The Escaped Slave Narrative of the Rev. Jacob (Smith) Cummings

Jacob (Smith) Cummings fled in from near Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Wayne County, Ohio, through Goshen, Young’s Prairie, Battle Creek and Detroit to Canada and later to Sandusky and Columbus, Ohio.

This first-person narrative, preserved in the Siebert papers at the Ohio Historical Society, is very important for documenting the history of the Underground Railroad in Elkhart County because it is the only record in print from a slave who says he passed through Elkhart County on his way north to freedom. It is reprinted in full here in order to give the broader context of one fugitive’s experience from his master’s home to Ohio, Michigan, Canada and permanent settlement in Ohio. It is published in full here by permission of the Ohio Historical Society, which owns the Siebert papers.

Mss. 116 AV.  Wilbur H. Siebert Collection, Jacob Cummings Interview:  Ohio Historical Society.


From an undated interview with the Rev. Jacob Cummings in Columbus, OH.

I belonged to James Smith, the owner of about eighteen slaves. He was a hard man, a farmer who had two farms on which he raised corn, cotton, etc. He had a bad overseer under whom we had to work from before daylight until eleven or twelve o’clock at night. This overseer’s name was Welsh. I was about 23 years old when I left. At that time my mother had another boy and two girls. Of her fourteen children, the other ten had been sold off. I never saw them.

About six months before I came away I went one Sunday to the little town of Dallas . . . without my master’s knowing it. On Monday morning, Mr. Ryan, who was building a brick house for my master, told him he had seen me in Dallas, and when I came in to eat my breakfast, my master and one of his men tied me and put me in the stocks, whipped me 150 or more strokes, and salted me. He kept me in the stocks two days and then put irons on me. Once he knocked me unconscious with a slat, and when I came to, his daughter was throwing water on me. Old Jim thought he had killed me that time. He put irons on my brother, too. My mistress, old Betsy Smith, was a Christian woman if ever there was one. She told many a lie to save us slaves from being abused.

Old Jim had a farm on the Tennessee River about ten miles from the home place and had me oversee the place. When anything went wrong he knocked me for it. A white man in Chattanooga, a Mr. Leonard who kept a grocery, heard how cruel Old Smith was to me and when I was there one day told me about Ohio and Indiana, showed them to me on a map, and also where Lake Erie was. From a grandson of my master I stole a map and marked on it the way north. Mr. Leonard took me out one night and showed me the North Star and told me to follow that, but when nights were cloudy to look for the moss on the trees, which was always on the north side, and go by that.

My old mother was terribly whipped because the cats stole some of the fish master had caught. Because a melon was missing out of the patch he declared he would whip all the slaves. I was down at the lower farm and made up my mind to take Mr. Leonard’s advice, and in the latter part of July I started about eleven o-clock in the morning. I crossed to an island, stayed two days, and on a warning I was being hunted, I went to the lower end of the island, swam half a mile and took up Walden’s Ridge and east on the first bench till I came opposite Old Smith’s home place. I got a chance to see my mother and finally set out across Walden’s Ridge.

I paid a man to write me a free paper and concealed myself in the Sequatcha valley from pursuers. I kept on till I was on the north side of the Cumberland Mountains and walked on toward McMinville. At a house where there were colored people I got food. Soon I was seized by two white men and I paid them some money to go back seven miles to the old lawyer to find out that I had my free papers. They left me guarded by a man and a woman. I got away by pretending to be sick. Farther on I was again taken by two men, who tied my hands with a rope and my legs with a chain which they padlocked. When they slept I slipped my hands from the rope and opened the lock with my knife. I escaped and made my way over stumps, through brush, crossed a road and went on to a creek, there found a horse and put my galluses on his head and rode him fourteen miles. I traveled on into the northern part of Tennessee and across Kentucky to the Ohio River. With a rail I broke a lock that fastened a skiff and reached the Indiana shore just before daylight. This was about the last of September.

About half a mile from the river I asked two little boys if they knew a colored man by the name of Uncle John. They said they did and showed me the way. I went on a mile and a half, found Uncle John, who saw that I was a fugitive and hid me away. I changed my directions and moved up the Ohio to the town of New Albany (Floyd County), where I found the first abolitionists, Uncle Charles Lacey, William Finney, and old Uncle Zeve Goins. There I worked a couple of weeks and then went on to a little town called Charlestown. Two miles above there I was arrested and taken back to Jeffersonville. My captors wanted to take me across the Ohio to Louisville, but the lawyers and the abolitionists wouldn’t let them. The judge said, “I believe you’re a slave but I have no right to hold you.” Two or three men took hold of me and ran me out and we escaped with horses.

I got on to within thirty or forty miles of Richmond [Indiana, Quaker headquarters]. Again two men seized me, tied me and put me on a horse to take me back but I loosed myself, jumped off, and through thicket and woods reached a road where an old colored man directed me to Milton [Wayne County, IN), where I’d find a station of the Underground Railroad. Five miles south of Milton was a colored settlement, Cabin Creek, where lived Richard Robins and Jerry Terry, active in Underground business. Nathan Jones, a Quaker, did the riding round, arranging wagon trips, notifying the colored people when advertisements were up offering rewards for runaways. I lived at Cabin Creek about a year and worked on a farm.

In the winter I attended a school two months. It was taught by a Mr. Crocker from Oberlin. Two girls were sent to this school by friends a couple of miles away. After they had been there a month and a half the school was visited one Friday by several men who were hunting the girls. On Saturday morning they came with perhaps a dozen more men and found the two girls at old Tommy Wilkenson’s [sic] about a mile distant from the school. The old lady got them into the corn house and defended them with a corn knife, while her son-in-law, alec Williams, told the pursuers he would get a horse and saddle to take the colored girls before a justice of the peace.

He really went to a Quaker settlement near there and among the colored people. The news spread and fifty or sixty of the friends of the slave girls collected, caused a disturbance, and meantime the girls were slipped into the house and dressed in men’s clothes. One of them put on my overcoat and white hat, came out and said, “

Come on, boys, we’ll go home,” and started out back where there were a couple of Underground Railroad horses waiting. One rider took a fugitive behind him and the other took the other fugitive. Away they went from Randolph County, Indiana, and over to Carthagena, in the southeastern part of Mercer County, Ohio. That was one of the stations. It was kept by a colored man named Sam Jones, helped by a colored Baptist preacher, Brother Lee. The man who had general supervision of the Underground business was a Mr. Waddles who kept the high school.

On Monday the pursuers came back to arrest those who had helped the slave girls to escape. Those taken numbered about twenty-five. The Quaker Nathan Jones employed Norman Way, a lawyer and an abolitionist, who appeared in court at Winchester, the county seat of Randolph County. All the defendants got clear except Mathew Shafer, who was fined $60. It was proved that he had a long knife in the pocket of his coat. A colored man by the name of Woodson had been caught and put in jail by the pursuers, who then wrote to his master. But Nathan Jones managed to get him out and he went to Niles, in Berrien County (in southwestern Michigan).

After the affair in Randolph County I stayed on at Cabin Creek for nearly six months. By that time it was known that I was a runaway and I was told that I had better leave. So I disappeared one night and went to Fort Wayne to Nelson Black, a colored man who looked after fugitive slaves.  From there I traveled up northwest to Goshen, in Elkhart County, Indiana, and crossed to West Cassopolis, in Cass County, Michigan. The man in charge there were Zachariah Osborn and old Charlie Osborn, the latter a Quaker preacher. I stopped with the Shugarts and Bill Jones, all abolitionists. 

A summary of the final locations in Cummings' journey follows:

To Battle Creek
To Royal Oak
To Detroit, where he was rowed across the Detroit River
To Windsor, Canada (1833-34)
To Fort Malden (Amherstburg)
To Dawn Settlement of refugees
To DePuce Settlement (Canada), 14 miles west of Detroit
To Sandusky, Ohio, as agent to send goods across Lake Erie to the fugitive settlements.

Source

Cummings, Jacob.  "Jacob Cummings Reaches Cabin Creek, Randolph County (Interview with Rev. Jacob Cummings, an Escaped Slave Living in Columbus, Ohio)," in The Underground Railroad in Indiana," 1st ed., Vol. 1, ed. Wilbur H. Siebert  (n.d.), 230-35.  Wilbur H. Siebert Collection, Ohio Historical Society, Mic 192, Rolls 2, 3, 4, Box 42, Folder 1, No. 63.