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A Formerly Enslaved Man Describes the Environmental Difficulties of Escape (1857)

William J. Anderson was enslaved for 24 years. In 1836, he escaped enslavement and fled from a plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi. Anderson eventually settled in Indiana. As a free man, Anderson became a successful farm and business owner and aided other fugitives. In order to shed light on the realities of slavery, he wrote a testimony of his life and published it in 1857. In this excerpt, Anderson described the environmental difficulties that enslaved people faced when attempting to escape, such as hot weather, water levels in surrounding rivers, and a variety of predatory animals. The environmental terrain made escape an even more risky decision.

It is almost impossible for slaves to escape from that part of the South, to the Northern States. There are a great many things to encounter in escaping, vis: large and small rivers, lakes, panthers, bears, snakes, alligators, white and black men, blood hounds, guns, and, above all, the dangers of starvation.

There was a poor slave by the name of Phill Sharp, who ran away from his master, Mr. Beacher, who resided near Vicksburg. His master had bought him of a trader from Tennessee. Sharp had left a wife there whom he dearly loved. His master continued to flog, drive and starve him, and he made up his mind to escape, and, if possible, see his wife once more in this life. Saturday night, the time he had fixed upon for leaving, arrived, and although the rivers were high and the weather warm, he concluded to travel by night and lay by in the day time, in the swamps, which are very dismal. After swimming rivers and passing through many difficulties, he arrived at a small lake about a quarter of a mile wide. He plunged in, and when nearly across he saw a large panther, on the opposite bank, awaiting his arrival. He paused a moment, but on looking back he saw a large alligator, with his month wide open, pursuing him. Here was a horrid dilemma. What to do he did not know, but there was no time to be lost. He swam on across, for he thought he could do more on land than he could in the water. Just as he got near the shore the panther made a spring at him, but missed his prize and lit on the back of the alligator. "Then," said he, "the two had an awful fight, but I did not wait to see which came off best."

Source | “Life and Narrative of William J. Anderson,” Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill,
Item Type | Biography/Autobiography
Cite This document | “A Formerly Enslaved Man Describes the Environmental Difficulties of Escape (1857),” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed February 29, 2024,

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