The way of peace they know not; and there is no judgment in their goings: they have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace.
In the summer of 1856 the Great Western Furnace in Stewart County Tennessee was a prosperous and successful operation forging high-quality pig iron that was in great demand all the way from St. Louis to New Orleans. Due to Luke Elam’s skillful and well-organized management of the Great Western he and his brother Brandon were becoming two of the most powerful landowners in Stewart County. Nearly every month, it seemed, they were using the money they earned from the Great Western to buy up more bottom land, more timber, and more property than some in the Town cared to see.
This good fortune spread to everyone at the Great Western. From the ownership group, all the way down to the newest hires when the work week ended everyone went home with smiles on their faces and money in their pockets. Black men and their families were seen more often in Town and they had hard cash to spend. At first, many of the local store owners refused to trade with the negroes but they soon realized that Hopkinsville, Kentucky could provide the same products at a better price if the Dover merchants turned them away. Many black Stewart Countians found it more advantageous and more delightful to make that trip to “Hoptown” once every two or three weeks rather than put up with the bias of the locals in Town every week. It didn’t take long for the shop owners of Dover to begin to feel the emptiness in their pocketbooks and they quickly put the word out that “black” money would be accepted, after all, in their businesses. They did not, however, lower their prices to compete with the Hoptown stores. After all, there wasn’t any other competition, locally, forcing them to do so and that trip to Hoptown and back was several hours long by wagon.
The more that the Great Western flexed its muscle, the more the men in power in Dover felt their control slipping away. Unfortunately, these power hungry men of the old way took this as an immediate sign to tighten the grip on their dominion.
Ignorant power, brute force. It beat down the Indian. It will beat down the slave. This was their counting. They needed to push the men harder, they calculated, as that was their shortcoming. Making the slaves smarter and concurrently more productive by pushing them harder was the way, they figured, that the Great Western could be bettered.
Many were the days of work that Luke and Hilton guided their mule teams and wagon loads of laborers through the predawn hours of Dover only to become eyewitnesses to freshly whipped men hanging in locked stocks on the Town Square. It was a savage and barbaric way to increase pig iron production and a harsh and crude approach to making examples of runaway slaves. It was a poorly bred fool’s means to a bloody end and it was applied regularly with a jaundiced and calloused eye. A decent, working man’s wage to those beaten down men was inconsequential and the least of their worries. They were trained to believe that not being whipped was far better than receiving a payday of any kind and running away from your master could bring you an unspeakable torture, even death, at the hands of an earthbound devil.
These men and boys were our neighbors, our friends. It was hard to believe that we all lived in the same world and much less, the same Town. On one especially sad morning as the wagons passed through Dover, Constable Thomas Opson was still whipping a poor boy who had become unconscious as he was chained to the stock. Opson, drunk with whiskey and unbridled power, continued to lash at the young man. Luke Elam could stand it no more. He jumped from his wagon and grabbed Opson’s arm before he was able to crack another snap of his whip on the helpless boy.
“You’re killing him, Opson!” He yelled as he held back his arm. “This is enough! He is half dead and dying. Have you no mercy?”
Opson was surprised Luke had come upon him so quick. He jerked his arm away and laughed. “Mercy? These wild dogs deserve no mercy, Elam. He’s an escaped slave that was caught.” He pointed his bloody whip in Luke’s face. “He gets 100 lashes at the post on the Committee’s order and if you know what is good for you, Elam, you will not obstruct me again or I will have you in that stock. I’ll enjoy striping your backside.” Several whiskey drinking Committee of Safety (COS) riders gathered around Thomas Opson and provided him with all the courage he needed to make these threats.
Hilton had moved up behind Luke and pulled him away. “Come on, Mr. Luke. You can’t help that boy today. He is in God’s hands now. Let’s move on through this town with mean eyes.”
“Listen to your boy, Elam,” Opson advised. “Or that Furnace of yours will be without its Founder for awhile.” He snapped his whip at Luke’s feet, but Luke Elam did not flinch.
Opson blinked in disbelief and furled his brows in wonder as he struggled to understand just why his power or how his threats put no fear into the elder Elam.
Luke and Hilton moved back toward their mule teams.
The men in the wagons were silent and many prayed in whispers to God as the cracking whip resumed and made fresh cuts into the listless body of the young negro trapped in the devil’s stocks. Opson seemed to enjoy the spectacle he made by whipping the boy. Every time he wound his arm back and flung the well-aimed tip of the weapon toward his victim he screamed, “Heeeyaaaaa!”
The men of the Great Western later learned that the boy was, in fact, dead. It was a town gone mad. Life meant nothing to those in power. They covered up their sins as if nothing had ever happened. They continued on their paths as if they would never be judged for their dastardly deeds. There was no earthly power to stand against them. They controlled the law, they controlled the Court, and they controlled the night and the day. Who would question Howard Claiborne and his “family”? They were located in every corner of the County and beholding only to him. Who was strong enough to come against his law?
Yet, amongst it all the men at the Great Western had a great hope. They had a working hope that was covered with the promise of freedom. The men of every other Furnace in the County and in other Counties like Dickson, to the south of Dover, could only muster a faint, silent hope. Even so, sadly, theirs was a hope that was drenched in misery and despair. Outside of Town and far away from the Committee of Safety’s sight, Luke Elam stopped the wagons and the men prayed together, out loud, for the poor boy’s soul.
With every passing month of it’s existence, the ironmasters from the other Furnaces felt more and more greed, jealousy, and animosity toward the Great Western for its profitable and sustained growth. The high quality and the huge quantity of pig iron that was coming from the “Elam and Jacobs” Furnace could be matched nowhere else in the County or, for that matter, the Country. Month after month, season after season, it outsold all of it’s competitors at the wharf.
“Top dollar, Great Western!” That was the word that always came back from the River Boat Landing.
Time, and time again, the Iron Masters tried to lure Mr. Luke away from the Great Western. They tried to buy him out. They wanted to hire him for themselves, but he would never accept their offers and he would never sell himself out to their lower standards. They didn’t really want Mr. Luke to improve their iron production and, after all, they didn’t really want him to resurrect their slaves, either. They just wanted to be able to put their finger on him. They only needed to slow the Great Western down. Raising their own standards was never in the equation. But Luke Elam was smarter than that.
These iron masters despised the fact that their free workers, white and black, would often take lesser jobs as pick and ax men just to have the opportunity to work the Great Western. These confederate pig iron workers, with their learned experience, made the Great Western an even stronger organization. While the other Furnaces still made money, as pig iron was a very lucrative business, their owners felt that it wasn’t enough. They wanted the success that Luke Elam had. They wanted to be number one again like they were when there was no Great Western. Their problem was that they just weren’t willing to show the kindness and the generosity needed to get that status back. It wasn’t their way. Their way was the old way, the Cross Elam way of ignorant power and brute force. Because of this they would never be able to reach the pinnacle of success that the Great Western enjoyed. They never really had it, to begin with. Try as they all did to hold on to their power, they knew that their authority was slipping further and further away from them. With each and every day, the Great Western forged ahead. The powers that shouldn’t be increased their measures to regain control at any cost.
All of the money that the men of color earned at the Great Western, the County tried to take it away. The County Court, upon the instruction of Dover Furnace Iron Master Howard Claiborne, passed laws that required all freedmen to bond themselves. This bond was, in effect, a tax or a license that the County required of them to be “free”. The bond was so high, sometimes as much as a hundred dollars, that the men felt as though they would never be able to earn their freedoms.
Who would be the next in line to come and say, “I own a piece of you now.”
Many men, begrudgingly, did suffer to pay the blood money and bonded themselves to become free so they could have the right to stay and live in Stewart County. However, even this wasn’t pleasing to the Court. The Court obtusely reckoned that if the former slaves, who sought to be free, paid the County it’s required bond money they would be less likely to leave this, their little island of despair. Their plan was to ensure that the money the former slaves continued to earn as free men would be kept between the rivers and inside their little hell hole. But not enough freedmen, to the County’s liking, made a bond with the Court. Once the men earned their freedom, more and more of them left Stewart County forever, never looking back. The Court worried that other slaves were escaping and leaving with them. This concern was not unfounded. There were hundreds, if not thousands of slaves working the iron furnaces and the sacred tobacco farms of Stewart County in 1856. People soon found, through the example of the Great Western, that there was another way, a better way of life. At the first opportunity, many of them packed up their belongings, sometimes in a single bag, and under the cover of night and immediate threat of a cruel and agonizing death they moved, quickly North, to the safety of Kentucky.
As a result of this ever-increasing migration, the Court attempted to make individual owners accountable for their slaves if they escaped. They passed laws requiring that a responsible white man, a sponsor, must co-sign any Freedman’s Bond. If that freedman left and took others with him the cosigners were held liable for the losses. A freedman that left and took his wife and two children with him could cost the cosigner upwards of two thousand dollars! This was payable to the County, of course, as a compensation to the other iron furnaces for lost production. Cosigners became very scarce. In a way, many freedmen felt that their hard earned money was no good, that they weren’t really free if they had to have a white man sign on with them for their bond. Other laws passed by the County Court ordered that freedmen could own no horses, no livestock, and no guns. This further infuriated them. They had worked very hard to earn their freedom. They bought land and invested in Stewart County hoping to stay here and now they were told that they could not own the animals required to manage their property. The County Court made it intolerable for them to stay and intolerable for them to leave.
Luke and Brandon Elam signed all of their freed men’s bonds but only a handful of other white men in the county would sign for their men. Those men who could not secure a bond, after they had worked so hard for and earned the money to buy back their freedom, were understandably agitated. The only thing left for them to do was to move away from Stewart County to a place where a bond was not required of them to live free. The closest place to begin a journey like that started just twelve miles away, in Kentucky.
If they bought their freedom they were free to move, the Court allowed, but if they stayed in Stewart County it would cost them bond money. Even if they had bond money they would have to find a co-signer to sponsor them. Even if they had a cosigner, they could not own livestock. On top of all this they were told that they could not move their families with them to other parts of the County. Their families were still slaves and were made to stay in the slave quarters of their masters. It made no difference to the County that these were the wives and the children of free men. The men’s families weren’t recognized as free. Their freedom cost money, too, the Court ruled. The Court allowed that only the free men who had paid for their singular freedom could move about the County untethered. Their children and their wives could not move with them as the Court ruled they were not free. It was easy to see why many of the men chose to leave by any means possible as soon as they could and even in the dead of the night. This is where the slaves began disappearing. This is where the Committee of Safety riders were employed to hunt them down and bring them back to the stocks of Dover.
As the summer of 1856 turned to fall tension filled the air in Stewart County. In September, the COS began stopping and holding the Great Western wagon train workers in Town. They said they needed to check each wagon for runaways. This usually delayed the Great Western’s production by about an hour for that day. In October, they began pulling accused runaways from the wagons and either Mr. Luke or the Iron Master had to come back to Dover later in the day to retrieve him. The slave was never a runaway and was always beaten before he was returned. This happened three times in November 1856. It was a fuse that was burning red hot. We saw it all lighting off right in front of us, but we couldn’t put it out. We had to live through it. We had to watch it burn.
Hilton bought his freedom sooner than he expected and was a bonded free man so we were allowed to move freely anywhere we desired as the Elam brothers encouraged it. We bought a farm as far up into Tennessee as we could to be away from the riders of Dover’s Committee of Safety. We lived only a couple of miles North of the Great Western and Hilton was able to come home every night. The Elams would never report us, Hilton’s family, as missing or runaway slaves so we were always able and never a danger to travel together. We chose to trade in Kentucky. People were nicer and it was a lot safer up there. They welcomed our money and us, equally. Samuel was 9 years old and Hilmon was just beginning to walk. We could have moved to Kentucky. It was only about seven miles away, but we didn’t. The road North was not as well traveled as others, but there were farms that dotted the landscape all along the way and we knew everyone on the path.
Besides, Hilton loved the Great Western. He made thirty dollars a month there and we had never seen or imagined that kind of money before. He used to say that somebody would have to beat him away from his Furnace with a stick before he would ever leave her. She was his second love and I accepted that.
We lived far away from Dover now. We no longer witnessed, first hand, the atrocities that were being committed against the runaways. Even more horrible stories were now told that women, and children alike, were being chained to the stocks and whipped. Dogs were set loose on runaways and they were viciously attacked to bring them down. Women were being raped by men on the sides of the road in the broad light of day. The Committee of Safety riders made no attempt to put a stop to these crimes. Sometimes, it was told, they were the culprits of the evil doings. We received these reports from the workers that continued to ride the ferry across the Cumberland and pass through the County Seat on the way to the Great Western. It was getting worse all the time. No one could blame anyone for trying to escape. There was no justice and there was no peace.
These bad times all started, I guess, with the success of the Great Western. Men were making such good money. By the fall of 1856 the men had two full years of work behind them and the sound money that came from it was burning a hole in their pockets. People were buying their freedom left and right and after that, they bought land and farms. Many men left Stewart County, but many stayed to continue to work and earn a solid living. Those that left usually left because they had families and they were able to get the means together to get their families away from here, all together. Those that stayed were usually single men who enjoyed the freedom of hard work and good money. Either way, all of these people offered hope to a thousand other slaves in the County.
There were nearly twenty furnaces in Stewart County in 1856 but only one Great Western. In a place where imaginary dreams were the only hope a person might have, whatever happened at the Great Western was retold a hundred times over and built upon with every telling. It was told that those black men who worked the Great Western were now free men living in the North of Stewart County and they owned their own land. If they owned five acres it was told that they owned a whole hunting valley or a whole fishing stream. If the freemen chose to leave Stewart County it was told that if they hadn’t loaded up two wagons full, with their belongings, then they weren’t ready, just yet, to leave. Money flowed like honey to the bees to anyone associated with the Great Western.
Stories of superior working conditions, even at a hot Iron Furnace, continued to creep back from the Great Western to all of those living in the dismal, dirt floor slave quarters of their masters. Throughout the County, “North, through Kentucky”, became a rallying cry for all the slaves. Anything that could be or would be said of the life up north was always better than the reality they understood in Stewart County. It was the dream of freedom that drove those men and women. It was the dream that they could be better than they were, that they could do better for themselves and for their families if they were only given the chance. With the Great Western, they had seen it. They knew it was real. Real freedom waited in Kentucky for all those brave enough to risk it. It may cost them their lives, but they reasoned death would be easier for them than the life they now lived. Even those men with little or no money, even those men with no shoes risked escaping. The Great Western was the way.
This is where Hilton got into trouble. He had no reason to leave Stewart County. He had his family with him, he owned a working farm with livestock that the Elams claimed they owned, and he made good money at the Great Western. But even though he had no reason to leave he sure did his best to help others get away. It became well known in other Furnaces that if you were trying to escape and you could make your way to Hilton Jacobs, the Keeper at the Great Western, you could make your way to freedom. We were already in the northern part of the County, almost to Kentucky, and Hilton knew the ways of those Committee of Safety Riders. He could point an accompanied man down ten different trails, all in the right direction, towards the safety of the North. There was a network of farms spread out up there like a patchwork quilt and Hilton knew, as did I, where the friendly farms were and where the farms were that should be passed by. I supported Hilton in helping these poor and desperate people. I always aided these runners, who’s only crime was a search for freedom, with a food basket and a bundle of clothes. Many was the night that a quiet tap was heard on our door from an exhausted man who had just swum across the Cumberland River or a frightened and scared young couple that had just escaped the sharp teeth of the hounds. They were all making their way, blindly, towards an unknown freedom. Most of the time all of the property that these people owned was on their backs. We had a plan for them. It was all laid out very carefully. We would ease them, feed them, and let them rest as we watched the roads and listened to the wind for the right time to go. Mose’s daddy would take them on foot safely up into Kentucky and make the first pass with them. Then, they would be escorted further under that same network of cover into Illinois and Ohio. They were passed off to the next guide all along the way until they felt safe. Until they felt safe, that was their only condition for settling.
After a while, we began receiving letters from way up North. Letters would come back from Chicago, Cincinnati, Louisville, and from just about everywhere that you could imagine. Even from as far away as New York, the letters came back to us. Most times, when Mose’s daddy handed a runaway off to the next guide in the line that guide had a return letter for him to bring back to us. Almost every one of them had two or three dollars inside thanking us for the clothes or the food that we shared with them. They were all signed, Cousin Beulah or Cousin Big Billy, or some such name so as not to arouse too much suspicion if the letters happened to be intercepted or stolen by some scallywag. We passed the money to the next passenger on our train.
These runaways became a serious epidemic among the other ironmasters in the County. Each master was losing their slaves at the rate of at least one a week. This was 15-20 slaves, all told, escaping north every week to Kentucky. The opposing iron masters grew tired of losing. They had no end game for losing and the growing loss of their workers through escalating escapes lowered their production even more. The iron masters put more and more pressure on the Court to do something to stop this mass exodus. The County had a duty, they said, to protect their holdings. This was, after all, their owned property that was walking away. If the County Court couldn’t protect their interests they would take their bankrolls further south, they said, to Dickson County and beyond.
The Elam brothers knew what was happening but never let on and they never questioned an unfamiliar face that may have been seen hiding too far north in the County. The other furnace masters and the Committee of Safety riders suspected that the Elam boys were helping slaves to escape, but they could never prove it. They hated them for this and they began to tighten the noose around the Great Western’s neck.
Luke and Brandon Elam felt the pressure coming. They called for a special meeting of all the workers at the Great Western and the word was that it was not going to be good. Since the Committee of Safety had ratcheted up their enforcement of the, “No more than three slaves meeting together at any one time law”, the brothers called for the assembly to be held on the grounds of the Great Western. After all that was happening, it was the only good and safe place left for them to meet. So, under the disguise of work, a late harvest celebration, and the coming of Christmas, the final meeting of the workers of the Great Western Furnace in Stewart County, Tennessee was planned for November 28th, 1856.
End of Chapter 5