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The Man Who Told Mrs. Stowe About Eliza

May 2024
3min read

UNCLE TOM’S CABIN first appeared in 1851 as a serial in the abolitionist newspaper The National Era; when it came out in book form the next year, it quickly sold three hundred thousand copies. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s immensely powerful tract (without it, Charles Sumner claimed, Lincoln would never have been elected President) long outlived the war it helped bring about and has left in our national consciousness at least one indelible image: the slave Eliza, child in arms, fleeing across the ice to freedom.

In 1892 an ex-slave named Lewis George Clark wrote of the people he knew whom Mrs. Stowe had incorporated into her story and of his own role in it. His account, never before published, appears here through the courtesy of a New York autograph collector:

”… You must not think that you are reading a letter from a school-taught man for I never went to any school in my life. My teachers was two little nieces of Mrs. H. B. Stowe in Cambridgeport Mass, in the years of ’44 and ’45 at odd times. Their names was Francis Louisa and Mary Lina Safford at that time. Mr. Saffords was my home while I was traveling over the country trying to expose the slave system.

“I ran away from the auction in August in the year of 18 and 41 in Lancaster, Garrod Co., Ky. and was not able to read a good book at that time, any more than our horses or mules, and was sold for the same selfish purposes.

“As to the truth of Uncle Tom’s Cabin it is fixed up and some connections made that is fictitious. But as to the characters that it is based on, they are true and you must not mind the places that things took place nor the names of persons. They are almost all fictitious while facts are clearly true. Eliza did cross the ice and I did tell Mrs. Stowe of it, and she had her little boy with her, and in writing she called me George Harris while my name is Lewis G. Clark.

”… It was not uncommon for men to cross the Ohio River on the ice though not when it was in that fix. Although there was a young girl a little while before the war that crossed on the ice while it was floated and she got on it above Cincinnati and floated and jumped from flake to flake until she got away below Cincinnati. At last she got off and went in a barn and the owner in the morning found her and took her to the house and dried and fed her. Then [he] took her to the care of Nathan Haliday and he put her on the cars and sent her to Chicago to the old tried and true Mr. Carpenter and she told them that Mrs. Henry Harug [?] in Windsor, Canada was her aunt. And so they sent her there and there she stayed until she married and went to Chicago and I suppose she is now in that city though Mrs. Harug told me that she had lost track of her of late. If you doubt it write to Mrs. Henry Harug in Windsor, Ontario. They are as respectible people as is in that city.… I told Mrs. Stowe of several tragedies of like character …

“As to Emeline, the handsome white, she was my one sister and was sold to the New Orleans market …

“As to the Lagrees and the St. Clairs, they was to be found wherever the slave system existed. And so it was in relation to Eva and Topsy and Aunt Chloe …

“I will soon be, if I am correctly informed, 77 years of age and I … always have tried to not to get to be vain or an egotist though perhaps I have had as none [as] singular [a] position as any poor slave the sun ever shined [on]. And I have only taken one straightforward course through life. It fell to my lot to live with the very hated Clements while a child up from about 6 years old from my mother, sold three times to the highest bidder, at last lived with a man that was kind and I got the chance to ride off and pass for a white man in ’41, came back in ’42 and took of[f] my brother. Then I was the first one to make a public speech against that system. I was the first one that met a master in debate in the free states on that subject before 5000 people in Boston in Mass. … I was the first one to give a narrative to a capable writer that was able to bring the whole system before the whole world. My life is a mystery to myself when compared with any other on Earth …

“As to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it has done more good where good was needed than all others that has been published in the world. For the slave system grew in number and power from a few to millions and had nearly ruined the whole country and the world. Now it is gone and educated and paid labor is in place of ignorant white labor. A legal protected family is established instead of chaos. I must close. Yours, for the right.—Lewis George Clark”

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