Sojourner Truth – Exploring the Achievements of a Self-Emancipated Slave

From slave to brave emancipator, activist, and hero...Explore the travels, times, and tribulations of Sojourner Truth. An understanding of the past may forge a better future.
Sojourner Truth Portrait

The following are the first 2 chapters from the book “Sojourner Truth: Exploring the Achievements of a Self-Emancipated Slave”

A Broken Home

The girl who would become Sojourner Truth was born Isabella Baumfree. Isabella, or Belle as she was often called, was born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree sometime around 1797. Like many enslaved African families who didn’t have the means to keep records or owners who cared enough to do so for them, Belle’s exact birth date is unknown.

Isabella was born into slavery, as her parents probably had been. Her parents had been bought from slave traders together by a wealthy Dutch American man named Colonel Johannes Hardenbergh. The family worked at his estate in the hilly Swartekill region of Ulster County, New York. When his son Charles inherited the estate, they continued to work for him, and he continued his father’s practice of enslaving people.

It is unknown how big Isabella’s family was, for she was the youngest child save one, and most of her older siblings were sold to other slave-owners before she was old enough to remember. Belle’s best guess was that she had “ten or twelve” siblings scattered across the American South. Broken families like hers were common in this era, and the chance of ever being reunited was slim or nonexistent.

Isabella’s parents were aggrieved by the untimely loss of so many children, but they endeavored to keep their memory alive, wherever they were. Isabella often found them reminiscing together by candlelight for hours in the cellar, which the family used as their home. They recollected the good and bad of every child’s story as well as they could, creating a kind of family oral tradition.

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Forced Adrift

Unfortunately, Isabella would not grow up to learn those stories and keep that tradition alive. When Charles Hardenbergh died in 1806, many parts of his estate were put up for auction by his family. James and Elizabeth were emancipated by the Hardenberghs because James was too old to continue working and would need someone to care for him. But Isabella, barely nine years old, was auctioned off along with her little brother Peter and some farm animals. As Isabella later recalled, she was sold for one hundred dollars alongside a flock of sheep. It is unknown where Peter was sent.

Isabella was bought by a Kingston store-owner named John Neely. She rarely saw her parents after that, but it wasn’t long before her mother died, and soon after, her father froze to death in the dead of winter. He had been blind, abandoned to live alone in a shack in the woods, and half-eaten by vermin when he died.

Problems immediately arose between Isabella and the Neelys. She had been raised in the shrinking Dutch-speaking community of New York leftover from when it was the slavery-practicing colony of New Netherlands founded in the early 1600s. This meant that she barely spoke a word of English when she was sold to entirely English-speaking owners. John Neely was impatient with Isabella and often whipped her savagely for failing to carry out a task instructed to her in a language she couldn’t understand.

Her brief but grueling stay with the Neelys ended less than two years later when she was sold to Martinus Schryver, another Kingston local. The Schryvers were more kind to Isabella than the Neelys—kind for slave-owners, at least. They also furnished her budding English vocabulary with a wide range of curse words.

Isabella managed to have a few happy memories from this phase of her life. The freedom given to her by the Schryvers while out on errands afforded her the leisure time to go down to the Hudson River, where she would marvel at the sailboats and newly invented steamships. A ball held in Martinus’ tavern captured her imagination so strongly that she could sing a song from it from memory for the rest of her life.

After another two years, Isabella was sold again. She came to the Ulster County farm of John and Elizabeth Dumont, who were her most long-term owners. John had a fondness for Isabella, which was uncharacteristic of slave-owners, and by the standards of the day, he was almost humane in how he treated her. This was thanks in part to Isabella’s work ethic and obedience—she was skilled at physical labor from a young age, and thanks to the lessons instilled in her by her mother, she was truthful to a fault.

This earned Isabella the derision of the handful of other slaves owned by the Dumonts. It also showed the beginnings of the just, tireless character that would guide her for years to come. Her time with the Dumonts was not easy by any stretch of the imagination.

Isabella’s relationship with Mrs. Dumont was very tense. Elizabeth Dumont was unused to dealing with slaves and had a dim view of them. She was critical of Isabella’s work, particularly in the kitchen, and treated her harshly. It was even rumored and implied, though never acknowledged by Sojourner Truth, that Elizabeth Dumont sexually abused her. Perhaps Isabella knew how vulnerable she was as a slave with one very unhappy owner, so she deliberately befriended or endeared herself to John Dumont as a form of protection. It was as common a response to the danger and degradation of lifelong slavery as begrudging tolerance or open rebellion.

Crises of Faith

Isabella’s mother taught her about religion before their separation. It was she who explained that God lived up “in the sky” and that he was the one Isabella should ask for help whenever she was in trouble. It is possible that she taught Isabella a few elements of traditional African religion leftover from when their ancestors were free, such as speaking to spirits in nature—African American slaves frequently complimented Christianity with older traditions in a practice called religious syncretism.

It is also possible that Isabella simply took her mother’s lessons literally, and practiced her religion creatively when there was no one else to instruct her in matters of faith. Few masters permitted their slaves to become formally baptized Christians; after all—doing so acknowledged the full and equal humanity of Africans and made their continued enslavement an uncomfortable topic. The practice of enslaving fellow Christians was also severely frowned upon in general.

The result was the same: Isabella frequently called her grief to God out loud, believing that the louder the prayer, the more likely she was to be heard by God, whom she believed was literally up in the sky. When her prayers were not answered, she expressed her frustration or tried to bargain with God.

What she prayed for reveals how deeply conflicted over slavery, as well as her own identity, Isabella was in the early years of her life. Sometimes she prayed for God to deliver her from slavery, or for the deaths of her owners and other white people. Other times, she accepted slavery as an institution, or at least she accepted John Dumont as her master.

According to the semi-autobiographical Book of Life dictated by Sojourner Truth but written down by Olive Gilbert, there were even times when Isabella confused or conflated Mr. Dumont with God, and internalized the beatings which he or his wife gave her as being just and deserved. Considering how his good graces were her only hope for security, and that her life was literally in his hands, her role in their deeply unequal dynamic is understandable. By today’s standards, Isabella was an abused child using survival strategies common to abused children.

Loving & Losing

As she grew into a young woman, Isabella began to come into her own and develop an interest in men. This was facilitated by the permission she was given by the Dumonts to attend social gatherings such as Pinkster, the Dutch version of Pentecost. While Pinkster was a religious time of rest to the Dutch, it was a chance for their African slaves to be free of work and catch up with friends and family.

One year at Pinkster in 1813 or 1814, Isabella met a young man named Robert, who was a slave on the nearby Catlin estate. They quickly became friends, and soon romance blossomed between them. They met one another at every opportunity they had, which was more than one might expect of enslaved people, but still far too little to bear.

“Catlin” is probably a corruption of the name “Catton”, originating from Sojourner Truth’s Dutch accent being transcribed by an Anglophone writer. Charles Catton the younger was a wealthy English painter who emigrated to America a few years before. He may have allowed some leisure time for his slaves, but he was tightly controlling their personal lives.

Charles Catton forbade Robert to stay with Isabella when he heard about their relationship. He wouldn’t be able to claim ownership of any children from their union, and therefore, they wouldn’t be useful to him as slaves, barring some kind of inconvenient arrangement with the Dumonts. Instead, Robert was expected to find a wife among the slaves of the Catton estate so that their master’s property would be enriched. Robert ignored his master’s command and continued to see Isabella in secret.

Catton eventually found out about their trysts and was enraged. He and one of his sons noticed Robert’s absence one day and searched until he found him visiting Isabella out of the mistaken fear that she had grown ill. The two men set upon Robert with canes and beat him bloody in front of Isabella. They would have killed him, if not for the intervention of Dumont.

Dumont forced them off of his land and even escorted Robert to ensure that the beating would not resume once the men were out of sight. But the damage was already done. Robert was cowed by the attack and broke off his relationship with Isabella. He married a woman on Catton’s farm. He died a few years later.

Isabella was devastated, but also of prime childbearing age—it was not long before she was arranged to marry Thomas, another of Dumont’s slaves, in 1815. Thomas was notably older than Isabella and had been married twice before under similar circumstances. The same institution which had taken Robert away from her had now given her a relative stranger and expected her to spend the rest of her life with him.

Marriage was a problematic institution for slaves. In the American South at this time, marriage between slaves was completely informal and without legal sanction, so it was usually a tool of the master. This meant that families could be torn apart on a whim. Even in some Northern states like New York, where slave marriages were deemed valid starting in 1817, they rarely enjoyed the stability or protections that were supposed to come with it.

Thomas and Isabella tried to make their forced relationship work, and for a time, they might have had some semblance of contentment together. There was talk between them at one point of having a cottage together after emancipation. But there was no happiness or love in the marriage. Thomas questioned if they were even married, for they had been forced together before any legislation had taken effect. That an enslaved minister had officiated the event seemed unimportant to him.

Isabella recognized their marriage very seriously. She treated Thomas as her equal partner, and balanced work and family life as best as she could. Years later, she would insist that she had had two husbands over the course of her life—Robert and Thomas. The love she’d felt for the former, and the duty she felt for the latter, made her count them apparently equally.

Over the course of the decade they spent together, Isabella and Thomas had five children. The name and time of one who died in infancy are unknown, but the rest in order were Diana, Peter, Elizabeth, and Sophia. Because Diana’s birth was so soon after Isabella’s and Thomas’ marriage, it is possible that Robert was Diana’s real father. When the girl died an old woman decades later, her obituary stated as much as fact.

It is also possible that one of Isabella’s children was fathered by John Dumont. Enslaved African women were especially vulnerable to their masters, and sexual abuse was common. Even considering the apparent “fondness” Isabella and John Dumont had for one another, such a situation—if it did happen—could be considered nothing other than rape today.

Isabella dearly cared for her children and raised them to follow the same strict code of honesty and integrity her mother had taught her. There was no going against the will of the master in her household. When the family was starving, she refused to steal food to feed them and forbade her children from doing the same.

For Isabella, this bitter pill of parenthood may have been sweetened somewhat by the knowledge that slavery was on the downturn in New York State during the first quarter of the 19th century. She couldn’t have been certain that abolition legislation would properly free every enslaved African in New York, after the decades of back-and-forth debate surrounding the issue. She could only hold out hope and help her family survive until then.

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Walking into Freedom

New York was the last state in the American North to abolish slavery. It followed the same process of gradual emancipation as other abolitionist states did throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Abolition was a slow, decades-long process in New York, beginning in 1799 and ending on July 4, 1827.

The abolitionist movement was present in New York years before, during, and after the American Revolution, and long before any legislation was passed. At first, like-minded individuals conducted themselves in small groups and had little organization across the state. Over time, abolitionists gained prominence, and larger organizations like the New York Manumission Society emerged.

Manumission Society

The Manumission Society was founded in 1785 and included several Founding Fathers including John Jay, Aaron Burr, and Alexander Hamilton. It was made up entirely of white men, most of them wealthy, influential, or both. Many members were only interested in the eventual abolition of slavery within their own state, and even owned their own slaves—mostly one or a few domestic servants. Other members were Quakers and progressives who favored a nationwide end to slavery, and others were somewhere in between.

In this way, the society was a microcosm of the abolitionist movement in states like New York. Because of the internal divisions and deeply vested economic interests tied to slavery in the state, all of the lobbying and political campaigning in the world couldn’t make it more than a gradual process. This began by freeing slaves who had served in the Revolutionary War, limiting the interstate slave-trade, boycotting people tied to the slave-trade, and making it easier for slaves to be manumitted— the process by which a master voluntarily freed their slaves, either by will or certificate, often done as payment for years of service.

Black people also made important, though often overlooked contributions to the decline of slavery. Free Africans campaigned, organized, and lobbied for the freedom of their fellows, with many people like Frederick Douglass eventually becoming famed orators and politicians during their fight for equality. Enslaved Africans also did as much as they could, legally or illegally. The Underground Railroad was the most famous of several secret networks used by slaves and sympathizers to escape bondage.

Beginning of Freedom

By the time Isabella was born in 1797, one in three black people were free in New York. This showed progress, but it also meant that there were still over thirty-three thousand enslaved Africans in New York, with that number slowly dwindling. Had she been born just two years later during another wave of legislation, she would have been legally free and reclassified as an indentured servant with a set date for freedom.

Eventually, a clear date emerged. The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was signed into law in 1799 by Governor John Jay, setting July 4, 1827, as the day that all remaining slaves in New York were to be emancipated. It would be the biggest emancipation of slaves in North America before the Civil War.

As the end of slavery in the state drew close, many slave-owners made arrangements to manumit their slaves ahead of time. John Dumont promised as much to Isabella, saying that he would free her one year before the law took effect if she continued to serve faithfully and well. She did so, as she always would, until her right hand was injured. The injury was serious enough that Isabella was unable to work as efficiently for the rest of the year, and it permanently deformed her fingers.

When her year was up, Isabella’s master refused to release her. He said that she had not worked up to standard and would be kept until 1827. Keep in mind that Isabella had continued working with a crippled hand—it just had not been up to snuff for Dumont. Broken promises like this were common between slaves and their masters, if promises were even made.

Isabella did not agree with this. She had served John Dumont for some sixteen years and made countless sacrifices for him, but he would not honor his word with her. Isabella may have been raised to defer and accept, but she expected to receive the same honesty that she gave, and she was proud of the work she had done. Sometimes she finished a whole day of housework early in order to go out to the fields to work harder than most of the men in Dumont’s employ.

Just Walking Away

Isabella decided that since she had upheld her end of the bargain, it was just and lawful for her to go free. Because her infant daughter Sophia could not live without her in order to become an indentured servant to the Dumonts, she decided that by rights, the girl was also free. She wouldn’t contest the indentured status of her older children because she couldn’t win such a legal battle, but it was not a decision she made lightly.

She decided that she would leave the Dumont estate, but even in emancipating herself, she tried to be fair to her master. Instead of leaving on the 4th of July 1826, as their initial agreement promised, she remained throughout the summer in order to prepare the household for the winter. Among her remaining tasks was the feat of spinning one hundred pounds of wool. This took Isabella several months to finish, and she did not discharge her duty until the winter of 1826.

When the time came, Isabella picked Sophia up in her arms and walked away from the Dumont estate. She did not run, or hide, or even use a deceptive plan to avoid notice. In her words, “I did not run off, for I thought that wicked, but I walked off, believing that to be all right.”

In a rare and spectacular occurrence, she simply walked away from slavery because she thought it was right, and nothing was stopping her.

Indeed, nothing stopped her, and at about thirty years of age, Isabella Baumfree walked the countryside of Ulster County as a free woman.

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