The story of Moses Viney that follows is excerpted from Tubman Travels: 32 Underground Railroad Journeys on Delmarva, a book by Secrets of the Eastern Shore that tells stories of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and many other men and women whose journeys in slavery and out of bondage went through the Eastern Shore and Delaware.
Moses Viney had a pretty fun go of it for the first seven years of life. His best childhood pal was a white boy named Richard, and the two of them had the run of a farm in Talbot County, Maryland. The two boys even shared a birthday, March 10, though Richard was a year older, having been born in 1816.
Their friendship cooled once Moses turned seven, however. This seems to be the way things worked during those years in many households on the Eastern Shore. Friendships between black and white children would flourish early on, then fade quickly once they reached the age when black kids went to work as slaves and white children started into schooling on their way to becoming masters in their own right down the road.
Most of the sources I’ve reviewed place the farm of Richard’s father, William Murphy, somewhere in the vicinity of Trappe, a town in southernmost Talbot County, just across the Choptank River from Cambridge. (A couple other sources place it outside of Easton, the county seat.) The primary crops young Moses helped to plant and harvest in the Murphy fields were tobacco, corn, and wheat. For a while, around the age of 17 or 18, Moses worked as a butler in the main farmhouse.
Moses was in his early 20s when his former childhood pal Richard took over the farm after the death of his father. It was a dicey transition. The elder Murphy had amassed quite a bit of debt, and the timing of his passing was awful. Tobacco markets were in a free fall. Even the Lloyds, the richest family in Talbot County, were having troubles. They sold off hundreds of slaves around this time, trying to raise enough cash to make ends meet.
How Moses Viney Tamed the Dogs on His Trail
Moses feared that he, too, was headed for the auction block. It’s unclear how long he had been thinking about making a run to freedom. Later in life, he recalled being struck as a child by a phrase he heard often from older slaves in the fields as flocks of birds flew overhead during their spring and fall migrations:
“The wild geese come from Canada, where all are free.”
If Moses had been born in modern times, I suspect he would have been one of those millionaire-next-door types. He was a planner, through and through, a quality that showed up in the way he saved up a little nest egg for the day he would finally get to follow those geese on a journey north. Overseers on the Murphy farm were in the habit of handing out a few pennies every day to reward whichever slave stacked the most sheaves of wheat or excelled in some other bit of manual labor. Moses won these little contests time and again, until he had amassed the sum of $20.
It was Easter Sunday, 1840, when Moses took off. He had two friends with him, and they were hoping that the holiday would buy them a little extra time before their absence was noticed. Alas, things didn’t work out that way. When they tried to cross the Choptank River near Denton, just 17 miles into their long journey, the bloodhounds from the Murphy farm caught up with them.
Did I mention that Moses was a planner? He had fully prepared himself for this turn of events. For months back on the farm, he had secretly befriended those dogs with scraps of food and other bits of love and kindness. Now, at this moment of great danger, those dogs turned tail and headed back home when he ordered them to do so.
This inspired bit of on-the-run cleverness is celebrated today in a historical marker at Daniel Crouse Memorial Park on the Choptank River waterfront in Denton. There is a picnic pavilion there, as well as boat launch facilities and the Caroline County Visitor Center. Denton is Caroline’s county seat. The stop here will put you right on the edge of a downtown with an array of shops, galleries, and eateries. History buffs will want to find their way to the Museum of Rural Life. Outdoors lovers will find a couple of state parks nearby, Tuckahoe to the north and Martinak to the south.
Once Moses shooed those dogs away, the trio followed the banks of the Choptank to the north. You can track their likely route by taking Route 313 up into Greensboro, where there are a couple of more places to enjoy the sights and sounds of the river—at the Greensboro Carnival Grounds, off of Sunset Avenue on the way into downtown, and at Christian Park north of town, where the river narrows considerably at the end of a dirt road called Red Bridges.
At some point in their journey, Moses and his companions stole a canoe, only to find that it had no paddle. They ripped posts from a nearby fence and made do with those. By the end of day two, the Monday after Easter, they were approaching Smyrna, Delaware, which was then a fair-sized port town. There, Moses dug into his hard-earned savings and paid for three seats aboard a stagecoach into town.
The historic district in downtown Smyrna today boasts a number of buildings that were standing when Moses and his companions rolled into town. The trio managed somehow to get on board a steamboat headed for Philadelphia. From there it was onto New York City, where they made connections with an Underground Railroad man who gave Moses the names of some contacts in the upstate town of Troy.
Moses Viney Makes a Way in Freedom
In many of the other stories in this book, there is not all that much information available about what happened later in life to slaves who found their way to freedom. There may be a census-record mention or two about how he is working as a barber or she is a housemaid, but that’s about it.
The case of Moses Viney is different—his story in the years after his escape is quite well documented. Those contacts he was supposed to make in Troy didn’t really work out. Instead, Moses and his friends wandered across the Hudson River to Schenectady, finding work and lodging on a farm there.
Two years later, Moses was hired by Eliphalet Nott, the president of Union College. The two soon became friends as well as colleagues. Moses seems to have filled the role of Jeeves the Butler to Nott’s Bertie Wooster, serving as something closer to a trusted executive assistant than simple butler.
Then came the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Reading those sensational media reports about former slaves getting sent back into slavery, Moses grew nervous about the fact that Union College had a good number of southern students who might not be happy about his presence on campus. He shared those concerns with President Nott, who advised the former slave to join in the exodus of fugitives and move to Canada.
Once Moses was safe across the border, Nott set out to fix the problem. Through intermediaries, he reached out to Richard Murphy and asked how much it would cost to purchase Viney’s freedom. Murphy started the negotiations at $1,900. Nott responded by telling Murphy how happy Moses was in Canada and how it would be absolutely no problem at all for him to stay there for the rest of his life. I have seen two different numbers for the price that Murphy ended up accepting; it was either $250 or $120. Nott soon sent word north to Moses that he was a fully free man at last and could return to Schenectady and return to his work on campus.
A university publication from that time has a colorful account of one of the more unusual tasks on Moses’s to-do list. He assisted students as they ventured out on “innocent escapades of the night,” escapades that presumably involved lots of alcohol. The next morning, he would wander through dormitories “to arouse the oversleepers in time to make their morning classes or to get them to chapel.” Among the young men Moses shepherded through this rite of passage was a future president of the United States, Chester Arthur.
Moses Viney Makes a Trip Back Home
When President Nott died in 1866, Moses Viney received the princely sum of $1,000 from his will. It was during the postwar Reconstruction years that Moses returned to Talbot County, Maryland and paid a call on his former childhood friend, Richard Murphy. By one account, the visit was a perfectly cordial affair, “notwithstanding the fact that [negotiations over the price of Viney’s freedom] had impoverished [Murphy] to the extent of sixteen hundred dollars.”
Moses was the eldest of an astounding 21 brothers and sisters, so he had a lot of catching up to do back home. He learned that two of his brothers had also escaped slavery. Both had joined the Union Army and died during the Civil War. He met with at least three other brothers in Maryland, and he adopted a four-year-old half-sister named Leila. Moses’s wife, Anna, died in 1885. When Moses retired from work at the college, he bought himself a horse and carriage and hired himself out as a driver. In the 1890s, one local newspaper in Schenectady reported that “the ladies [of the town] consider it quite ‘chic’ to shop with Moses.”
In his later years, his health failing, Moses ended up in Leila’s care. He would go out for daily strolls in this period, during which another newspaper account dubbed him “the most noted and picturesque figure on the streets.”
He died in 1909 at the age of 92. A portrait of Moses Viney hangs today on campus at Union College. He has been honored in several ceremonies and presentations at the school over the years. In 2016, a college administrator published a novel titled A Bonded Friendship: Moses and Eliphalet.
There is one last footnote to the story of this other Moses that I find quite touching. His funeral seems to have been a big affair in Schenectady, with scholars and social bigwigs and students all turning out in force to bid him a loving farewell. In one account of the ceremony in a college publication, a writer added this little detail:
“[S]ome colored friends ordered a floral piece for the coffin that spelled out, ‘Free.'”
–Posted by Jim Duffy on March 30, 2018. Copyright 2018, Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations, LLP
The chapter on Moses Viney in Tubman Travels also includes a brief historical overview of the ways the Fugitive Slave Act impacted the lives of escaped slaves and a bonus story about James Collins, another slave from Talbot County whose journey to freedom ended with his becoming a celebrated figure on the campus of a different university, Princeton. It also includes sources of information for readers interested in visiting the towns in Delmarva associated with the stories of Viney and Collins.
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