“But we must remember that beings capable of such sacrifices are not mothers; they are only ‘things,’ ‘chattels,’ ‘property.’”
Dictated to her friend and editor Olive Gilbert, the Narrative of Sojourner Truth was published in Boston in 1850 as a relatively uncommon account of enslaved life in the North. Sojourner Truth—the name assumed by former slave Isabella Van Wagener in 1843—was by the time of the work’s publication a dedicated speaker for abolition and women’s rights whose message was informed by deep religious conviction. Her personal magnetism and persuasive public speaking made her a powerful advocate for her chosen causes, and her assumed name reflected the duty that she believed she had been given to spread God’s word. Truth’s Narrative thus provides a close look at the practice of slavery in the North as well as at the rise of religious and reform feeling that characterized the contemporary Second Great Awakening, making it a valuable primary source on the experience of slaves and free African Americans in the antebellum period.
By the time of the publication of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth in 1850, slavery was no more throughout the Northern portion of the United States, and a growing abolition movement had begun to persuade even moderate Northerners of the evils of the institution. Yet slavery was far from a distant memory in terms of either time or place. Although some Northern states such as Vermont and Massachusetts had enacted near-total emancipation within a few years of American independence, most Northern states had chosen to end the institution of slavery within their borders through the more moderate process of gradual emancipation. Gradual emancipation freed slaves in a variety of ways, often based on their age, length of service, or time of birth. Because of this process, tens of thousands remained enslaved as the close of the eighteenth century approached. In 1790, for example, more than twenty thousand slaves lived in New York state, where Sojourner Truth was born in bondage shortly before the turn of the century.
A series of gradual emancipation laws freed New York’s slaves over time based on the year of their birth and their sex. Children born to slave women from July 4, 1799, were free at birth but nevertheless bound to their masters until they reached their mid-twenties. An 1817 law later established that enslaved African Americans born before that date would obtain liberty in 1827, and that children born to enslaved mothers during this intervening decade would be required to serve only until the age of twenty-one. Thus, legal slavery in New York existed as late as 1848. Similar laws in states such as Pennsylvania and Connecticut kept slavery in North alive, if extremely limited, well into the 1840s.
The character of Northern bondage was different from that of the South, where heavy reliance on cash crops and the development of huge agricultural plantations meant that the majority of enslaved workers lived in sizeable rural groups; an estimated one-quarter lived in slave communities numbering over fifty, and one-half in groups of more than twenty. These concentrations were especially prevalent in the cotton, rice, and sugar-growing regions of the Deep South. In contrast, Northern and Upper Southern slaves were likely to live in groups of ten or fewer. New York slaveholders typically held just one or two slaves, with larger slaveholders such as Truth’s master owning as many as six or seven. Nevertheless, restrictive laws, harsh treatment, and the intrastate slave trade kept New York’s enslaved population facing many of the same challenges as their Southern counterparts.
Truth was born the daughter of two agricultural slaves in Hurley, Ulster County, New York, in about 1797; her birth name was Isabella. As a child, the future activist learned to speak only Dutch, a reflection of the region’s demographic makeup. Although Isabella learned to speak English after being sold to an English-speaking master in her childhood, she never became literate in either language. Despite her lack of education, Isabella had a quick mind and an independent will that served her well throughout her life.
Isabella spent much of her period of enslavement in the household of Ulster County slaveholder John Dumont. During this time, she married at least once and bore several children. Shortly before New York law required her emancipation, Truth left the Dumonts to join the nearby Van Wagener (sometimes called Van Wagenan) household, from whom she took her initial surname. The late 1820s were formative years: Truth gained her liberty in 1827, underwent a religious conversion, and managed a rare successful legal challenge to the sale of one of her children into perpetual slavery outside of New York state. Over the next several years, she worked as a free woman and became increasingly involved with reformist religious movements of the Second Great Awakening, including the apocalyptic Millerite movement. This religious feeling contributed to her assumption of the name Sojourner Truth, a reflection of the duty she felt to spread the Christian word. From the 1840s on, Truth also became a prominent activist for abolition and women’s rights, traveling around the North to give public lectures on these topics. After the Civil War, Truth remained an activist for African American political and economic rights as well as a respected feminist until her death in 1883.
Although not named as an author, Olive Gilbert played an integral role in the creation of the original core of Truth’s Narrative. Unable to write herself, Truth dictated her story to Gilbert, a white woman and reformer who knew Truth through their mutual involvement with a Northampton, Massachusetts, utopian community. Truth’s story is thus filtered in a necessarily imperfect way through the literary voice of a scribe who herself had no personal experience as a slave and who occasionally inserts her own commentary into the third-person personal narrative. Such shared authorship was not uncommon in an era when even the most basic education of slaves was outlawed in many places, and Truth again relied on the assistance of literate acquaintances when expanding upon her narrative in later decades.
Although Sojourner Truth’s Narrative spanned much of her life thanks to later, updated editions, the initial 1850 edition was accurately characterized as a slave narrative for its focus on the author’s life and work in bondage and, later, as a freedwoman in a nation in which slavery was still very much an economic and social reality. Unusually, however, Truth’s Narrative presented the life of the Northern slave in an era when it may now be popularly assumed that slavery no longer existed in that region. Of the millions of slaves in the United States during the first half of the nineteenth century, a tiny minority of just tens of thousands lived throughout the Northeast. Truth’s Narrative thus provides unusual historical contextualization for the institution of slavery outside of the South, the process of gradual emancipation in the North, and the comparison of the relative personal liberties and restrictions upon enslaved African Americans across regions.
The content of the Narrative prior to the portions excerpted here discusses Truth’s parentage, family, and enslaved life up until about the year 1826. At the age of nine, the young Isabella was separated from her parents through sale and passed from master to master, enduring extreme hardship with her initial purchaser because of her inability to understand English and her mistress’s inability to speak Isabella’s native Dutch. The young girl thus failed to properly understand and execute her mistress’s requests, leading to the same type of harsh physical punishment that bonded workers in the South experienced. After some time in this household, Isabella was passed for several months to a tavern owner and, in 1810, to her longtime owner John Dumont.
The Dumont family remained Isabella’s owners until New York law emancipated her in 1828. During her lengthy tenure with the Dumonts, Isabella again experienced significant problems with her mistress, but believed her master to be kind and generous in spirit—despite actions undertaken later in the Narrative that seem to belie this interpretation. Early in her tenure at the Dumont household, Isabella seems to have entered into a marital relationship with a slave named Robert who lived in a nearby household. Although Robert’s owner soon broke up the marriage—any child born to the couple would come under the control of the Dumonts because of their ownership of the mother, and Robert’s owner therefore demanded that his male slave take a wife from among his own human holdings—historians speculate that the first of the five children mentioned in the excerpt was fathered by this first husband. After this initial marriage was terminated, Robert married a woman in his owner’s household, but died soon thereafter; Isabella married a much older slave named Thomas, who was also a member of the Dumont household, and to him bore several more children. This pattern of forced marriage and separation followed that typical in the South, where slave marriages had no legal standing, despite the fact that New York law had, from 1809 onward, recognized such unions as legitimate and binding. Thus Isabella’s experience exemplifies the extent to which slaveholders, even in the supposedly liberated North, were willing to ignore their own state laws when it benefitted them.
Indeed, Isabella’s role as a mother provided a clear economic benefit to her owner. As Gilbert noted with heavy irony, Isabella “rejoiced in being permitted to be the instrument of increasing the property of her oppressors!” Although New York’s gradual emancipation laws technically classified children born to enslaved mothers during this period as free, they nevertheless had to spend their childhood and teenaged years in the service of their mother’s master. Thus, Isabella’s five children became the functional property of her master, John Dumont—a state that Gilbert strongly suggested was the ultimate sacrifice that a mother could make. Willingly delivering her child to the control of another, the Narrative argues, is not the action of a true human mother. At the time, the Narrative suggests, Isabella’s opinion of her own role and self-worth “in her state of ignorance and degradation” was so low that she willingly sacrificed her children to the terrible monster of slavery. By 1850, however, her life as a free woman had taught the former slave that such an action was not one befitting human life. Instead, it is something forced upon those considered less than human, drawing a common comparison between the status of slaves and other goods such as livestock. The horror felt by both Truth and Gilbert at the continuation of such a practice in the South, where slavery continued to flourish, is apparent. This condemnation thus shames former Northern practices, but less strongly than it implicates the Southern states for their refusal to give it up.
Despite this retrospective horror, Isabella considered her master a gracious one for his efforts to protect her and her children—and, perhaps, his assets—from the demands of her mistress. Dumont routinely directed his wife to allow Isabella freedom from her household duties to care for her young children, a luxury that was somewhat rare for enslaved mothers. On large Southern plantations, for example, a slave woman was often designated as a nursemaid for all of the children too young to work; sometimes this meant that enslaved children grew up playing alongside the white children who would become their masters. Gilbert also praised Isabella’s method of caring for her children when she worked outside the home, noting that the practice of rocking children from a tree branch was so successful that “more civilized”—that is, white—families should employ the practice. This comment is a revealing one, less for its parenting notes than for what it reveals about the views of the Narrative’s white abolitionist scribe, who seems to delight in the naive customs of an apparently rude people; even among the very people who might be expected to recognize the equality of the races, it seems, slave practices carried a paternalistic stigma of being uncivilized.
A strong refutation of the much-proclaimed kindness of Isabella’s master follows in the next section, “Slaveholder’s Promises.” Like many other slaveholders across New York, Dumont had offered to release Isabella from bondage one year before the 1827 date fixed by the state’s gradual emancipation laws. However, as the time approached to make good on this agreement, Dumont reneged on his promise due to Isabella’s reduced productivity; an injury of some type had limited her ability to use her right hand, which naturally lessened her overall ability to work. Dumont argued that his promise to release Isabella early was voided by this reduced capacity, as she had failed to provide all of the work that he expected of her. In contrast, Isabella argued that the agreement should stand, as “she had worked all the time, and done many things she was not wholly able to do” in a good faith effort. In her eyes, she had upheld her end of the bargain. As Gilbert observed, Isabella’s willingness to work through her injury might well have been a disincentive for Dumont to release her and her obviously dedicated service.
Such a falling out, in a traditional Southern-based slave narrative, might have been the impetus for the protagonist to steal away from his or her master that very night. In Truth’s Narrative, however, the betrayed narrator instead decides to stay for as long as it will take her to complete one of her assigned tasks—spinning some one hundred pounds of wool. The historical dichotomy between the expected behavior and the actual choices made is a sharp one, yet the Narrative offers no explanation for Isabella’s decision to remain loyal to her master under circumstances that make that loyalty seem unwarranted. The choice to continue under her master may have reflected the enslaved woman’s obvious sense of duty to serve her master well—the Narrative had recounted earlier, for example, that she had instructed her children not to steal from their master, a practice often employed by slaves to acquire necessary goods, and that she had worked through an apparently substantial physical injury.
It may also have reflected Isabella’s belief that resistance to her master was futile. Gilbert quotes the protagonist as recalling that slaveholders frequently entered into and then reneged on agreements with their slaves who were “just foolish enough to keep feeding and feeding ourselves up with the idea that we should get what had been thus fairly promised.” Truth recounted a story about another slave in her area who had agreed with his master to complete a certain amount of farm work apparently ahead of schedule in order to have the privilege of visiting his wife on a distant farm. The slave had worked extra hours to uphold his end of the bargain, only to discover that his master had no intention of fulfilling his part of the deal; the arrangement, claimed the slaveholder, had been on a provisional basis. The slave disagreed and continued his preparations to depart. When his owner confirmed that the slave intended to take the agreed-upon trip away, the slaveholder struck the enslaved man with a household implement with such force that the slave died instantaneously. Gilbert notes in an editorial aside that no punishment was attached to the slaveholder for “his more than brutal murder,” which merely exemplified the types of injuries thrust upon the lives and liberties of slaves. The breaking of a promise between owner and slave without repercussion for the slaveholder is thus equated with the complete control that the slaveholder had over the lives of his chattel property: the most basic duties of respect and honor were valueless among even those masters considered kind and reasonable by their slaves.
Thus it happened that Isabella, rather than rebelling directly against her master, remained in bondage and continued her work—spinning wool, preparing for the harvest, and otherwise ensuring the economic comfort and stability of her master’s household. Not until the bulk of the autumn chores had been completed did Isabella decide to take action to claim her liberty, likely several months after her master had promised to allow her to do so. Gilbert’s incredulity at this fortitude is apparent in the bald listing of chores undertaken after that promised date had passed. Equally surprising, perhaps, was Isabella’s decision to make her escape even easier on her master by staying within easy searching distance—a choice that Gilbert termed “very considerate in her, to say the least” in light of her master’s refusal to honor her promised freedom.
Determining that she was ready to claim her freedom, Isabella’s immediate concerns were practical ones: how to escape, where to go, where to live, and, ultimately, what to do with herself as a freedwoman. Having resided in the Dumont household for more than fifteen years, she had no other home and no true inkling of how to operate as an independent adult woman; leaving ahead of the legislated date of emancipation meant that any monetary compensation to launch her into free life was unlikely to appear. By this time, Isabella had slowly begun the religious conversion that would define much of her remaining life and work, and she sought guidance through prayer. She believed that she received a response directly from God, and determined to act upon the apparently divine advice to leave the Dumont household shortly before dawn so that she would not be noticed. To this end, Isabella gathered up her few personal belongings and youngest child and left early one morning. Because she and her infant daughter were still legally under the control of Dumont, she knew that pursuit was a near certainty.
Finding that no one from the Dumont household was yet seeking her, she took advantage of her relative security to pray about her situation. Soon, she settled on a destination: the nearby home of Levi Rowe, a longtime acquaintance whom she believed would be sympathetic to her situation. Although Rowe was ill and near death, he gave Isabella shelter and advice to guide her own her path to freedom. Rowe’s wife led Isabella to a possible safe house where the Van Wageners, who opposed slavery, took her in, “assuring her they never turned the needy away.”
When Dumont, as expected, appeared to confront the runaway slave, Isabella stood her ground with the backing of the Van Wageners. She flatly refused to return, citing his promise to release her one year before the legal date of emancipation; she also declined to return her infant daughter to Dumont’s household. Given that Dumont would soon sell another of Isabella’s children to another slaveholder in a chain of events that would see the boy sent to the Deep South, her refusal to give up her infant daughter seems more than justified. Although Isabella had no legal backing for her claims, she found the impasse resolved through the intervention of her new benefactor, Isaac Van Wagener, who paid her master a sum in exchange for the labor of Isabella and her daughter until the emancipation date arrived. This practice of purchasing enslaved labor from a slaveholder was not uncommon, and it provided Dumont with the economic incentive he needed to release the injured Isabella from his household. As he left, Gilbert pointed out, he may have been as astonished as Isabella was to hear that Van Wagener declined to be called “master,” nor was his wife to be called “mistress.” This change seems to have been even more dramatic for Isabella than the claiming of her freedom. Never in her life had she worked for someone who was not an all-powerful master but simply an employer.
These events stand in sharp contrast to those that one would expect to have played out in a Southern slave narrative, reinforcing the uniquely Northern character of Truth’s Narrative. Determined to escape from slavery, Isabella did not fear her master’s murderous wrath, but instead considered his convenience in coming to find her. She sought refuge not in a nearby forest or cave as she attempted to elude capture by a white posse, but with a nearby white neighbor who was acquainted with her—and her master. This neighbor did not return her to her legal owner, but instead directed her to another white neighbor who could shield her from a return to slavery. That neighbor, in turn, sponsored her freedom out of a personal conviction against slavery. These events—like much of the remainder of Truth’s Narrative—could only have happened in the North, where slave owners lived alongside those who passively or actively opposed the institution.
The enduring value and messages of the Narrative of Sojourner Truth are manifold. Modern historians may rely on the work as a primary source document on the Northern enslaved experience—a status somewhat anomalous within the larger genre of the nineteenth-century American slave narrative, which so often focused on the lives of former slaves from the American South. Truth’s Narrative departs from the typical in that it does not proclaim the success of a fugitive slave in escaping from a harsh master through cunning, audacity, and sheer luck. Instead, it offers a view of a bondswoman who endured years of enslavement in relative isolation from what has come to be considered common slave culture and who underwent a transformation from slave to freedwoman that could never have taken place on the large plantation communities of the Deep South.
To both the contemporary and modern reader, the Northern setting of Truth’s Narrative also provides a challenge to traditional notions of the sectional nature of slavery. Although the abolition movement had begun to gain steam in the North even as the last vestiges of slavery fell to gradual emancipation, Truth’s journey as a slave had ended fewer than twenty-five years before the publication of her Narrative. The work thus contradicts to a large extent the idea of the North as a beacon of freedom that sharply contrasted with the slaveholding South, a conception of regional differences that informed Northern and Southern perceptions and politics in the years leading up to the Civil War. Northeastern abolitionists of the period embraced Truth’s story despite the inherent challenges to their own moral superiority and that of their native region.
Truth’s Narrative, naturally, also reflects the character of its authors—both the named Truth and the unnamed writers and editors who relayed her story. The titular author’s intense religiosity is interwoven into the Narrative’s various passages as inspiration and guidance for actions throughout various aspects of her adult life. In this way, the Narrative is more than a slave narrative, but also a reflection of the intense religious spirit that spread among Americans during the Second Great Awakening. The abolitionist ideals of Truth’s scribe, Gilbert, are also on clear display in a remarkably open intermingling of the ideas of narrator and transcriber. Through a reading of Gilbert’s editorial commentary on Truth’s personal story, historians may also explore the views on and understanding of the institution of slavery from the perspective of those white activists who worked to end it, along with the internal view of those who lived it.
Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. Slavery and the Making of America. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print. Johnson, Charles, et al. Africans in America: America’s Journey through Slavery. New York: Harcourt, 1998. Print. Painter, Nell Irvin. Sojourner Truth: A Life, a Symbol. New York: Norton, 1996. Print. ---. “Truth, Sojourner.” American National Biography Online. Oxford UP, 29 Oct. 2012. Web. 14 Mar. 2013. Stampp, Kenneth M. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Vintage, 1956. Print. Stetson, Erlene, and Linda David. Glorying in Tribulation: The Lifework of Sojourner Truth. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1994. Print. Washington, Margaret. Sojourner Truth’s America. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2009. Print. Greyser, Naomi. “Affective Geographies: Sojourner Truth’s Narrative, Feminism, and the Ethical Bind of Sentimentalism.” American Literature 79.2 (2007): 275–305. Print. Mabee, Carleton. Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend. New York: NYU P, 1995. Print. Mandziuk, Roseann M. “Commemorating Sojourner Truth: Negotiating the Spaces of Public Memory.” Western Journal of Communication 67.3 (2003): 271–91. Print. Painter, Nell Irvin. “Representing Truth: Sojourner Truth’s Knowing and Becoming Known.” Journal of American History 81.2 (1994): 461–92. Print. Samra, Matthew K. “Shadow and Substance: The Two Narratives of Sojourner Truth.” Midwest Quarterly 38.2 (1997): 158–71. Print.