Originally created 09/09/01

Journey to freedom



Richard Tubman was born to descendants of English immigrants in Maryland 10 years before the Declaration of Independence proclaimed that all men are created equal.

At 27, Richard left the family plantation in Charles County in 1793 and joined his brother Charles in Georgia, where he planned to become a merchant.

The brothers Tubman bought their first property in Columbia County in 1802 - six tracts totaling 783 acres along Little Kiokee Creek - and Richard's land there would eventually become a patchwork of odd-shaped lots and polygons. The plots were marked on their corners by nature's stakes - a persimmon tree, a red oak, a poplar, a gum, a hickory, a dogwood or a black oak - and deeds bound in heavy, red volumes at the Columbia County probate court in Appling tell the story of Richard Tubman's wheeling and dealing.

He traded plots of land frequently, and at the time he wrote his will he owned about 2,250 acres in Richmond and Columbia counties. His holdings included a main plantation near Appling of 1,778 acres, a 335-acre tract on the Savannah River between the two branches of the Kiokee and four city lots in Augusta. He reported owning about 65 Negroes each year on his property taxes.

The fertile Columbia County soil pushed up an abundance of cotton, tobacco, rice and indigo, which Richard shipped down the river to Savannah and then on to Liverpool, England, where his agents at William Dixon and Co. sold it.

The Dixon Co. kept accounts for him, and from time to time it would fill his requests for luxuries from the Old World, such as the piano purchased for him in London and shipped to Augusta.

According to a letter from his New York City tailor, he wore clothes custom-made from the "best and most fashionable materials" in the New World. Augusta's most eligible bachelor was seen about town in his silk vests and cashmere pantaloons.

He was an important man in Augusta - an original member of the board of directors of the Bank of Augusta and part of the city's elite cotton club of planters. Yet, today he is a forgotten man - one of history's whispers, known to but a few scholars who have sought him out.

It's not his name on Tubman Home Road; it's not his name on Tubman Middle School. His name is on hardly any of the schools, orphanages or churches throughout Augusta that claim a Tubman connection. Those are all named for the woman he loved.

Wedded bliss

Emily Harvie Thomas, a Kentucky belle, came to Augusta in the fall of 1818 to visit one the city's best-known families, the Wares. Colonel Nicholas Ware was a state senator, and his adopted daughter Mary had become Emily's good friend after their families had met while vacationing at the White Sulphur Springs Spa. That autumn, Col. Ware traveled to Kentucky and brought Emily back to Augusta with him. According to biographer Joseph Richard Bennett, Emily made the entire journey on horseback with her winter clothes in her saddle bags.

POPULATION

Population in Columbia County (site of Tubman plantation) in 1830:

Free whites: 4,467

Slaves: 8,032

Free blacks: 107* Total population12,606

Georgia's population in 1830:

Free whites: 296,806

Slaves: 217,531

Free blacks: 2,486

Total: 516,823

*Although the law in the 1830s did not allow new slaves to be freed, there were a number of free blacks already living in the state.

SOURCE: The University of Michigan's Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research

Within weeks, Emily and Richard met and fell in love despite their ages - he was 52 and she was just 24 - and married with the Wares' blessing. It wasn't until after their nuptials that they made the trek to Kentucky to meet the Thomas clan. The journey would become an annual ritual for the Tubmans; they escaped the Augusta heat by traveling to the Lexington area, stopping along the way at such resorts as Warm Springs, Mount Airy, Newbern and the Red Sulphur Spa to nurse Richard's delicate health. As he grew older, Richard suffered from an asthmatic condition and at times had to fight his body to draw a breath.

Richard and Emily prospered in business and purchased furniture, carpet and china to fill the couple's new Broad Street home. Their social gatherings are still well-known as having been the toast of the town. Emily was hostess for important out-of-towners such as "the Great Compromiser" himself, Henry Clay, who also happened to be Emily's legal guardian when her father died in 1803. But the biggest splash by far was Emily's celebrated minuet with the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825, which touched off Augusta's banquet in his honor.

Emily, a grand hostess, had directed the entire affair, but contemporary references didn't even mention whether Richard was there. Did he and Emily dance the minuet as well? Did anybody even notice the sickly gentleman.

Richard quietly had become one of a small handful - a half-dozen or so - of the richest slave owners in Augusta. Men who made their money on the backs of other men. Men who used slaves as collateral on loans. Men who made sure their slaves were checked out by doctors the way cattle are inspected by veterinarians.

Some of his people had plain names such as Jim and Ned and Sam and John. Then there were Big Ben and Little Ben. And Mariah, Madeira, Cato, Dashwood and Sigh - all slaves because of their shade. One of them was even called Shade. They weren't known to the Tubmans to have family names, just first names. Of course, there were deaths and births, sales and purchases, but there were about 65 slaves at any one time.

Agriculture

4,688 - The number of Columbia County residents employed in agriculture in 1840 (41 percent of the population)

8 - The number of people employed full-time in row crop and herd farming today (.009 percent of the population)

$6.76 - Average price, per acre, Richard Tubman paid for his property in Columbia County, bought in tracts from 1802-1828

$690.31 - Value, per acre, of former Tubman Bottom property on the Savannah River today

SOURCES: The University of Michigan's Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research; Columbia County extension service; Columbia County Probate Court; Columbia County Tax Assessor's office.

As well as farmers and growers, among their ranks were shoemakers, chair makers, coopers and traders. Richard was a shrewd businessman, making use of estate sales and auctions to get what he wanted. He went to court on more than one occasion to secure lands he believed belonged to him.

But he and Emily encouraged their slaves to be good businesspeople as well, working, as Emily wrote, "in their own time, for their own benefit." The Tubmans kept careful lists of this "Negroes Cotton," for which they paid the lot of them as much as $1,000 a year. And they would yet prove that they cared for these people as more than cattle or family pets.

Fatal journey

It is doubtful the Tubman slaves had much of their own time in the summer of 1836. They were surely busy on their owner's time, for their owner's benefit. And no matter how kind the master, he can't spare his slaves the Georgia sun in the middle of July.

In the months before the summer scorch, the slaves had turned the land and planted the crops. They hoed and chopped, thinning the crop and weeding. But sometime in July the plants would get too big to work around and the slaves would "lay it by," ending their field work for a month or so of leisure before they broke their backs stripping the cotton from the bursting bolls.

They were working hard, but fast approaching a time for fishing and fun, a time for revivals of the body and the soul. They were just about ready to lay it by.

At that same time, Richard and Emily Tubman were returning from their yearly summer pilgrimage to Kentucky by way of the South's spas. They were passing near Lincolnton, in the North Carolina foothills, when death overtook their carriage. Richard was stricken by an asthmatic attack and died in Emily's arms on July 11 as their carriage rumbled along the mountain roads.

Richard Tubman had tended his life for 70 years - planting and weeding and watching it grow. And now, far from home, he too was resting from his labors, laying it by.

Word of his death reached Augusta in the days that followed, and made news in The Chronicle. The plantation bells surely tolled, too, and news of Master Richard's death would have cast a pall over the summer holiday. It may well be that the Tubman slaves took time at their summer revivals to pray for their new mistress. But did they know they were free?

Richard was buried in Lincolnton, N.C., and Emily returned to her family in Kentucky to grieve. Letters of comfort and testimonials to Richard's character reached her from Augusta, including one from Tubman's pastor at St. Paul's Church who remembered Richard for his uprightness, benevolence, kindness, love of peace and his "engagedness in acts of worship."

"Can these traits of his character have been the product of aught else than of divine grace in the heart? Were they not, in short, the authentic fruits of the Spirit?" wrote the Rev. Edward Ford on July 29. "You have the pleasing reflection that he whom you mourn was the object of universal and unqualified respect and kind feeling in the community in which he had lived, that his memory is honored by all, and that his death has awakened a universal expression of regret."

When she finally returned to Augusta, Emily was faced with the task of executing Richard's will, which had been filed July 1, 1833, in Richmond County. She was to distribute various amounts of cash and stocks to certain Augusta charities and 60 shares in the Bank of Augusta to St. Paul's Church, provided they made a burial place for him in the churchyard.

To his "faithful" servant Tom, there was to be $100 given annually for the rest of his life. Richard gave what remaining land and slaves he had kept in Charles County, Md., to his relatives there.

Then he got down to business.

"I give and devise to my kind, good and affectionate wife, Emily H. Tubman, the entire balance of my estate of whatever kind or thing it might consist of. Now, in consideration of the unlimited confidence that I have in the discretion of my good wife Emily H. Tubman I do hereby constitute and appoint her my sole executrix of this my will with the full hope and belief that she will use every means in her power to carry every part of this will into complete effect," he wrote.

"I therefore desire that she immediately after my decease apply to the legislature of this state to pass a law (if they in their wisdom should deem it expedient or politic) to enable her to emancipate and make free in this state all the negroes I may die possessed of ...

"I therefore set apart out of that part of my estate heretofore given to my wife ten thousand dollars - five thousand of which sum I request my Executrix to present to the University of the State of Georgia, or to the Trustees thereof - provided however the Legislature do pass the above described law enabling her to manumit my negroes as aforesaid - if not, then the full ten thousand dollars to be applied to the transportation of the said negroes to such part of the United States, as my Executrix may deem the laws best calculated to secure to them the rights and immunities of free persons - the balance then if any is left shall be divided amongst them in equal shares, but if the legislature should pass the above described law, then the other five thousand dollars shall be divided among them in equal shares."