When Arkansas’ free people of color were forced to leave the state in 1859, Martha Bettis Cooper and her son Drew Bettis sold the properties they had acquired in Jacksonport and boarded a steamboat heading north. With them came a 10-year-old named John Bettis, who was probably a nephew. They traveled up the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers until they reached the town of Leavenworth, Kansas, the first town of any size that they would reach on free soil. They arrived during a brief lull in the brutal civil war that had already engulfed the Missouri-Kansas border for several years, and would flare up again within a year after their arrival.
What follows is my attempt at imagining her journey.
She has dressed in her best for the trip, an imposing woman in a silk dress and a fine new hat, with two handsome young men beside her. As she leans on the railing of the lower deck, watching the familiar bluffs and islands, the great trees and the river eating away at the earth around their roots, the crowd of boats heading upriver for Cincinnati or down from St. Louis, she remembers the time when she worked as a chambermaid on steamboats like this one. In those days, all that kept her going was the thought of her sons, and the fierce determination to someday be where she is today. She remembers the blows and the insults, along with the occasional kindness, and the respect that she earned by hard work and attention. She remembers the hostility of the Irish and German deckhands, and the fear in the eyes of the disguised fugitives. There is more than one runaway on this boat today, heading north; she can see the tension in the face of a deckhand, and guess the place where another man is hiding. Brother James was one of those runaways once, and her baby Martin, whom she hasn’t seen in twenty years.
We sure do frighten them, she thinks. We’re so scary they had to kick us right out of Arkansas. Colored people can’t get off a boat anywhere in Missouri, except in some towns where they’re packed off to spend the night in jail. But none of that’s going to happen on this trip. The captain knows me well, and he does what he wants on the river no matter what the laws say.
And maybe they have reasons to be afraid. The Lord’s justice is waiting to fall on them. They tried to bring slavery to Kansas, and they failed; the Free Staters sent them home with their tails between their legs. The abolitionists watered that ground with their blood, so that people like us could hold our heads up like anybody else. They say that if a free colored person is kidnapped up there, the white folks will form up a posse to get him back. They say it’s still dangerous on the Missouri past Kansas City, that there are men on the banks shooting at you as you go by. But we’ll get there. The Lord has been good to us so far, and He won’t abandon us now.
She is blessed to have Drew with her. A fine son, sober, industrious and dutiful. The Lord’s been good to him too, keeping him in the circle of a family where he was well-treated, when so many others were torn away from everyone they loved. She shudders as she remembers the horror on the lower decks of the southbound boats, the men and women chained up in their own filth like animals. The Lord’s justice is waiting.
When she was a girl, back in Missouri, she had a family. All of them sisters and brothers grew up together, played together, worked together, took care of each other. They belonged together. Now they’re all scattered. But she has Drew now, and John. Haley has Evalina back. Once they get settled in Kansas, maybe the others will join them. Maybe even Martin, her lost baby. The way it’s supposed to be. The way it will be again.