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by William Wells Brown, 1847

This is an extract from "Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave, Written by Himself" which was first published in 1847. The entire "Narrative" is quite lengthy and can be accessed in its entirety elsewhere on the internet, as noted below.

William Wells Brown (1814?-1884) was a prolific author; other titles he wrote include "Sketches of Places and People Abroad," "Clotelle," "The Black Man," "The Negro in the Rebellion," and "The Rising Son." The material archived here consists of some background on his genealogy and early life, followed by his brief but interesting comments on an African American fortune teller named Uncle Frank, whom he consulted during the time of his enslavement.

This is not the only book of Brown's to mention conjure: See also the extract about Dinkie the conjure doctor from Wells' book, "My Southern Home: or, The South and its People" (1880).

Because this author used terms unfamiliar to modern readers, a few explanatory notes have been added [in brackets].

Page i


THIRTEEN years ago, I came to your door, a weary fugitive from chains and stripes. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was hungry, and you fed me. Naked was I, and you clothed me. Even a name by which to be known among men, slavery had denied me. You bestowed upon me your own. Base, indeed, should I be, if I ever forget what I owe to you, or do anything to disgrace that honored name!

As a slight testimony of my gratitude to my earliest benefactor, I take the liberty to inscribe to you this little narrative of the sufferings from which I was fleeing when you had compassion upon me. In the multitude that you have succored, it is very possible that you may not remember me; but until I forget God and myself, I can never forget you.

Your grateful friend, WILLIAM WELLS BROWN.

[The first edition of this book having been published in 1847, the above note would date the authors' escape from slavery to circa 1833, when he was about 19 years old.]

from the NOTE TO THE PRESENT EDITION [of 1849].:

THE present Narrative was first published in Boston, (U.S.) in July, 1847, and eight thousand copies were sold in less than eighteen months from the time of its publication. This rapid sale may be attributed to the circumstance, that for three years preceding its publication, I had been employed as a lecturing agent by the American Anti-slavery Society; and I was thus very generally known throughout the Free States of the Great Republic, as one who had spent the first twenty years of his life as a slave, in her southern house of bondage.

William Wells Brown


WHEN I first published this Narrative, the public had no evidence whatever that I had been a slave, except my own story. As soon as the work came from the press, I sent several copies to slaveholders residing at the South, with whom I was acquainted; and among others, one to Mr. Enoch Price, the man who claims my body and soul as his property, and from whom I had run away. A few weeks after the Narrative was sent, Edmund Quincy, Esq., received the following letter from Mr. Price. It tells its own story, and forever settles the question of my having been a slave. Here is the letter:

ST. LOUIS, Jan. 10th, 1848.

SIR: -- I received a pamphlet, or a Narrative, so called on the title-page, of the Life of William W. Brown, a fugitive slave, purporting to have been written by himself; and in his book I see a letter from you to said William W. Brown. This said Brown is named Sanford; he is a slave belonging to me, and ran away from me the first day of January, 1834. Now I see many things in his book that are not true, and a part of

Page viii

it as near true as a man could recollect after so long a time I purchased him of Mr. S. Willi, the last of September, 1833. I paid six hundred and fifty dollars for him. If I had wanted to speculate on him, I could have sold him for three times as much as I paid for him. I was offered two thousand dollars for him, in New Orleans, at one time, and fifteen hundred dollars for him, at another time, in Louisville, Kentucky. But I would not sell him. I was told that he was going to run away, the day before he ran away, but I did not believe the man, for I had so much confidence in Sanford. I want you to see him, and see if what I say is not the truth. I do not want him as a slave, but I think that his friends, who sustain him and give him the right hand of fellowship, or he himself, could afford to pay my agent in Boston three hundred and twenty-five dollars, and I will give him free papers, so that he may go wherever he wishes to. Then he can visit St. Louis, or any other place he may wish.

This amount is just half that I paid for him. Now, if this offer suits Mr. Brown, and the Anti-Slavery Society of Boston, or Massachusetts, let me know, and I will give you the name of my agent in Boston, and forward the papers, to be given to William W. Brown as soon as the money is paid.

Yours respectfully, E. PRICE.


Mr. Price says that he sees many things in my book which are not true, and a part of it as near true as a man could recollect after so long a time. As I was with Mr. Price only three months, and have devoted only six pages to him and his family, he can know but little about my narrative, except that

Page ix

part which speaks of him. But I am willing to avail myself of his testimony, for he says that a part of it is true.

But I cannot accept of Mr. Price's offer to become a purchaser of my body and soul. God made me as free as he did Enoch Price, and Mr. Price shall never receive a dollar from me. or my friends with my consent.

Boston, October, 1848 W. W. BROWN.

[Here is a bit of the actual genealogy of William Wells Brown.]


I was born in Lexington, Ky. The man who stole me as soon as I was born, recorded the births of all the infants which he claimed to be born his property, in a book which he kept for that purpose. My mother's name was Elizabeth. She had seven children, viz.: Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Millford, Elizabeth, and myself. No two of us were children of the same father. My father's name, as I learned from my mother, was George Higgins. He was a white man, a relative of my master, and connected with some of the first families in Kentucky.

My master owned about forty slaves, twenty-five of whom were field hands. He removed from Kentucky to Missouri when I was quite young, and settled thirty or forty miles above St. Charles,

Page 14

on the Missouri, where, in addition to his practice as a physician, he carried on milling, merchandizing and farming. He had a large farm, the principal productions of which were tobacco and hemp.

[William Wells Brown had a number of masters during his time in slavery. The above account, written while slavery was still in effect and Brown risked capture and re-enslavement if he could be identified, appears to be lightly disguised. In a later memoir, "My Southern Home," published in 1880, after the abolition of slavery, Brown described himself as the slave of a man who was of the "First Families of Virginia" (not Kentucky), a physician who had emigrated to Missouri, where he owned a tobacco plantation ten miles north of Saint Louis, Missouri: "Dr. Gaines, the proprietor of 'Poplar Farm,' was a good-humored, sunny-sided old gentleman, who, always feeling happy himself, wanted everybody to enjoy the same blessing. Unfortunately for him, the Doctor had been born and brought up in Virginia, raised in a family claiming to be of the 'F. F. V.'s,' {'First Families of Virginia'} but, in reality, was comparatively poor. Marrying Mrs. Sarah Scott Pepper, an accomplished widow lady of medium fortune, Dr. Gaines emigrated to Missouri, where he became a leading man in his locality." Brown also noted that Dr. Gaines, although ostensibly a devoutly religious Christian, had fathered children among his slaves, which was a source of great resentment and bitter anger to his wife. In any case, Brown lived and worked mostly around Saint Louis, as a house servant when young, and then for a printer, where he learned to read and write. And now, on to his description of the fortune teller Uncle Frank:]

Captain Price purchased me in the month of October, and I remained with him until December, when the family made a voyage to New Orleans, in a boat owned by himself, and named the "Chester." I served on board as one of the stewards. On arriving at New Orleans, about the middle of the month, the boat took in freight for Cincinnati; and it was decided that the family should go up the river in her, and what was of more interest to me, I was to accompany them.

The long looked for opportunity to make my escape from slavery was near at hand.

Captain Price had some fears as to the propriety of taking me near a free state, or a place where it was likely I could run away, with a prospect of liberty. He asked me if I had ever been in a free state. "Oh yes," said I, "I have been in Ohio; my master carried me into that state once, but I never liked a free state."

It was soon decided that it would be safe to take me with them, and what made it more safe, Eliza was on the boat with us, and Mrs. Price, to try me, asked if I thought as much as ever of Eliza.

Page 90

I told her that Eliza was very dear to me indeed, and that nothing but death should part us. It was the same as if we were married. This had the desired effect. The boat left New Orleans, and proceeded up the river.

I had at different times obtained little sums of money, which I had reserved for a "rainy day." I procured some cotton cloth, and made me a bag to carry provisions in. The trials of the past were all lost in hopes for the future. The love of liberty, that had been burning in my bosom for years, and had been well-nigh extinguished, was now resuscitated. At night, when all around was peaceful, I would walk the decks, meditating upon my happy prospects.

I should have stated, that, before leaving St. Louis, I went to an old man named Frank, a slave, owned by a Mr. Sarpee.

[Mr. Sarpee is mentioned again in another of Brown's books, "My Southern Home: or, The South and its People." In the latter, Mr. Sarpee is described as a good friend and hunting buddy of Dr. Gaines, the owner of Brown, and the proprieor of Poplar Farm, near Saint Louis, Missiouri.]

This old man was very distinguished (not only among the slave population, but also the whites) as a fortune-teller. He was about seventy years of age, something over six feet high, and very slender. Indeed, he was so small around his body, that it looked as though it was not strong enough to hold up his head.

[Uncle Frank was around 70 years of age when Brown escaped. Determining his birthdate is not simple, however, for in this book, written while slavery was still in effect, Brown claimed to have escaped in 1833, but in "My Southern Home, written after the end of slavery, he placed his escape in 1840. I believe the 1840 date to be more accurate, because he was attempting to hide his origins in this book, for obvious reasons. If Brown escaped slavery shortly after meeting with Uncle Frank in 1840, and Frank was 70 years old then, Frank was born around 1770, making him about 20 years older than Brown's other conjure doctor friend, Dinkie the Goopher King of Poplar Farm.

Page 91

Uncle Frank was a very great favorite with the young ladies, who would go to him in great numbers to get their fortunes told. And it was generally believed that he could really penetrate into the mysteries of futurity. Whether true or not, he had the name, and that is about half of what one needs in this gullible age. I found Uncle Frank seated in the chimney corner, about ten o'clock at night. As soon as I entered, the old man left his seat. I watched his movement as well as I could by the dim light of the fire. He soon lit a lamp, and coming up, looked me full in the face, saying, "Well, my son, you have come to get uncle to tell your fortune, have you?" "Yes," said I. But how the old man should know what I came for, I could not tell. However, I paid the fee of twenty-five cents, and he commenced by looking into a gourd, filled with water.

[The form of divination used by Uncle Frank is called scrying. Similar to crystal ball gazing, scrying consists of looking into a surface of water or ink -- or a mirror or a piece of glass that has been painted black on the reverse -- and allowing the mind's eye to gather impressions and see the future. Scrying was, and still is, a common form of soothsaying in Africa, so it is likely that Uncle Frank's use of water in a gourd was an African retention and not the result of exposure to 19th century European-American of scrying. Another famous African American scryer of the mid 19th century was Paschal Beverly Randolph. Randolph, however, as a free man of color, was a world traveller who not only wrote a classic treatise on scrying titled "Seership!", but utilized specially prepared scrying mirrors, called battah mirrors, which he procured from India and sold via Spiritualist newspapers in the United States. However, Randolph did practice conjure as well scrying, and at this archive you may read an extract from "Seership!" describing hoodoo practices.]

Whether the old man was a prophet, or the son of a prophet, I cannot say; but there is one thing certain, many of his predictions were verified.

I am no believer in soothsaying; yet I am sometimes at a loss to know how Uncle Frank could tell so accurately what would occur in the future. Among the many things he told was one which

Page 92

was enough to pay me for all the trouble of hunting him up. It was that I should be free! He further said, that in trying to get my liberty I would meet with many severe trials. I thought to myself any fool could tell me that!

The first place in which we landed in a free state was Cairo, a small village at the mouth of the Ohio river. We remained here but a few hours, when we proceeded to Louisville. After unloading some of the cargo, the boat started on her upward trip. The next day was the first of January. I had looked forward to New Year's day as the commencement of a new era in the history of my life. I had decided upon leaving the peculiar institution that day.

During the last night that I served in slavery I did not close my eyes a single moment. When not thinking of the future, my mind dwelt on the past. The love of a dear mother, a dear sister, and three dear brothers, yet living, caused me to shed many tears. If I could only have been assured of their being dead, I should have felt satisfied; but I imagined I saw my dear mother in the cotton-field, followed by a merciless task- master, and no one to speak a consoling word to

Page 93

her! I beheld my dear sister in the hands of a slave-driver, and compelled to submit to his cruelty! None but one placed in such a situation can for a moment imagine the intense agony to which these reflections subjected me.

This material is reprinted from

Narrative of William W. Brown, an American Slave.
An American Slave, Written by Himself:
Electronic Edition.

Scanned text is corrected and encoded by Natalia Smith
First edition, 1996.
ca. 300K
Academic Affairs Library, UNC-Chapel Hill.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,

(c) This work is the property of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
It may be used freely by individuals for research, teaching and personal use
as long as this statement of availability is included in the text.

Source Description:
(title page) Narrative of William Wells Brown, An American Slave,
Written by Himself.
Eleventh Thousand
Charles Gilpin
Bishopgate-St. Without.

Call number E444 .B88 1849 (Wilson Annex, UNC-Chapel Hill)

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