Rivers and Freedom: A Child’s Escape

River routes to Canada: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/underground-railroad/

River routes to Canada: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/underground-railroad/

When Patsie Bettis was freed in 1837, a year after the death of her father Elijah Bettis III, she was the mother of two young sons, Drew, age 7, and Martin, age 2.  Drew was the son of Thomas Stevenson Drew, who was married to Patsie’s white cousin Cinderella Bettis.  Martin’s father is unknown, although oral history recorded by one of his descendants identifies him as Indian.  Both of them remained “in slavery and bondage” under the terms of Elijah’s will. An 1839 deed records their transfer to one of his legitimate white daughters, as part of their share of his estate.

Patsie resurfaces in 1849 as Martha Cooper, buying a lot in the busy riverport town of Jacksonport AR.   She has made some influential white friends, and by 1856—19 years after she was freed—she has saved enough money to purchase the freedom of her older son.

Martin is missing. He was growing up in London, Ontario, having escaped with James Bettis, Martha’s enslaved brother or perhaps her nephew. The family history says that he was taken there as a young child, perhaps soon after Elijah’s estate was settled. He was raised in James’ family, prosperous and free. Martha did not see him again until after the Civil War.

How did they do it?

Detroit Underground Railroad monument

Detroit Underground Railroad monument

Tens of thousands of escaping slaves made the same trip, either hiding on steamboats for the trip up the Mississippi and the Illinois River to Chicago, traveling with forged freedom papers, passing as white, or traveling by night on the overland route, trusting in the network of abolitionists and sympathizers that made up the Underground Railroad.  Western Ontario was a major destination for such runaways. Many of them had help from the slaves and free people of color who worked on the steamboats, as deckhands, waiters, chambermaids, cooks and stewards.  Such workers might know the location of safe houses on shore, or where forged freedom papers could be obtained; might help provide food to a hidden runaway, or lie to the captain about his free status.  River-borne commerce, the lifeline for the cotton economy, was also a powerful means of undermining its foundations.

It must have been a good deal more difficult for an escaping slave to travel with a five-year old child, knowing that slave catchers would have had their description and would be on the lookout at every stop.  It is likely that Martha’s connection with the river was a significant factor in their success.

Jacksonport is located at the junction of the White and Black rivers, an easy boat ride from the town of Pocahontas, where her son Drew still lived with the Bettis family. If Martha worked on the river in the years after she was freed, she would have had access to many resources.  Since wages on steamboats were unusually high, she might even have earned enough money to buy or make good clothes for James and Martin, so that they could look like people with an unquestioned right to travel.  A later photograph of James and his family, taken in Ontario, suggests that they may have looked white enough to get away with that strategy.  Whatever sacrifices Martha made for her children, whatever risks she took, they were the foundation of the strong and enduring family that still honors her memory.

Further reading: Thomas C. Buchanan, Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World.

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