Context matters: the contrasting narratives of John Washington and Noah Davis, Fredericksburg slaves (with a Patton connection)

From John Hennessy:

Both begin with the identical words:  “I was born a slave.” Both narrate a life within slavery and a lifelong quest for freedom.  Both were urban slaves, working in homes or small businesses or industry.  But in most other respects, the narratives of John Washington and Noah Davis could not be more different. The differences command of those who read them special care. They demonstrate vividly why context matters.

Only a couple hundred slave narratives have ever been published, and so Fredericksburg is fortunate to have two produced by men who spent a most of their lives as slaves in the town.  You are likely most familiar with John Washington’s narrative, published in 2007 by David Blight as A Slave no More (read more about Washington’s memoir here). Washington wrote in 1873, seven years after the war, and in his retrospective recounts his life in slavery and his quest for freedom in vivid terms. His narrative is filled with antagonists, most notable his mistress, Catherine Taliaferro. In Washington’s narrative, Taliaferro, her neighbors, the community, and its institutions are the limiters of his freedom. They are, rightly so, Washington’s foils in his struggle for time, space, literacy, joy, and family.  Writing privately from his new home in Washington DC ten years after emancipation, John Washington could afford to offend. His memoir is frank, sometimes stark, though rarely angry or vengeful.

While Noah Davis’s life was in many ways similar to John Washington’s, his narrative was constructed under vastly different circumstances (you can find a digital version here–the first 40 or so pages treat his life in Fredericksburg). Noah Davis was owned at first by Robert Patton, the patriarch of the line of Pattons that produced World War II General George S. Patton, and later by Robert Patton’s son, Dr. William Fairlie Patton, a surgeon in the navy. Davis, then 14, arrived in Fredericksburg in December 1818, after years of work at Robert Patton’s mill near Stevensburg in Culpeper County.  From all he’d heard, Davis expected Fredericksburg to be “the greatest place in the world,” and he was not disappointed: “I was astonished and delighted at what appeared to me the splendor and beauty of the place.” 

Davis was apprenticed as a shoemaker to Thomas Wright, “a man of sterling integrity, who was considered the best workman in the whole town” (Wright’s shop was apparently on Caroline Street, near Hanover). He worked so for more than a twenty years, until a religious awakening (he, like John Washington, born in 1838, was a member of the Baptist Church on Sophia Street) spurred him to seek a new career, and freedom.

In 1845, he approached his owner, Fairlie Patton, and asked to be permitted to buy his freedom. Patton consented, fixing the price at $500, and allowed Davis to embark on a fundraising trip–“to travel and find friends, who would give me money.” We recently wrote of Ellen Mitchell’s 1859 very public and highly successful campaign to raise funds to buy herself and family from slave trader George Aler. Davis’s campaign was similar. His travels took him to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York, where , he conceded, he failed miserably. Four months produced only about $150, and he returned to Fredericksburg “greatly disheartened.” But here, according to Davis, his mentor Thomas Wright stepped in, allowing Davis to set up his own shop to fund the remaining purchase price. By 1846, freedom was his, and Davis soon left to accept a pastorship at a church in Baltimore.

The home of Carter L. Stevenson and his wife Jane Herndon Stevenson. The couple owned Noah Davis's wife.

For the next thirteen years, Davis would struggle to raise funds to buy his wife and children out of bondage. He succeeded incrementally. In 1851, he moved his wife (who once was a slave of Carter Stevenson, who lived at 303 Amelia Street) and two children to Baltimore.  By 1859, he had managed to purchase all but two of his seven children from bondage, and the funds to buy them seemed elusive.  Then, Davis settled on a novel plan:  he decided to write a book about his life as a slave and his quest to purchase his children from slavery. He hoped enough people would buy it to fund the purchase of his two still-enslaved children.

Clearly, Davis was acutely aware that the dominant market for his book was white. And this, clearly, shaped the tone and content of his narrative–rendering it radically different from John Washington’s. In Davis’s narrative, white Fredericksburg residents are portrayed as the grantor’s of privilege and freedom, not (as with Washington’s memoir) the limiters of them.  Robert Patton was “one of the best of masters, allowing his servants many privileges.”   Thomas Wright was “a man of sterling integrity…m true and constant friend, who became my protector.”  And when Fairlie Patton gave Davis permission to seek funds to buy his freedom, Davis “thanked him  sincerely for this privilege.”  The only person remotely resembling a foil in Davis’s narrative remains unnamed: the owner of his wife and children, who periodically raised the price on his family, causing exasperation in Davis that he largely succeeds in concealing. But, this woman remains unnamed throughout, and my limited research so far has not revealed her identity (Carter Stevenson’s widow died in 1849, so it was not her). 

Davis’s narrative is useful and interesting–certainly a helpful lens on 19th century Fredericksburg.  But it is governed entirely by the circumstances that produced it, and that in turn renders it a less-than-piercing look into the institution of slavery. John Washington struggled against oppression and oppressors.  Davis built a narrative in which he strived for freedom, aided by those who oppressed. There is no hint of the pain of a life in slavery, beyond the obvious conclusion to be drawn from someone striving so hard to get out of it.  There is no criticism of slaveowners.  That it is bland and inoffensive, however, is no indictment, for the book was never intended to be history. Rather, it was a means to freedom–a fundraising tool, and thus illustrative of yet another way slaves fought, scratched, manipulated, schmoozed, or, in this case, wrote  in their quest for freedom.

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