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E. M. W. (Elizabeth Merwin Wickham), 1810-1901
A Lost Family Found; An Authentic Narrative of Cyrus Branch and His Family, Alias John White
Manchester, VT: s. n., 1869.


Outside of the published narrative A Lost Family Found (1869), very little information is available about Cyrus Branch, who used the name John White after his escape to freedom. According to the narrative, White was born into slavery in Bermuda Hundred, Virginia. After living in slavery for over thirty years, he escaped, leaving behind a wife and four children. White hid in the swamps surrounding the James River for over four years and eventually reached the North in 1840, where he remarried and had another daughter. Census records from 1860 and 1870 confirm the presence of an African American man named John White in Bennington County, Vermont—the same county listed in census records for Elizabeth Merwin Wickham, the author of his narrative. In the 1860 census, White is listed as a carpenter, age sixty-seven, married to Polly, age fifty-two, with a daughter named Mary, age sixteen, which aligns with information found in the narrative. The 1870 census lists only White, age seventy-six, and his daughter Mary, age twenty-six, supporting the note in the text that White's wife passed away in 1860. White's recorded age in the census does not exactly correspond with the narrative, which suggests that he was 75 years old in 1869 when A Lost Family Found was published. However, there are enough similarities between the two sources to suggest that the census records are those of Cyrus Branch.

A Lost Family Found was originally published in the Manchester Journal on January 12, 1869. No indication is given of the relationship between Branch and Elizabeth Merwin Wickham (1810-1901), who expanded and republished the narrative "[at] his request" on February 12, 1869 (p. i). Elizabeth Cooke Merwin was the daughter of the Reverend Samuel Merwin of New Haven and Wilton, Connecticut, and Clarina Bradley Taylor Merwin. Elizabeth Merwin was an active member of her religious community and served as preceptress of Oxford Academy in Oxford, New York, from December 1832 to August 1834. She married Joseph Dresser Wickham, a pastor and educator, on October 12, 1834. The couple had no children of their own, but they raised a daughter, Emma, from Reverend Wickham's second marriage (his first wife died in 1830, and his second wife died in 1832). Reverend Wickham labored among the churches of Northern and Western New York and, in 1837, took charge of the Burr Seminary in Manchester, Vermont. Except for a three-year period during which he worked first at Middlebury College and then the College Institute, the couple remained at Burr Seminary until Wickham's retirement in 1862. Elizabeth Merwin Wickham died on February 22, 1901.

In both the title and the preface to A Lost Family Found, Wickham foreshadows White's post-Emancipation reunion with the daughter he had to leave behind in Virginia. Wickham indicates that an earlier, abbreviated version of White's narrative published in the Manchester Journal prompted local support for White to visit his family. White expressed a desire to travel to Virginia but lacked the funds to make the journey, a fact that "caused the suggestion to be made to him, to have his narrative printed in a form to be disposed of for his own benefit" (p. i). Wickham added to this narrative "other facts of his life and adventures" in order that "our people may the better know what that emancipation is" and console "mourning wives, sisters, and parents, whose hearts were riven by the death and sufferings of many dear to them" (pp. i-ii).

"For many years," the narrative begins, "John said little about his early circumstances, and special whereabouts" (p. 3). As a fugitive, White remained a quiet but model citizen of Manchester. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, he kept a revolver at his side and was wary of strangers. At the advent of the Civil War, "John raised a flag staff on his own house, and the stars and stripes floated there on the breeze" (p. 2). He exercised his right to vote "as soon as he was legally entitled to do so" and contributed to the Freedman's Association (p. 2). But after Emancipation, "John was free to speak" and disclose his origins as a slave (p. 3).

The text provides a brief summary of White's experiences in slavery, expanded later in the narrative with more detailed information about the trials and means of his escape. White is born in Bermuda Hundred, Virginia, but lives most of his life in Petersburg, Virginia. He is owned by the same master for thirty years until "in consequence of deaths and the division of property in the families to which he successively belonged, he was sold four times" (p. 3). His last owner is abusive, and White flees to the nearby swamps, where he hides for four years. Later passages in the narrative provide additional details about the chase—he is shot in the face and leg and pursued by dogs—as well as the means by which he finds food and passes as a free black man living in the swamps. He is eventually helped by sailors to stow away on a ship bound for New York, where he appears to have been aided by members of the Underground Railroad. He is given letters of introduction to individuals who pass him on to others in a chain of assistance until "Good Deacon Hawkins . . . gave him employment" in Manchester, Vermont (p. 4).

After the end of the War, White begins to correspond with Mary, a daughter who still resides in Petersburg. Mary's letters to her father are reprinted, and she informs him of his first wife's death, the well-being of his other children and new grandchildren, and the death of many of his family and friends. After this exchange, the narrative provides a history of White's parents in slavery and reveals White's personal abhorrence for the devastation of families wrought by slavery. White's father is Neptune Branch, and he serves Col. Benjamin Branch, an officer in the Revolutionary War. Though Neptune had been promised his freedom for serving his master in the war, at the war's end that promise is broken because the Colonel "affirmed he had lost so much property by the war, that he could not afford to do it" (p. 8). After Col. Branch's death, Neptune is sold to a new master who allows him to purchase his freedom but cheats him, requiring him to purchase it twice because White's original payments were never recorded.

Both father and son experience the hardships of falling in love and trying to maintain a marriage in slavery. White's mother, Polly, is owned by a different master, and Neptune eventually earns enough to purchase her freedom. As "a slave was not allowed to bid on another slave, he empowered a poor white man to bid at the auction for him," and the bid is successfully won. However, the white man tries to claim Polly as his slave (p. 10). Fortunately, Neptune is able to enlist the sheriff—who witnesses the transaction between the two men—to force him to release Polly. White eventually marries a woman owned by a different master and is frequently sent to sites far distant from his wife and family. On one occasion, he is denied leave to visit his family but goes anyway. White learns that "His master intended to wreak vengeance on him, on his return for disobeying his orders," and so he "shaped his plans accordingly. The first step in the path toward freedom had now been taken; onward should be his course" (p. 12). Thus, White gains his freedom at the price of his family, which, decades later, he still hopes to find.

The narrative concludes with White's return to the scenes of his escape and his observations on the Nat Turner insurrection and the trial of Pleasant Randall, who defies "a law prohibiting colored men entirely from preaching and exhorting" (p. 19). Randall is condemned to be hanged "for making eternal salvation known to his fellows" but pardoned by the Governor who listens to him preach. The decision is momentous, for it not only spares Randall's life, but it also emancipates him. The Governor tells Randall's master, "you know he is yours no longer, and pardoning him as I now do, he is a free man, indeed" (p. 21). A Lost Family Found concludes by returning to focus on the family with which White's narrative began, celebrating both the reunion of family and the emancipation of all who were enslaved:

what happier event could transpire, or imagination devise, than that Cyrus Branch, alias John White, after 33 years of absence from kindred, and in ignorance concerning them, and amid the most depressing circumstances on both sides, should meet a sister, and sister's children, his own children, and the grand-children unknown to him, and they, together be permitted to recount the mercies of the Lord, in their thus beholding each other's faces in the land of the living; and in the very State where they were in bondage, but in which, through the wonderful Providence of God, ALL now are free. (p. 23)

Works Cited: Guide to the Wickham Family Papers Online, Yale University Library, Manuscript Group 773, [JW1][ZaA2], compiled by Diane Ducharme and Bruce P. Stark, May 1984; United States Census Office, Population Schedules of the Ninth Census of the United States, Heritage Quest Online, 1860, SeriesM653, Roll1316, p. 826; United States Census Office, Population Schedules of the Eighth Census of the United States, Heritage Quest Online, 1860, Series M653, Roll1316, p. 852; United States Census Office, Population Schedules of the Ninth Census of the United States, Heritage Quest Online, 1870, Series M593, Roll1615, p. 469;United States Census Office, Population Schedules of the Ninth Census of the United States, Heritage Quest Online, 1860, SeriesM653, Roll1316, p. 826.

Jenn Williamson

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