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James Lindsay Smith
Autobiography of James L. Smith, Including, Also, Reminiscences of Slave Life, Recollections of the War, Education of Freedmen, Causes of the Exodus, etc.
Norwich, CT: The Bulletin, 1881.


James Lindsay Smith (ca. 1816-?) was born on a plantation in Northern Neck, Virginia. Because a childhood accident left him permanently injured, he was given positions on the plantation that enabled him to avoid the worst rigors of field labor. In his youth, Smith was sold to an owner in Heathsville, Virginia, and from there he was hired out to become a cook on board a ship. After his maritime employment, Smith returned to Heathsville, where he converted to Christianity at age eighteen and conducted prayer meetings for other slaves. After being sent by his master to learn shoe-making, Smith escaped to Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1838, and there he eventually acquired his own shoe shop. He also attended school in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, where he obtained a license to preach; Smith spent 20 years preaching in a Methodist church. He married Emeline Minerva Platt in 1842, and together they had three daughters and one son. Nothing is known about Smith’s life after 1881, when his narrative was published.

Smith explains in his Autobiography (1881) that one of his first childhood memories involved helping a woman carry firewood with an unnamed boy. While carrying the timber, the woman fell, causing the wood to drop on the boys, damaging Smith’s knee and crushing the foot of the other boy. This accident claimed the life of the boy, and nearly took Smith’s as well. Smith eventually regained the ability to walk but was left with a permanent limp.

After both of his parents died, Smith was allowed by his master to become a sailor on the ship of a Mr. Mitchell. Smith stayed two years on board Mitchell’s vessel, where the captain “treated me very cruelly” (p. 16). One day while being whipped on board, Smith decided that he would jump overboard and end his life: “The captain had punished me so much that I was tired of life, for it became a burden to me” (p. 20). When he got the opportunity, Smith jumped overboard and into the ocean. He had an immediate change of heart and attempted to swim back to the ship, but Smith’s attempts were futile, and he nearly drowned. Just as Smith had accepted his fate, the captain reached into the water and pulled him out.

When his ship docked in Carter’s Creek, Virginia, Smith found an opportunity to run away from this abusive captain by getting on board another vessel headed toward Heathsville, Virginia. After returning to his former plantation, Smith began to fake leg injuries. This caused his masters to deem him unfit for labor in the crop fields, and he was sent to Fairfield, Connecticut, to learn the shoe-maker’s trade. After learning this trade, Smith was brought back to Heathsville, where his master opened a shoe shop and employed Smith.

It was in Fairfield that Smith attended his first prayer meeting. Soon after converting to Christianity, he started holding his own meetings, and it was “not long before my fame began to spread as an exhorter” (p. 26). Smith describes the religious excitement of this era, saying it “was so great that the people did not leave the church for their meals, but had them brought to them. There were many souls converted” (p. 31).

When he was sold to a new master, Smith and two fellow slaves, Zip and Lorenzo, conspired to run away. Their escape began in May of 1838, and involved travelling by foot, canoe, horse, and ship. After days without food and nearly being caught, the three arrived in Philadelphia where Smith bade farewell to Zip and Lorenzo as they boarded a ship to Europe.

In Philadelphia, Smith befriended a shoemaker by the name of Simpson, and was introduced to a group of abolitionists. They sent him to New York, where he met a Dr. Osgood, a charitable pastor who took him in and showed an interest in his safety. Osgood found employment for Smith at a local shoe dealer, where he worked for the next year. Smith eventually decided that he would like to go to school in Wilbraham, Massachusetts: “As I never had any advantages for obtaining an education, I felt the importance of it at this time” (p. 57). Smith obtained his preacher’s license to preach the gospel from the school and soon held meetings in Springfield and Ludlow.

After he had finished school, Smith met a Dr. Hudson, a popular abolitionist lecturer. Hudson engaged Smith to travel and lecture with him for one year, and Smith agreed. During his travels with Hudson, Smith became reacquainted with Emeline Minerva Platt, whom he had met four years earlier at the house of a friend he was boarding with at them time. “As I had often seen this lady, in company with other friends,” Smith explains, “I thought it would be a good opportunity, on this occasion, to offer my hand in marriage” (p. 67). In the spring of 1842, they were married.

Soon thereafter, Smith and his wife moved to Norwich, Connecticut, where he started his own shoe business, purchased his first house and started a family that would grow to include three daughters and one son. Once the town built a nearby Methodist church, Smith opened a Sabbath school that offered lessons in the Bible and singing. He preached at this Norwich church for twenty years.

After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, Smith traveled back to his birthplace to search for his brothers and sisters. He found his brother, whom he had not seen for over thirty years. In relating their reunion, he recalls, “I exclaimed: ‘Dear brother, is it possible that we are standing on Virginia’s free soil, and we are free?’ My brother replied, ‘yes, dear brother’” (p. 96).

In addition to these personal recollections, Smith dedicates a large amount of text to his feelings on the Civil War. He not only wrote about some of the events that took place, but also the emotion and sacrifices that the soldiers were making. “I commend the daring and noble deeds of our soldiers, and hand them down to posterity as worthy of imitation, and that they have won themselves a proud position on the pages of American history” (p. 84). Smith concludes his autobiography by summarizing the performance and participation of the African-American troops during the Civil War, and the resulting effects on the nation’s government.

James Robison

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