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Arnold Gragston

Arnold Gragston

Narrative of Arnold Gragston's life as a slave, interviewed in 1938 as part of the Federal Writers Project.

Most of the slaves didn’t know when they was born, but I did. You see, I was born on a Christmas mornin’ — it was in 1840; I was a full grown man when I finally got my freedom. Before I got it, though, I helped a lot of others get theirs. Lawd only knows how many; might have been as much as two-three hundred. It was ’way more than a hundred, I know I was born on a plantation that b’longed to Mr. Jack Tabb in Mason County, just across the river in Kentucky.

I didn’t have no idea of ever gettin’ mixed up in any sort of business like that until one special night. I hadn’t even thought of rowing across the river myself. But one night I had gone on another plantation ’courtin’, and the old woman whose house I went to told me she had a real pretty girl there who wanted to go across the river and would I take her? I was scared and backed out in a hurry. But then I saw the girl, and she was such a pretty little thing, brown-skinned and kinda rosy, and looking as scared as I was feelin’, so it wasn’t long before I was listenin’ to the old woman tell me when to take her and where to leave her on the other side.

I didn’t have nerve enough to do it that night, though, and I told them to wait for me until tomorrow night. All the next day I kept seeing Mister Tabb laying a rawhide across my back, or shootin’ me, and kept seeing that scared little brown girl back at the house, looking at me with her big eyes and asking me if I wouldn’t just row her across to Ripley. Me and Mr. Tabb lost, and soon as dust settled that night, I was at the old lady’s house.

I don’t know how I ever rowed the boat across the river the current was strong and I was trembling. I couldn’t see a thing there in the dark, but I felt that girl’s eyes. We didn’t dare to whisper, so I couldn’t tell her how sure I was that Mr. Tabb or some of the others owners would “tear me up” when they found out what I had done. I just knew they would find out.

I was worried, too, about where to put her out of the boat. I couldn’t ride her across the river all night, and I didn’t know a thing about the other side. I had heard a lot about it from other slaves but I thought it was just about like Mason County, with slaves and masters, overseers and rawhides; and so, I just knew that if I pulled the boat up and went to asking people where to take her I would get a beating or get killed.

I don’t know whether it seemed like a long time or a short time, now – it’s so long ago; I know it was a long time rowing there in the cold and worryin’. But it was short, too, ’cause as soon as I did get on the other side the big-eyed, brown-skin girl would be gone. Well, pretty soon I saw a tall light and I remembered what the old lady had told me about looking for that light and rowing to it. I did; and when I got up to it, two men reached down and grabbed her; I started tremblin’ all over again, and prayin’. Then, one of the men took my arm and I just felt down inside of me that the Lord had got ready for me. “You hungry, Boy?” is what he asked me, and if he hadn’t been holdin’ me I think I would have fell backward into the river.

That was my first trip; it took me along time to get over my scared feelin’, but I finally did, and I soon found myself goin’ back across the river, with two and three people, and sometimes a whole boatload. I got so I used to make three and four trips a month. [1]


Daly and Gragston rowed fugitives to safety in Ohio in skiffs similar to this one. 


Richard Daly

Richard Daly of Trimble County, Kentucky, assisted over thirty slaves across the Ohio River to Madison, Indiana.  Escape never entered his mind.  He discredited the belief that freedom improved life.  The sale of Daly’s daughter to Louisville convinced him to escape.   In 1857, he fled Kentucky with his four children.[1] 



[2] Matthew Salafia, "Searching for Slavery: Fugitive Slaves in the n the Ohio River Valley Borderland, 1830–1860," Ohio Valley History 8, no. 4 (2008), 39