Like the guiding light of daybreak that accompanied Sojourner Truth as she walked from her slave owner’s home to escape to freedom, much more illumination now reveals the early days of her life. Named Isabella when she was born into slavery, the abolitionist and champion of human rights spent the first 32 years of her life in Ulster County, in New York’s Hudson Valley, all but three of them as a slave. Biographers, especially Carleton Mabee, began shedding more light some two decades ago onto Isabella’s first years.
Now we know even more. During the past decade, local historians, scholars, and citizens have been working to uncover more about Isabella’s early life and whereabouts. Much like the dawn’s light that greeted Isabella that day of liberation, the illumination hasn’t come all at once, but bit by bit.
A true upsurge of interest and research in recent years has made this part of Truth’s life more accessible. This means that you can now trace more of the tangible connections to her time as a slave, from her birthplace and a house where she dwelled and worked as a slave to what is believed to be the escape route that she walked in 1826. Moreover, delving into the early days that others have shown light upon reveals some ways the girl gave birth to the woman. It shows how some early, though not always consistent, signals of the spunk and ability to challenge convention that she personified throughout her life were present in the young woman who lived in Ulster County and escaped to freedom.
Culminating this effort, area officials and citizens have raised funds and commissioned a sculpture showing Sojourner Truth as the slave girl Isabella. The Town of Esopus plans to place and dedicate this statue at the Sojourner Truth Memorial in the village of Port Ewen, according to Ulster County historian Anne M. Gordon, who is among those directing this endeavor.
The first post on Truth’s life in Ulster County explored a still-surviving stone house in Port Ewen where Isabella was a slave (see “In Sojourner Truth’s Footsteps”). In this essay, Mindfulwalker.com starts off at the memorial in Esopus dedicated to Truth and then travels nearby to track her escape route. In a third essay, Mindfulwalker.com plans to focus on the creation and planned unveiling of the statue of Truth as a young girl.
Sojourner Truth Memorial
Sojourner Truth, who found her own places to reflect and talk to God, may well have appreciated this small pocket in the midst of busy Port Ewen. So will others who want to get an understanding of Truth’s early life all around these hills and roads, and explore these places. With its wooden latticework border, plantings, bench, and a sign that provides a guide to significant sites and events, the park at the corner of Route 9W and Salem Street is respectful – especially with its reference to Truth as the “daughter of Esopus.” She was born at the home of Col. Johannes Hardenbergh, a wealthy landowner in Rifton, about 10 miles from this park. Learning about how she and others were slaves in homes and farms in this area dispels any wrongful notions that slavery in the 19th century was a Southern institution.
Sojourner Truth Memorial
The Sojourner Truth Memorial’s capturing of Isabella’s early life allows a fuller knowledge of her first decades as a slave and then a newly free woman. It shows the stone house that was her birthplace. (One can get a peek of the house across State Route 213 from the vantage point of a historical marker alongside Sturgeon Pool.) The first official record of Isabella was an 1808 property inventory showing the 11-year-old Isabella as a part of the Charles Hardenbergh estate. Think now of how many records exist today of babies from their birth to their first birthday and consider this inventory’s proof of the dehumanization of slavery.
The places that the sign depicts follow Truth’s life as a child who was enslaved and then a young adult who would not accept things as they were and bravely fought them. At Schryver’s Tavern, a stone structure also known as the Jug Tavern, Isabella lived and toiled as a slave for Martinus Schryver and his family. The stone house is only a half-mile south of the memorial, at the corner of Route 9W and River Road. Schryver owned a large amount of farmland, meaning that the young Isabella worked in the fields in this area. Later in life, Sojourner Truth would recount the many things that the system of slavery and slaveholders had “robbed” from her. As the biography displayed here recounts the three times that slaveholders had sold her – at ages 10, 11, and 13 – it demonstrates how a safe, secure childhood was one of those stolen and priceless life possessions.
The memorial also highlights the places of her liberation and triumph: the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, where she took refuge after escaping from her slave owner’s house in 1826, and the Ulster County Courthouse, where Isabella fought successfully in court to secure the freedom of her son Peter, whom a man had taken to Alabama. The last man for whom Isabella worked as a slave, John Dumont, had promised her that he would release her a year before New York State was slated to free its slaves in 1827. When he reneged, she plotted and set off on her own early one morning from Dumont’s farm, as the sign notes, “crossing the Esopus hills” to freedom.
Following Isabella’s Route
Because very old country roads still crisscross these Esopus hills, it’s possible to follow along the 11.5-mile route that Isabella walked that October morning to escape (route map). Parts of the roadways curve up and down through dense woods or fields, and houses bordering the roads are far apart. Hence, it gives a sense of what it might have looked like that morning when Isabella was walking and holding her 3-month-old daughter Sophia. As the site Sojourner Truth in Ulster County makes clear of her surroundings that day, while 19th century toll roads leveled the landscape, the paved rural roads were a different story. They simply followed earlier gravel roads, and those tracked earlier walking trails.
This is one of the Ulster County rural roads over which the young Isabella walked to leave her slave owner’s home.
Her decision to escape was not spur-of-the-moment. True to Isabella’s nature, it contains elements of daring, reflection, and a sense of integrity as to the right way to do it. Walking along these curving roads, one can seek to understand what it must have felt like for a 29-year-old woman who had been a slave all of her life to walk out the door, carry her youngest child, and set off with no certainty as to what might happen.
Following the escape route is fascinating and moving. We are able to know the pathway she followed and her experience today through Truth’s recollections in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth and because of the crucial work that former Esopus historian Dorothy Dumond did in tracing the route. At the time of her escape, Isabella had been a slave for some 16 years for Dumont. He was a lawyer and a farmer who owned and cultivated approximately 600 to 700 acres of land, according to Gordon. His farm was located on the banks of the Hudson River in what is now West Park, a hamlet that is a part of Esopus.
Isabella essentially took matters into her own hands after Dumont went back against a pledge of freedom to her. New York State was planning to free all adult slaves in 1827. Dumont, who had praised the amount of work Isabella accomplished in the fields, had promised that he would release Isabella and her husband Tom a year before this time, on July 4, 1826. When the time came, however, he reneged, saying that she had not rendered sufficient service due to injuring her hand.
Isabella would have become free in 1827 but, as she described in her narrative, “she inwardly determined” that she would remain a slave for Dumont only long enough to do what she felt was right – to complete “the heaviest of the fall’s work” and to spin 100 pounds of wool. In recounting her escape later, Truth said she talked to God about when she might go, realizing she feared leaving at nighttime but she risked being recognized if she went during daylight. She decided to leave her slaveholder’s house just before daybreak, in the hope that she would get beyond the immediate surroundings without anyone seeing her. She gathered some clothing and items into a cotton handkerchief, picked up her daughter Sophia, and walked out the Dumonts’ door just before dawn. She left her three remaining children behind.
For slaves, the simple act of walking away was radical, for they didn’t know what they would face beyond the boundaries of their place of enslavement. Using the map of her route, I started on Route 9W onto the country roads that were the pathway of her escape – Floyd Ackert Road, Old Post Road, Popletown Road, Union Center Road, William White Road, and Van Wagner Lane – driving and walking to get some sense of her walk to freedom. Isabella traveled the first part of it before dawn, and I envisioned her walking the winding Floyd Ackert Road, over the glassy and gurgling Black Creek, with woods around her. At the summit of a high hill some distance from Dumont’s farm, she saw the sun come up fully for the first time and thought that it was almost too light, she remembered later. Isabella stopped to see whether any pursuers were in sight, but none were.
Floyd Ackert Road
After a couple of miles, Floyd Ackert Road narrows greatly. Bordered by fields, the flat, thin road feels like it has changed very little from the horse and buggy days, especially because it’s barely a single lane wide. Though some houses are nearby, the area was very quiet when I traveled it except for the sounds of birds chirping and singing. I thought about Isabella walking in the quiet, her travel illuminated by the early morning light. Little wonder that the light at times made her feel uneasy.
Floyd Ackert Road comes to a T-turn, and the escape route map shows that Isabella walked briefly along Old Post Road, an S-curving lane. At a Y-intersection, the map indicates, Isabella took Popletown Road, a narrow road paved in part and gravel in part, which climbs up and down a ridge of the Marlboro Mountains. Today, deep woods border the road though at that time this ridge had more farming and fields. Here I feel the isolation of walking toward an unknown destination, as she was. The road lies amid the kind of quiet in which you can hear your own steps. Did she talk aloud to her infant daughter to comfort her? What other ways did she keep calm as she walked?
Escape, But To Where?
Isabella was not at all certain where she would go. Once she looked behind and confirmed that no “pursuers” were there, she began to consider, “Where, and to whom, shall I go?” her narrative states. On foot and carrying a child, she had limited options. As she walked, she prayed for guidance. Shortly afterward, it occurred to her that Levi Rowe, a Quaker, lived in Popletown, and that he might be friendly to a slave seeking refuge. Though she found Rowe’s home in Popletown – the exact location of which has not been identified – he was gravely ill and could not help her. Back to the road she went.
Popletown Road descends steadily and sometimes steeply downward, and here I wondered just how alone she may have felt. Much of the road is surrounded by fields, woods, stone fences, and large boulders. As I took it in slowly, I appreciated its beauty. Yet I thought about how much fear the young Isabella felt as she walked so many miles, with only her young daughter. She did not have reason to believe that Dumont would harm her, if he found her, but what about others? One can’t underestimate the risk of a young African-American female slave walking with her child along a rural road at that time.
Rowe, the man who could not help Isabella, asked his wife to explain two other places where the owners might let her in. Isabella departed and kept walking along the winding rural roads, from Popletown westward onto Union Center and William White roads, according to the escape route that historian Dumond traced. Finally, she came upon one of the two places, the home of Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen. Isabella recognized the house from earlier days, and she knew that the Van Wagenens opposed slavery. They took her in.
In a largely rural area where “everybody knew everybody,” as Gordon says, it’s not surprising that her slaveholder, Dumont, was able to find her. He showed up not long after she arrived at the Van Wagenen home. Dumont insisted that she return to his home and to her status as a slave, and he threatened to have her put in jail. However, Isabella refused to go back. The Van Wagenens intervened and offered $20 to pay for Isabella’s services for the rest of the year, plus $5 for Sophia.
Isabella, who had been a slave for the first 29 years of her life, was now a free person. Though they had paid to get her away from Dumont, the Van Wagenens wanted it to be clear they had not “bought” her. Van Wagenen immediately told Isabella not to call him master, saying “there is but one master; and he who is your master is my master,” her narrative reveals.
As author Mabee writes, it’s natural to ask why Truth took only Sophia with her and not her three other children. The answers are complicated. Her husband chose to stay behind so he could watch them. Taking the children would have worsened the illegality of her actions. Moreover, slavery had harmed her own bonds to her children because of the way it separated mothers and their children day to day. Beyond these reasons, a look at the physical landscape she traveled that morning makes it even more evident how difficult it would have been to walk these winding roads taking many children.
We ask our questions through the prism of our 21st century experience. That is why it’s invaluable and powerful to explore the places that young Isabella walked that day, to think of her very possibly tired and anxious, and certainly not knowing exactly what lay before her or if she would find a place of refuge. My slow walk around a long S-curve on a gravel road made even clearer the uncertainty of her journey and the bravery she exhibited when she chose to embark on it.
Isabella stayed with the Van Wagenens, whom she called “noble people;” took their family name; and remained at their home for a year. She walked these local roads various times, often on bare feet. In fact, she walked back to the Dumont farm one day to express her rage that the Dumonts had sold her son Peter to someone who turned around and sold him again, to an owner who took Peter to Alabama. Ultimately, Isabella brought a legal case to court in Kingston to recover her son and she won.
Her sense of rights did not evolve easily and consistently, as Mabee recounts in his biography. One of the local Quaker families in Popletown from whom she sought help for the court case invited her to stay over for a night. She saw a beautiful, clean, and white bed, and she contemplated in wonder “that such a bed should have been appropriated to one like herself,” she said later. After years of sleeping on the floor, Isabella first thought she should sleep beneath the fine bed. Finally, she slept on it.
Despite her apparent resourcefulness, conviction, and energy, Isabella would need time to adjust to her freedom. Like the sun breaking on the day she escaped, her sense of entitlement first began with dim light that grew stronger and became the searing sense of injustice and rights Sojourner Truth carried with her the rest of her days.
The escape route map is available in an online or print brochure, “Discovering the Town of Esopus: Heritage and Recreation Network,” from the Town of Esopus and from Scenic Hudson.
Part 1: In Sojourner Truth’s Footsteps – The Jug Tavern, where Truth lived and worked as a slave
Part 2: Tracing Sojourner Truth’s Escape Route – The Sojourner Truth Memorial in Port Ewen and Truth’s escape route on Ulster County roads
Part 3: Statue To Show Sojourner Truth as a Child – The creation of a statue of Truth as a child and the plans to make it the centerpiece of the Sojourner Truth Memorial in Esopus