadroon men in handcuffs, to be stowed away for the New Orleans market. An old negro woman, more than eighty years of age, came screaming after them, “My son, O my son, my son!” She seemed almost frantic, and when we had got more than a mile out in the harbour we heard her screaming yet.

  When we got into the Gulf Stream, I came to the men, and took off their handcuffs. They were resolute fellows, and they told me that I would see that they would never live to be slaves in New Orleans. One of the men was a carpenter, and one a blacksmith. We brought them into New Orleans, and con-


signed them over to the agent. The agent told the captain afterwards that in forty-eight hours after they came to New Orleans they were all dead men, having every one killed themselves, as they said they should. One of them, I know, was bought for a fireman on the steamer “Post Boy,” that went down to the Balize. He jumped over, and was drowned.

  The others—one was sold to a blacksmith, and one to a carpenter. The particulars of their death I didn't know, only that the agent told the captain that they were all dead.

  There was a plantation at Coosahatchie, back of Charleston, S. C., kept by a widow lady, who owned eighty negroes. She sent to Charleston, and bought a quadroon girl, very nearly white, for her son. We carried her up. She was more delicate than our other slaves, so that she was not put with them, but was carried up in the cabin.

  I have been on the rice-plantations on the river, and seen the cultivation of the rice. In the fall of the year, the plantation hands, both men and women, work all the time above their knees in water in the rice-ditches, pulling out the grass, to fit the ground for sowing the rice. Hands sold here from the city, having been bred mostly to house-labour, find this very severe. The plantations are so deadly that white people cannot remain on them during the summer time, except at a risk of life. The proprietors and their families are there only through the winter, and the slaves are left in the summer entirely under the care of the overseers. Such overseers as I saw were generally a brutal, gambling, drinking set.

  I have seen slavery, in the course of my wanderings, in almost all the countries in the world. I have been to Algiers, and seen slavery there. I have seen slavery in Smyrna, among the Turks. I was in Smyrna when our American consul ransomed a beautiful Greek girl in the slave-market. I saw her come aboard the brig “Suffolk,” when she came on board to be sent to America for her education. I have seen slavery in the Spanish and French ports, though I have not been on their plantations.

  My opinion is, that American slavery, as I have seen it in the internal slave-trade, as I have seen it on the rice and sugar plantations, and in the city of New Orleans, is full as bad as slavery in any country of the world, heathen or Christian. People who go for visits or pleasure through the Southern States cannot possibly know those things which can be seen of slavery by shipmasters who run up into the back plantation of countries, and who transport the slaves and produce of plantations.

  In my past days the system of slavery was not much discussed. I saw these things as others did, without interference. Because I no longer think it right to see these things in silence, I trade no more south of Mason & Dixon's line. AUSTIN BEARSE.

  The following account was given to the writer by Lewis Hayden. Hayden was a fugitive slave, who escaped from Kentucky by the assistance of a young lady named Delia Webster, and a man named Calvin Fairbanks. Both were imprisoned. Lewis Hayden has earned his own character as a free citizen of Boston, where he can find an abundance of vouchers for his character.


  I belonged to the Rev. Adam Runkin, a Presbyterian minister in Lexington, Kentucky.

  My mother was of mixed blood—white and Indian. She married my father when he was working in a bagging factory near by. After a while my father's owner moved off and took my father with him, which broke up the marriage. She was a very handsome woman. My master kept a large dairy, and she was the milk-woman. Lexington was a small town in those days, and the dairy was in the town. Back of the college was the masonic lodge. A man who belonged to the lodge saw my mother when she was about her work. He made proposals of a base nature to her. When she would have nothing to say to him, he told her that she need not be so independent, for if money could buy her, he would have her. My mother told old mistress, and begged that master might not sell her. But he did sell her. My mother had a high spirit, being part Indian. She would not consent to live with this man, as he wished; and he sent her to prison, and had her flogged, and punished her in various ways, so that at last she began to have crazy turns. When I read in “Uncle Tom's Cabin” about Cassy, it put me in mind of my mother, and I wanted to tell Mrs. S—about her. She tried to kill herself several times, once with a knife and once by hanging. She had long, straight black hair, but after this it all turned white, like an old person's. When she had her raving turns, she always talked about her children. The jailer told the owner that if he would let her go to her children, perhaps she would get quiet. They let her out one time, and she came to the place where we were. I might have been seven or eight years old—don't know my age exactly. I was not at home when she came. I came in and found her in one of the cabins near the kitchen. She sprung and caught my arms, and seemed going to break them, and then said, “I'll fix you so they'll never get you!” I screamed, for I thought she was going to kill me; they came in and took me away. They tied her, and carried her off. Sometimes, when she was in her right mind, she used to tell me what things they had done to her. At last her owner sold her, for a small sum, to a man named Lackey. While with him she had another husband and several children. After a while this husband either died or was sold, I do not remember which. The man then sold her to another person, named Bryant. My own father's owner now came and lived in the neighbourhood of this man, and brought my mother with him. He had had another wife and family of children where he had been living. He and my mother came together again, and finished their days together. My mother almost recovered her mind in her last days.

  I never saw anything in Kentucky which made me suppose that ministers or professors of religion considered it any more wrong to separate the families of slaves by sale than to separate any domestic animals.

  There may be ministers and professors of religion who think it is wrong, but I never met with them. My master was a minister, and yet he sold my mother, as I have related.

  When he was going to leave Kentucky for Pennsylvania, he sold all my brothers and sisters at auction. I stood by and saw them sold. When I was just going up on to the block, he swapped me off for a pair of carriage-horses. I looked at those horses with strange feelings. I had indulged hopes that master would take me into Pennsylvania with him, and I should get free. How I looked at those horses, and walked round them, and thought for them I was sold!

  It was commonly reported that my master had said in the pulpit that there was


no more harm in separating a family of slaves than a litter of pigs. I did not hear him say it, and so cannot say whether this is true or not.

  It may seem strange, but it is a fact. I had more sympathy and kind advice, in my efforts to get my freedom, from gamblers and no doubt the other, and such sort of men, than Christians.

  Some of the gamblers were very kind to me.

  I never knew a slave-trader that did not seem to think, in his heart, that the trade was a bad one. I knew a great many of them, such as Neal, McAnn, Cobb, Stone, Pulliam, and Davis, &c. They were like Haley—they meant to repent when they got through.

  Intelligent coloured people in my circle of acquaintance, as a general thing, felt no security whatever for their family ties. Some, it is true, who belonged to rich families, felt some security; but those of us who looked deeper, and knew how many were not rich that seemed so, and saw how fast money slipped away, were always miserable. The trader was all around, the slave-pen at hand, and we did not know what time any of us might be in it. Then there were the rice-swamps, and the sugar and cotton plantations; we had had them held before us as terrors, by our masters and mistresses, all our lives. We knew about them all; and when a friend was carried off, why, it was the same as death, for we could not write or hear, and never expected to see them again.

  I have one child who is buried in Kentucky, and that grave is pleasant to think of. I've got another that is sold nobody knows where, and that I never can bear to think of. LEWIS HAYDEN.

  The next history is a long one, and part of it transpired in a most public manner, in the face of our whole community.

  The history includes in it the whole account of that memorable capture of the Pearl, which produced such a sensation in Washington in the year 1848. The author, however, will preface it with a short history of a slave-woman who had six children embarked in that ill-fated enterprise.