Austin Bearse sailed the waters of the southern coast of America between 1818 and 1830. The sea captain of Barnstable on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod had started out as a mate on coastal schooners, and in the winter months the schooners would often linger in the south doing warm weather duty serving the ports between Baltimore and New Orleans.
The trips gave Bearse an up close look at slavery in the United States, and a fervor for the abolition movement.
The ships would travel up rivers to plantations to pick up the rice and cotton to come to market, and they would bring the necessities for the plantation, including at times slaves who were being sent to the fields – sometimes one or two and sometimes as many as 80.
The traffic grew to disgust Bearse.
“Our vessel used to lie at a place called Poor Man's Hole, not far from the city. We used to allow the relatives and friends of the slaves to come on board and stay all night with their friends, before the vessel sailed. In the morning it used to be my business to pull off the hatches and warn them that it was time to separate, and the shrieks and cries at these times were enough to make anybody's heart ache.”
Bearse’s travels took him around the world, and he was no stranger to slavery in foreign ports. And in the American South, he got an up close look at the brutal conditions of the plantations. While northern visitors to southern cities might meet an occasional domestic slave, they rarely saw the way the slaves on plantations lived and died.
“My opinion is that American slavery, as I have seen it in the internal slave trade, as I have seen it on the rice and sugar plantations, and in the city of New Orleans, was fully as bad as any slavery in the world — heathen or Christian.”
On one voyage in 1828 aboard the brig Milton, two slaves were put on the vessel in South Carolina, bound for New Orleans.
“When we were in the Gulf Stream, I came to the men and took off their handcuffs. They were resolute fellows, and they told me I would see they would never live to be slaves in New Orleans.
“One of them was a carpenter and one a blacksmith. We brought them into New Orleans, and consigned them over to the agent. The agent told the captain that in forty-eight hours afterwards they were all dead men, having every one killed himself as they said they should. One of them I know was bought for a fireman on the steamer "Post Boy," that went down to the Balize. He jumped overboard and was drowned.
“In my past days, the system of slavery was not much discussed. I saw these things as others did, without interference. Because I no longer think it right to see these things in silence, I trade no more south of Mason and Dixon's line.”
After Bearse’s conversion to the abolitionist movement, he began taking more direct action. And by July of 1847, now a captain in his own right, Bearse was in a position to do more. He began a long career as a smuggler of slaves to freedom.
“In July, 1847, 1 sailed with a loaded vessel bound to Albany, N. Y. On my arrival there, I called on the Mott sisters, ladies well known to the Anti-Slavery friends in Boston and elsewhere. Miss Mott told me they had a slave secreted just out of the city, who was in danger. His name was George Lewis. A writ was out for him, and she wished me to take him to Boston. As soon as I was ready to sail, she brought him to my vessel at night, with his baggage and I stowed him away. In three days I passed New York, and on getting into Long Island Sound, I told George Lewis he could safely show himself on deck, which he was glad to do.
“On the passage he told me his story. I found him very intelligent for a slave. He had been a Baptist preacher. By trade, he was a house and ship carpenter and bridge builder. He was a slave at City Point, Va., and half-brother to his master, Lewis.
“He had a wife and seven children, and being entrusted with all the overseeing, often made trips to Washington, where his eldest daughter Lizzie was living with his master's mother. In his absence, the Baptist minister came and took his second daughter from his house for base purposes; he cried out upon his infamy, and the minister had him hauled up and flogged. George, who had never before been whipped, told his wife he could do nothing more for them, and he must leave them to go to a land of freedom.
“At night he kneeled down and prayed with them. He then took his saw and a bundle of clothes, and went to the ferry. The ferryman pulled him across James River, and. hiding by day, and travelling by the North Star at night, he reached the Potomac River, where he found a sloop loaded with wood bound for Alexandria. The captain, knowing him, took him on board, and after dark George made his way over the long bridge to Washington, where his daughter Lizzie hid him in her mistress' attic all winter.
“In April, the Underground Railroad was completed, and he took it for Baltimore, bidding Lizzie good-by, who told him she should soon start herself for a land of freedom. At Baltimore, he was continued on by the same mysterious route to Philadelphia, and so on to New York, where friends forwarded him to the care of the Misses Mott, at Albany. They procured him work, and protected him from the hunters. His master heard of him in this way.
“When the warm weather came, Lizzie took the same railroad, and followed her father to New York; there she lost track of him, and the Anti-Slavery friends concluded to send her to Boston. A coast survey steamer came into Boston for repairs. One of the crew, a colored man who had known her in Washington, met her where she was stopping, at Mr. Thacker's in Southac Street, and found out from her that, her father was in Albany. He told an officer on board the "Bibb," who was a brother of the master.
“George Lewis heard of his daughter's being in Boston from the Rev. Mr. Grimes, who was at a meeting near Albany, and said, to the father's great joy, Lizzie was safe in Boston. He also took the news to Lizzie that her father was in Albany.
“When we reached Boston, Mr. Wallcutt took us to Southac Street, and while we were looking for the number of the house, I heard someone say “Well, there's father!" We turned to look, and it was indeed Lizzie calling "Father!"
“The next day I took George Lewis to Mr. Samuel Hall's shipyard in East Boston. Mr. Hall employed him for three years. Some of his ship carpenters left on account of it, but Mr. Hall kept George.
“When George's master found he could not get George back from Albany, he sold his wife and five children to Richmond, Va. The money was raised, and Rev. Mr. Grimes went on to Richmond and bought them, and brought them all to Boston, when George was made a happy man.
“In 1850, he went to Nova Scotia; he was afraid to stay in Boston after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. He stayed in Nova Scotia till the Proclamation of Emancipation. His daughter Lizzie is the wife of Mr. Richard S. Brown, of the Boston Custom House, well known as a good citizen, and a credit to his race.”
Delivering George Lewis to Boston was the first of many such interventions Austin Bearse would make during his career, which he set down in his memoir, Reminiscences of Fugitive-Slave Law Days in Boston.