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Indiana Slave Narratives

August 19, 2013 by Reader's Connection

Ohio County, across the Ohio River from Kentucky.
Map from, used by permission.
Click for Ohio County info.

During the Civil War, Kentucky never seceded from the Union, despite its being a slave state. Ellen Cave was a slave there.

Her master was a “mean man” who drank heavily, he had twenty slaves that he fed now and then, and gave her her freedom after the war only when she would remain silent about it no longer. He was a Southern sympathiser but joined the Union army where he became a captain and was in charge of a union commissary. Finally he was suspected and charged with mustering supplies to the rebels. He was imprisoned for some time, then courtmartialed and sentenced to die. He escaped by bribing his negro guard.

Seventy-some years later, Grace Monroe, a “field writer” for the Federal Writers’ Project, is taking down Ellen’s story. Ellen is now living in Ohio County in Indiana. She has lost everything in the 1937 flood, and is staying in a temporary garage home in back of the Rising Sun courthouse.


Indiana Slave NarrativesEllen’s story and others are gathered in Indiana Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in Indiana from Interviews with Former Slaves / Typewritten Records Prepared by the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938. The title may be misleading, since Indiana was a free state. The slavery narratives for the most part take place elsewhere, and are being related 1936-1938 by ex-slaves (or family members) who have come to live in Gary or Evansville or Indianapolis or Rising Sun.

You are indeed looking at typescript when you open the book, and you might need to shift reading-gears. I think it’s worth the effort, but if the typescript is too much for you, the material is also downloadable at Project Gutenberg.

The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South . . . gave her her freedom after the war only when she would remain silent about it no longer. That threw me for a moment, but I remembered reading in Bruce Levine’s book The Fall of the House of Dixie that some slaveowners were reluctant to part with their human property after the Civil War, in some cases reluctant to inform their property that they (the ex-slaves) were no longer anyone’s property.

The stories told by ex-slaves or their offspring who had moved to Indianapolis were recorded by field writer Anna Pritchett.

The witch doctor told him to get five new nails, as there were five members in his master’s family, walk to the barn, then walk backwards a few steps, pound one nail into the ground, giving each nail the name of each member of the family, starting with the master, then the mistress, and so on through the family. Each time one nail was pounded down in the ground, walk backwards and nail the next one in until all were pounded deep in the ground. He did as instructed and was never beaten again.

Morgan's Great Raid : The Remarkable Expedition from Kentucky to OhioThat’s from the testimony of Mrs. Sarah Colbert of 1505 North Capitol Avenue. Mrs. Belle Butler of 829 North Capitol describes horrid scenes of cruelty toward slaves. Mrs. Callie Bracey of 414 Blake Street tells of her mother’s time as a slave on the Ramblet farm near Jackson, Mississippi.

The Ramblets were known for their good butter. They always had more than they could use. The master wanted the slaves to have some, but the mistress wanted to sell it, she did not believe in giving good butter to slaves and always let it get strong before she would let them have any.

Elsewhere in the state: ex-slave John Eubanks, according to his field writer, was Gary’s only living Civil War veteran in 1937. And why am I requesting a book about John Hunt Morgan’s raid into Indiana and Ohio? Because Eubanks fought against Morgan, of course!

If you’re curious about these souls who endured slavery and then moved within our borders, Indiana Slave Narratives is a real find.


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