This is my 3rd post from the Belle of Washington’s tour of the Albemarle’s history
Now I’d like to share a few of the runaway slave advertisements from Nixonton with you. I thought about them as I prepared for our voyage on the Belle of Washington because I remembered that there were some especially interesting ones that refer to that old seaport on the Little River.
Today Nixonton is a rural and very quiet place. I haven’t driven through there in a several years, but I don’t remember any stores or public institutions at all. I do remember quite a few old and abandoned farmhouses.
But that was not always the case. The first Albemarle Assembly met a mile north of Nixonton in 1665, and the village was an early center of Quaker trade and shipping. The village’s merchants and planters did an especially busy commerce with the West Indies.
In fact, Nixonton was Pasquotank County’s first incorporated town. For many decades, it was also the county’s largest settlement, and the county seat from 1785 to 1799.
The county’s first customs house was there, and North Carolina’s first public school opened a mile east of Nixonton in 1705. The village eventually had a courthouse and jail, stores, a cotton gin, a sawmill, a coach factory and several inns and taverns.
Not much is left of Nixonton today, so it’s a little hard to imagine a busy little seaport there, especially as we look at the Little River’s heavily wooded shores from here on the deck of the Belle of Washington.
Fortunately, we at least have UNC-G’s database of runaway slave advertisements to give us a glimpse at one very important aspect of Nixonton’s history. In the case of Nixonton, the database refers to slaves that both fled from the seaport and those that were suspected of fleeing from other places to the seaport and its vicinity.
A Runaway Slave Named Sampson
Consider this reward notice that appeared in an Edenton newspaper, the State Gazette of North Carolina. On April 26, 1792, a slaveholder named Francis Poire placed an advertisement for a runaway named Sampson, who had fled from Poire’s plantation at Nixonton.
Poire wrote that Sampson was “about 45 years, an African by birth, but talks plain English, has a grave or rather surly look, of a religious turn it is said, and [is] frequently talking to himself…”
The reward notice says that Sampson had previously rode “the express.” I’m not sure if that means that he was one of the mail couriers that rode among the Albemarle’s larger towns, or if he drove the stagecoach that followed the post road from Nixonton to Norfolk.
Either way, Sampson had escaped with his horse—“a black horse with small ears and a big head, about 14 hands high.” Poire offered a 5-pound reward for the capture and imprisonment of Sampson.
Of course we might have greater trust in a description of Sampson that was written by himself or someone that was not his owner, but the runaway slave advertisement still tells us a lot.
Perhaps most interestingly, we learn that Sampson was not native to the Americas. He was born in Africa.
That is an important reminder to us: a few decades later, after the suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, the connection of North Carolina’s coastal slave communities to their roots in Africa grew less strong. Like all immigrants, the 2nd, 3rdand 4th generations were increasingly less likely to speak the “mother tongue.”
But for many Africans that was not yet the case in the 1790s. Some, at least, were still new arrivals. In Albemarle seaports, you could still hear the lilt of many different West African languages in the streets.
By 1792, in fact, we can assume that Sampson was a man of two worlds. He was obviously at home enough in the Albemarle to “ride the express,” and he spoke good English.
Yet, chances are, Sampson also still remembered the African villages and cities of his youth. Presumably he still held onto his gods, an African orientation of spirit and his memories of family and home, at least in some measure.
He probably still recalled the songs of his childhood. He may also have remembered other things from his old life, such as his mother’s cooking, a now-distant lover’s touch and who knows what else.
No wonder Sampson had “a grave or rather surly look.” One wonders what he was saying to himself.
“An audacious impudent temper”
Another runaway slave advertisement that I found striking concerned a woman named Harriet. She had ties to a Nixonton as well.
Harriet escaped from Elizabeth City in 1827. Her owner placed a reward notice in the Elizabeth City Star and Eastern North Carolina Intelligencer on July 7thof that year.
I suspect that there’s much that we can learn from reading between this advertisement’s lines. It reads:
Runaway from the subscriber on the night of the 17thof June last, negro girl Harriet, belonging to John Davis—She is supposed to be lurking in the neighborhood of Nixonton or Newbegun Creek, where she has a mother living—She is a bright, mulatto, 19 years old, of an audacious impudent temper, slothful and dirty habits—but not withstanding all these qualities, a great favorite of some people who call themselves gentlemen.
Harriet’s owner obviously disapproved of her—but can’t you hear her saying, “So much the better!?”
But this we know: based on this runaway slave ad, Harriet was a courageous, defiant individual, a woman who refused to bend to her owner’s will and expectations, and she was full of fire and spirit.
“Branded, by a former master”
And then there is this one: on February 20, 1799, a slaveholder named Thomas Fitt offered a reward in an Edenton newspaper for the capture and return of a runaway slave named Aaron.
He had a wife in Nixonton, and Fitt suspected that Aaron would try to go to her.
Aaron is a stout, likely black fellow, about 5 feet, 10 inches high, and 26 years old, Fitt wrote.
Fitt continued: He has been branded, by a former master, on one side of his face and commonly ties a small handkerchief under his chin, to cover his brand.
When I first read those words, I tried to imagine what it would be like to go through life with another man’s mark—such brands were often the slave owner’s initials—etched into my face.
The words haunted me. He has been branded, by a former master, on one side of his face and commonly ties a small handkerchief under his chin, to cover his brand.
Think of the depths of hurt, defiance and pride revealed in those few words.
Consider, too, what Aaron did in 1799. He had already been branded on his face with a hot iron. That was something he had to live with every day of his life. Yet he still refused to be broken, and he took off, through field and swamp, to find his wife.
The Initials “W. C.” Burned onto Luke’s Cheek
Another runaway slave advertisement near Nixonton also mentioned the branding of a man. I think it’s worth mentioning because, unlike Aaron’s owner, this man’s owner did not say that “a former master” did the branding. He made clear that he had done it, or had it done, himself.
That ad appeared in the Edenton Gazette and North Carolina General Advertiser on October 19, 1810. A slave named Luke had escaped from a planter named William Creecy in Perquimans County, which is just over there, on the left bank of the Little River.
Luke was “about 22 years of age, 5 feet 10 or 11 inches high.” The ad said that he had unmistakable scars on his face. Creecy had burned his initials “W. C.” onto Luke’s cheek.
Creecy published the details of the branding, so we have to assume that he did not see what he had done to Luke as anything unusual.
Clearly he felt no shame, and he did not expect the opprobrium of his neighbors.
In such details, we get glimpses into the heart of Albemarle planter society in the 18th and 19th centuries.
I wish sometimes, when I am giving historical tours of this coastal world for which I care so deeply, as I am doing today, that I could make it seem like a better place, maybe a happy place, and not a place that makes me feel so often as if God left us here to work it out while he was busy elsewhere.
To be continued….