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

James Williams, b. 1805
Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Who Was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama
New York: American Anti-Slavery Society; Boston: Isaac Knapp, 1838.


Narrative of James Williams, an American Slave, Who Was for Several Years a Driver on a Cotton Plantation in Alabama, was the first slave narrative published by the American Anti-Slavery Society. Scholar John Blassingame notes that today the narrative is most often remembered as a "fraud" because of Southern newspaper columnists' attacks on the veracity of the narrative (p. 477). An abundance of authenticating documents from professional white men (including the famous Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who acted as Williams's amanuensis) attested to the "intelligence [and] evident candor" of Williams and "strong confirmation of the truth and accuracy of his story" (p. xvii); yet two months after the narrative's publication, J.B. Rittenhouse, the editor of the Greensborough, Alabama, Beacon, claimed he found factual inconsistencies in Williams's account of his life in Alabama. Rittenhouse argued that the slaveholders and slave driver named in the narrative did not correspond to any people in that area and that there were questionable dates and distances. Scholar William L. Andrews explains that the American Anti-Slavery Society responded to the attacks on the narrative by launching their own investigation into the facts of the narrative. They ultimately determined that while they could not refute Rittenhouse's claims absolutely, especially since James Williams had already left for England, the essence of the narrative was truthful, and the character of the slave had been established by those interviewing Williams (p.87). Andrews also argues that "Whittier and the other abolitionists could not test the validity of Williams's facts; they could only test the man himself as a believable narrator of those facts" (p. 88).

According to the narrative, James Williams was born a slave on May 16, 1805, in Powhatan County, Virginia. His master was George Larrimore, who was also widely known to be his grandfather. James's mother died when he and his twin brother were five years old. As a Larrimore family favorite and playmate of the master's son, young Williams is permitted to travel to Charleston and New Orleans with the family. Williams's luck turns, however, when his master dies, and his former playmate becomes his new master. The new master's wife is a French-speaking Creole from New Orleans who mistreats the slaves when her husband is not there. Told that the family is relocating to Alabama, Williams thinks that he is going down ahead of the family with the master to help prepare for the move, but instead, his master leaves him in Alabama to be the slave driver for the new Larrimore Alabama plantation. Betrayed by his master and unfamiliar with field work, Williams must labor under the cruel overseer, Huckstep, and must use violence to keep his fellow slaves in line.

Raised as a well-treated house slave, Williams is disgusted by Huckstep—an irreligious alcoholic who keeps slave mistresses with whom he has many children—and even more disgusted with his duties as slave driver, as he is forced to whip both men and women and track runaways with bloodhounds. When another slave informs Huckstep that Williams has been secretly lessening the punishments ordered by Huckstep, the overseer orders Williams to receive 250 strokes of the whip and to prepare his own salt and pepper solution used to treat (and exacerbate the pain of) whip wounds. This drives Williams to run into the woods of Alabama without any preparation. The hounds find him easily, but, because he is often the one hunting runaways, the dogs do not attack. He is taken in by Creek Indians, who feed and shelter him. Following the North Star, Williams reaches Georgia, where, although spotted by an armed white man, he escapes, because the man was out of ammunition.

Like many other writers of slave narratives, Williams glosses over the other details of his escape. Once he is safe in the North, he travels to Philadelphia, where abolitionists contact him. Soon after, he goes to New York City, where he is surprised by "the sympathy and kindness" of the citizens, since he had been told by Southerners that the Northerners would likely imprison him and give him back to his master (p. 99). He concludes his narrative with expressions of gratitude for the abolitionists who befriended him upon his arrival in the North. There is also an editor's note updating readers on Williams's fate: on the advice of his abolitionist friends, Williams fled to Liverpool, England, where he was safer from recapture than in the North or even in Canada.

The appendix that follows—like the narrative's preface—serves to confirm the torture, starvation and overwork of slaves. Williams also includes anecdotes illustrating the ways in which slaves are prevented from practicing Christianity. In one such scene, an old slave is made to eat his own Bible. Later, a Southern landowner tells Williams of the movement to relocate slaves to Liberia, but Williams is adamant that Virginia, not Africa, is his homeland, and that he desires to live nowhere else. Both the religious hypocrisy of the slave system and African American rights to citizenship were major abolitionist issues. Indeed, Williams's narrative is framed so completely by (and written by) the abolitionist movement that, despite Whittier's prefatory assertion that "THE SLAVE HAS SPOKEN FOR HIMSELF," it is difficult to separate Williams's aims from those of the American Anti-Slavery Society (p. xviii).

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L., To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986; Blassingame, John W., "Using the Testimony of Ex-Slaves," The Journal of Southern History 41.4 (1975).

Amanda M. Page

Document menu