Documenting the American South Logo
Collections >> First-Person Narratives, Library of Southern Literature , North American Slave Narratives >> Document Menu >> Summary

William Wells Brown, 1814?-1884
Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself
London: C. Gilpin, 1849.


William Wells Brown was born into slavery on a plantation near Lexington, Kentucky in 1814, the son of a slave woman named Elizabeth and his master's white half-brother, George Higgins. He was moved to Missouri at a young age; there he and his mother were hired out to a cruel drunkard. Brown ran away, only to be quickly captured, beaten, and sent back to work. Brown was hired out repeatedly to different masters, spending time working on ships and in a hotel. During his time away, his mother and all his siblings were sold. He was eventually returned to his master, Dr. John Young, and he worked in the fields and in the master's house, only to be hired out again to a slave trader on a ship. Upon his return, his master offered him the chance to find a new master rather than be sold. Instead, Brown attempted to escape with his mother. They were captured and Brown was sold. Brown was again set to work on a steamship and made a successful break for freedom when the ship reached Ohio. He was aided along his route by Wells Brown, a Quaker, and he henceforth added the Quaker's names to his own. Upon reaching Cleveland, Brown worked aboard a steamboat and became active in the Underground Railroad, assisting many escaping slaves. Brown became a well-known abolitionist, traveling throughout the United States and abroad. Brown's Narrative sold well, inspiring additional works from Brown, including another autobiography and several histories. Brown is perhaps best known for his writing and 1853 publication of Clotel, one of the first novels published by an African American. Brown died in 1884 in Massachusetts.

The Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave. Written by Himself. is a clear and descriptive condemnation of slavery, which includes many poems, stories, newspaper clippings, testimonials, and excerpts to support the abolitionist cause. Brown prefaces his Narrative with a dedication to the Quaker activist Wells Brown, who assisted the author on his flight to freedom. Brown writes, "in the multitude that you have succored, it is very possible that you may not remember me; but until I forget God and myself, I can never forget you" (p. i). Brown also includes an original poem, "Fling Out the Anti-Slavery Flag," a letter of support from his attorney, and a letter from his last master, who acknowledges his status as a fugitive and asks for $350 in exchange for his freedom (p. ii). Brown states he cannot accept the offer "to become a purchaser of my body and soul" as "God made me as free as he did Enoch" (p. ix). The opening pages of the Narrative also include notes from the publisher and Brown, stating that from the first edition in July 1847 until the 1849 fourth edition reproduced here, over 8,000 copies were sold.

The actual narrative begins with Brown's birth in Lexington, Kentucky. Brown notes that he had six siblings, but that "no two of us were children of the same father" (p. 13). His master moves to Missouri when Brown is young, and he describes the difficult conditions for slaves on the new farm. Brown is kept as a house slave when he is young, but any relief he receives is offset by hearing the whipping of his own mother in the fields. Brown's master is elected to the Missouri legislature and the farm is left in the hands of the overseer, Mr. Cook, who in turn "became more tyrannical and cruel" (p. 16). Brown and his mother are soon hired out in the city. Brown begins working for Major Freeland in his public house. Brown describes him as a "horse-racer, cock-fighter, gambler, and withal an inveterate drunkard" who would beat his slaves with chairs when drunk (p. 20). After a few months, Brown runs away and hides in the woods by his master's farm. He is quickly captured and subjected to more "Virginia play."

Brown is then hired out to William B. Culver, who commands a steamboat. Soon thereafter, he is hired out again to Mr. Colburn, who runs the Missouri Hotel. Despite descending from "one of the free states," Brown alleges that "a more inveterate hater of the negro I do not believe ever walked God's green earth" (p. 23). While living at the Missouri Hotel, Brown learns that his master "sold my mother, and all her children, except myself . . . to different persons in the city of St. Louis" (p. 25).

Brown is moved again, this time to work for Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was a publisher and editor for the St. Louis Times. Brown credits Lovejoy for being a "very good man" and finds himself indebted to Lovejoy "for what little learning I obtained while in slavery" (p. 26). Brown spends several pages outlining cases of extreme cruelty against slaves in Missouri, hoping to expose the false belief that slavery is "mild in Missouri, when compared with the cotton, sugar and rice growing states" (p. 26). Brown is hired to Captain Otis Reynolds to serve as a waiter aboard a steamboat. Longing for freedom, Brown repeatedly considers running away to Canada, but he is stopped by the thought of his mother. At the end of his service, during which time he observed several gangs of slaves being sent further South, Brown returns to his master to work in the fields and in the house. He notes that his master had "got religion" while he was away, but that the change was not a positive one on the farm (p. 35). Whereas Sundays had once been free for "hunting, fishing, making splint brooms, baskets, &c.," now the slaves were "all compelled to attend meeting" (p. 35). Religion, Brown notes, did not stop slaveowners from beating their slaves; he recounts several stories of allegedly pious masters crippling or killing their slaves.

Brown's master hires him out to Mr. Walker, a "negro speculator, or a soul driver, as they are generally called among slaves" (p. 38). Brown describes the despicable conditions of the slave ship and his own intense sadness from "seeing my fellow-creatures bought and sold" (p. 41). Brown is tasked with preparing the older slaves for market; he is ordered "to have the old men's whiskers shaved off, and the grey hairs plucked out where they were not too numerous (p. 42). Brown also witnesses Mr. Walker taking a woman's infant away and "gifting" it to a local woman because the baby's crying disturbed him. After relaying this story, Brown notes that "none but those who have been in a slave state, and who have seen the American slave-trader engaged in his nefarious traffic, can estimate the sufferings their victims undergo" (p. 50).

After "the longest year I ever lived," Brown is sent home again, but quickly learns his master aims to sell him. Brown reminds his master of his hard work and the profit earned at his expense, as well as his position as a "near relative" of the master (p. 63). His master thus offers Brown one week to go to St. Louis and find his own master. Instead, Brown finds his mother and convinces her to flee with him. Brown steals a boat and he and his mother make it to Illinois, where they continue to travel by night, always following the North Star. Ten days later, they are overtaken by three men who recognize them as runaways, capture them, and return them to St. Louis. Brown is sent to work in the fields, whipped, and locked up at night.

Brown is quickly sold to Samuel Willi, a merchant tailor, who also hires him out for profit. While between jobs, Brown finds his mother aboard a slave ship bound for the Deep South. Brown begs for forgiveness, but his mother does not blame him, instead praying for her "heavenly Master" to call her home and free her from slavery (p. 78). She instructs him, "Now try to get your liberty!" for they will "meet no more this side of the grave" (p. 78). This quick conversation is the last time Brown sees his mother.

Mr. Willi eventually sells Brown to Captain Enoch Price, a steamboat owner. Mrs. Price "was very proud of her servants" and upon receiving Brown, procures a new carriage and makes Brown the driver (p. 84). Brown travels with the Price family as a steward on their boat trip to New Orleans. When they take on cargo for Cincinnati, Brown feels his escape may be imminent. Captain Price, fearing Brown's possible escape, asks him if he has ever traveled to a free state; Brown carefully states, "Oh yes . . . I have been in Ohio; my master carried me into that state once, but I never liked a free state" (p. 89). On January 1, Brown carries a trunk off the ship, loses himself in the crowd, and hides in the nearby woods. As soon as he finds the North Star that evening, he sets out, covering twenty or twenty-five miles.

Brown spends much time contemplating his future occupation, as well as his name. Originally named William, Brown had been forced to change his name to "Sandford" because his master's nephew was named William. Brown decides to reclaim his old name. After several days of travel, Brown is overtaken by cold and hunger. An old man spots him and asks if he is a slave. Brown concedes that he is, and the man asks him to hide until he can return with a covered wagon as he was in "a very pro-slavery neighborhood" (p. 100). The man, a Quaker by the name of Wells Brown, takes Brown into his home, where he and his wife treat Brown well. Brown falls ill and remains with the Quakers "twelve or fifteen days, during which time they made me some clothing, and the old gentleman purchased me a pair of boots" (p. 102). Brown takes the name of his "first white friend" (p. 104). Brown arrives in Cleveland to find the lake frozen. Desirous of reaching Canada, he is faced with the choice of remaining until the lake thaws or traveling to Buffalo. He remains in Cleveland, taking a job as a waiter. In the spring, he finds work on a steamboat. In Cleveland, Brown discovers his first anti-slavery newspaper and becomes involved with aiding fugitive slaves. He notes that from May through December of 1842, he conveyed 69 fugitives into Canada. By 1843, Brown was lecturing as part of the New York Anti-Slavery Society.

At the close of his narrative, Brown includes an original essay titled "The American Slave-Trade," which outlines the "human agony and suffering" of the institution of slavery (p. 126). Songs and poems written in honor of Brown are also included. Brown notes in an appendix that he has "spoken harshly of slaveholders, in church and state" but that he is not "inclined to apologize for anything" he said (p. 133). Brown also reprints numerous newspaper clippings, advertisements for runaway slaves, slave codes and slave laws from various states, believing that the depravity of the text speaks for itself. Finally, the closing pages of Brown's manuscript include testimonials and reviews of Brown's work which note the integrity and humanity of the man and his cause.

Works Consulted: Welbourne, Penny Anne, "Brown, William Wells," Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895, accessed via Oxford African American Studies Center, 13 June 2011.

Meredith Malburne-Wade

Document menu