The Hyperlinked Ballad Of Eliza Icewalker

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ElizaOverTheIce.jpg

The escape from bondage of the slave Eliza, infant in tow, is one of the most remarked upon portions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. I have never read Uncle Tom's Cabin. My first encounter with Eliza came this Friday, while I was on a plane to Nashville.

As it happens Eliza is a historical person, and enslaved woman who escaped, child in tow, from slavery in Kentucky. Her story is brilliantly depicted by Fergus Bordewich in his book Bound For Canaan: The Epic Story of The Underground Railroad, which I have excerpted below. I was in the middle seat as I read about Eliza and it was only with some work that I kept from breaking down on a neighbor's shoulder.  All of this to say you should strap yourself in for this one.

Let's go:

On a bitter night in the winter of 1838, a heavy-set black woman picked her way furtively down Tuckahoe Ridge toward the frozen river. She followed the familiar track from the plantation where she was enslaved, careful to keep herself out of sight when she reached the snow-covered flood-plain, moving close to the ground. In her arms, she carried an infant whom she had wrapped in a shawl against the cold air. 

She was leaving her other children and a husband behind, hoping that if she was not caught, and if she did not die, she might be able to return for them someday. She had fled abruptly for the same reason as so many other fugitives: a day or two earlier a slave trader had appeared at her master's estate to negotiate her price or that of her child. She knew that she might die crossing the river, but if she did nothing she would die a different kind of death, to be sold away south, and away from her family forever.

In some accounts, the woman begged help from an elderly Scotsman or Englishman who lived near the shore, and who sheltered her until she heard the baying of dogs on her trail. As she ran from his house she grabbed hold of a plank and raced to the river's edge. When the ice was solid, teams of horses could cross it. But there had been a thaw and the ice was rotten, full of air holes and cracks, and the water was running over it, and it was ready to break up.

No one had ventured onto it for the past two days, but she had no choice. Her first step broke though. For a moment she stood paralyzed in freezing water. Then she plunged forward, carrying her baby in one had and the plank in the other. The ice seemed firmer as she ran toward the Ohio shore, but then without warning she broke through again, this time up to her armpits. She pushed the baby of her onto the ice, then levered herself up with the aid of the plank.

Laying the plank across the broken ice, she crept along it until she fell through once more. Again she managed to throw the infant ahead of her before she sank. Crawling back onto the ice, she continued her progress in this fashion until the ice disintegrated beneath her again. This time she sank in only to her knees, and she knew that she was close to the Ohio shore. When she finally touched solid land she collapsed, physically spent.

She was safe for the moment, she thought. But she was not alone. A white man had come up out of the darkness and loomed over her. Had she known who he was she would have recognized him as her worst nightmare. He was a Ripley man named Chancey Shaw, a sometime slave catcher who often prowled the northern bank of the river on the lookout for fugitives. He had watched attentively as the woman made her way across the ice, and he was preparing to seize her when, he later admitted to a local abolitionist, he heard her baby whimper and something unexpectedly moved inside him. Surprising himself, he heard himself tell her, "Woman, you have won your freedom."

Instead of arresting her, he led her, soaked and freezing to the edge of the village. There he pointed to a long flight of steps that ascended a bare hill, at the top of which the rectangle of a farmhouse and a light were visible. He told her to make for the light saying, "No nigger has ever been got back from that house.

The house was famed abolitionist John Rankin, a native Southerner who'd moved to Ohio as the South increasingly became a place where open opposition to slavery became a capitol offense. In Ripley, Ohio, Rankin preached abolition, ran a prolific Underground Railroad station, and waged gunfights with slave-catchers.

This story really wrecked me. And Bordewich has many just like them in his book. The epoch of slavery is, to my mind, the definitive epic poem, the quintessential romance of American history. It may well be the most powerful story of the Enlightenment wars. 

I urge you to check out Bordewich's book. it's excellent.


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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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