Thursday, October 23, 2014

Did Alabama Still Have Slaves in 1883?

The following item was posted to the USGenWeb genealogy site in 2008. The original article supposedly appeared in the New York Tribune and was then reprinted in the Huntsville Weekly Democrat on November 28, 1883.

The article was written by an unnamed visitor to the South from Massachusetts who takes a horseback journey from Andalusia to Greenville on the "Bottom Road." What he encounters in the backwoods is a situation unchanged from antebellum Alabama. 

I leave it to the reader to decide the veracity of this article. Some details are real. The Weekly Democrat was published in Huntsville from 1866 until about 1919. The Tribune was established by Horace Greely in 1841 and published until 1966. Andalusia, Greenville and Selma are real Alabama towns. Pittsfield is a real town in western Massachusetts. 

A bit of Google searching produced nothing on possible Wiltsie or Delhi plantations near Greenville and nothing definitive on the "Bottom Road" mentioned. Deeper research beyond Google might turn up some answers. The version here is unsigned; some research could determine if the Tribune version--assuming there was one--had a named author.  

Until such serious research determines otherwise, I would suspect a hoax. This narrative fits a common 19th century American pattern--the sophisticate from the North describes his or her visit to the backward South [or West] and the strange customs and people he finds there. This item also appeared only six years after the chaos of Reconstruction ended, and would fit the view of an unrepentant South.

I apologize for  the formatting; my limited tinkering skills could not fix it. Blogger is definitely not a WYSIWYG editor.

The Huntsville Weekly Democrat November 28, 1883

Southern Rip Vanwinkle 
“Slaves” Still on a Forgotten Alabama Plantation
New York Tribune.

   PITTSFIELD, MASS., Sept 20.—Last summer, on my way from Florida to Selma, Alabama, I determined to make a part of the journey on horseback for the benefit of my health.  I was unacquainted with the country, and so was the 
clergyman with whom I spent a night soon after I started.—However, he produced an ancient map and by its aid I chose the “Bottom road” from Andalusia to Greenville, a distance of eighty-three miles, according to the same well-meaning guide.  I had no idea that the “Bottom road” was unused until I had ridden perhaps twenty miles and left the last, cabin behind me.  But the 
weather was fine, and I would not turn back.  When the first night came without 
the sign of habitation, tethered my horse, rolled myself in a blanket, and 
slept on the ground.
   All the next day I rode, and saw not a house nor a human being.  At 6 
o’clock, when I had already made up my mind to spend another night in solitude, I came upon a roadside camp fire, besides which a negro sat.  Of all the colored men that I have met, this one was the fattest, greasiest and happiest. He gave me a bow as I stopped.
   “Good ebenin’ to you, massa!” he saluted.
   “Good evening,” I returned.  “Can you tell me how far I am from the nearest 
   “It’s a powerful distance to walk,” the fellow grinned.
   “And who lives there when you get there?” I questioned, after vainly trying 
to get the distance in miles, or at least in length of time.
   “Ole mars’, he lib dar!” was the answer; and further questioning elicited 
the information that “ole mars’” was another name for Mars’ George Wiltsie; 
that I was then on the border of his plantation; that his residence was several 
miles distant; that the negro was yelept “Sam”; that he resided with “ole 
mars’,” and that he “was down dis way splorin’ to see if dar could’nt be timber 
cut in this seckshun.”  I was soon camping by his fire with my horse feeding 
near by on the grass.


   In ten minutes I made up my mind that “Sam” was the most ignorant of 
Africans.  Could he tell me how far I had traveled since the yesterday 
morning?  He had no idea how far to the next turn.  How far to the nearest 
neighbor?—Did’nt spect there was any nearest neighbor now.  Mars’ Pelton used 
to be nearest, but his house was burned there dozen years.
   After some other questions, the answer to each leadivn me more and more 
convinced of the creature’s ignorance, he began to praise Mr. Wiltsie, 
concluding with “De bes mas’r in Alabam.  Never selled any of us nigs for some 
   “And you all continue living with him the same as you did before you were 
   “We ain’t freed!” declared the paragon of ignorance: and I now came to the 
conclusion that he was a tool.  Out of all patience, I fixed my bunk for the 
night and placed my pistol at my pillow.  In the morning the negro was not to 
be found, and I was more and more convinced of his insanity, and had him in 
mind as I rode onward.


   My third day’s journey—at least the forenoon’s part of it—was not unlike the 
first and second days.  At 2 o’clock I suddenly came upon a field of corn by 
the roadside. A little further on, five or six negroes were standing, among 
them “Sam” of the previous night.  “Dat’s him!” I heard Sam say as I 
approached, and like the cows and mules the negroes scampered.  I went on to 
the house.  It was an old fashioned typical Southern house that had evidently 
seen better days.  The main door was of heavy carved oak, battered and weather-beaten, and the knocker that I took up was much worn.
   It was ten minutes or more before my twice repeated knock had an answer.  
Then the door was opened slowly by a colored woman.  A nod of the head answered 
my question as to whether the master was at home, and scarcely invited I went 
in.  The woman vanished, to appear again after a minute with a scared face.  
   “Walk up mas’r,” she said leading the way up the stairs and through halls.  
I was ushered into a large room fitted up as a library.  A gentleman occupied 
an arm chair beside an oriel window.  His face was yellow, his hair was long 
and white, and a heavy grizzled beard hung over his breast.  He was a man of 
more than 70 years, with remarkable blue eyes that flashed in a defiant way as 
I introduced myself.
   “I can not arise, sir,” he said, in a lofty tone.  “Be seated, and tell me 
what you have come here for.”
   “I would like to remain with you all night.”
   “Yes; but travelers never come through here.  You are the first traveler—the 
first white person that has been here—that I have seen—in more than twenty 
years.  Why did you come?”
   I gave my reason as well as I could.  
   “You must have lost your way,” the gentleman said.  “I never have visitors.  
The Bottom road is never used.”
   “Then there is a better road by which you get out? I remarked.
   “I never get out,” he answered.  “For twenty years I have been a helpless 
   “But your servants—“ I began.
   “Never go from home,” he finished.  Then he went o to say that he needed no 
communication with the world, and, followed with some particulars of himself 
and family.


   The plantation of the Wiltsie family had originally comprised a section of 
5,000 acres.  It had been in the family since the State was settled.  The 
father of the present owner had been a politician of some eminence, and also a 
man of wealth.  He had left this one son who had married and inherited the 
estate.  After a few years of a happy life the wife had died, and two sons 
gladdened the father’s heart.  They were educated as the sons of Southern 
gentlemen and came home from their graduation twenty-three years ago.  One—John—had gone to New Orleans to purchase slaves, and had been murdered there. The other—James—had, in the following year enlisted in the Confederate army and been stricken with malignant fever when in camp at Selma, and there had died.  The deaths of the two sons had been occasions of prejudice to him.  “John’s death determined me that I would never buy or sell another slave, and I never have,” he said.  “Before James’s death I was an advocate of the freedom of the South.  But after the death of James I did not care what became of the South.”
   “I do not care to see the world,” he said.  “No one comes, and if by chance 
they do, they shall have my welcome. I am content as I am.  The world gets on, 
I suppose, but how or in what way I do not care.  I take no papers, have no 
mail, communicate with no one.  We make our own sugar, flour and meal, raise 
our meat, grain and fruit. I take no interest in our government, and neither 
know or care who is Governor of Alabama or President of the Confederate 
Southern States of America.  I do no trading; my goods and slaves that I have 
satisfy me.  In more than twenty years I have not bought nor sold anything, 
from a box of pills to a slave.”


   “I beg your pardon, Mr. Wiltsie,” I said, “but do you not know the history 
of the last twenty years.”
   “I know not and care less!” was the answer.  “I hope you do not propose to 
enlighten me.  If you do, as a matter of pity to me, I will excuse you.  I do 
not care to know.  The histories of times past that I read are just the same as 
that of times recent—names , dates and places being changed.
   “But surely you know the result of the rebellion?”
   He struck the table with his clenched fist, exclaiming excitedly, “I tell 
you once more that I do not know what has been done, and I do not care!”
   “I see that you suppose that the secession was successful?”
   “I suppose it!  I have never thought,” he replied.  “A well-made scheme is 
always successful.  Though little I care for citizenship, I am proud to be a 
citizen of the Confederate States.”
   “Why,” I said, “do you not know that the civil war resulted in suppression 
of the rebellion?  The secession was a failure.”
   The man glared at me and said nothing.
   “You spoke of slaves,” I continued.  “You do not own slaves now, do you!”
   He glared more fiercely, and did not answer.
   “There are no slaves in America,” I continued.  “Every slave in the South is 
a free person?”
   Still he glared then hissed:
   “Are you from New York?”
   “I am from Massachusetts.” I answered.
   “You are a fool,” he said.  “When Sam cam home at midnight saying that a 
crazy man had met him in the bottom lands, I knew whom to expect.  Sam ran away from you last night because he saw you were crazy.  But I thought then, and know now, that you are a Northern sorehead.  You have come here to amuse me with lies.” 
   Keeping my temper as well as I could, I looked him squarely in the face.
   “Mr. Wiltsie,” I said, “let me ask you a question.  Will you answer it 
   “Well?” he said sharply.
   “Do you know that Alabama is still a member of the Union, as it was before 
it seceded?  And do you know that slavery has been abolished?”
After abusing and cursing me, he gave me a most emphatic “No”.
   There were four of five hours from the time of my arrival until I was shown 
to my room, and in that time I tried as well as I could to convince my host 
that I had told him that which was true.  But in vain were my efforts.  The old 
man was positive he was right, and confident that I was a liar.  We had supper, 
and at 8 o’clock he called his “slaves” in the house and we had prayers.  There 
were nine of the negroes—three men and four women, who gray-headed, and a girl in her teens, and a little boy.  They sat with bowed heads, and after the 
reading, went out.  Then Mr. Wiltsie signified that I had better retire, and 
one of the women took a tallow candle and conducted me to a chamber.  When my sable escort withdrew, she bolted the chamber door.  The two windows had 
already been nailed up.
   At 7 o’clock the next morning, I was let out of my prison, and sat at the 
master’s frugal breakfast immediately after.  He was very uncommunicative, and when the meal was over, before he had rung for    “Sam” to wheel out his chair, he said to me;
   “Good-bye!  You can be off as soon as you may please!”
   I said, “Good-bye,” and one of the servants showed me out.  My horse was at 
the door, and, when I rode off, it was in the opposite direction from which I 
had come the night previous.  After two days of hard riding, I arrived at Delhi 
plantation near Greenville, not having seen a person since leaving Mr. Wiltsie’s.  Not at all to my surprise, I found that the hermit planter’s nearest neighbors (forty miles from him) did not know of his existence, or that there was a plantation on the “Bottoms road.”

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