Primary Source Adventures
This collection of sources offers a glimpse of life as a Texas slave, and provides students with an opportunity to experiment with interpreting primary source documents as young practitioners in the field of history.
Students have the opportunity to place themselves in the position of an antebellum Texas slave through the study of several of the existing sources that enable historical researchers to reconstruct the slave experience: fugitive slave advertisements, travelers’ accounts, and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Slave Narratives.
Worksheet questions stem from a variety of learning styles so that each student has the opportunity to shine. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans.
The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, research, and present interesting reputable sites during lectures.
by Justin S. Liles
The institution of slavery was an integral aspect of American life for approximately 200 years, and an understanding of the institution itself and especially the experience of everyday life as an enslaved person is a crucial component in the education of future Texas leaders. Primary sources offering a glimpse of this experience from the slave’s point of view are unfortunately limited, because most southern states outlawed teaching them to read and write.
Texas slavery was legally and socially similar to antebellum slavery throughout the South, and slaves in the state reacted to their predicament in a similar manner to their brothers and sisters in bondage throughout the region. Historian Randolph B. Campbell states that slaves adjusted their behavior to the conditions of servitude in a variety of ways. Some felt well-treated by their owners and generally behaved as loyal servants. Others hated their masters and their situation and rebelled by running away or using violence. . . . Most slaves, however, were neither loyal servants nor rebels. Instead, the majority recognized all the controls such as slave patrols that existed to keep them in bondage and saw also that runaways and rebels generally paid a heavy price.1 The reaction of the slaves represented in this Primary Source Adventure was therefore not typical among Texas slaves. Nevertheless, it is important to understand that slaves did rebel against and flee from their masters, and in a larger sense that the peculiar institution was a reciprocal relationship between master and slave. This exercise enables the learner to assume the identity of a Texas slave, but it also places the student in the position of a young historian examining and interpreting documents from the past. Historical documents in general exhibit the bias of their creator, and the documents that compose this exercise are certainly no exception. The presence of bias does not negate their value, provided the historian is aware of its existence and corroborates the information with additional contemporary sources and secondary literature.
The WPA Slave Narratives are extremely controversial as a historical source for several reasons. When they gave their oral accounts in the 1930s, the former slaves were recalling events they had experienced more than sixty-five years earlier. In addition, the sessions were conducted by white interviewers who often reflected racial stereotypes common in the era and thereby influenced ex-slave responses. Finally, many of the interviews were edited and revised as they were transcribed. The narratives remain valuable, however, because they are the only source available to study life in bondage from the Texas slave’s perspective, and like any other historical source they are beneficial if utilized with care and recognition of the possibility of bias.
Frederick Law Olmsted’s travel accounts of the South including Journey Through Texas have also served as a source of controversy, although for different reasons. Many historians have claimed that Olmsted was as close to an unbiased observer as is reasonably possible. This view has recently been called into question, as Olmsted himself wrote “I am not a red-hot abolitionist . . . but am a moderate free-soiler . . . and would take in a fugitive slave and shoot a man that was likely to get him.”2 Olmsted was therefore likely to emphasize aspects of Texas slavery that painted the institution in a poor light. He has never been accused of fabricating incidents and the episode he described that is utilized in this exercise can be considered as generally reliable.
The five fugitive slave and slave broker advertisements, culled from the Clarksville Northern Standard, Marshall Texas Republican, and Houston Telegraph, offer an insightful glimpse into the life of Texas slaves. They reveal many aspects of slave life, such as the varied occupations of slaves, cultural stereotypes of slave owners, the constant threat of sale, the phenomena of “decoying off” slaves (usually for future illicit sale), and one response to the dilemma of enslavement. In addition, many of the motivations for flight are clear, from return to loved ones to escape from slavery to Mexico or the Indian Territory. The institutionalized power of the slave regime is also apparent, as slaves had to avoid individuals who might have read the ad in addition to slave patrols and law enforcement officials who would lodge slaves without a pass in jail and advertise them as “taken up.”
The sources presented in this exercise demonstrate that slave holders’ power over their human property was never absolute, and slaves often found room in the relationship to develop an identity. Green Cumby snuck off the plantation to visit his girlfriend. The fugitive in Olmsted’s Journey Through Texas was given a week at Christmas to work for his own benefit, and ultimately violently resisted his master and fled. The fugitive slave ads also demonstrate this powerful form of resistance, as each of these enslaved persons “stole themselves.”
Although the reaction of the slaves depicted in these sources cannot be considered typical, it remains apparent that the flight of slaves from bondage and the reciprocal relationship between masters and slaves was an extremely important aspect of the institution. By gaining an understanding of these past experiences, and learning to think critically about biased documents, future generations can profit from a nuanced perspective on an integral aspect of our nation’s history which still greatly affects social relationships among our state’s diverse population to the present.
1Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. “Slavery” http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/SS/yps1.html (accessed May 24, 2005).
2Olmsted quoted in Randolph B. Campbell ed., A Journey Through Texas: Or, a Saddle-Trip on the Southwestern Frontier, by Frederick Law Olmsted. (Dallas: DeGolyer Library & William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, Southern Methodist University, 2004), xvii.