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James Watkins, b. 1821?
Narrative of the Life of James Watkins, Formerly a "Chattel" in Maryland, U. S.; Containing an Account of His Escape from Slavery, Together with an Appeal on Behalf of Three Millions of Such "Pieces of Property," Still Held Under the Standard of the Eagle
Bolton, Eng.: Kenyon and Abbatt, 1852.


According to his narrative, James Watkins was born Sam Berry around 1821 to Milcah Berry and Amos Salisbury, both slaves on Abraham Ensor's plantation near Cokesville, Maryland. After twenty years of enduring slavery, Watkins attempted to escape in 1841, but was unsuccessful. In 1842 or 1843, he converted to Christianity following a cholera outbreak. Watkins again attempted to flee in 1844, this time escaping to Connecticut, where he found work, married a free black woman named Mary, and fathered three children. In 1849, Watkins returned to Maryland to see his aging mother, who had been freed by Luke Ensor, Abraham Ensor's son. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, Watkins fled to England, where he became a traveling lecturer.

Published in 1852 in Bolton, England, Narrative of the Life of James Watkins was dictated by Watkins to a "friend," perhaps the editor identified in the preface as "H. R." (p. iii) As William Andrews has noted, this narrative, likely because it was edited by an English abolitionist, downplays the racism of the English people (p. 320). Watkins's 1860 publication, Struggles for Freedom, which he apparently penned himself, is more forthcoming about the prejudices he experiences in England. The autobiography is prefaced by testimonials about Watkins's character and is followed by "An Appeal on Behalf of Those Still in Bondage," probably written by the editor, calling on British citizens to help those who remained enslaved in America.

Although Watkins writes little of his childhood, his father, Amos Salisbury, features prominently in the early narrative. An overseer on the Ensor plantation, Amos refused to acknowledge his son and is described as "a cruel and severe disciplinarian" (p. 7). In one incident, Salisbury makes a bet on his son's speed and, after losing, whips Watkins "till the blood ran down to my heels." A year later Salisbury dies of overexertion, and Watkins remembers with detachment "how glad I felt at having got rid of such a cruel overseer" (p. 9).

Luke Ensor takes over the plantation upon Abraham Ensor's death, and although described as a "moderate" master, he has a violent temper. At one point, a drunken Ensor beats Watkins in the head and shoulders with his cane for what he deems poor work, leaving him unconscious. Turning his injuries into an opportunity for resistance, Watkins convinces Ensor the beating has left him senseless. His charade is apparently effective, as Watkins notes, "this affair had a very salutary effect on Mr. Ensor, who never ventured to beat his slaves on their heads again" (p. 11). Watkins' desire for freedom is compounded when several siblings are sold. "Those separations," he writes, "made me sigh for freedom with an intensity of feeling I had hitherto been a stranger to" (p. 12).

Earning Ensor's trust, Watkins travels to Baltimore to sell produce from the plantation and is arrested for breaking curfew. The next morning, the jailer forces Watkins to strip, places his head down in a wooden frame, and beats him with a wood paddle. "The torture," Watkins writes, "was such as I have never experienced either before or since" (p. 14). When he returns to the plantation, Ensor canes him, and Watkins decides he must escape. Despite his mother's objections, Watkins flees for Canada on a June night in 1841. He travels for two nights safely before being apprehended on the third by slave catchers, whose hounds attack Watkins, leaving "marks of which may be plainly seen to this day" (p. 15). Upon his return, Ensor orders the overseer to whip Watkins and forces him to wear a yoke for three months.

Watkins' conversion to Christianity increases his desire for freedom. After a cholera outbreak in 1842 or 1843 leads Watkins to worry about the condition of his soul, he attends a Methodist prayer meeting, where he is overcome with emotion and flees outside to pray. After "wrestling with God for the space of three or four hours," Watkins experiences conversion, as his "heart was so filled with the love of God that the fear of the whip or even death was entirely taken away" (p. 19). When he returns to the plantation, Ensor demands he strip, intending to whip him for attending the prayer meeting. Watkins, however, reminds Ensor that "every stripe he laid on my back would be registered in heaven and rise up against him at the day of judgment," and Ensor releases him with a warning (p. 20).

Watkins finally escapes in May 1844. After successfully avoiding discovery as a fugitive, he throws bloodhounds off his track by leaving a trail of snuff and cayenne pepper. Determined not to be recaptured, he then struggles physically with two men and a woman who accuse him of being a runaway, despite his hesitancy to harm the woman. A sympathetic Quaker man aids Watkins, suggests that he change his name, and then employs him as a paid servant. When slave catchers appear in the neighborhood, the Quaker takes Watkins to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After a brief illness, Watkins travels to New York and then to Hartford, Connecticut, where he is reunited with an uncle who helps Watkins find employment. He learns the alphabet from his employer's young daughter. Watkins later works for two other men in Hartford and meets Mary, the daughter of Thomas Wells, a free black man who objects to her involvement with a fugitive slave. Despite difficulties, the two marry in April of 1847, in an act Watkins notes is significant to asserting his freedom, as "in slavery the marriage ceremony is but a mockery" (p. 28). The two support themselves by making and selling hominy.

In May of 1849, Watkins returns to Maryland, risking his own freedom, to see his mother, in hopes that he might be able to free her. When he arrives, Watkins learns that Ensor has freed his mother after nearby plantation masters whip her for hiding information about escaped slaves, although she had no knowledge of their whereabouts. After visiting his mother for the last time, Watkins returns to his wife and two children in Hartford. Over the course of the next year Watkins succeeds in purchasing his brother Thomas.

In 1850, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act disrupts Watkins' life, and he flees the country to maintain his freedom. He leaves his wife and three children in Connecticut on January 20, 1851, makes his way to New York, and then sails to England. Three years later, Watkins sends for his wife, who joins him in Birmingham, until she becomes ill and returns to America at the recommendation of her doctors. Unable to find work, Watkins begins lecturing throughout England on the horrors of slavery, becoming a popular speaker and garnering the support of the religious community. Despite being purchased and freed by a friend named A. F. Williams, Watkins continues to travel and lecture, concluding with a commitment "to go on in the work to which I had put myself" (p. 44).

Works Consulted: Andrews, William L. To Tell a Free Story: The First Century of Afro-American Autobiography, 1760-1865, Champaign: U of Illinois P, 1986.

Christy Webb

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