How a Waterford Slave Stole His Freedom

By John M. Souders

The third of series of articles celebrating the Waterford Foundation’s 75th anniversary.

Long before the Civil War, the village of Waterford was famous—in some circles infamous—for its opposition to slavery. Its Quakers in particular, originally from the North, abhorred the institution as a matter of spiritual principle. They tried to improve the conditions of their less fortunate African-American neighbors, both free and enslaved. But they preferred to work within the bounds of Virginia law. And despite rumors—and the dark suspicions of Loudoun’s slave-owners—little evidence has surfaced linking them to the Underground Railroad, the shadowy network that helped spirit fleeing slaves to freedom in the North.

Ironically, Waterford’s best-documented escape featured a lapsed Quaker, Joshua Pusey (1784-1868), as the oppressive slave-master. By mid-century, his investments in land and livestock made him one of the wealthiest, most prominent men in the county. He owned ten slaves, nine of them women, whom he sometimes hired out. The sole male was one David Lewis (though Pusey may not have acknowledged he was entitled to a surname).

By the spring of 1856, Lewis had decided, in the words of William Still, a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, “that it would be impossible for him to adapt himself to a life of servitude for the special benefit of others; he had, already, as he thought, been dealt with very wrongfully by Pusey, who had deprived him of many years of the best part of his life [he was then about 27], and would continue thus to wrong him, if he did not make a resolute effort to get away.” With that resolve, David Lewis hatched a wild scheme, one that depended on the remarkable participation of a white woman, Emily Ann Mahoney.

According to Still, Lewis would “travel as a coachman, under the protection of a white lady.” Unfortunately, neither he nor his co-conspirator possessed a horse or carriage. But “David reasoned that as Joshua, his so-called master, had deprived him of his just dues for so many years, he had a right to borrow, or take without borrowing, one of Joshua’s horses for the expedition. [He told his master that he wanted to visit his mother.] The plan was submitted to the lady, and was approved, and a mutual understanding here entered into, that she should hire a carriage, and take also her little girl with them. The lady was to assume the proprietorship of the horse, carriage and coachman. In so doing all dangers would be, in their judgment, averted.” And one morning near the end of May, risking all, they headed off for the Mason-Dixon Line.

They must have traveled fast, running on adrenaline, for, as night fell, they reached Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, more than 60 miles distant. They found a hotel. In Still’s retelling, “The lady alighted, holding by the hand her well-dressed and nice-looking little daughter, bearing herself with as independent an air as if she had owned twenty such boys as accompanied her as coachman. She did not hesitate to enter and request accommodations for the night, for herself, daughter, coachman, and horse. Being politely told that they could be accommodated, all that was necessary was that the lady should show off to the best advantage possible.”

Though they were in Pennsylvania, they were not yet in the clear. The federal Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—the notorious “Bloodhound Law”—obliged citizens of free states to assist in the capture and return of such stolen property. And on the morning after their arrival at Chambersburg, as Mrs. Mahoney was paying her bill (using the alias “Ann Thomas”), “the proprietor of the hotel intimated that he thought that matters looked a little suspicious … he believed that it was an Underground Rail Road movement; but being an obliging hotel-keeper, he assured her … that he would not betray them.” The fugitives could not afford to trust his assurances. They abandoned the horse and carriage and boarded the train to Harrisburg, where they “sought and received instructions how to find the [abolitionist Vigilance] Committee in Philadelphia.”

The Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which William Still chaired, had experience aiding freedom-seekers but had never seen such an escape. “What relations had previously existed between David and this lady in Virginia, the Committee knew not. It looked more like the time spoken of in Isaiah, where it is said, “And a little child shall lead them,” than anything that had ever been previously witnessed on the Underground Railroad.”

The trio pushed on to New York City and then Albany, where the trail goes cold, as they would have hoped. They may have continued to Canada, as many others had done, and put themselves finally beyond the reach of pursuers. Somewhere along the line, David Lewis changed his name to Johnson, making him more difficult to trace.

The identity and motivation of David’s companion remain open questions, though census and other records offer clues. One who evidently didknow the answers was Pusey’s son-in-law, Noble S. Braden. It fell to Braden to travel to Chambersburg to retrieve the “borrowed” horse and buggy. As the local press delicately put it, he “exhibited some feeling against the woman, but did not seem inclined to give much information concerning her.” It would have been especially galling to him that the story was picked up by a Richmond paper. Braden was at the time a state senator as well as a Loudoun court magistrate. And he was sensitive to unfavorable publicity. A few years earlier, he had tried to manage press reporting of the suicide of one of Pusey’s slaves.

Asa Gordon

To learn more African-American history, join us for a talk entitled “Bullets to Ballots—The Voting Rights Legacy of the United States Colored Troops” by Asa Gordon on Sunday, February 17, 3:30 p.m. at the John Wesley Community Church, 40125 Bond Street in Waterford. Gordon is secretary-general of the Sons and Daughters of the United States Colored Troops, and recipient of the National Civil Rights Conference, Civil Rights & Social Justice Award. (Parking is available at the Waterford Old School, 40222 Fairfax St. For more information, go to waterfordfoundation.org, or call 540-882-3018).

John Souders is a local historian who has published many books and articles about Loudoun County and Waterford history. Wendy Roseberry coordinated contributions from the Waterford Foundation staff. Sources for this article include: “The Underground Railroad” by William Still and “Record of Fugitives” by Sydney Howard Gay. In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. Learn more about the organization at loudouncoalition.org

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