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William Webb, b. 1836
The History of William Webb, Composed by Himself
Detroit: Egbert Hoekstra, 1873.


Little is known about the life of William Webb outside of the details he provides in his narrative. According to The History of William Webb, Webb was born in Georgia around 1836 to enslaved parents about whom little information is given. As a child, Webb was taken to Mississippi, where he was later hired out to a series of masters. In the years leading up to the Civil War, he became interested in politics and gained influence in a slave resistance effort. During the war, he aided the Union Army, and afterwards he traveled and worked throughout the Midwest. In 1867, he married a white Canadian woman named Maria and the two had several children together, at least two of whom died in infancy. The History of William Webb was published in Detroit, Michigan, in 1873. The introduction to the narrative suggests that it was composed by Webb and transcribed by his literate wife. The preface to the narrative suggests that Webb hoped to use profits from the sale of the book to pay for his education.

Webb writes little of his childhood in Georgia, briefly describing his early exposure to the wickedness of slavery and emphasizing his parents' virtues. When his master moves to Mississippi, Webb's father, who has heard tales of slave life there, escapes. In Mississippi, Webb witnesses horrific tortures and prepares to escape by digging caves in the woods where he might be able to hide. He does not flee, however, and suggests that a religious conversion experience at age fifteen leads him to believe that God will deliver him from slavery. Soon after, Webb's master dies, his family is separated, and the slave owner's children hire them out.

Webb's new master is particularly cruel, and Webb notes that he "experienced hardships I had never known before" (p. 6). After five months, he is hired out to the daughter of an old master before moving to Kentucky. Webb describes life in Kentucky as freer than in Mississippi, as the enslaved are allowed to hold dances and take time off at Christmas, but he is soon taken back to Mississippi. Working with several other slaves, Webb mounts a resistance against night patrolmen who enforce the slave curfew by placing grapevines across the road in order to trip the men's horses. After several men are injured, they decide it is "bad policy" to patrol the neighborhood at night (p. 8). On New Year's Day, Webb is sold on an auction block. The overseer makes Webb "foremost on the plantation," but the cruel treatment continues (p. 10). Despite the threat of harsh punishment, Webb ventures out at night on several occasions, and he manages to make money by selling cakes and whiskey at camp meetings.

When John Fremont becomes the Republican Party's presidential candidate for the 1856 election, Webb explains, Southerners become outraged and slaves learn about "another Nation wishing for the slave to be free, and the scales of ignorance fell from their eyes" (p. 13). After Fremont's defeat by Buchanan, slaves mount their own effort to achieve freedom, some advocating rebellion and murder, and others wanting to wait patiently for the next election. Webb soon joins the movement, and, after returning to Kentucky with his master, helps to create an interstate network to help transmit information, as he believes any rebellion will have to take place simultaneously in each state to be effective. He visits the cruelest plantations in Kentucky and shares with slaves there the plans being discussed in Mississippi. Once Lincoln is elected to the presidency, Webb's master sells him, expecting the slaves to be freed soon.

When the Civil War begins, Webb becomes a spy for the Union Army and slaveholders capture him, but he escapes and joins Union solders in Paducah, Kentucky. After serving the Union Army, Webb travels to Indiana and, later, Michigan, where he finds employment chopping wood, graveling roads, and working in fields. Webb is arrested twice, once because it is illegal to hire black men from the South and again because he refuses to enlist in the army. After his second release, Webb moves west and stays with a Quaker couple who share their faith with the traveler and offer to hire him. Although he had previously considered religion to be wrought with hypocrisy because of his experiences with Christians in the South, Webb finds himself thinking about the Quakers' faith, even after returning to Michigan.

After some time in Detroit, Webb travels to Indianapolis and starts a successful timber business with a friend. After six months, he travels to St. Louis and Jefferson City before returning again to St. Louis. While working for a Confederate veteran, Webb says he "received a new spirit, and then I knew what it was to be born again in the Spirit of God" (p. 51). Webb returns to the Quakers, with whom he stays for 7 months and learns to spell and write his name.

Webb returns to Michigan, then travels to Ohio, working various jobs along the way. He has a dream about a woman whom he concludes is his future bride. Working as a whitewasher in Detroit, he sees the woman he had envisioned, watches her for two months, and meets her through an acquaintance. The two soon become engaged and write to each other for several months while Webb works in Massachusetts. On October 20, 1867, Webb and his fiancee marry, and they soon have two sons, both of whom die in infancy, before welcoming a daughter who is seven months old at the time of the text's publication.

The narrative concludes with Webb's thoughts on the political issues of his time, including his opposition to women's suffrage. The right to vote, he writes, would be of little benefit to them, and, moreover, no "man would like to have his wife exposed to all kinds of abuse" (p. 68). He hails Fremont and John Brown as heroes, but expresses disappointment in Andrew Johnson, who he concludes is "not quite as good a Moses as I thought he was" (p. 70). Instead, he hopes Ulysses Grant will be the next President of the United States. Interestingly, Webb gestures toward the idea of African-Americans returning to Africa, likening the continent to the biblical land of milk and honey and positing that it is "too rich for enlightened people to have possession of" (p. 76). Despite this vision, Webb ends with a return to practical matters, emphasizing once again his desire for an education and his hopes that the sale of the narrative will help him achieve it.

Works Consulted: United States Census Office, Population Schedules of the Ninth Census of the United States, Heritage Quest Online, 1870, Series M593, Roll713, p. 467.

Christy Webb

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