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Pharaoh Jackson Chesney, b. 1781? and J. C. Webster (John Coram), b. 1861
Last of the Pioneers: Or, Old Times in East Tenn., Being the Life and Reminiscences of Pharaoh Jackson Chesney (Aged 120 Years)
Knoxville, Tenn.: S. B. Newman & Co., Printers & Book Binders, 1902.


Pharaoh Jackson Chesney (ca. 1805-1905), affectionately known as “Ferry,” was born in Clarksville, Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Controversy exists concerning Pharaoh’s year of birth. He was born between 1790 and 1805. J. C. Webster claimed that Ferry was 120 years old at the time Last of the Pioneers was written in 1902. If this is true, Pharaoh’s birth date would be 1782, but the 1850 and 1860 slave census schedules for Pharaoh’s owner, John Chesney, as well as the 1870 U.S. census, suggest that he was born in 1804 or 1805. Little is known about Pharaoh and his life other than the information in this narrative. The identities of his first wife and three of his four children are unknown. They were sold and Pharaoh never saw them again. He later married a woman known only as Onie, his second wife, with whom he fathered nine children. Pharaoh and his master, John Chesney, formed a close connection with one another after Pharaoh was freed, presumably by the Emancipation Proclamation; he lived next door to his former master in East Tennessee, taking the last name of Chesney as his own. He died shortly after the narrative was written in 1905 and was buried in Wyrick Cemetery.

Professor John Coram Webster (1861-?), author of Last of the Pioneers, taught at the University of Tennessee and at Hampden Sidney College, the latter of which repeatedly offered him a position as chair of mathematics. However, Webster preferred teaching in rural districts. In his free time he edited newspapers and worked with the Red Cross, the Food Administration, and the Council of National Defense. Webster is described in a brief biographical note attached to the narrative as a man who “was always ready to speak an encouraging word to the one striving for an education and was the cause of many realizing their ambition. He counted among his students some of the most important business men of the state” (p. 130).

Webster begins Pharaoh Chesney’s story by describing him as “one of the most remarkable men in the state of Tennessee, if not in the entire United States” (p. 5). Pharaoh was born into slavery and witnessed its abolition, but Webster spends very little time relating Pharaoh’s memories of these experiences. Instead Webster spends the majority of the narrative discussing the changes and development of Pharaoh’s home town, Clarksville, Virginia, documenting the world around Pharaoh rather than sharing the details of his life. As Webster explains, Pharaoh “was born . . . a yellow lad, who was destined to witness, through a part of three centuries, the process of change and development, at the hands of man, of a wilderness, inhabited by wild and savage beasts, and scarcely less wild and savage men, into a country, blessed with every refinement and convenience of a progressive age” (p. 7).

One of the main focuses of the narrative is the immense social change that occurs during Pharaoh’s extremely long life. Webster emphasizes the dramatic evolution of technology in the world in which Pharaoh has lived and worked: “he has picked cotton from the seed many a day, and about a pound of the fiber was the result of his labor, and he has lived to see a machine that would separate a thousand pounds of cotton from the seed in a day” (p. 9). While this quote shows the immense amount of work Pharaoh must have endured as a slave, it also deemphasizes his work by highlighting the capacities and efficiencies of emerging technology.

Pharaoh’s story emerges from the narrative in fragments, which must be pieced together and analyzed. Pharaoh remembers that “the saddest day in all my life came to me when I was told that my beloved wife and children must be taken one way, and that I must go another. A more cruel blow could not have been given to me. I could not have felt worse if I had been told that we were all to be killed. It seemed to almost break my poor wife's heart; and the sad thought has always been with me, whether the poor creature ever lived after our separation” (p. 26). This memory paints a vivid and painful picture of a loving husband and father, but this expression of emotion is quickly glossed over. After describing his immense pain at being separated from his wife and children Pharaoh does not mention his first family again throughout the narrative.

Throughout the narrative Webster seems to purposely omit details from Pharaoh’s story. There are small hints and clues as to how Pharaoh lived out his life as a slave, but Pharaoh never contributes his own view of slavery. At one point Pharaoh explains that “Whenever we would happen to reach a settler's house about camping time, Mr. Jackson would generally sleep in the house, but I never slept in a house during the trip. I would always sleep in the wagon whether he was with me or not” (p. 79). This sentence seems to express Pharaoh’s general acceptance of being treated as a slave. Pharaoh’s master and other white men are always discussed in positive terms, even as Pharaoh discusses their cruelties and injustices.

In many cases the narrative construes malevolent acts as acceptable entertainment. The unkind acts of Pharaoh’s masters are described as “jokes,” as though they were harmless (pp. 87-88). Pharaoh describes one instance when he had heard of a notorious Tennessee outlaw named John A. Murrell who stole slaves. He says “I was almost scared to death for fear he would run on to us, and take me off. Mr. Jackson, seeing how badly frightened I was, thought to have much fun out of me, and told me many horrible things he had read and heard of Old Murrell, in order to work on my fears” (p. 83). This emotional abuse was augmented by acts of physical cruelty. Pharaoh recalls that “Master Corbin Jackson was a jolly, good-natured fellow, and when in a good humor, he delighted to play practical jokes on me. I generally enjoyed them, as they usually afforded me considerable fun; but sometimes they were rather tough on me, and I got the worst end of the joke . . . [once] he told me to lie down before the fire, face downward, and to bare my back. . . Just then I heard the key strike the andiron, and the truth flashed across my mind--he was heating the key. I jumped to my feet just as he was about to brand my back with a hot key” (pp. 87-88). Although this story is recorded as though Pharaoh enjoyed his master’s sadistic sense of humor, it seems unrealistic that any man would walk away from such an experience without ill feelings. Throughout this story Pharaoh describes his master as “jolly,” “good-natured,” and “humorous” (pp. 87-88). Perhaps somewhere in translation between Pharaoh and Webster, his narrator, the true feelings of the slave became distorted.

By the end of the narrative, Pharaoh, or at least Pharaoh’s narrative, appears to wish for the restoration of slavery: “No doubt many a poor, deluded slave, stinging with the remorse of disappointment, would have gladly exchanged his Northern freedom for the plentiful hog and hominy of the sunny South” (p. 123). Webster challenges abolitionist beliefs and argues against the freedom of slaves, making Pharaoh’s narrative appear less and less reliable.

By examining passages from Pharaoh Jackson Chesney’s life, readers can see hints and glimpses of what he might have endured as a slave, but we may never know his true feelings concerning the institution. Perhaps he distracted himself by reminiscing on less painful subjects, such as the development of his hometown, displacing the true message he is struggling to convey. Pharaoh’s is the story of a slave who still seems, in some ways, to be in bondage, bound not by physical chains but by the social fetters of a biased world, which can only view him as an ignorant and contented former slave.

Works Consulted: Orcutt, Joel Thomas, Our Tennessee Chesneys: A Genealogy of the Families of John Chesney 1794-1876, Terlton, Oklahoma: J. T. Orcutt Publishing Co., 2006; East Tennessee River Valley Geotourism MapGuide, "Wyrick Cemetery,"National Geographic Society, accessed 21 Oct. 2011.

Laura Davis

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