Saturday, November 23, 2013

Henry Bibb's Letter to a Former Master

This morning on my drive over to Madison, Indiana, to see my mother, I couldn't help but think that fugitive slave Henry Bibb must have traveled those same roads as he served masters in Shelby County, New Castle in Henry County, and Bedford in Trimble County. In addition, Bibb made at least one escape attempt via Madison. Crossing the Ohio River on a new bridge, I wondered what Bibb thought as he crossed on the water.

Thinking about Bibb's fugitive travels led my train of thought to a letter I remembered reading that he wrote to his former Bedford master William Gatewood after finally making his way to Canada.

Letters from ex-slaves to former masters are quite rare. Most wanted no communication with those that had held them in bondage. Back in May 2012 I shared a letter Jermain Loguen sent to his late Tennessee master, and here I would like to share a letter Bibb sent to William Gatewood in Bedford, Kentucky in 1844. Bibb's forgiving nature is amazing.

"Dear Sir:—I am happy to inform you that you are not mistaken in the man whom you sold as property, and received pay for as such. But I thank God that I am not property now, but am regarded as a man like yourself, and although I live far north, I am enjoying a comfortable living by my own industry. If you should ever chance to be traveling this way, and will call on me, I will use you better than you did me while you held me as a slave. Think not that I have any malice against you, for the cruel treatment which you inflicted on me while I was in your power. As it was the custom of your country, to treat your fellow men as you did me and my little family, I can freely forgive you.
I wish to be remembered in love to my aged mother, and friends; please tell her that if we should never meet again in this life, my prayer shall be to God that we may meet in Heaven, where parting shall be no more.
You wish to be remembered to King and Jack. I am pleased, sir, to inform you that they are both here, well, and doing well. They are both living in Canada West. They are now the owners of better farms than the men are who once owned them.
You may perhaps think hard of us for running away from slavery, but as to myself, I have but one apology to make for it, which is this; I have only to regret that I did not start at an earlier period. I might have been free long before I was. I think it is very probable that I should have been a toiling slave on your property today, if you had treated me differently.
To be compelled to stand by and see you whip and slash my wife without mercy, when I could afford her no protection, not even by offering myself to suffer the lash in her place, was more than I felt it to be the duty of a slave husband to endure, while the way was open to Canada My infant child was also frequently flogged by Mrs. [William] Gatewood, for crying, until its skin was bruised literally purple. This kind of treatment was what drove me from home and family, to seek a better home for them. But I am willing to forget the past. I should be pleased to hear from you again, on the reception of this and should also be very happy to correspond with you often, if it should be agreeable to yourself. I subscribe myself a friend to the oppressed, and Liberty forever."  


  1. Perhaps Bibb wanted to show his former slave master that despite him being a slave, he could become a respectable man with many accomplishments - and old school way to shove it in his face.

  2. I think there's some of that in there, and deservedly so.