A Fugitive Slave Named Moses—“An Artful and Cunning Fellow”

From the Halifax Journal (Halifax, N.C.), 4 July 1796

From the Halifax Journal (Halifax, N.C.), 4 July 1796

This is my 4th in a series of posts from the Belle of Washington’s tour of the Albemarle’s history.

As we begin the next leg of our voyage on the Belle of Washington, I thought that I’d conclude my look at runaway slave advertisements with three stories from the Albemarle that I found especially moving.

I found them inspiring because, each in their way, they are about the human spirit asserting itself against what seems like impossible odds.

The first concerns a fugitive slave named Moses. He was from Perquimans County, which by now is just off our starboard bow. But while Moses was from a coastal plantation near here, he actually escaped from the plantation of a man named David Witherspoon in Wilkes County, N.C.

Witherspoon was a Revolutionary War veteran and state legislator.  He had relatives in Perquimans County, and he apparently bought Moses on one of his trips to visit that part of his family.

That was in 1795. After purchasing Moses, Witherspoon carried him back to his plantation in Wilkes County, which is on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, 300 miles from Perquimans County.

According to the runaway slave ad, Witherspoon resided  “45 miles above the Moravian Towns on the Yadkin River.”

The “Moravian towns” were Bethabara, Bethania, Salem, Friedberg and Friedland, in what is now Forysth County, N.C. They had been settled in the 1750s and ‘60s.

A few months after being taken from his home and carried to Wilkes County, Moses escaped.  Witherspoon had no doubt that Moses was headed back to the coast.

“I bought him in December last, in Perquimans County, where he will aim for,” Witherspoon said in the reward notice. He called Moses “a very artful and cunning fellow.”

Witherspoon placed a reward notice in the Halifax Journal. Halifax was an important entrepot on the Roanoke River. To get from Wilkes County to the coast, he assumed that Moses would either follow the river east or actually come down the river on a boat.

By the time that the reward notice ran in the Halifax Journal, Moses had already been gone more than three months. If he was still alive, and if he had not been caught, and if smugglers had not sold him into slavery again, he must have been “very artful and cunning” indeed.

His odyssey reminds me of Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, which describes a Confederate deserter’s long and perilous journey from Raleigh, N.C. to the Appalachians at the end of the Civil War.

If Moses made it home to Perquimans County, it was a miracle, and not a small one. But if he had already gone three months and not fallen prey to the slave patrols, bounty hunters or bloodhounds, or just plain bad luck, maybe he did have a chance to see these waters of the Albemarle Sound again.

To be continued….

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