Oberlin Heritage Center Blog


Lewis Clarke: Hero in his own right

by Ron Gorman, Oberlin Heritage Center volunteer docent

In my last blog entry, A Tale of Two Abolitionist Towns, I mentioned an Oberlin resident named Lewis Clarke (sometimes spelled Clark), who was born into slavery but eventually escaped, made his way north, and became an outspoken abolitionist. When he died in 1897, the Governor of his native state, Kentucky, ordered that his body lay in state in the Lexington City Auditorium. His remains were then brought to Oberlin and interred at Westwood Cemetery, with a tombstone that reads: “Lewis Clarke – The original George Harris of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although there has been some controversy about whether Mr. Clarke was indeed the inspiration for this character in Mrs. Stowe’s epic novel, he nonetheless led a fascinating life in his own right. I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell his story, and at the same time examine the George Harris controversy.

Lewis Clarke

Lewis G. Clarke (courtesy Oberlin College archives)

Lewis Clarke was born a slave in Kentucky in 1815, the son of a white father and an enslaved mulatto mother. He had 9 brothers and sisters, but was separated from his entire family at just 7 years of age when he was given away to another family. This family treated him very cruelly. Years later, Clarke would write a narrative describing his experiences as a slave and his escape to freedom. He would say of this time in his life:

“All my severe labor, bitter and cruel punishments for these ten years of captivity with this *** family, all these were as nothing to the sufferings experienced by being separated from my mother, brothers and sisters; the same things, with them near to sympathize with me, to hear my story of sorrow, would have been comparatively tolerable… My thoughts continually by day and my dreams by night were of mother and home, and the horror experienced in the morning, when I awoke and beheld it was a dream, is beyond the power of language to describe.”

At the age of 16, Clarke was sold to another cruel master, who used severe beatings along with deprivation of food and water to enforce discipline. Finally, in his early 20s, Clarke decided he was ready to attempt an escape. He explained:

“I had long thought and dreamed of LIBERTY; I was now determined to make an effort to gain it. No tongue can tell the doubt, the perplexities, the anxiety which a slave feels, when making up his mind upon this subject. If he makes an effort and is not successful, he must be laughed at by his fellows; he will be beaten unmercifully by the master, and be watched and used the harder for it all his life. And then if he gets away, who, what will he find? He is ignorant of the world. All the white part of mankind, that he has ever seen, are enemies to him and all his kindred. How can he venture where none but white faces shall greet him?”

But he took the risk anyway and set out on horseback. At the end of the first day of travel he was near the Ohio River, but decided crossing at night would create too much suspicion. So instead he checked into a local tavern. Seeing familiar faces inside, he first bought a pair of eyeglasses to help disguise him. The next morning he made it across the river to Aberdeen, Ohio. From there he traveled to Cincinnati, then back to Portsmouth, from where he traveled the Ohio-Erie canal to Cleveland. At Cleveland he found passage across Lake Erie to Canada. As he would later say:

“When I stepped ashore here, I said, sure enough, I AM FREE. Good heaven! what a sensation, when it first visits the bosom of a full grown man – one, born to bondage – one, who had been taught from early infancy, that this was his inevitable lot for life. Not till then did I dare to cherish for a moment the feeling that one of the limbs of my body was my own.”

He was in Canada about six weeks when he learned that his younger brother, Milton, had also escaped slavery and was now living in a place called Oberlin, Ohio. So after working a while and saving up some money, he recrossed Lake Erie and took the stagecoach to Oberlin. On the coach he met several abolitionists from Oberlin, of whom he said:

“To be thus surrounded at once with friends, in a land of strangers, was something quite new to me. The impression made by the kindness of these strangers upon my heart, will never be effaced. I thought there must be some new principle at work here, such as I had not seen much of in Kentucky. That evening I arrived at Oberlin, and found Milton boarding at a Mrs. Cole’s. Finding here so many friends, my first impression was that all the abolitionists in the country must live right there together.”

Lewis stayed and worked in Oberlin for a year, then decided on a bold and dangerous plan. He would return to Kentucky and help his youngest brother, Cyrus, escape from slavery. So in July, 1842, he made his way back into the “den of lions”. He found his brother near Lexington, then accompanied him on a harrowing journey by foot back towards the Ohio River. At one point he said:

“in traveling through the rain and mud this afternoon, we suffered beyond all power of description. Sometimes we found ourselves just ready to stand fast asleep in the middle of the road. Our feet were blistered all over. When Cyrus would get almost discouraged, I urged him on, saying we were walking for freedom now. Yes, he would say, ‘Freedom is good, Lewis, but this is a hard, h-a-r-d way to get it.’ This he would say half asleep. We were so weak before night, that several times fell upon our knees in the road. We had crackers with us, but we had no appetite to eat – fears were behind us, hope before – and we were driven and drawn as hard as ever men were.”

But when they finally reached Ohio, Cyrus was beside himself with joy. They made their way to Ripley, Ohio, where they “went Up to the house of a good friend of the slave.” The lady of the house was so kind that Cyrus became suspicious, but “when the young men came home, he soon got acquainted, and felt sure they were his friends.” (Anyone who read my previous blog will probably have a good guess of whose house he’s talking about here!) From there they were sent on “by the friends, from place to place”, until they finally reached Oberlin, five weeks after Lewis had left there.

However Cyrus didn’t feel safe in the United States, so after several days in Oberlin he continued on to Canada, while Lewis and Milton remained in Oberlin. Then one day, Cyrus’ fears were justified, when Lewis and Milton were staying in Madison, Ohio, where Lewis had been asked to lecture about slavery. Slavecatchers had learned of their presence and were able to abduct Milton. But fortunately the residents of Lake and Ashtabula counties rallied, rescued Milton, and arrested the slavecatchers, who they eventually sent packing back to Kentucky, angry and empty-handed.[1]

After this, Lewis and Milton moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and stayed in the home of Aaron and Mary Safford. While here, Mary introduced Lewis to her sister-in-law, Harriet Beecher Stowe.[2] Lewis also wrote his ‘slave narrative’, which was widely circulated and which I’ve been quoting above. He also became a speaker on the abolitionist circuit and toured the country telling of his experiences as a slave. In fact he was one of the keynote speakers at the founding convention of the Republican Party in Michigan in 1854.

But his fame put the slavecatchers on his trail again, and Clarke was forced to leave the United States and return to Canada, where he stayed until 1874. Then he returned to Oberlin and continued to lecture, also helping former slaves return from Canada and find work in the United States. In his final years he returned to Kentucky, where he suffered from physical ailments and financial difficulties. He died in 1897 at the age of 82. In addition to being laid in state in the Lexington City Auditorium, he was eulogized by newspapers around the country.

Lewis Clarke tombstone

So is the inscription on Mr. Clarke’s tombstone correct? Although Clarke had claimed to be the George Harris character ever since Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, a daughter of Mrs. Stowe disputed the claim near the end of his life. Let’s take a look at the evidence.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852, 7 years after Clarke’s narrative. In 1854, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote another book, called A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (referred to hereafter as “the Key”). In this non-fiction book she sought to set the record straight for those who claimed that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was unrealistic, by revealing the sources that inspired the characters and events in her novel, as well as other supportive sources. One of the first topics she addresses is the George Harris character, of whom she says:

“With regard to the incidents of George Harris’s life, that he may not be supposed a purely exceptional case, we propose to offer some parallel facts from the lives of slaves of our personal acquaintance. Lewis Clark is an acquaintance of the writer. Soon after his escape from slavery, he was received into the family of a sister-in-law of the author, and there educated. His conduct during this time was such as to win for him uncommon affection and respect, and the author has frequently heard him spoken of in the highest terms by all who knew him. The gentleman in whose family he so long resided, says of him, in a recent letter to the writer, ‘I would trust him, as the saying is, with untold gold’ … The reader is now desired to compare the following incidents of his life, part of which he related personally to the author, with the incidents of the life of George Harris… ” [3]

She then goes on and recounts several pages of material from Clarke’s own narrative. Much of the material she cites was not included in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but some of it was and became part of the George Harris character: George Harris was born into slavery in Kentucky to a white father and mulatto mother and a large family. Like Lewis Clarke, he had a “handsome” older sister, “a pious, good girl – a member of the Baptist Church”, who was abused by her master before being sold down to New Orleans. George Harris was separated from his family at a young age, of which he says: “when I was a little fellow, and lay awake whole nights and cried, it wasn’t the hunger, it wasn’t the whipping, I cried for. No, sir, it was for my mother and my sisters – it was because I hadn’t a friend to love me on earth.” He made his escape when he was a young man, through Ohio and across Lake Erie to Canada. One other similarity that Mrs. Stowe doesn’t mention in the Key, but is quite apparent, is that George Harris also spent the night prior to crossing the Ohio River in a tavern, which he entered in disguise, and where he recognized some of the clientele.

But just like there are many parts of Clarke’s story that aren’t shared by George Harris, there are also parts of George Harris’ story that weren’t shared by Clarke. As Mrs. Stowe explains, the George Harris character, like other characters in the novel, is a “mosaic” of her own imagination and several real-life people, including the renowned abolitionist, Frederick Douglass.

But all this was called into question in 1895, when a newspaper article appeared in Boston, telling about Lewis Clarke and claiming that he was the inspiration for George Harris. This prompted a firm and prompt denunciation from Mrs. Stowe’s daughter, who wrote a letter to the editor claiming that her mother “never saw the man, or even heard of him, until two years ago” and that his claims were “entirely untrue from beginning to end, so far as it had any connection with my mother or her writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”[4]  But nowhere in the letter does the younger Miss Stowe explain the contradiction of what her mother wrote in the Key forty years earlier, nor does she even acknowledge that those words were ever written.

So what to believe then, the Key, or the letter? Well, the Key was written by Mrs. Stowe herself, 9 years after she would have first met Lewis Clarke and 2 years after she published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The purpose of the key was to validate the claims in her novel, as explained above. The contradicting letter was written by Mrs. Stowe’s daughter, 50 years after Mrs. Stowe would have first met Lewis Clarke, and 43 years after the publication of her novel. By this time, Harriet Beecher Stowe herself was 84 years old and had “drifted into dementia and was often found wandering through the gardens and greenhouses of her neighbors.“[5]

I’ll leave it to you, the reader, to decide for yourself which story to believe, but in my mind there is no question: Lewis Clarke was indeed a major inspiration (but not the only one) for the George Harris character in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But more importantly, he was a real-life, flesh and blood, American hero in his own right.

Lewis Clarke is buried in Westwood Cemetery, 455 Morgan Street
(Section D-56#4; GPS coordinates N41°17.002′ W82°14.167′)

Footnotes:

[1] L. I. Rice, “Lewis and Milton Clark: A Bit of History”, Sept 14, 1892; The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

[2] Cambridge Historical Commission J. MILTON CLARKE (1820 – 1902) and LEWIS CLARKE (1818 – 1897) Writers and lecturers (Marker location: 2 Florence Place)

[3] Harriet Beecher Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, p. 23

[4] “A Contradiction from the Daughter of Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe”, Boston Transcript, December 7, 1895; The Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection

[5] National Historic Landmark Nomination: Stowe, Harriet Beecher, House, p. 20

Other sources consulted:

Lewis Garrard Clarke, Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clarke

Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Carver Gayton, “Lewis G. Clarke: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Forgotten Hero”

Leanne Smith, “Peek Through Time: The Republican Party celebrates its 157th anniversary with a re-enactment Under The Oaks on Wednesday”

Jean Fagan Yellin, Harriet Jacobs: A Life

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