Picture yourself standing on the Delaware coast, somewhere near Lewes. “A fierce gale was blowing” on that January morning in the mid-1800s. “The waves were running fearfully high.” Three friends stand with you on that shoreline. Today was supposed to be the day you would make a shared and cherished dream come true.
Everything was planned to perfection, except for this weather.
The four men are slaves. In preparation for their planned escape from Lewes and into freedom, they’d liberated a little skiff. No sails, just oars. The plan was to row out into sea and then up into the Delaware Bay, landing in the free state of New Jersey. The four men might have known how far away that was, but then again they might not have known–perhaps they were setting out after a bit of hearsay.
Either way, those waves and that wind presented an unexpected, unwelcome life-threatening obstacle. Everyone on that shore had to face up to the question: “Should I stay or should I go?”
Not daunted, however, but as one man, they resolved to take their lives in their hands and make the bold adventure.
Cruelty Drove Them into That Sea
The stakes were as high as could be for William Thomas Cope, John Boice Grey, Henry Boice, and Isaac White. They had endured some of the worst that slavery could serve up in a human life.
The brothers John and Henry were the “property” of farmer David Henry Houston. Whenever Houston decided one or more of his slaves had been slacking, he’d deny them food for a whole day. The brothers had heard that Houston was in financial trouble. If those rumors were true, would he try to earn a few bucks by selling them off, away from family and loved ones?
But the brothers also looked at their owner’s business woes with a sense of satisfaction. They attributed Houston’s “bad luck” to the work of divine justice against a man who had murdered a sibling of theirs.
“My brother was sick,” John said, “but master said he wasn’t sick. And he took a chunk [of wood], and beat on him, and he died a few days after.” They’d also seen a sister sold off to who knows where.
John was just 19 years old, “spare built” and of “chestnut color.” Henry’s exact age on this January day is not known. What we do know is that Henry was a “very smart young man considering that he had been deprived of a knowledge of reading.”
Isaac White was 22 years old, and “quite black.” Asked later about his owner, a blacksmith named Thomas Carper, White would launch into a lengthy tirade, saying he was disgusted with his master’s ignorance and criticiz[ing] him, in his crude way, to a considerable extent.”
Sometimes Isaac would be called upon to receive correction from his master, which would generally be dealt out with a “chunk of wood” over his … head. On a [recent] occasion, when Isaac was being chunked beyond measure, he resisted, but the persistent blacksmith did not yield until he had so far disabled Isaac that he was rendered helpless for the next two weeks.”
It was during this painful recovery period that Isaac “pledged himself to freedom and Canada, and resolved to win the prize by crossing the Bay.”
The fourth member of this group, William Thomas Cope, was 24 years old. He did not share any gruesome anecdotes about the behavior of his owner, Shepherd P. Houston. He pointed instead to Houston’s hypocrisy, as a devout member of the Methodist Church.
It would require a great deal of hard preaching to convince [William] that such Christianity was other than spurious.
The Crossing, the Generous Stranger, and the Clean-up
Having lived all their lives not far from the bay, they had some knowledge of small boats, skiffs in particular.
The problem was, they didn’t have a boat.
They concluded to borrow a skiff, though they should never return it.
They left on a Saturday evening.
Two of them took the oars, manfully to face uncertain dangers from the waves. But they remained steadfast, oft as they felt that they were making the last stroke with their oars, on the verge of being overwhelmed with the waves. At every new stage of danger they summoned courage by remembering that they were escaping for their lives.
The four young men arrived in New Jersey on Sunday afternoon. They had rowed for something on the order of 18 hours in their escape from Lewes. But were they really safe? New Jersey was a free state, to be sure, but fugitive slaves were sometimes arrested in free states. To make matters even more uncertain, this was where their planning came up blank. They didn’t know anyone in New Jersey who might help them. They didn’t know where to go and find refuge.
The relief and joy [at the end of their voyage] were unspeakably great, yet they were strangers in a strange land.
A passing oysterman saved the day. It’s too bad that his name is lost in the mists of history.
[The oysterman’s] sense of humanity was so strongly appealed to by their appearance that he engaged to pilot them to Philadelphia.
There, the four young men ended up in the office of William Still, head of the Anti-Slavery Society and a key cog on the Underground Railroad. Still helped countless runaways get settled in northern states or make their way to Canada. The quotes you are reading are from Still’s memoirs, based on the meticulous interviews he conducted with new arrivals in his office.
After sharing the stories of William Thomas Cope, John Boice Grey, Henry Boice, and Isaac White, Still added this little anecdote.
While these young passengers possessed brains and bravery of a rare order, at the same time they brought with them an unusual amount of the soil of Delaware; their persons and old worn-out clothing being full of it. A room [with] free water, free soap, and such other assistance as was necessary was tendered them. But the four men had never seen such luxurious bathing facilities. They weren’t quite sure what to do. Some needed practical lessons [in how to bathe themselves].
Still writes about the way he tried to explain to them the importance of bathing. His promise was this:
We want to give you some clean clothing, but you need [to complete that washing] before putting them on. It will make you feel like a new man to have the dirt of slavery all washed off. We want you to look well while traveling on the Underground Rail Road, and not forget from this time forth to try to take care of yourself.
I have not come across any information about what became of these four brave men in freedom. Here’s praying that they found their way to a good measure of happiness once they scrubbed all that dirt of slavery from their lives.
–posted by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations LLC/Secrets of the Eastern Shore in June 2022. All rights reserved.
NOTE #1: William Still’s journal is available online here. The Nabb Center for Delmarva History and Culture has put together a database of escapees from our region that might make it easier to wander through Still’s journal. You can learn about that database here.
NOTE #2: I wrote a book that’s full of stories about the Underground Railroad on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and in Delaware. It’s called Tubman Travels: 32 Underground Railroad Journeys on Delmarva. Roughly speaking, the book is one-third stories about Harriet Tubman, one-third Frederick Douglass, and one-third various other freedom-seeking heroes. Get the book here.