A Visit to Uncle Tom's Cabin
LATE in the month of August, 1892, I decided to make a visit to the old plantation in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, where I knew the original "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was still standing, just as it stood the day that the old slave died the tragic death that has been accorded him. And knowing that it was situated in the Southern portion of the parish, some twenty miles from the parish site Natchitoches, I decided to go first to that place and ascertain from the Records of Deeds and whatever else I could find, something more of the authenticity of the "story," it being my purpose, in case I could establish the fact that it was the real cabin, to make such terms as might be made with the owner of it, and then remove it to Chicago, Ill., where it would be placed upon exhibition during the World's Fair to be held in that city in 1892 and 1893.
In accordance with this plan I arrived at the old town of Natchitoches, situated on the west bank of the Red river, on the morning of the 30th day of August.
It is a singular looking town to almost any one, and especially so to a
western man who is accustomed to seeing towns and cities only that are fashioned
after American ideas and American fashions of the Nineteenth Century. It consists
of a long, crooked row of houses fronting upon one street, and all on the
same side of the street. This street, running up and down the river and lying between the house-fronts and the river banks, composes the business thoroughfare as well as the approach to or from the place. The steamboats in olden times would land anywhere along this street that was convenient to put off or take on their cargoes. It is about forty feet wide and as crooked as the original meandering of that notoriously meandering river was at the time the town was founded. One could tell at a glance that he was neither in Damascus nor upon the "street" called "straight," for Damascus has a straight street and a river, while Natchitoches can scarcely be said to have either.
I was told by the citizens of the place that the nearest point then to
the Red river from their town was six miles away. And this was told me by
an old man with an emphasis, impressing me with the idea that he expected
it would return at some day not far distant. Whether he was correct, and that
Red river will come home to that town and people in the sweet-bye-and-bye
or not, I can not tell. But for the pres-
ent, let me assure you that the town fronts upon a dry river bed. The houses are altogether of the old Southern style, one story, with heavy columned porticoes in front, while the people there take great delight in telling you that the town is the second oldest town in America.
Shortly after my arrival, I called upon the clerk of the parish at the courthouse, whom I found to be a very estimable gentleman and possessed of the information I was in search of. He told me at once that the Legree plantation was situated in the lower portion of the parish, and that while the name "Legree" had been given to the public as the cruel slave-holder in the story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," that in reality his name was Robert McAlpin. He further gave it as his opinion that the fictitious name "Legree" was used by the authoress of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to prevent him, Robert McAlpin, from laying a suit for slander or defamation of character against her if he should choose to do so.
The clerk also gave me a kind of abstract of the tract of land upon which the "cabin" stood. He said that it was granted by the government to Richard McAlpin, who lived at that time, he thought, somewhere in New England; that he never came out to that country at all, and that after his death his nephew, Robert McAlpin, fell heir to a portion of the tract of land and came forward and settled upon it, and afterward bought up the interest his brothers and sisters had in it, and shortly became sole owner of it. There were 4,800 acres originally in the grant and that he, Robert McAlpin, alias "Simon Legree," lived there until his death, which occurred in 1852, at which time J. B. Chopin, the father of the present owner, bought it at administrator's sale. After the death of J. B. Chopin the tract was subdivided among his children, and that the old negro cabins and McAlpin's residence fell to his son, L. Chopin, the present owner. The records of his office show these facts.
It was in this office that I was introduced to the district attorney of that district by the parish clerk, who proved to be a brother-in-law of Mr. Chopin, the present owner of the "cabin." From these gentlemen I learned the fact that Mr. Chopin was in town at the time and that he had happened to the grievous loss of Mrs. Chopin, who had recently died. Though as yet he had not been seen outside of his residence. Instantly I felt at a loss as to the course tobe pursued by me. I had gone six hundred miles expressly to see the gentleman, only to find upon my arrival, of his late misfortune and possibly of my not getting to see him at all.
There is something in Southern chivalry not met with in all parts of the
world, which both these gentle
men instantly manifested. They assured me that I should meet Mr. Chopin, and fixed the hour at five o'clock that P.M. for that meeting, and said further that instead of it being a breach of any rule of courtesy for me to offer to see him under the circumstances, that they were glad of my coming and glad of the opportunity that I would have in the approaching interview to help them dispel the gloom then hovering over their friend. Such words so freely spoken not only relieved me from my seeming embarrassment, but put me on guard as to my Christian duty at that meeting, We met, and in a gentle way I discharged that duty that one Christian owes to another under such grief-stricken circumstances, and I did so to the best of my ability. After an interview which was neither hasty nor prolonged too long, we separated to meet again the next day.
Again we met as per agreement, when it was decided that we would visit
the old plantation on the next day and make a personal inspection of the "cabin,"
Legree's residence, his grave and such other relics and remains of that dark
and dismal time and cruel and brutal man, as might still be found in existence
there. Where both he and poor Tom last saw the light of that life which, though
bountifully given by heaven as a gracious gift and blessing, had proven a
source of long and sore distress to the one and, I doubt not, eternal damnation
to the other. Having now made all necessary arrangements for the trip of the
morning, which was to culminate a desire which I had cherished from my earliest
boyhood by bringing me face to face with the most romantic and historic scene
of my life, I next decided to employ the intervening time in inquiring of
some of the older people of the place as to what they
knew of "Legree" and his conduct as a man away back in the forties and fifties.
From faces already met by me there was no doubt in my mind but that plenty such could be found who would be really more at home fifty years back than at present. Notwithstanding the well authenticated rumor that a man cannot expect an assured longevity of life in the lower Red river country, yet it is a fact that in that country one will meet and continue to meet persons, both male and female, white and black, native and foreign born, whose hoary heads and deep wrinkled faces unmistakably suggest great age.
Acting upon this plan I started out along the aforementioned unstraightened street; nor had I proceeded very far before noticing an old man sitting at a state of rest upon a long bench under a mulberry tree in front of a saloon. Drawing near I saluted him, and taking my seat upon the other end of the bench proceeded to engage in conversation with the old gentleman. After we had exchanged a few words, which led me to the conclusion that he would engage in conversation with me, I offered him a cigar, which he politely declined saying that he had managed to live seventy years without taking up that habit and that he would not do so now. "But," said he, "Mister, I've made up at other ways and tricks all that I have ever lost by not smoking."
"Ah," said I, "it is written that 'every path hath its puddle;' and while you have not traveled all the paths of filth and vice, you have nevertheless splashed through your portion of puddles." Said he, "You bet I have."
"What is your name and nativity?" I asked.
"My name is Sam Parson and I am a native of Penn-
sylvania, but I have lived pretty near all my life in this here town."
"Then you must have been here among the first settlers."
"First settlers! no! no! This is an old town, so old nobody knows how old it is. It was a better town when I come to it than it is now; somehow it has not done well for the last fifty years or so."
"Have you been acquainted with it that long?"
"Yes, and longer, too. You see when I was a boy I was bound as an apprentice to a man up in Pennsylvania, and I worked with him two years and did not like him, so I run away and come South. I come to this town in 1835, and it was a good town then. You see, at that time all the emigrants that settled Western Louisana crossed this river here and afterward when the people got to going as far west as Texas, they all crossed here, too, and it made things lively."
"You must have had a good trade at that time."
"Trade! I tell you, sir, that they brought all their cotton from Houston and Austin and all Southeast Texas here on ox wagons, and sold it and bought all their supplies here. It was the liveliest town, in fact, that I ever saw, sir."
"I suppose money was plenty in those days, was it not?"
"Plentiful! You never saw the like in your life; and I made money, too.
You see, I owned the ferry here, and it just kept me busy from the end of
one year to another to put the folks over, and I'll tell you, Mister, they
were the strangest folks you ever saw—they would just come and go. I think
I have set the same families over the river as many as a dozen times, going
and coming from Texas. And to tell you the truth,
sir, I do not know which side of the river they stopped on at last. Some of them traveled back and forth in this way until they wore out their wagon tires."
"Well, your business must have been a profitable one to you."
"It was. I made lots of money, but then I fooled it all away somehow or other. You see, this was a great crossing. I ferried over a portion of Gen. Taylor's army here when he went to Mexico to right the Mexicans. That was in 1846 and ' 47."
"Well, I suppose you lost the most of your earnings by the late war, being here and making money so early. I presume you invested in slaves and lost them like all other slave owners did."
"No, sir, I did not lose that way. I never owned but one slave in my life, and he was a good boy. I lost him when they set the niggers free, but then I do not care for that, for I intended to set him free anyhow when he got grown. I raised that boy and I never did strike him but once in all his life, and I always was sorry for that. He is the best friend I've got to-day in this world. He was powerful likely, he was. That cussed nigger trader ——- heard me say when the Yankees were blowing up Vicksburg, that I believed that they would set all the niggers free. He just slapped his hands on his breeches' pocket and sez: 'I'll give you $2,200 in $20 gold pieces, right now, for your boy Jim.' I told him that I would see him in hell before he should have Jim.' So he let me alone. No, I didn't invest my money in niggers, but I put it in houses and lots right here in this town. Why, Sir, at one time I owned in this town forty houses."
"Do you not own so many to-day?"
"So many to-day? I don't own a darned one."
"Why, how happened that?"
"Don't know; they went off and got a woman and brought her here, and she laid claim to about half of this town, and she brought suit for it and I gave a lawyer a paper to represent me in the matter which he said was a power of attorney, but it was afterward found to be a deed. And him and the woman between them somehow got all I had.
"I never seed such a time, You see, she not only got all my houses and lots, but she actually wanted me to pay rent on the lots while I had used them, just as though I had never bought and paid for them. But then I didn't do it."
"So you lost all you had by her coming in and claiming the land?"
"O, yes, of course I did. Who ever heard of a fellow beatin' a cryin' woman in a suit at court? I tell you it's all stuff to fight 'em."
"This was pretty heavy on you and I am surprised that the court divested you of your title and invested it in her, did not provide for you being paid for your improvements."
"Surprised—well, you need not be. I am a much older man than you are, and I have yet to see the first court that had a lick of sense about anything, when there was a crying woman mixed up in it."
"Well, well," said I, "you are truly a historic character and I am glad
to have met you. You say you settled in this town in 1835 and that you have
lived here ever since; you must have known something of the cruel slave-holder,
'Simon Legree,' who was written up in a little book called 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.'
The book appeared about 1852, I believe. And the whole
scene was laid on the Red river here in your parish. Do you remember such a man?"
"I guess I do, and I not only remember the man, but I remember him as the meanest man that I ever knowed in my life. Why, he lived in the lower part of this parish right on the bank of the river, and was the terror of the whole country. But say, how come that woman up North who wrote that book to get his name wrong? His name was not 'Legree,' it was old Bob McAlpin. She got the house and the locality and even the circumstances, as far as I know, all correct, but she missed the name. That was old Bob McAlpin. I knew him well. He was the worst man in the whole country. That woman did not tell one-half of his meanness. He sewed up a nigger in a sack and drowned him in the river.
'His chief delight was to torture his own negroes, even unto death. And he done it as often as his hellish spirit prompted him to do it. Yes; he did live and die there, as she wrote, but he was a heap meaner man than she ever made him out to be. Oh, he was bitter, he was so severe, and then he would drink so much, and all this seemed to enrage him the more. Yes, he was an old bachelor. I knew him well; he died drunk, just as she said, and was buried there on the plantation on a hill. I think that he come to this country from one of the New England states, but I could not tell you which one. I could come nearer guessing where he went to from this country than I could where he come from, if the Bible is true."
Being satisfied with my investigation and conversation with this man as
to the identifying of "Legree," the plantation and the "cabin," we turned
the conversation onto living issues of a later date, and finally
dropped it altogether and separated. I learned afterward that Mr. Parson had once been sheriff of the parish.
Soon, however, I found myself engaged in conversation with another old timer of that section. It was L. Charleville this time, and a merchant of Cloutierville, La. He was a fluent talker and conversed freely with me upon the subject. He said that he knew the "Legree" of "UncleTom's Cabin" well, and that his name was Robert McAlpin; that he had lived right there in that section all of his life; that he had served in the Mexican war under Gen. Taylor, and in the Confederate army under Gen. Lee; that he believed Robert McAlpin was among the cruelest, if not the cruelest, slave-holder he ever knew. He had read the book of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and said Mrs. Stowe did not tell of one-half his meanness. That he was notoriously cruel to his slaves. That at times they would despair and kill themselves.
He remembered one case in particular, where at his grandfather's sale some negroes were being sold and that Robert McAlpin bid upon one of them, whereupon the negro (a man) spoke out and said to McAlpin, "If you buy me I will kill myself before night. I will not try to live with such a man as you are." That upon such a positive statement McAlpin ceased to bid and the negro was struck off to some one else. That McAlpin died in a drunken spree in 1852 and was buried on a hill on the plantation near his residence. That he knew well where the grave was, and had seen it often.
Mr. Charleville further stated that it was his opinion that Mrs. Stowe
was at Robert McAlpin's house in 1850 or '51. Anyway, he says that there was
a lady there at the time and accounts for Mrs. Stowe's accu-
rate description of the place in this way. That if she was not personally present and an eye-witness of some of these things, that the lady who was there furnished her with a full description of the house, &c. This latter portion of his surmise as to its being another woman is most likely to be a correct one, for it would be a great strain for us to imagine for a moment that a lady of Mrs. Stowe's refined feelings and ladylike culture would have ever taken refuge or shelter at all under the roof of such a man as Robert McAlpin, alias "Simon Legree."
Having now become thoroughly convinced of the fact that the locality of
the "cabin" and plantation was correctly fixed in the lower part of the parish,
I desisted from further inquiries in that direction, and retraced my way to
my boarding-house, where, seated upon one of the old style Southern porticoes,
I spent the remainder of the day in company with the landlady, who proved
to be a lady of large experience, broad and comprehensive views and a liberal
conception. She, too, had read "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and she, like myself,
had admired the gentle Christian spirit that had prompted its authoress while
penning its pages. She was somewhat my senior in years, yet, like myself,
she had been born and raised in the South upon a slave plantation. Twice she
had been married and twice in succession become the mistress of large slave
plantations, operated in the olden way by cruel owners and the lash. In both
of which instances she had claimed supremacy, and forced under the muzzle
of her pistol an observance of the rules of mercy. Having been born and raised
in South Carolina, from which she immigrated in 1856 to Natchitoches Parish,
Louisiana, where she has resided ever since, her entire life has
been encompassed by "slave traffic" and the customs of a slave country.
Yet through it all and under it all she never lost sight of her dear Redeemer; she is glad that the negro is freed; she hopes and believes that they will ever remain so, a sentiment now general in the South.
How pleasant it is, dear sister, in our life's wanderings to meet now and then one of Christ's children, whose whole life is a strong mirror reflecting the beauties and mercies of Christianity. It is a fact, that there is a comfort found and a solace felt whenever or wherever Christ's children come together and talk freely, face to face with each other, that is never felt on other occasions. So it was in this.
On the following morning, boarding the train at Natchitoches, we soon found ourselves once more rapidly speeding away through Cypress swamps all matted and woven together with dense undergrown thickets of twisting ratan. Reaching the station of Cypress on the main line of the Texas & Pacific road on time, we were, after a short delay, transferred to the down train of that road, and again soon found ourselves under full headway to our ultimate destination.
Next we arrived at the little town of Dairy, where we were joined by Mr. Chopin, the owner of the "cabin," and his little daughter Eugenie, a beautiful girl of thirteen, an only child and a father's idol. No sooner were we seated than she began talking to me and said, "I am so glad you came. I have been wanting to go down home so long and papa just would not go with me. He has just been promising me that we will go to-morrow and to-morrow for so long."
"I should have thought, Eugenie, that you would have preferred to live
in town and not care to go back
to the old home so quick. How long since you were there?"
"Why," said she, "I have not been there for nearly two months, and it is such a long time, and I know they all miss me so much. When left Aunt Maria cried and said she knew something would happen, and all her children cried, and I cried myself. They were such good negroes; they were always kind to mother and to me. I taught some of them to spell in their books and to read in the Bible, and I know that they will be so glad to see me when we get there. I wish we were there now."
By this time I had gotten my eyes fairly fixed on the child, who, with her long golden hair hanging so profusely around her neck and waving so gracefully as she turned her head to right and left in emphasizing her words, that I plainly saw before me the little "Eva" of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Never did child slip in upon me in such unsuspecting way, and so completely fill in form, figure and speech my ideal of one of whom I had only read. I saw Eva's form and figure, I heard her spirit and speech.
We soon arrived at Chopin, our place of disembarkation, and stepping out upon the platform, something like a dozen husky, dry voices sung out at once: "Why bless my life, if dar ain't Miss Genie," and crowding around shook hands with her and took on so; and then the depot agent and the clerks from her father's store, in fact everybody rushed to meet Eugenie. One could see in a moment that though she was only a child she was the queen of that valley.
We did not halt long, however, but proceeded on our intended tour, and soon came in full view of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
As we approached it I could not help feeling a profound and deep reverence
for both the place and the "cabin." In fact, it seemed to me as if I were
treading upon sacred ground, and when halting in front of the house, I must
admit, that the feeling that crept over me was akin to that feeling which
would have come over me, had I been approaching the tomb of some patriarch
of old. It was the last earthly home and place of "Tom," the chosen instrument
of Almighty God for showing to this world the evil of one man enslaving another.
It always did seem to me, but when confronting the "cabin," I felt as if I
knew that Tom's entire life and death had been so ordained from on high for
the ultimate good of his people. That it has been used in that way no one
can doubt who is familiar with his history. Our nation of people were playing
total indifference to the evil of slavery, notwithstand-
ing the fact that that evil was creeping and crawling into all kinds of high and conspicuous places.
Notwithstanding the further fact, that our ablest and most profound statesmen were crying out at the top of their voices, warning the nation of the evil into which it was drifting, and begging them to desist from so dangerous a course. Yet with strange methodicality onward they marched, so reckless, so unmindful, so forgetful, so indifferent did the people seem that it bordered upon national oblivion.
I say that it does seem that this particular man "Tom" had been selected
as the means by which and through which his people were to become liberated
and freed from their bondage. Why do I say this? Let us see. Slavery was no
worse at the time of his death than it was fifty years before. The slave was
not treated any worse at the time of his death than they were at any given
period of time during their entire bondage in the United States, and they
were held in all, in bondage in the United States, 216 years. He was not the
first slave that had been put upon a block and sold to a nigger trader for
the highest bid, and then hand-cuffed and forced away from children, wife
and all that could be near or dear to him forever. He was not the first or
only slave that was ever tied and whipped to death in the country. Such incidents
and events as these were almost daily occurrences in some part of the United
States and had been for over 200 years. Yet the people at the North and the
opponents of slavery did neither stop nor offer to stop it. But when "Uncle
Tom" came to his death there was a murmur begun, that widened and deepened
and spread all through and through this nation. Nor did it stop there, for
the historian in speaking of it says that, "The story
of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' has no parallel in the literature of any age. That in a short time there was nearly half a million copies sold in this country and a considerably larger number in England. It was translated into every language in Europe and into Arabic and Armenian. It was dramatized and acted in nearly every theater in the world." Chosen means by the same God by which that work should be done.
The combined nations of the world at once dauntingly arrayed themselves in opposition to slavery. The fight began and was waged in the United States, and ere the battle clash ceased to resound, the shackles that had bound the negro of America so long were broken; nor did the work stop here. All Europe freed all of its slaves; the South Sea Islands likewise began the work of liberating their slaves, and practically speaking, at one fell stroke the slaves of the world were liberated.
We are told that Moses was chosen as the means by which the children of Israel should be liberated from their bondage, after having served their cruel masters for 430 years. That after that was done he died and was buried. "But no man knoweth of his sepulcher until this day." Likewise we are told by the historian of Tom that "there is no monument to mark the last resting-place of our friend; he needs none. His Lord knows where he lies, and will raise him up immortal to appear with Him when He shall appear in His glory."
Add to this the soul-stirring strains of that familiar song, "God moves
in a mysterious way His wonders to perform," and you will have all of the
lenses through which I have looked to be convinced that Tom was made the chosen
means for the liberation of his brethren, and that through him the colored
slaves of the world have,
like the children of Israel through Moses, been led to their respective happy lands of Canaan. Freedom in thought, freedom in utterance, freedom in action; hence my feeling a profound reverence for the place where these divine manifestations have been so plainly and impressively wrought.
Approaching the door of the cabin, we noticed that it was securely fastened with hasp and staple, made in the olden times by hand. Lifting the lock from its hold, we slowly swung back the shutter upon rudely hand-made hinges that had held it in place since 1825. We entered—all was still; the black, smoked logs with here and there a two-inch auger hole bored into their inside face into which pins or pegs were once used as supports for shelves, were plainly visible. From these it could be seen that a number of these shelves once ranged around the room. I looked and wondered which one of these "Tom" kept his Bible on. But which one it was, I could not tell. Yet, that it was one of this number there is no mistake.
We next cast an upward glance at the roof which appeared to be in good shape, when we consider its great age, though it was plainly visible that at places it did "let in the sunshine and the rain;' and while gazing through these apertures at the blue sky beyond, we wondered if the spirit of "Tom," still accompanied by that of the gentle "Eva" did not at times gaze down through them upon the hard bed he once occupied there—thinking that possibly it might be so At least
“It is a beautiful belief,
The floor was perfectly sound and all in place, save
three or four planks that were missing from the south side of the room. This vacancy extended clear across, exposing the joist below, which appeared to have been sawed. The opening in the end wall for the fire-place was all perfectly intact, the chimney having been removed many years ago, there being only a few bricks left scattered around over the hearth-site.
Oh, thought I, could a phonograph of modern build have been placed within this room when these walls were first erected, and have recorded the successive silence and sounds that have prevailed and broken forth here in the wretched ages that have passed and gone since they were first reared, what a tale it could now tell, of sighs and sobs and sorrows; of prayers and pitiful pleadings. But we will not trace this theme further; for if it were so we might hear, reproduced, sobbing sounds of a "mother as she kissed her baby—gave it laudanum—held it to her bosom while it breathed its young life away," rather than see it grow up and follow in the miserable and wretched footsteps of her degradation; and I would not now, for all the world's present wealth, have these repeated.