The Life of an American Slave

slave train

Charles Ball

Charles Ball, a slave from Maryland, was born in about 1780 . His grandfather was brought from Africa and sold as a slave. His mother was the slave of a tobacco planter. When the planter died when Ball was four years old, he family were sold separately, with his mother going to Georgia: “My mother had several children, and they were sold upon master’s death to separate purchasers. She was sold, my father told me, to a Georgia trader. I, of all her children, was the only one left in Maryland. When sold I was naked, never having had on clothes in my life, but my new master gave me a child’s frock, belonging to one of his own children. After he had purchased me, he dressed me in this garment, took me before him on his horse, and started home; but my poor mother, when she saw me leaving her for the last time, ran after me, took me down from the horse, clasped me in her arms, and wept loudly and bitterly over me.”

Ball stayed with his father: “He was an old man, nearly eighty years old, he said, and he manifested all the fondness for me that I could expect from one so old. He was feeble, and his master required but little work from him. He always expressed contempt for his fellow-slaves, for when young, he was an African of rank in his native land. He had a small cabin of his own, with half an acre of ground attached to it, which he cultivated on his own account, and from which he drew a large share of his sustenance.”

When he was about 12 years old, his master, Jack Cox, died. Ball later recalled in his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball (1837): “I was sorry for the death of my master, who had always been kind to me; and I soon discovered that I had good cause to regret his departure from this world. He had several children at the time of his death, who were all young; the oldest being about my own age. The father of my late master, who was still living, became administrator of his estate, and took possession of his property, and amongst the rest, of myself. This old gentleman treated me with the greatest severity, and compelled me to work very hard on his plantation for several years.”

Ball was allowed to marry but in 1805: “I married a girl of color named Judah, the slave of a gentleman by the name of Symmes, who resided in the same neighborhood. I was at the house of Mr. Symmes every week; and became as well acquainted with him and his family, as I was with my master.” Mrs. Symmes employed Ball’s wife as her chambermaid. Ball commented that he regarded this “as a fortunate circumstance, as it insured her good food, and at least one good suit of clothes.”

Ball was later sold to a cotton plantation owner in South Carolina while his wife and children remained in Maryland. “I had at times serious thoughts of suicide so great was my anguish. If I could have got a rope I should have hanged myself at Lancaster. The thought of my wife and children I had been torn from in Maryland, and the dreadful undefined future which was before me, came near driving me mad.” Ball made several attempts to escape but was captured and became another man’s slave in Georgia.

Ball escaped again and this time reached Pennsylvania. Later he managed to get back to his previous home in Maryland. “It was now clear that some slave-dealer had come in my absence and seized my wife and children as slaves, and sold them to such men as I had served in the South. They had now passed into hopeless bondage, and were gone forever beyond my reach. I myself was advertised as a fugitive slave, and was liable to be arrested at each moment, and dragged back to Georgia. I rushed out of my own house in despair and returned to Pennsylvania with a broken heart.”

With the help of Isaac Fisher, a white lawyer, wrote his autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball (1837). It included the following passage: “For the last few years, I have resided about fifty miles from Philadelphia, where I expect to pass the evening of my life, in working hard for my subsistence, without the least hope of ever again seeing, my wife and children: – fearful, at this day, to let my place of residence be known, lest even yet it may be supposed, that as an article of property, I am of sufficient value to be worth pursuing in my old age.” Afraid of being recaptured, Ball moved again and its is not known when and where he died.

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