Thursday, February 14, 2019

Unhealed Wounds: Freedom and Fear after the Civil War

In 2003 I was asked by Kentucky State Senator Georgia Davis Powers to help research and write a book about her great aunt Celia Mudd, who was born into slavery but ultimately inherited the Lancaster property in Bardstown and became a prominent local philanthropist. Here is part three of a work in progress called The Inheritance.

By Greg Guma

It was a rosy May afternoon and they were all singing. But the song wasn’t about running away and enough voices boomed to shake the Earth. Celia Mudd heard the commotion, rushed down from the second floor, abandoning piles of laundry in need of folding, and raced to the courtyard scattering chickens in her path. 

Slave cabin on the Lancaster Farm

Everyone was there, field hands and house slaves from farms nearby, Negro soldiers back from the fighting, brothers and sisters and cousins, even Grandma Patty dancing a jig around the cistern. Finally it had happened. Hallelujah, Freedom! 

Jefferson Davis was in a Georgia jail and most of his troops were surrendering. In Kentucky the union commander had announced that all Negroes, even former slaves, had the right now to go where they pleased, leave the state if they wanted. All they needed were the “free papers” being issued by General Palmer’s officers and they could say good riddance to their masters, find paying work, and ride the rails or a riverboat like any white man. Thousands were on their way.
Celia didn’t understand the details. But the basic message came through clear as a bell. Their old life was over and a new, better one was about to begin. Leaping into Emily’s arms, she hugged her mother as they spun in circles, laughing and joining in the joy. “That’s right, child,” said Emily, tears streaming. “We on our way to freee-dom. Thank you, Lord.”
“Where that, mama? We leaving now?”
“We’ll see. But first we got to hear what them whites got to say for themselves. Grandma, she says Missus Ann and Boss Sam gonna offer everybody jobs. Then we have a meet and talks it over. What you want to do, honey?”
Serious beyond her six years, Celia crinkled her brow and pursed her full lips, acting coy as she considered the options. When she was ready she wriggled free and stood up straight, bare feet planted like a heroic statue. “I want us all to be together,” she announced, “and I want to go see Mr. Lincoln and thank him for what he done.”
Emily was touched, but also impressed with her child’s thoughtful disposition. Going all the way to Washington was beyond anything she could imagine, however. Just getting back to Viney Level, maybe linking up with other family members there, seemed like an almost impossible goal. And even if they reached the Capitol, Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t be there. He’d been shot by that actor Booth a month before. Emily didn’t have the heart to tell her daughter that.
It might not even be safe to leave. Ex-slaves who passed by the farm brought frightening tales of pens where owners kept Negroes in leg irons. Some rebels were ignoring the federal decree, not to mention the fact that they’d lost the war. Women and children were being shot by white farmers and renegade soldiers, for being “fugitives” or just for ending up on the wrong road. The military camps were overcrowded. In cities homeless families were jammed into abandoned buildings and stables. And there weren’t nearly enough jobs. In some ways it sounded worse out there than what they would leave behind.
The first thing was to find out what the Lancasters planned to do. There had been rumors for years that Missus Ann wanted to free them all and offer wages if they wanted to stay and work their share. She was partial to the writing of Cassius Marcellus Clay, a wealthy, Yale-educated ex-slaveholder who argued that the institution of slavery hurt economic development and the poor whites unable to compete with a captive Negro work force. 
Sam was more confused and conflicted, moving over the last few years from “compensated emancipation” to colonization and recently resignation to the inevitability of abolition. But the family had not acted on such beliefs, afraid of retaliation from rebel raiders or the town’s vocal majority of Southern sympathizers. Until two weeks ago William Clark Quantrill had been terrorizing the countryside just twenty miles south of them, stealing horses and food and brutally punishing anyone deserting the Confederacy. Palmer’s men had finally cornered and captured him. But most of Quantrill’s guerrilla fighters were still on the loose.
After the break with her son Robert two years ago, Ann had issued an edict: no one was ever to strike a servant again. She also pledged that, once Emily’s children were old enough she would personally teach them to read.
When Bragg was defeated at Perryville and forced to retreat through Cumberland Gap into Tennessee, Ann called for a party, with fiddlers and ham for everyone. Confederate Kentucky had lasted less than two weeks. After that they’d heard about raiding parties, mainly slash-and-run affairs designed to distract and destroy. But the Union army basically controlled the state. 
By spring 1865 Sam was examining farm finances to see what freedom would cost. Shortly before sunset, just as the party was winding down, he strode onto the porch flanked by his mother and Matt. The visible nervousness of the bosses sent a hush through the crowd. Celia fought her way to the front and plopped down on a low step. She gazed up at the burly farmer as he explained the situation.
“It appears that the war is finally over,” Sam explained, “and we’re all still part of the United States. And you all know what that means.” A cheer went up. “That’s right, you’ve been made free. Free to go or stay.
“All right, settle down a minute,” he said, struggling to be heard over the ruckus. “Now, there’s talk going around about what happens next. I guess you already know of the proclamation by Mr. Lincoln. Well, let me tell you a few more things. First, the Congress of the United States has passed an amendment to the Constitution. It’s not official until enough states go along, but what it says is that slavery is over forever. And that’s fine with us. So, if you want to leave go right ahead. No one’s going to get in the way.”
“Better not,” threatened an intense black soldier in a torn Union coat.
Sam wasn’t intimidated. “Like I said, it’s up to you. But not everyone in these parts feels the same, so if you do start walking, stick together and steer clear of trouble. To some folks you’re still runaways and they’d just as soon shoot as say good evening.”
Ann leaned forward, placed a hand on his shoulder, and whispered something. Just a few feet below, Celia strained to hear. Sam paused, nodded agreement, and then looked directly at the child, his expression shifting from worry to barely concealed amusement. As their eyes locked she felt a surge of inexplicable security, as if he was sending a message: don’t be afraid.
“For anyone who lives here,” he said, “let me just say this. You want to stay on and do a day’s work, you’ll get a day’s pay. It probably won’t be much at first. Times are hard, you know that. But you’ll be treated right and share our food and live as you please. So that’s it. What’s past, we can’t change that. But we can start today, to learn to live together as free men and women.”
It wasn’t nearly the apology that Emily, Patty and the others who had served the family hoped one day would come. Not by a mile. Sometimes in recent weeks, as the news of imminent Confederate feat began to reach them, Emily imagined the farm being overrun by her people, and the Lancasters locked in the smokehouse pleading for mercy. In that dream she lit a torch and set the building ablaze. 
But there had been too much death already. She knew taking revenge wouldn’t set things right. Better to start clean and make the best of the life ahead.
When he finished talking Sam stepped cautiously forward, one hand extended as an offering, a small gesture of reconciliation. No one moved or said a word, momentarily stunned by the maneuver. Emily grabbed Celia, pulling her close in case the mood turned ugly. But Grandma Patty broke the tension. She elbowed past the farmhands and walked straight up to Sam, cupping his big hand in both of her own.
“Like the Good Book say, we got to forgive, and let go the sins of the past,” she said. “Praise the Lord.”
“Amen,” he whispered, followed by a heavy sigh of relief. The atmosphere lightened and people started hugging, shaking hands, and breaking into smaller groups to discuss the new reality. As Matt came down Ann made a bee line for Emily, eager to hear what she planned the do.
“Don’t know yet,” Emily replied defensively. “We still got people up in Maryland. But…”
“That could be a dangerous trip, and unnecessary. We can help find your family. Meanwhile, we need you here. And I would surely miss this lovely child.” Ann leaned down and gave Celia a warm smile, asking, “Would you like to stay?”
Nodding slowly, Celia explained exactly what she wanted – her family living together and freedom for everyone.
“That’s very fine. But how would it be if I taught you to read? Would you like that?” Ann then gave Emily a silent look of request. “If it’s all right with your mama.”
“That would be nice, missus.”
“Mama says yes. How about you?”
Celia glanced back and forth, assessing the two women, then put a finger to her lower lip and made her announcement. “Yes, ma’am. I want to read and write and do numbers.”
“A regular bookkeeper, or a teacher. Then that’s how it will be.”
But Sam wasn’t so sure when Ann presented the idea an hour later. “Teaching negro children too much might be bad for business later,” he said.
They had retreated into the house to take stock after mingling for a respectable period. Meanwhile, the party regrouped at the edge of the woods fueled by music and extra rations of whiskey. Sam was impressed that they’d managed to get through it without coming to blows. Some of the blacks would stay, and they would be better off without the rest, at least until the place was back on firmer footing. It wouldn’t be the same, but having employees instead could have advantages. On the other hand, the more those employees knew the more demanding they’d become.
Quickly bored with the family conversation, Matt decided that it was time for some fun. Of the brothers he had always been the most at ease with Celia’s people. To Grandma Patty, who had know him for years, he was almost like another child. He worked his share, shoulder to shoulder with her Nicholas. But he preferred a good time and took no interest in either business or his mother’s religious and intellectual pursuits. He was a good old Kentucky boy, at home with his own good fortune, ever ready to go on a tear, and oblivious to what went on in the world beyond the county line.
The bash had hit its stride by the time he arrived. One group was patting juba, rhythmically slapped their knees and shoulders and clapping hands as they sang. The rest were swinging wide and double shuffling, drinking and singing their joy as they buck and winged around the crackling campfire. Matt took a swig and joined in, trying awkwardly to follow their fluid moves.
Perched above it all on the tree branch, Celia was entranced with the bacchanalian scene. She had been to some Saturday frolics but none like this one. Dancing, when it was permitted, was normally retrained, mainly reels and simple steps. The older kids would run foot races sometimes and the men would box or wrestle, butting heads like sheep. But the limited amount of alcohol usually on hand helped keep the festivities from turning wild. Tonight, however, they weren’t just having a frolic, they were celebrating like she had never seen. The women were spinning like tops, skirts flying, and the men were jumping for joy.
She watched her mother hugging Allen Mudd for what might be the last time. Emily was laughing and crying, all at once, torn between the pure exhilaration around her and sadness about Allen’s sudden announcement. After seven years as lovers during his summer visits, after three children and maybe another on the way, he was leaving. That is, if he could keep from murdering Donatus Mudd, his ex-master, he was going to Louisville or Lexington to see about city life.
Emily would miss him, yet didn’t plead with him to stay. She’d finally overcome her illusions and accepted the fact that being together wasn’t their free choice. It was hard to admit, but they both deserved a fresh start.
The rhythm around the fire quickened. They were shouting now, smacking hands and beating time. “Mammy, don’t you cook no more,” they sang. “You’s free, you’s free.” Celia clapped along, caught up in the moment, everyone together and happy, filled with bright hopes for a new beginning. Free at last, free at last.
Then a shot rang out and the feeling instantly evaporated.
Steadying herself on the tree branch, Celia squinted and saw Robert Lancaster at the edge of the clearing, his rifle smoking and pointed up at the heavens. He glared at them, as if unable to believe what he saw. The singing abruptly stopped. But after a few seconds voices rose, this time in a collective grumble.

“What the hell is this?” He growled it and lowered his rifle, determined to stay in control. “Since when do we have this in the middle of a week?”
“Since Freedom!” The shout was defiant.
“Who said that?” Robert scoured the crowd, searching for the person with enough nerve to give him lip. More than a dozen black faces stared back.
“Cool down, General.” This voice was different, calm and friendly. Matt stepped into view from behind a tree just below Celia’s dangling feet and approached his brother, his hands high in mock surrender. “We’re having a little to-do here, in honor of changing circumstances. Why don’t you just stand at ease and have a drink.”
“Shut your damn hole, Matt. What circumstances?”
“In case you missed it, the war is over. And mama decided it was high time to face reality. They’re free, ain’t that right?” This prompted a wave of outbursts, from “that’s right” to “God almighty!” Matt savored the moment, a rare opportunity to put his over-stuffed brother in his place.
“Ah. Mama decided.” Robert bowed his head and let out a frustrated sigh. He knew now that he wasn’t frightening anyone, that in fact he was probably lucky they hadn’t surrounded and beaten him, and let the gun drop to his side.
“Is that so? And you and Sam think this is the perfect time to give a bunch of uppity, well, colored folks as much liquor as they want. I see, a brilliant plan. And what else, money for the trip north? Might as well, because this place is finished.”
He took a long look at his surroundings and traded steely stares with the most furious men in the crowd, then flashed a fake smile, turned his back, and headed for the big house. Celia watched with mounting curiosity as Matt stumbled close behind, already plotting his next impertinence. By the time the two brothers reached the front door, the celebration outside had resumed, almost as if nothing had happened.
Ann and Sam were in the parlor, a large comfortable room off the foyer filled with brightly upholstered pieces in the Empire style. Since summer was coming, the windows were disrobed of their heavy winter drapery and replaced with white muslin panels that fluttered in the evening breeze. Leaning against the tiled mantle Sam tapped his pipe into the fireplace and continued to discuss the latest reports from Washington.
“They think Davis was part of the conspiracy,” he explained. Two weeks earlier, the captured ex-president of the confederacy had been charged, with eight other defendants, for Lincoln’s murder. He was still being held in Georgia but the trial had begun without him. “It was supposed to be a kidnap, retaliation for the Dahlgren raid. Remember that, mama? When Lincoln sent that colonel to Richmond to get Davis and hold him for ransom. Damned stupid. So, of course they wanted to try the same thing.”
“But they shot the man.”
“Booth got tired of waiting, that’s what they say. Conover, that Yankee writer, he testified he knew about the whole thing in February – if you can believe anything he says. Booth and Surratt met with the rebels up in Canada, he says, and one of them says killing a tyrant isn’t murder. That’s the story anyway.”
“And you believe that liar?” Robert snorted his contempt as he marched into the room. He had paused at the threshold long enough to set down the rifle, do some eavesdropping, and come up with a challenge. 
“Maybe Davis didn’t know,” Sam answered, “but Booth was obviously working for the South and plenty of people wanted Abe out of the way.”
“Including some of his own.” Through his business contacts Robert kept up with the latest gossip from both sides. The prevailing rumor at the moment, much discussed but never mentioned in print, was that men close to the president, possibly even his own Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, wanted Lincoln out. There was talk of an incriminating diary kept by Booth that mentioned high officials. But it had conveniently disappeared. Some even claimed that the assassin himself, reportedly gunned down in Virginia, was actually alive and on his way to California with the aid of powerful friends.
“I find that even harder to believe,” Sam snapped. “A Union plot to kill their own leader, just as he’s winning the war?”
“It’s possible. Stanton hated him, so did the radical Republicans. And don’t forget those northern speculators; he was cutting into their cotton profits. You have to look below the surface, see who really stands to gain.”
“Well, you’re the expert on that.” Sam didn’t mean it as a compliment.
“That I am. And I have to say, you are embarking on a path even more insane than I could have imagined. You let these darkies think they’re free to do as they please and, next thing you know, they’ll leave you flat or burn you down. Mother, do you really believe they are capable of rational thinking? They’re children. And like all children they need discipline, structure, and direction. Not abolitionist clap trap, and certainly not enough whiskey to marinate the county.”
“It’s over,” Sam said bluntly. “We know it, they know it. And the quicker we make peace, the quicker we get this place back on its feet.”
Robert rolled his eyes and sat across from his mother. “I know we’ve never agreed about this,” he admitted. “But please, don’t move too fast. They’re not ready. I mean, they can’t even read.”
“I’ll teach them, starting with little Celia.”
“My God! If anyone finds out it won’t be the niggers that kill you. It’ll be your neighbors. Sam, you’re going to let this happen?”
“I don’t much like it. Spoil a hand, you know. But…”
“Mother, let me explain a few things. The economy is a wreck right now, all over the state. The fighting may be over, but the war isn’t, and it won’t be for a long time. People are bitter, families divided. The roads are ruined and half the cattle and horses are gone. And our men, they’re coming back without arms and legs, by the thousands, if they’re coming back at all. This is a very volatile situation we have here.”
Ann cut him off with a wave. “I understand all that. It’s terrible, terrible. A tragedy for everyone. But something good must come out of it, or else it was absolutely pointless.”
“This isn’t the time, or the way. It’ll ruin us.”
“Stop talking about us!” Sam stressed the last word and delivered it with a sting that hit his brother like a slap across the cheek. “You left this land behind. Sold out. That was your choice. And you’ve made your money since, fine. But this is our choice and it’s got nothing to do with you.”
“Wrong. It affects me if my mother’s in danger, if you’re about to destroy everything she has. Who will have to clean up that mess?” The siblings were standing face to face, Sam in his overalls, Robert in his three-piece banker’s suit. “I can’t stand by and let you do that. I won’t.”
“Tough talk,” Sam taunted.
“Better watch out, big brother. He brought his rifle.” Matt had been following the argument, gauging the right moment to bring up Robert’s gunplay. “Ker-pow! Like to scare them niggers to death.”
Sam reacted instantly. He grabbed Robert by the shoulders and threw him against the mahogany shelves of the etagere. What-nots scattered and crashed to the floor. “You raised a weapon on them? You bastard! Do it again and I’ll shove it down your throat. We don’t need your advice, or your money.”
It took some effort for Robert to break free from his brother’s bearlike grasp. Once he did, he tripped his way to the opposite side of the room while struggling to retain some dignity. After straightening his suit he took a long, deep breath and surveyed the scene. He was on alert, poised for another attack. His mother looked terrified and near tears. At the doorway, Matt brandished his gun with a smile. And behind him, peeking in from the foyer, Celia saw everything.
She had crept in silently, concealing herself beneath a hallway chair, and heard most of the conversation. Terrible words about black folks killing white folks, and how her people were too dumb to be free. And brother threatening brother. These people seemed crazy to her, as if they’d been possessed.
“Well then,” said Robert, mustering the most officious tone he could manage. “I can see that my help isn’t wanted here. Therefore, I will simply say good evening and be on my way. Mother. Samuel.”
He moved toward the door, nodding as he passed, and calmly snatched the rifle back from Matt. “Brother, thank you.” He was about to leave it at that, then reconsidered.
“One thing,” he said icily. “When the day comes that you require my aid — and it most certainly will come – I’ll require something more than an apology. When that happens, don’t take it personally. That’s simply how business is done.”

Then, before Celia could avoid it, he kicked her aside and hurried into the night.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Masters and Slaves: A Tale of Two Families

In 2003 I was asked by Kentucky State Senator Georgia Davis Powers to help research and write a book about her great aunt Celia Mudd, who was born into slavery but ultimately inherited the Lancaster property in Bardstown and became a prominent local philanthropist. Here is more of what I learned, part two of a work in progress called The Inheritance.

By Greg Guma

As Celia Mudd grew up on the Lancaster farm in rural Kentucky, Grandma Patty and her mother Emily shared most of the strange and terrible story — how her ancestors and whole family became and remained property of a white clan. It had begun almost two hundred years before she was born with an English woman named Elizabeth Shorter, herself born somewhere in Europe. She came to the New World as an indentured servant in the household of William Boswell, harboring the hope of earning her freedom. 
Twenty years later, while living on Boswell’s land in Maryland, Elizabeth married a Negro slave named Little Robin. And together they had a daughter named Patty. So began the family line that eventually led to Celia.
The Lancasters emigrated from England around the same time. Descended from landed gentry, they counted among their ancestors the young son of King Henry III. But when John Lancaster married Fanny Jearnaghem, an Irish lass with no title or property, the family was, as one uncle put it, “considerably vexed.”
That’s one telling of the story. In another version the reason was the escalating attacks on Catholics. But maybe John really came for adventure, determined to be among the first to stake a claim in the new world. Whatever the true motives, Lancaster and his bride, along with several brothers and sisters, sailed in 1664 and landed at Cobs Island, just off shore from southern Charles County in Maryland. They had joined a great wave that made that region an early center of Catholicism in North America.
With more than enough funds to settle and succeed, the couple prospered and raised eight children. One of them, John Junior, inherited his father’s taste for travel and became a sea captain. Until around 1730 he transported tobacco and such to England. He always came home, however, and at an advanced age, after marrying a daughter of the wealthy Raphael Neale, ended his days comfortably at Neale’s Gift, the family’s vast plantation on the Potomac River.
As a wedding gift Neale gave his son-in-law an elderly Negro slave they called Martha. Purchased years earlier from William Bosworth, she was also known as Patty. This was Elizabeth Shorter’s daughter. She had gone from white to black, from indentured servant to inherited property, in a single generation.
Among the six children born to John Junior and his wife at Neale’s Gift was one more in the long line of Lancaster men named John. Like most of his kin, this John was content to remain in Maryland. But another son, another Raphael, couldn’t resist the urge to strike out on his own. At 32 he married Elinor Bradford. There first boy, John Lancaster IV, was born in 1766, followed quickly by a brother and four sisters.
These were tumultuous times. The American colonies strained under the yoke of English masters. The Revolutionary War was barely over in 1783 when Raphael decided to set out for the next frontier, bringing the whole family along with a group of Catholics. The pioneers made their way overland to the Ohio River and built a long raft to float downstream to Limestone.  Along the way they barely avoided hostile Indians. 
Making it through Lexington to Marion County a cave became their first Kentucky home. The buffalo were gone but otherwise the land was plentiful. Deer and bear and fowl of every kind, berries in springtime, wild nuts and grapes in the fall, creeks and river to transport anything else they needed. And a virtually endless forest of huge trees to build a permanent home.
The Lancasters took full advantage of this bounty. Once a sturdy cabin was up, however, John was off on another adventure. A seasoned hunter and Indian fight before reaching 21, he returned to Maryland several times over the next three years, guiding more settlers to the new land and bringing back seeds, tools, and essentials for his family. 

Until the legendary spring of 1788. As the story was told in later years, John was on the Ohio aboard a flatboat bound for Louisville when the boatman saw a large party of Indians lying in wait.The current took them closer and escape became hopeless. Although showing a white flag the natives leveled their muskets at the travelers.
Then a skiff came directly at their boat and struck so violently that its passengers were dumped in the drink. Thinking quickly, John dove in after them, apparently hoping that a rescue might demonstrated his friendly intent. He only succeeded in making himself a more valuable prize. Once back on land the braves he had saved came to blows over which would get to keep the crazy white warrior.
Rain poured down in torrents that night. Bound to stakes on the soaking ground, the four prisoners could only watch and contemplate their fates as their captors got drunk and dangerous on the whiskey they had stolen. The next day, they were marched to a Shawnee village. But once there, the swaggering brave who won the fight over John’s ownership embraced him tearfully and called him brother.
Having lost a real brother only a year before the brave had decided to make the white pioneer a symbolic replacement. An “adoption” ceremony commenced immediately. Relieved of his clothing John’s naked body was painted and greased with bear oil while his captors hastily taught him a few scraps on song, just enough to play his part.
Over the next week he learned much about Shawnee manners and customs. For his energy and fleetness of foot he was given a new name – Kioba, or Running Buck. For a while he almost felt like he was on a more or less equal footing with the rest of the tribe. But once his new “brother” was sent out on a hunt things rapidly deteriorated. Now he was under the rough control of a sullen Shawnee known as Captain Jim.

John had also attracted the attention of Captain Jim’s daughter, who knew her father’s mood and propensity for violence. When Jim returned to camp alone one day, after chasing his wife angrily into the woods, the young girl suspected the worst. Her mother could be wounded or dead, and Kioba might be next. “Buckete, run,” she said.

Shocked out of his passivity John made an impetuous dash for freedom. Only later did he learn that one of the remaining captives was burned at the stake for his success. Over the next six days Lancaster criss-crossed Indian trails and lived on turkey eggs while finding his way back to the river. There he tied himself with bark to the trunk of a box elder and crossed to the Kentucky side, constructed a raft, and floated toward Beargrass Creek.

At nightfall he was caught in a dreadful storm. Numb with cold and exhausted, he clung to the makeshift craft, fully expecting to be tossed overboard or killed in a plunge over the falls. But to his utter amazement, he was still alive at daybreak and drifting toward a white settlement.

After this adventure John Lancaster declared his wandering days over and married within a year, settling down with the well-dowried Catherine Miles in a four-room log cabin just north of Lebanon. By the time their majestic 24-room home, Viney Level, was completed the couple had welcomed the first six of a dozen children. The famous guide also soon distinguished himself as a popular, if aggressive businessman with land in four counties. After Kentucky was admitted to the United States he served in both the state House and Senate.

He also continued to own slaves, however, 40 of them in all eventually, including several inherited from his father. His brush with brutal captivity had apparently failed to change his views on treating other human beings as property.


Celia’s mother Emily was born at Viney Level in 1839, less than a year after John Lancaster’s death. She barely remembered it except, bitterly, as the place where her mother once begged to keep from losing her. After long service as one of the family’s house slaves in Maryland, Patty had been sold from her kinfolk and sent on her own to Kentucky.

By this time the Lancasters had owned Celia’s people for almost a century. Mixing blood along the way with captive Indians and a white slaver or two, some were sold, others given away as wedding gifts. Only one had obtained her freedom, by proving in a Maryland court that she was the descendant of a free white woman.

John Lancaster’s demise made a deep impact on his fifth son, Benjamin. He sensed that life at Viney Level would never be the same. In Ben’s youth the sprawling plantation was for him a magical place filled with love, romance and religion. But the mood changed. Most of his siblings established their own homesteads or joined the church. Now that their father was gone, two of his brothers were considering whether to dispose of the place.
The executor of the huge estate was one of Ben’s older siblings, a local doctor. The two never got along well. Although most of the heirs received equal shares Viney Level itself was left to William, a 26-year-old who would live there with his wife and one sister. They would care for their ailing mother until she passed away. Unhappy with the arrangement Ben decided to resettle with his own family in Kentucky’s rural Nelson County.
Ben Lancaster had been married more than ten years to Ann Pottinger, a strong-willed woman with practical instincts and a gentle soul. They had met in Bardstown, fallen in love, and taken their vows in the grand St. Joseph’s Cathedral. Although raised as a protestant, Ann was so eager to please her husband that she volunteered to convert. In the Lancaster tradition, their first child was named John. The baby survived less than a month, just long enough to be baptized. They immediately tried again and Mary Jane was born on December 13, 1828. Samuel, Matt and Robert arrived at product two-year intervals. The path ahead looked bright and unobstructed.
Instead the horizon darkened. The first sign was the death of baby Catherine after only three weeks. The next year, joy was accompanied by tragedy; Ann Elizabeth was born in August but Ben’s father passed away three months before. Along with this shock came the disturbing news that Ben would have no voice in the future of Viney Level.
Returning home, he struggled to put anger and grief aside and concentrate on business. The perfect opportunity to expand his holdings soon appeared to present itself. Henry Nicholls had gone broke and his farm was up for auction. According to town gossip, Nicholls had gone south to purchase mules, but by the time he returned his 40 slaves were gone. They’d somehow seized the chance to free themselves. Nicholls was so strapped for funds he didn’t have enough money to offer a reward for their capture.
Nicholls’ loss could be Ben Lancaster’s gain. The spread included a fine two-story home with 11 rooms, plus outbuildings and a slave cabin. More than enough room for his growing family and the slaves his damned brother had reluctantly agreed to surrender.
Overcoming his wife’s fears about the move took some convincing. After baby Catherine’s death she had begun to experience terrifyingly lucid dreams that the family would face another, greater tragedy. Only after a visit to their prospective new home did the visions fade sufficiently for Ben to make a bid. They took occupancy in September, full of optimistic plans. All that remained was to drive some stock over from the old homestead.
Two weeks later, at 41-years-old, Ben Lancaster was dead. Thrown from his horse just three miles from his destination he sustained severe injuries that led to fatal blood poisoning. Anne would never again doubt her premonitions.
For Patty the tragedy meant little at first. Upon the death of Ben’s father she had been passed on initially to Mary Jane Lancaster, the younger sister still living at the main plantation. For Viney Level’s many slaves Ben was just another master, spoiled and capricious, even cruel at times. They didn’t mourn his departure from the world. But when Patty saw his widow’s grief she found it hard not to feel some pity. 
Ann had come over for a frank talk with Ben’s younger brother, the new owner, in hopes of getting the slaves that were promised. She looked uncomfortable asking, Patty thought, almost as if disapproving of her own proposal.
Normally, such a request would have been immediately granted. But the animosity between Lancaster siblings ran deep, and Ann returned to Bardstown with nothing but a wagonload of food and a vague promise to think it over. It was not until eight years later, after Ben’s mother finally died, that a small group of slaves were sent to live with the determined widow. Among them were Patty and Clay Hopkins, plus five of their children.
There was 15-year-old Nicholas, a delicate boy well suited for indoor chores who dreaded the occasional work that everyone, even masters, had to do in the fields. And the beautiful Isabella. Just a year younger than Ann’s son Robert, she drove the boys wild but somehow knew how to keep them at bay. The youngest children, five and six-year old Jane and Thomas, also came. But despite Patty’s desperate pleading and Ann’s attempts to intervene little Emily was sold at public auction to E.C. Johnson. They rarely saw her for the next ten years.
By the time Emily was reunited with her family the Lancaster spread was one of the most prosperous in the region. Ann had defied predictions and built an impressive enterprise that went well beyond subsistence. Starting out with corn and a modest vegetable garden, she quickly added hemp, hogs, sheep, and chicken. Then came horses, bred for local racing and sale in nearby states. The secret of her success, Emily saw, was a combination of shrewd calculation and Christian kindness.
Unlike many masters Ann treated her slaves with some care, like a practical yet somewhat compassionate queen mother. They lived in cramped, dingy quarters behind the big house but were well fed and clothed, and rarely beaten. One some farms the whip, and worse, was the solution to almost any problem. At the Lancaster spread punishment was normally a strong slap and a reading from the bible. In one area, however, Missus Ann was like any other master despite her religious principles. To keep her small empire growing she considered it sound business to breed future workers.
Barely a few months after Emily arrived Boss Sam made the arrangements, paying a local slave collector for the use of the perfect stud farmhand, a handsome lad her age. On the surface the reason was to add another set of hands at a busy time of the year. But as Patty later explained to her daughter, the Lancasters expected something more from young Allen Mudd.

He may not have been aware of the matchmaking plan. But Allen was ready to play his part.

As Emily looked at her stomach eight months later, she refused to accept that pregnancy and childbirth weren’t her own idea. She preferred to believe that Allen Mudd and she had fallen in love. More to the point, that she was irresistible.
“You said the Boss done made all the plans. We just breeders, you said, and since you too old now it’s my turn. Nothin’ special ‘bout that.” Her mood changed every few minutes these days, from moonstruck lover to inconsolable child. It wasn’t just realizing that she was very close to giving birth, but an uncontrollable desire to be the center of attention.
Grandma Patty sighed. Her daughter had so much to learn. “Maybe you not special to them,” she said, sucking on her corn cob pipe. “For the massas we no different than a good cow. They want the milk and they’ll do what’s needed to get it. But it’s still jest a cow. But now then, that don’t mean you got to be no cow in your mind and heart. That child of yours be as special as you make it.”
The words calmed her. Emily enjoyed the idea that somehow, despite everything, she could control her fate. “Mammy,” she asked, “you think my baby’s gonna be free someday?”

“That’s up to God. And nobody knows what he got in mind for us.” Patty shoved a stick into the crackling fireplace and looked around their cramped quarters. Yes, it’s surely a mystery, she thought. But it’s hard to believe that a righteous Lord wants any of his creations to be treated this way.
“Old Tom used to say, He forgot all about us.”
“Well, he don’t feel that way now.”
Emily’s mouth dropped open. “What he say?” she demanded, tickled by the prospect of hearing one of Patty’s famous tales about communing with the dead. Tom had been discovered in the barn only a week ago, hung from the loft by his own hand. They’d kept the youngsters out but everyone was gossiping.

“That he sorry for what he done,” replied Patty. She closed her eyes and searched for the right words. “He a good man, but he lost faith and decided it was better to die than trust in God’s mercy.”
“You seen him?”
“Plain as day. I was in the barn, you know, and it was pitch dark night. Then a light come up from nowhere and there he was. And he tol’ me how it happened. He say, ‘I just couldn’t clear my mind bout my family.” He remembered them back home, in Africa, and how he been snatched by slavers and brung here from his village. Not like our people what’s been here so long. Old Tom, he couldn’t forget what it was like before, to be free. Pained him terrible, knowing he’d never see his wife again, never see his children. 
“I couldn’t wait no longer, he said. A man can take just so much misery. So he made his plan. Even then he couldn’t do it right away. For days, he would just pass by and look at that big beam and think, ‘Maybe today.’ But he knew he couldn’t, so then he figured another way.”
By this time Patty’s other children had joined them. They huddled close on the rough wood floor. She paused to inhale the harsh tobacco glowing in her pipe and leaned forward to make the most of the moment. The story was grim, but the mood was charged with gleeful anticipation. She loved these moments, surrounded by family, the day’s chores done and no masters in sight.
“He’d seed Massa Matt hide some whiskey in the barn. When Missus Ann wasn’t lookin’ he’d go in there and take his swigs. That boy sure do go at it and Missus Ann don’t like it one bit. So, Tom thinks, Least this way I gets to take back something from them crackers. Maybe give me some nerve to do what’s to be done. 
Now he knows that it wasn’t nerve he got. It was just a little invitation from the devil. He told me that! But anyways that night he waits til we all sleeping and finds that jug and empties it. I mean, that man was crazy with drink. And then he takes some hemp, ties it round his neck, and…”
The kids froze, eyes glowing in the dark like birthday candles. Patty leaned back and flashed a contented grin. “And now he knows God is watching and cares about our people. He also knows that he made a mistake. “Cause he misses you all, and he can’t be here when this baby comes. And he says, “It’s okay here on the other side – but don’t you be in no hurry. Better days are coming. They can’t keep us down forever. We can have freedom, we can fight for it. We are deserving in the eyes of the Lord and we will be released.’ That’s what he said.”

Emily was in tears, caught up in her mother’s story. She wanted that for her baby, release from bondage, for all her people. She would marry Allen Mudd and they would win their freedom and buy a small farm and raise a family. No one would ever separate them, she imagined, or make them work from sunrise to nightfall, or feed them the crumbs while living like royalty. No more masters too lazy to swat their own flies.

Chapter One: Plantation Politics