WADE IN THE WATER, CHILDREN
25 DOLLARS REWARD
The subscribers will give for the apprehension and return of a colored man named THORNTON, who absconded from our employ on the 3rd or 4th day of July, inst. Said Thornton is about 5 feet, 9 or 10 inches high; stout made and of a yellow complexion; light eyes, and of good address; had on when he left a blue cloth coat, and pantaloons; boots, and a black hat.
WURTS & REINHARD
--Louisville Public Advertiser, July 7, 1831
IT WAS JULY 3, 1831, the day before Independence Day, and Thornton Blackburn stood casually at the Louisville ferry docks at the foot of Third Street. The youthful slave must have been a handsome sight in his blue broadcloth coat and polished boots as he looked across the waters to the little towns and verdant countryside of the opposite shore. Beside him was his bride. Some years older than her husband, Ruthie was finely dressed in a black silk gown and carried herself modestly, as befitted the free woman one might mistake her to be.
Indiana's gentle green hills had never seemed so far away as they did on this glorious morning. The Ohio River had been the boundary between South and North since America first made thesewide western lands its own. Free soil lay just on the other side of those placid waters, deceptively, tantalizingly close. The young couple was alone on the low bank above the water's edge. Behind them, above the riverbank, lay the city of Louisville. It was Sunday, and Kentucky's busiest port was quiet, for most people who worked the dockyards and warehouses were slaves and this was their one day of rest. The ferry docks were just a little way upstream from the Falls of the Ohio, with its jagged rocks and boiling, churning rapids, and the horse ferry traveling from Jeffersonville, Indiana, was making slow progress toward them against the strong current of the channel.
Though the role he was playing required him to turn a blank and affable face to the world, Thornton must have seethed within, for the least sign of uncertainty would betray him and his Ruthie as the fugitive slaves they were. At any moment they might be recognized. It was broad daylight, and both were well known along the riverfront of the city where their prominent Louisville owners lived.
Safely tucked up in Thornton's pocket were the papers that would be their passport onto the ferry and then, if all went well, a steamboat named the Versailles. The documents were carefully prepared, but Thornton Blackburn and his wife were entirely unable to judge their quality, for neither of them could read. One set, ostensibly made out by their indulgent masters, allowed them a day's holiday in Indiana. The second were the all-important free papers, legal documents naming the couple and describing each of them in minute detail, including physical characteristics, scars, carriage, and demeanor. These would enable them to travel up the river to Cincinnati and, God willing, liberty.
It was a desperate gamble. Their chances of discovery were very high, the consequences unthinkable. All his young life, Thornton Blackburn had seen hopeful runaways hiding in bushes by the riverside or lurking behind cotton bales on the dockyard, frightened, eager, all believing in their hearts that freedom was there, just across the river. Thornton had watched, toooften, as the bleeding, whipped, and defeated were brought back by slave catchers, rough men who made their livings from retrieving fugitive slaves. Women as well as men were stripped to the waist and flogged at the post in the courthouse yard until blood pooled at their feet. Even the strongest, the most defiant who cursed their captors, their masters, and the men who wielded the lash, fainted when salt water or turpentine was poured on their horribly torn flesh so their wounds would not fester. It was not done for their sake, but lest the slave's value to his or her owner be diminished. Known runaways were then nearly always traded away, both as punishment and as a graphic example of the consequences to the "servants" left behind.
Thornton Blackburn had lived much of his life beside this same river. As a tiny child he played in its swirling shallows with crayfish and minnows, and caught fish from its banks as soon as he was old enough to hold a pole. If Thornton had loved the smooth, shining expanse of water as a boy, he'd have grown to hate it as a man. The river took people away.
"Sold down the river" is a saying first coined by Kentucky slaves, meaning the very depth of betrayal. Worth more to the great plantation owners of the Deep South than to the small farmers of more northerly Kentucky, slaves in their thousands were sent down to the auction houses at the mouth of the Lower Mississippi. There the price of American cotton, sugar, and rice on the world market dictated the value of Kentucky's "surplus" slaves. Since before Thornton was born, long lines of men, women, and children were herded onto boats or marched overland in long chained processions. They were stolen from the arms of loving wives and husbands, little ones abandoned, feeble old parents left to get along as best they could, and there was hardly an enslaved family in Kentucky that had not lost someone. And still the traders came, wheedling their way, probing the weakness of masters who drank, mistresses who feared poverty, or estate administrators wanting to rid themselves of the troublesome property that could turn so great a profit.
Should the Blackburns be apprehended in their flight on this fine July morning, there was a good possibility that both Thornton and Ruthie would be taking that slow journey down the river. They would travel south for mile upon endless mile, past the point where the Ohio River's green waters mingled with those of the muddy Mississippi, and on until they reached the market at Natchez--the "Forks of the Road," as they called it--or the many slave dealers' establishments at New Orleans, to be sold. Then Thornton would spend a few short years hoeing cotton, cutting sugarcane, or up to his knees in stinking rice paddies under the relentless lash of the overseer, before his scarred and broken body was consigned to an unmarked grave in the corner of some plantation. Kentucky slaves were well aware of the suffering in store for them in the Deep South. Blacks, both slave and free, crewed the boats that plied these inland waterways, carrying the length of the rivers' tales of the paddle and the whip, of hunger and work from "can see to can't" every blessed day, and death from cold and disease and despondency.
Ruthie, with her lovely skin and flashing dark eyes, faced a very different fate. Slave girls were chained, sometimes, for the riverboat voyage, to keep them from destroying themselves in the waters that churned and boiled around the great paddles of the wheel. Some did that in their misery and despair at the loss of home and family. Beautiful women like Ruthie Blackburn did it because they knew what awaited them at journey's end. Too lovely to be wasted in the fields or even as housemaids or cooks, Kentucky's light-skinned "yellow" girls were the most valuable commodity on the auction blocks of the Lower Mississippi. The prettier the girl, the higher the price.
In the infamous "fancy-girl markets" there, Ruthie Blackburn would be worth $1,000 or more to the right man. In richly decorated drawing rooms above those far-off Southern slave pens, beautiful women were displayed to a very private and specialized clientele. They were dressed in fine gowns and set to needlework to show off their accomplishments. Then chosen.
Prodded. Touched intimately. Sometimes stripped to the skin, the better to examine more private attractions. The best Thornton could hope for his wife, bitter as it was, was to be sold as a mistress, to wear fine clothes and play the courtesan for the white man who had bought absolute right to her labor, and her body. The least fortunate of the girls sold south populated the brothels that served the gamblers and roustabouts who worked the river.
Less than two short weeks before, her master dead and his estate bankrupt, Ruthie Blackburn had been auctioned off to pay his debts. In the parlor of her old home on Green Street, the auctioneer had stood the girl high, showing her off to the crowd and crying: "A likely lass, a hard worker. Well made, too. Just right for the discerning gentleman!" Ruthie had looked so small standing there. Her skin was like coffee with the cream poured in. With her beauty and gentle, graceful manner, she had attracted several eager bidders. Judge Oldham, who managed the estate to which Thornton belonged, had been among the would-be purchasers that day. Perhaps Thornton had thought his master might be kind and buy his wife. But he did not, and finally, terribly, came the words "Sold to Virgil McKnight for $300!"
Everyone in Louisville's busy warehouse district knew that, like most Louisville commission merchants, Virgil McKnight occasionally bought and sold slaves. The city's finest merchandise was always chosen for the Mississippi trade, and its slaves were no different. Merchants like McKnight employed agents to do their selling for them, but he had purchased Ruthie cheaply and would sell her for the best price, if he could. Desperate to keep his wife with him and out of harm's way, Thornton conceived a daring plan. First, he learned sailing times of steamboats bound for Cincinnati. Then, perhaps from a literate black or an abolitionist-minded white, somehow he was able to acquire convincing sets of "free papers" made out in his and Ruthie's own names. Luckily, he possessed a good coat and hat and Ruthie an elegant silk dress to wear for their journey. These and a confident mannerwould be their only disguise. It could work. Traffic moved both north and south on the great Ohio. These flowing waters that had borne away tens of thousands of Kentucky's slaves might also be for them a passage north, out of this land of slavery.
A short distance down the quay, a steamboat gently rocked at its moorings. The Versailles rode low in the water, for black dockworkers, stripped to their waists and streaming sweat in the summer heat, had loaded her cargo the day before. She was fresh out of Wheeling, Virginia, and had just won the coveted U.S. postal route, so she carried mail along with commercial cargo and the usual complement of passengers. With a new captain and crew not yet familiar with the men and women who frequented the Louisville Landing, the Versailles met perfectly the Blackburns' needs that fine summer's day. By this time in the morning, a few passengers would have been making their careful way up the gangplank. The purser stood to greet them, keeping a watchful eye lest any runaway slaves try to sneak aboard. Meanwhile, the ship's officers stood on the upper deck, dapper in blue uniforms, their gilt braid glittering in the sun.
If all went according to plan, the Versailles would carry Thornton and Ruthie away, but not from this side of the river, where they were known as slaves. First they had to cross over to that other shore. There were no bridges over the Ohio River then, for the risk of slave escape was too great. Instead, several times a day, an old, cumbersome barge driven by six plodding horses working a great treadmill took the long diagonal trajectory that linked Louisville with the ferry docks of the town of Jeffersonville, the city's Indiana counterpart, just upstream. The vessel was to sail at eleven o'clock.
The Blackburns' escape plan was brilliant in its simplicity, but it had to be flawlessly executed. The first challenge would come when they tried to board the ferry. But Louisville was a border city with economic ties to the Indiana shore; enslaved men and women regularly passed back and forth by the ferry on their masters' business and even sometimes, if they had proven themselvestrustworthy, on their own. Passes should be sufficient to allow this well-turned-out slave couple to travel over the Ohio River for a day's visit to Indiana.
Even armed with such documents, the Blackburns would not have had an easy passage. It was the Sunday of a holiday weekend, the glorious Fourth of July. Ferryboat operators were especially watchful on Sundays, for it was the one time slaveholders relaxed their surveillance, and therefore when most people made their bid for freedom, just as the Blackburns were doing themselves, and for the same reasons. Stiff penalties for even inadvertently carrying runaways encouraged viligance on the part of boat crews. Ferries running between slave and free states--in this case, Kentucky and Indiana--were required to post $3,000 bonds to ensure they would guard against slaves using their vessels to abscond. In Kentucky, heavy fines and impoundment of the vessel itself were the possible consequences for misjudging the status of an African American passenger. The proceeds were used to pay the aggrieved slaveholders the value of their lost slaves. The captain, mate, clerk, pilot, and engineer risked personal fines and imprisonment as well. If an inquiry proved that someone on the boat had knowingly provided assistance to a runaway, everyone involved could be charged with slave stealing and serve terms in the state penitentiary at Frankfort. No wonder every black who tried to board the ferry was questioned, and questioned again. Suspicious passengers were not even permitted to disembark at the Indiana quay, but were routinely returned to the Kentucky side of the river and turned over to the Louisville jailer.
After what must have seemed to the Blackburns an interminable delay, the old horse ferry arrived at the Louisville docks. Sailors tossed thick ropes to the dockworkers and brought the boat to the quay. Few passengers disembarked; it was early and most of the good folk on both sides of the river were readying their families for church. The sharp-eyed captain placed himself at the head of the gangway. As was expected, Thornton and Ruthie waited patiently until all the white travelers had boardedbefore presenting themselves to pay their fare. Careful to display no anxiety when the ship's captain demanded their documents, Thornton handed over the passes, which were subjected to meticulous examination. Their respectable attire and confident demeanor lent credence to their pretense, but in Kentucky, whatever their finery, black people were assumed to be slaves, unless they could provide evidence they were not. The Blackburns' forged documentation must have been impeccable, for at last the captain waved them aboard. Thornton helped his wife take the last long step down to the rough planking of the deck. As the unwieldy craft got under way, they stood in the bow, facing away from shore. Kentucky and their lives as slaves were behind them, and in front, green hills and a distant horizon.
The horses labored to turn the great wheel against the strong current, but finally the ferry landed above Jeffersonville. Mrs. Blackburn and her husband were again subjected to thorough scrutiny by the ferry's captain and crew before they were allowed to disembark. Then, the vessel took on a new load of passengers and goods and began its somewhat more rapid return to the Kentucky side of the river.
Just after eleven o'clock, the steamboat Versailles pulled away from her Louisville berth. At eighty tons, she was one of the smaller ships that plied the river. Even so, she carried between eighty and a hundred cabin passengers and as many deck-class travelers, as well as freight. Captain Monroe Quarrier was on the return leg of his maiden voyage on the Versailles, something Thornton Blackburn would have known since the ship carried goods for Wurts & Reinhard's, the dry-goods company to which his owner, Susan Brown, had hired his time. The captain's inexperience in this part of the river was something on which the Blackburns were counting this day.
The Versailles was just beginning to work up a head of steam for her journey upstream to Cincinnati when Captain Quarrier spied two waving figures standing at the Jeffersonville wharf. Pulling out of the steamboat channel and into quieter waters near the Indiana shore, he ordered the engines stopped. The pairboarded a skiff that brought them alongside the Versailles and the crew lowered the gangway.
Not before Thornton Bayless, the ship's clerk, put out a hand to assist Mrs. Blackburn aboard did he and the other ship's officers realize that their two passengers were black. This was the moment of truth; Ruthie and Thornton were embarking from the Indiana shore, a nominally free territory. This made their next deception--that they were free blacks lawfully seeking passage to Cincinnati on a public conveyance--slightly more credible than if they had attempted to board the boat at the Louisville docks. Clerk Bayless went forward to show their papers to Captain Quarrier. Given the stringent laws against carrying suspicious African American passengers, this was a decision only the captain could make. Now the entire plot hinged on Quarrier believing that the Blackburns were free people and not "slaves for life," as the law would have it.
Though an experienced steamboat man, the captain was anxious to remain in his new employer's good graces, and he immediately recognized the danger the Blackburns posed. He examined their papers carefully and then personally descended to the main deck, where he questioned them closely. Finally satisfied, the captain permitted his clerk to accept the money for the couple's fares. Captain Quarrier would face prosecution for his actions in respect to the Blackburns, but he would always maintain he was convinced that their manumission papers were genuine. It is, however, quite obvious that Quarrier and the youthful Bayless were utterly distracted by Ruthie Blackburn's beauty. When questioned later, neither the Captain nor the bemused ship's clerk had much recollection of Thornton at all: "One of the negroes was a genteel looking mulatto called Blackburne ... The dress of the negro man I do not recollect but I think he wore a black coat." They could, on the other hand, describe Ruthie Blackburn in detail: "The woman was a fine looking mulatto, handsomely dressed and was called the wife of the man. She was dressed in a superior piece of black silk goods." Her manner, too, must have impressed them, for the ship's log read, "ThorntonBlackburn and Lady," surely an uncommon way for white men to describe an African American woman at the borders of the slave South in 1831.
By noon, Thornton and his wife were safely ensconced on the Versailles. Captain Quarrier ordered the stoking of the great boilers, and with a long blast of the ship's horn the vessel turned into the shipping channel and again got under way. Thornton and Ruthie took their places on the bottom deck. All African American passengers, slave and free, were required to travel on this uncomfortable lower level. Here the steamship crew, and the firemen and stewards, waiters and cooks passed their off hours. Free black people along with the personal servants of white passengers were forced to sit and sleep outdoors in all weathers. They shared the crowded space with fuel, baggage, and poor whites who had deck-class tickets. African Americans were not permitted to use the dining room or bar on the upper decks, although a small cabin with a stove was provided on the lowest level of some ships so those forced to remain outdoors could cook their own meals.
Mrs. Blackburn's experience aboard the Versailles must have been especially unpleasant. Foreign travelers on steamboats that plied America's western rivers regularly commented on the coarse nature of their companions. Even in the richly furnished dining and lounging facilities of the upper decks, the floors were in a disgraceful condition because so many people used chewing tobacco. As one regular traveler put it, "it ain't the spittin', it's the missin'" that was the problem. Frances Trollope, an intrepid Englishwoman who published a highly entertaining account of her American explorations, deplored the incessant gambling and drinking aboard the Belvidere, which she took from New Orleans to Memphis in 1828. She wrote, "Let no one who wishes to receive agreeable impressions of American manners, commence their travels in a Mississippi steam boat; for myself, it is with all sincerity I declare, that I would infinitely prefer sharing the apartment of a party of well-conditioned pigs to the being confined to its cabin."
It must have been very hot. When the Blackburns escaped, it was high summer and the huge boilers that powered the steamboat were located on this lower deck. The Ohio River was so shallow and its bottom so full of gravel bars, snags, and "sawyers" that boats built for its waters were constructed with the furnace above-decks. Stacks of firewood were piled everywhere, and the firemen, nearly all of them slaves, stoked the boilers that opened onto the bow of the boat day and night. Boats like the Versailles used enormous quantities of fuel, especially during the upstream journey against the Ohio current, and deck-class passengers were expected to help load wood at the steamboat's frequent stops. Not wishing to arouse suspicion and despite his fine clothes, Thornton would have had to assist the crew with loading the heavy fire logs and lashing them in place near the boilers.
The Blackburns must have spent their entire journey in a state of fear. Once accepted as passengers they had to maintain their masquerade, and do so perfectly, for their almost twenty-four hours aboard ship. The distance to Cincinnati was 132 river miles. The danger of being recognized was ever-present, for Ohio steamboats made frequent stops, and Thornton had worked for two years in the Louisville wholesale trade and along the city wharves, so his face was known to a large number of people who traveled and worked on the river. Ruthie was a striking woman who had also lived in downtown Louisville, not far from the waterfront. Her deceased owner was a well-known merchant who entertained frequently, so it was quite possible that someone aboard might become suspicious and start asking questions. Under Kentucky law it was incumbent on any white to take up a black he or she suspected of being a fugitive, and turn them over to the sheriff. Slave catchers lurked at every landing and transfer point, while the rewards offered for the return of runaways were often large enough to tempt the low-paid workers, black and white, who stoked the engines, washed the clothes, and catered to the tastes of the passengers of the Versailles. Fortunately, Ruthie and Thornton Blackburn's air of calm and their quiet refinement were evidently quite convincing. Not one person theyencountered on their way up the river found in the couple's comportment or their conversation any reason to suspect them.
Sitting on the hard bench of the lower deck, Thornton Blackburn was traveling the very waters that just days before had passed his birthplace at Maysville, far to the east, where his older brother, Alfred, lived. Then it had flowed by picturesque little Augusta where Thornton's mother, Sibby Blackburn, had been living when last he knew of her whereabouts. It had been more than five years since he had seen either of them. One day he would find his way back to them again, despite all the dangerous miles that lay between.
Slave songs spoke of heaven as if it were just "across the Jordan in Canaan land." Kentucky slaves knew the land of freedom was always just across the river. For half a century, whether Thornton Blackburn was slave or free would depend on which side of one of North America's great inland waterways he resided. His passage back and forth between the two shores, with their separate realities, would shape his experience. On this day, just before Independence Day 1831, Thornton was taking his wife away to that glorious other shore. Their destination was a place they knew only in dreams. They were going to a place slaves sang about in spirituals. They were going to find a home in Glory Land.