Virginia had an excessive number of slaves at the time of the American Revolution. Several factors contributed to this, but the main reason was the depletion of the soil caused by 200 years of tobacco planting. Virginia was full of slaves and "free" Negroes, and the abolition of slavery in Virginia seemed possible from 1885-1800. Then Eli Whitney's 1793 invention of the cotton gin, the 1808 ban on importing African slaves into the United States, and the westward expansion of slavocracy, all joined to create a "supermarket" for Virginia's excess slaves. From 1810 through1860 the Ohio River was used extensively to transport slaves from Virginia to slave markets in the "Deep" South. There were several slave auctions located at intervals along the Ohio River. Here slaves from the interior of Virginia could be sold to slave traders and transported to the Deep South where they brought a high price.
Beginning around 1820, people from the North, who had traveled in the slavocracy and the increasing numbers of fugitive slaves fleeing across the North, began to tell the horrible truth about the treatment of slaves. Over a period of thirty years, due to the exposure of the cruelties of slavery, the Abolitionist Movement and its active Underground Railroad matured and gained widespread support in the North and indeed even among some citizens of "western" Virginia, especially those along the Ohio River. Following are personal accounts told to Samuel Hall, pre-Civil War librarian at Marietta College, as examples of the spread of information which helped bring about the end of slavery:
A young man makes the following statement from "western" Virginia. He is a member of the Presbyterian Church, and a student in Marietta College. All that prevents the introduction of his name, is the peril to his life, which would probably be the consequence, on his return to Virginia. His character and veracity is above suspicion.
"On the night of the great meteoric shower, in 1833, I was at Remley's Tavern, 12 miles west of Lewisburg, Greenbrier County, Virginia (now West Virginia). A slave driver with a drove of 50 to 60 Negroes stopped at the same place that night. The Negroes usually 'camped out' but as it was excessively muddy, they were permitted to come into the house. So far as knowledge extends, the droves on their way to the south, eat but twice a day, early in the morning and late at night. Their supper was a compound of potatoes and meal and was without exception the dirtiest, blackest looking mess I ever saw. I remarked at the time that the food was not as clean in appearance as that which was given to a drove of hogs at the same place the night previous. Such as it was, however, a black woman brought it in on her head, in a tray or trough two and a half feet long, where the men and women were promiscuously herded. The slaves rushed up and seized it from the trough in handfuls before the woman could take it off her head. They jumped at it as if half-famished.
"They slept on the floor of the room which they were permitted to occupy, lying in every form imaginable, males and females, promiscuously. They were so thick on the floor that in passing through the room it was necessary to step over them.
"There were three drivers, one of whom stayed in the room to watch the Negroes, and the other two slept in an adjoining room. Each of the latter took a female slave from the drove to lodge with him, as is the common practice of the drivers generally. There is no doubt about this particular instance, for they were seen together. The mud was so thick on the floor where the Negroes slept, that it was necessary to take a shovel the next morning and clear it out. Six or eight of this drove were chained together; all were headed for the south.
"In the autumn of the same year, I saw a drove of upwards of a hundred, 40 or 50 of them fastened to one chain, the links being made of iron rods, thick in a diameter as a man's little finger. This drove was bound westward to the Ohio River, to be shipped to the south. I have seen many droves, and more or less in each, almost without exception, the slaves were chained.
"They generally appear extremely dejected. I have seen in the course of five years, on the road near where I reside, 12 to 15 droves at least, passing to the south. They would average 40 to 50 each drove. Near the first of January, 1834, I started about sunrise to go to Lewisburg. It was a bitter cold morning. I met a drove of Negroes, 30 to 40 in number, remarkably ragged and destitute of clothing. One little boy particularly excited my sympathy. He was some distance behind the others, not being able to keep up with the rest. Although he was shivering from cold and crying, the driver was pushing him up to a trot to overtake the main gang. All of them looked as if they were half frozen.
"There was one remarkable instance of tyranny exhibited by a little boy, not more than eight years old, that came under my observation, in a family six miles from Lewisburg. This youngster would swear at the slaves, and exert all the strength he possessed, to flog or beat them, with whatever instrument or weapon he could lay his hands on, provided they did not obey him instantly. He was encouraged in this by his father, the master of the slaves. The slaves often fled from this young tyrant.
Punishment to a slave for running away
The following extract is from a letter to a student in Marietta College by his friend in Alabama. With the writer, Mr. Isaac Knapp, I am perfectly acquainted. Formerly a resident of Dummerston, Vermont, he was a student in the above college for the space of one year before going to Alabama. As professor of religion, he is as worthy of belief as any member of the community. Mr. Knapp has returned from the South and is now a member of the same college.
"In January , 1838, a Negro belonging to woman named Mrs. Phillips ran away, was captured and confined in the Pulaski jail. Mr. Gibbs, overseer for Mrs. Phillips, mounted on horseback, took the slave from confinement and compelled him to run back to Elkton, a distance of fifteen miles, whipping him all the way. When he reached home, the Negro exhausted and worn out, exclaimed, ‘you have broke my heart,’ meaning, you have killed me. For this Gibbs flew into a violent rage, tied the Negro to a stake, and in the language of a witness ‘cut his back to mincemeat.’ But the fiend was not satisfied with this. He burnt the slave's legs to a blister with hot embers and then chained him naked in the open air, weary with running, weak from his loss of blood and smarting from his burns. It was a cold night; and in the morning the Negro was dead. Yet this monster escaped without even the shadow of a trial. ‘The Negro,’ said the doctor, died by he knew not what. ‘Anyhow, Gibbs did not kill him.’
Mr. Knapp gives me some further verbal particulars about this affair. He says that his informant saw the Negro dead the next morning, that his legs were blistered, and that the Negroes affirmed that Gibbs had compelled them to throw embers upon him. But Gibbs denied it, and said the blistering was the effect of frost, as the Negro was much exposed to it before being caught. Mr. Bowers, a son of Mrs. Phillips by a former husband, attempted to have Gibbs brought to justice, but his mother justified Gibbs, and nothing was therefore done about it. This whole affair took place in Upper Elkton, Tennessee, near Alabama.
“A short time since,” (the letter is dated April 1838), “Gibbs whipped another Negro unmercifully because the horse, with which the Negro was plowing, broke the reins and ran off. Gibbs then raised his whip against Mr. Bowers, who shot him. Since I came here,” (a period of about six months) “there have been eight white men and two Negroes killed, within 30 miles of me."
The following is from Mr. Knapp's own lips, taken down a day or two since:
"Mr. Buster, with whom I boarded in Limestone County, Alabama, related to me the following incident: ‘George, a slave belonging to one of the estates in my neighborhood, was lurking about my residence without a pass. We were making preparations to give him a flogging, but he escaped from us. Not long afterwards, meeting a patrol which had just taken a Negro in custody without a pass, I inquired, “Who have you there?” On learning that it was George, I rejoiced. I said, “There is a small matter between him and myself, that needs adjustment, so give me a rawhide.” I accordingly took it, and laid 60 strokes on his back, to the utmost of my strength.’
“I was speaking of this barbarity afterwards to Mr. Bradley, an overseer of the Rev. Mr. Donnell, who lives in the vicinity of Moresville, Alabama. ‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘we consider that a very light whipping here.’ Mr. Bradley is a professor of religion and is esteemed in that vicinity as a very pious, exemplary Christian.' "
Major Horace Nye, an elder in the Presbyterian Church at Putnam, Muskingum county, Ohio, in a letter, dated Dec. 5, 1838, makes the following statement: "Mr. Wm. Armstrong, of this place, who is frequently employed by our citizens as captain and supercargo of descending boats, whose word may be relied on, has just described to me the following incident: while laying at Alexandria, on Red River, Louisiana, he saw a slave brought to a blacksmith's shop and a collar of iron fastened around his neck, with two pieces riveted to the sides, meeting some distance above his head. At the top of the arch thus formed was attached a large cow bell, the motion of which, while walking the streets, made it necessary for the slave to hold his hand to one of its sides to steady it."
In New Orleans Major Nye saw several with iron collars with horns attached to them. The first he saw had three prongs projecting from the collar ten or twelve inches, with the letter “S” on the end of each. He says that collars are quite frequently used there. To the proceeding Major Nye adds: "When I was about twelve years of age, I lived in Marietta, Ohio. I knew little of slavery as there were few in the part of Virginia opposite that place. But I remember seeing a slave who had run away from some place beyond my knowledge at that time. He had an iron collar around his neck, to which was a strap of iron riveted to the collar, on each side, passing over the top of the head. And another strap, from the back side to the top of the first, enclosed his head on three sides. I looked on while the blacksmith severed the collar with a file, which I think took him more than an hour."