Brown, Hallie Q.
|CHARLOTTA GORDON MACHENRY PYLES -- 1806--1880|
Down below the Mason and Dixon's Line, near Bardstown, in the good old state of Kentucky, among the various Negro families, who lived on the plantations, was one named Pyles. This family of father, mother and twelve children was one of those favored families before the war. I say favored because they did not have to suffer many of the hardships of slavery. The father, whose name was Harry MacHenry (Pyles) happened to be the offspring of his master, who was William MacHenry and hailed from Scotland, while his mother was a light colored maid, who worked in the home. Is it any wonder then, that the son had blue eyes, fair complexion and all the ear marks of his white ancestry, and his father, in order to atone for his sin, declared him free and allowed him to roam where he would? The father not only did this for him, but saw that his son had good training in the harness and shoe mending industries and gave him a shop where he worked for the plantations, far and near, and thus supported his family in a comfortable way.
Tall and majestic as a straight pine was his good wife, Charlotta Gordon, with the high cheek bones, the copper colored hue and straight, glossy black hair, which denoted Indian extraction. Her parentage, while different in some respects, was similar in others to that of her husband; for her father was a mixture of German and Negro, while her mother had been a full blooded squaw of the famous Seminole tribe of Indians. Coming from such parentage it was not surprising that later in life, she displayed such courage and endurance in the face of difficulties,
Miss Gordon was a very conscientious young woman and promised her father on his death bed that she would free this family according to the Wesleyan Methodist Manumittant Law for slaves a few years after his death.
Charlotta had married a John McElroy before she met Harry MacHenry; and had one daughter by this union. The girl's name was Julian.
The ten children who blessed the union of Charlotta Gordon and Harry MacHenry were as follows: Emily, the eldest, Barney, Benjamin, Pauline, Sarah Ann, Mary Ellen, Henry, Charlotta, Elizabeth and Mary Agnes.
In the year 1853, Miss Gordon decided to give them their Manumittant papers. In order to do this, it was necessary for her to move the entire family North.
In those days when pro-slavery sentiments were at fever-heat, on account of the activities of the Abolitionists and the Underground Railway, it was very dangerous for colored people, and especially free ones, to move about from place to place without a pass.
Miss Gordon happened to have several brothers who did not share her religious opinion and who had always coveted the MacHenry family as a fine possession. One of the sons of the family, Benjamin, who was a tall, light complexioned man with blue eyes, straight brown hair and fine physique was caught one evening by some of the brothers
Harry MacHenry Pyles was not allowed, as yet, to have charge of his family, though permitted by his father to go and come as he pleased and no one dared to molest him.
Miss Gordon finally won the lawsuit and began preparations to take the family North. The laxness of the laws concerning slaves at that time, and the fear of her brothers caused Miss Gordon to send to Ohio and have a white minister, Rev. Claycome, come to Kentucky and start with her family northward. Before starting, Grandma Pyles, who was one of the famous old Southern cooks, had prepared meats, ginger bread, cakes and food of every description, enough to last the family on their trip; so it would only be necessary to cook a few corn pones and make coffee from time to time to supply the travelers. Occasionally, when their paths happened to cross that of a deer, they would have an addition of venison to their store of food.
You can here, perhaps, let your imagination supply the details of this wonderful trip, beset on every side by the dangers and treachery of the old slave law, the wild animals lurking in the forests; and the lawless renegades who often roamed about at will. Yet who would exchange even this apparent wild flight for freedom for the hideous nightmare of unending slavery and degradation which remained behind? Many at this time had lost their lives in a similar flight for freedom. To go or to die a moral death was the question before them. And they determined to go, because they felt that God was with them.
The most noted of this party was the noble hearted white woman, who was willing to brave the scorn of her relatives, the criticism and reproach of neighbors, and to sacrifice friends, all for the sake of giving this Negro family the heritage, which was theirs by right. Then there was the minister, reverend in appearance, who was also impelled by a bond of sympathy for the unfortunate, to leave his home and come to Kentucky and travel thence through the dangers and wilds of an unknown land in order to perform this heroic deed.
The family consisted of the father, mother, the eleven children, and one small daughter and son, Thermon and Louanne belonging to the older daughter, Julian; and three small boys, John Wesley, Daniel and James T., sons of Emily. Both of these daughters had married, but their husbands were slaves belonging to other masters and therefore could not accompany them.
In one of the old time-worn schooner wagons drawn by six of the best blooded horses that Kentucky could afford with four in the rear as a supply for the others when they became tired, with all their household goods neatly packed in the wagon, the women and children were crowded in and started off on their journey to the Land of Promise.
It was in the early fall of the year 1853 that the family started out on their eventful trip.
I have often heard my mother, whose name was Mary Ellen, say that when they arrived at Louisville, she thought it was as near like the "Torment" as any place she had ever seen, because of the smoke and fire she saw belching from the chimneys of the factories and distilleries, and she told how none of the children strayed far from the wagon because they were too afraid they would be burned up.
As they proceeded on their journey Miss Gordon discovered that she had forgotten her register and they turned back to secure it. When they arrived at Bardstown, she
At Louisville, after they had finished all negotiations with the state officers as to their right to leave the place, they boarded one of the old side wheel boats, so common on the Ohio in those days, and traveled to Cincinnati, thence to St. Louis.
When they finally reached St. Louis, they met a white man by the name of Nat. Stone, who promised to pilot them all the way to Minnesota for the sum of $100, which Miss Gordon agreed to pay. Later on in the journey, he attempted to be treacherous and held that unless they gave him $50 more, he would turn them over to some slave holders in Missouri. So afraid was Miss Gordon that her plans would be frustrated, that she paid the extra $50 and they continued their journey. After leaving St. Louis, they again started overland in their schooner wagon traveling in Woodford County, Saline County, across the Missouri River on the ferry to Howard County, then Shelby, then Monroe. This was a very tiresome and difficult journey and ofttimes, it was necessary for them to throw out some meat and use powder as well, to keep the bears and wolves away from the wagon, but after many trials and difficulties, such as are encountered by all pioneers, going into a new and
It had been their aim to go on to Minnesota, but when they arrived at Keokuk, which was then a mere trading post with one small tavern on the river bank, the winter had set in with all its severity for it had taken them many months to come so far.
Any one who has taken a trip in a schooner wagon with only canvas covering for its protection and encountered the blizzards of the northwest, which almost cover the wagon with snow and ice, will realize that such weather must be considered before it is encountered. The older boy, Barney Pyles, was the main driver all the way from Kentucky and he it was who looked after the women and children and assisted the father with the chores and work on the trip. After arriving in Keokuk, the father being somewhat of a carpenter, as well as having a very thorough knowledge of some of the other trades, proceeded at once in the spring to build a substantial little brick house on Johnson Street for Miss Gordon and the family.
During the next year, he found it an ever increasing burden to take care of, not only his own family, but that of the two daughters and their children as well, even though the oldest son, Barney, had a very lucrative position of hauling all the freight overland from Keokuk to Des Moines, because there were no railroads through at that time.
The mother finally devised a plan whereby the burdens of the two oldest daughters' families could be shifted to those who should really care for them. She had letters written to the owners of Catiline Walker, the husband of her daughter Emily and Joseph Kendricks, husband of
Meanwhile she received a letter from her long lost son, Benjamin, who had been sold into Mississippi and who in some way or other found out that she was making plans to buy the sons-in-law and decided that if this were true, surely she would be willing to buy her own son. He therefore wrote her that he could be bought for $1500.00 also and suggested that only one of the sons-in-law be purchased together with himself, leaving the other man to trust his fate. Grandma Pyles, however, felt that as her son Benjamin was not married and had not little ones to care for it would be easier for him to liberate himself than for the others to do so. Hence, she wrote him that if he would only trust in God, a way would be provided. This irritated Benjamin and they never received any direct communication from him again. They did hear, indirectly, that he was sold into Fayette County, Missouri, and known as Benjamin Moore and from that all trace of him was lost; and while inquiries made through various channels to determine his whereabouts, no word has ever been received from him.
Charlotta Gordon Pyles in her plan to go out and raise the money to buy the sons-in-law had secured good letters of recommendation from Major Kilbourne, Gen. Scoeffield and other prominent white citizens, and armed with these good letters, she started out on a trip to the East, traveling through Pennsylvania, where in the city of Philadelphia, she was hailed with delight by the Quaker families, residing there at the time, many of whom threw open their doors and entertained her. She also had the pleasure, though a poor slave, of speaking in Old Penn Hall in which hangs the famous Liberty Bell. The good people of Philadelphia not only entertained her, but allowed her to speak in church, hall and home against the wrongs of slavery and provided her with means to go on and tell her story to others as she traveled. And ofttimes in her
It was a difficult task for a poor ignorant woman, who had never had a day's schooling in her life, to travel thousands of miles in a strange country and stand up night after night, day after day before crowds of men and women, pleading for those men back in slavery and for the union of their wives and children. So well did she plead, however, that in about six months, she had raised the $3000.00, retraced her way to Iowa and then to Kentucky and there she bought the two men from their owners and reunited their families.
Her activities in this holy cause did not stop here, but many a slave, coming from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, found at the gateway into Iowa an enthusiastic member of their own race in the person of Grandma Pyles
"O, fare-you-well Kentucky,
You are not the place for me,
I am on my way to Canada,
Where colored men are free."
It would be impossible to tell you the many good deeds which Grandma Pyles performed for her own people for she was a quiet, home-loving body and modest in all of her good deeds and no record of them has been preserved.
Among her daughters was one, who had the same indomitable spirit which characterized her mother. Her name was Mary Ellen. She was seventh in age of the sons and daughters and had always been a great favorite with Miss Gordon.
It was she who was chosen to live in the Big House with Miss Gordon and whenever the latter went to church or visiting, she always took Mary Ellen with her, for she was so fair with her gray eyes and light hair that she could easily pass for a white child. I have heard my mother tell how, after Miss Gordon's father died and she lived in the house with Miss Gordon, often in her childish fancy she would imagine she heard a heavy step like that of Mr. Gordon coming down the steps and the latch of the stair door raised and she would expect to see his ghostly self finish his nightly vigil, but nothing would happen, and then she would steal to Miss Gordon's side to receive her kindly embrace and be assured that it was nothing but her childish imagination, which ofttimes comes when a death has occurred in the family.
Again, mother would tell the children of a famous old
Miss Gordon thought so much of Mary Ellen that she never allowed her to be punished, and even one time when she failed to get the water from the spring, which was her daily task, and it had been reported to her mother and Grandma Pyles was about to give her what she needed, Miss Gordon intervened and said, "Let her go this time, Charlotta, and next time she must be attended to."
When her mother brought her from the South, Mary Ellen was about seventeen years old and had never attended school, but she had a great thirst for knowledge and a determination to get an education at any cost. She finally heard of a Quaker family in Salem, Iowa, who needed a girl to help with their housework and they also offered the extraordinary inducement of a school education. Mary Ellen immediately had a letter written to them offering her services and was accepted. Thus, the dream of her life began to materialize and after she had been there awhile, she pleaded for her younger sister, Mary Agnes by name, that she might also come. This was finally allowed and she redoubled her efforts by working both for her own and her sister's board. The two sisters attended four terms of school in this way, but the younger sister became
The Pyles family not only fraternized with the Indians, farmed and worked for their right as pioneers of industry, but they were also pioneers for the cause of education. Small wonder again that in the year 1876 Charlotta, the namesake of Grandma, who had sent her oldest boy to the very inadequate colored grade school in Keokuk and after he had finished the eighth grade of this school, as they had no colored high school, she appealed to the white high school for admittance of her son, Geroid Smith. When she found the doors of this institution securely closed against him because of his color, in the same business-like manner that had characterized her mother's spirit she took the matter to the courts of Iowa and secured the decision of opening the Keokuk high school to white and black alike; and thus her son became one of the first colored high school graduates in the state of Iowa in the year of 1880.
Let us now for a few minutes go back to the history of the noble soul, Miss Gordon, who brought the family North and after reaching Keokuk gave each his freedom. The family kept these Manumittant papers till after the colored people were free, but so great was their abhorrence of the idea that they had ever been considered slaves, that these papers were destroyed and thus only the tradition remained. Miss Gordon, however, continued to live with the Pyles family, visiting her rich relatives in Kewanee, Illinois, at stated periods, and died in the early '70's in the home of the family she loved so well. Both she and Grandma Pyles, belonged to the First Baptist Church of Keokuk, for at that time there was no other church there. And the same pallbearers, who carried the remains of Miss Gordon to their last resting place, also did this same service for
The spirit of Grandma Charlotta Pyles still goes marching onward in that of her grand children who are engaged in the work of educating the Negro race in the Piney Woods School, Mississippi.