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Group retraces enslaved man's escape route from Virginia to Connecticut

184 years ago, James Lindsey Smith, an enslaved man in Northumberland County on Virginia's Northern Neck, made his way to freedom and eventually to Norwich, Connecticut.

Inspired by that journey and Smith’s determination, a group of men from Castle Church in Norwich attempted to retrace his steps.

History gets squishy when documents are scarce. Slave pens and whipping posts decay. Ancient roads return to the forest. But before he died James Lindsey Smith, born Lindsey Payne, wrote his autobiography, giving details of his life of enslavement along the Chesapeake Bay and his courageous escape.

James Lindsey Smith
Library of Congress
James Lindsey Smith

Kathy Schuder and Charles Sydnor from the Northern Neck Historical Society helped the church group find what might be Smith’s first night on his path of escape. "As an enslaved person he led religious meetings. He was a very popular shoe maker, very well-know and talented. He was a smart man," Schuder notes.

And Smith was had trouble walking because of a childhood injury his master never had properly treated. "When he was carrying timber early on in his youth which messed up his leg. It was quite phenomenal that he should go on alone and be able to walk that distance," Sydnor says.

The journey begins at the local tavern in Heathsville, which still operates as a historic landmark. Smith’s plans to escape with two friends became immediate when slave traders tried to capture one of them. They made their way to Mantua, an 18th century plantation on the Coan River, built by enslaved people.

Whedbee Mullen’s family bought Mantua in the 1960s. She grew up wandering the woods and fields here. "All the brick is made by hand and the stone is ballast from his ships." Mullen says. "James Smith the owner, James Smith, was a merchant, who would have been here when James Lindsey Smith escaped."

Mullen guides the group past what is likely the site of former slave quarters and into the woods where the old road from the tavern to the Coan River once existed and was probably used on the night of the escape.

Robenson Charlotin and Caleb Roseme with pieces of bricks made by the enslaved at Mantua Plantation.
Pamela D'Angelo
Robenson Charlotin and Caleb Roseme with pieces of bricks made by the enslaved at Mantua Plantation.

Along the way two church members, Robenson Charlotin and Caleb Roseme stop to pick up pieces of brick. "This is a handmade brick made by a slave," Roseme notes as he holds the chunk. "To think that years later, we’d be holding. I don’t think that they were thinking that years later people would be like coming and slavery would be a thing of the past."

At last they reach what could be the first step in a long journey to escape. In his memoir, Smith describes sobbing at the shore as the three men board a canoe and leave their families and friends. Pastor Adam Bowles marks the moment on May 6, exactly 184 years later. "In the book it, in detail, it describes him getting to this point. You can’t help but imagine what it must have been like. You can’t help but imagine all the emotions," Bowles recounts.

Read James Lindsey Smith's memoir

As Charlotin, a Hatian immigrant sings “A Change is Gonna Come,” the group looks out to the water as though watching James Lindsey Smith and his friends. Their next stop across the Coan River follows the runaways who steal a sailboat and land at Frenchtown, Maryland on the Elk River where they begin the next leg of their journey to freedom. For Smith, it would end with a prosperous life in Norwich.

Bowles said plans are underway to paint a mural of him on a wall of their church.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.