A white man remembers slavery in the Shenandoah Valley

Posted on February 3, 2009 by


I was wondering if I could interest the present generation by giving them a little of the history of antebellum days of slavery and how some things were done in by-gone days – things that I know did really happen. Now all I shall tell of will be done without doing violence to the truth for I hate a prevaricator. When I was quite a boy scarcely in my teens, I was on the Pike near Marksville one day in the fall of the year, when I came up with a big negro man driving a four-horse team and I soon got in conversation with him while he made some adjustments to the harness, when he said to me, ‘I sho’ do wish it was Chrismus’ and I asked him why? He replied, ‘Caus’ de white folks always gives us flour bread at Chrismus’ and now just think how many hard days work that poor slave did on that farm to produce the hundreds of bushels of wheat that was sold every year and his reward was a few little biscuits at Christmas time – once a year.

Was this not muzzling the ox that ‘treadeth out the corn’ for after using his power to raise it, he could not eat of it.

Now of all that I shall mention I could give the names of every one of them, both male and female, black and white, old or young, but I will withhold all names from the fact I know of just one person yet living in Page county that it might touch and I do not want to mar the feeling of anyone, yet I doubt if anyone now living could give this account of slavery days.

Now, I ask you readers not to get discouraged because we put the dark side first, as I am leaving the best for last.

I knew a farmer who had a number of slaves, among whom was a large negro woman and her mistress was very fond of her ‘toddy’ and was often visibly under its influence and it was on one of these occasions that it seemed that all the slave did was wrong, so the ‘missus’ called one of her sons and told him to bring her the carriage lines, as they were always used to tie up a negro for punishment, just then the slave spoke up and asked what they were going to do with her and her mistress said, ‘I am going to tie you up and give you one hell of a good beating,’ to which the colored slave replied, ‘No I’ll be damned if you do, for I have done nothing wrong, and if you try to beat me one of the other of us dies right here,’ and the mistress seeing violence in the negro’s eyes wilted, and called off the job, and it was never attempted again. The slaves had no happy home in that family, bit judgment came in a short time – their barn burned with a summer’s crop and with it three fine horses. It was my privilege to view the ruins, the morning after the fire.

Just about one mile from the place I have just mentioned was a large plantation on which were quite a few slaves and two of them ran off and the owner offered a reward of $50 for their capture and in a short time words came that they were being held at Moorefield, W.Va. and the captors were instructed ‘to bring them to New Market, Va., where the owner met them, paid the reward and brought them home in his carriage. I lived at that time with my parents in a house that stood very near the present residence of Hon C.C. Louderback, in what is now Stanley. I well remember that my father said as the man drove by with the two negroes tied in his carriage, he said, ‘poor men, I pity them when he gets them home.’ It was said that he tied them over a barrel in the barn and after beating their backs raw, he put salt and pepper on their bleeding wounds, and they were the same men that got his two horses ready for him to drive to church the following Sunday – he was supposed to be a Christian, but was he?

Well, might we say in the language of the late Hon. Charley Crisp [once an officer in Co. K, 10th Va. Infantry, member of the famed “Immortal 600” and later Speaker of the US House of Representatives], ‘how can such things be and overcome us like a summer’s cloud without one’s special wonder.’ Now this was in 1859 and now comes judgment for in 1860, this man’s fine large mansion burned down, entailing a loss that brought discouragement to that man, so much that he sold the farm, great as it was and moved to another county, and now we have just one more picture of the dark side and then comes the brighter side, for like prosperity it is just always around the corner.

About one-half mile from the first place I mentioned a man had three negro men and one of them was suspected of running off the place at night to visit slaves on other farms, and spies were put out to catch him and in due time he was finally caught and reported to his pastor, who with the carriage lines had him tied to a locust tree in the yard and after baring his back and ready to apply the lash the negro said, ‘Master, all the money I have is 12 cents, I will give you that if you will not whip me.’ Now this got under the skin of his master, so he called on of his sons and handed him the lash and told him to operate and he did causing the blood to run down his back – but this broke him from running off for a short time only. A short while after, he was absent at roll call – and although this was [over] 65 years ago he has never been seen or heard of from that day to this – and here comes the judgment again for that fine home burned. This farm is now dotted over with many modern dwellings – ‘the mills of the gods-grind slow, yet they grind exceedingly fine.’ Well, so far – so bad. Now, I will put on the screen the brighter side.

I knew quite a few slave owners that were kind to their negroes and they would allow them to plant melon patches and even sell them as well as tobacco and broom corn. They would make brooms and sell them around among the people, but to do this they had to have a permit on paper from their masters and some of the owners often borrowed money from their slaves. I knew of one slave owner, and a good Christian man, who would allow his slaves to have a party and dance in their homes. I stood one night watching them swing their colored lines around while the master of ceremonies would yet out, ‘Whoop Molly, hoochy, croochy!’

– Jacob H. Coffman ( 1852-1938 ) in a letter to the Page News & Courier, January 1, 1932