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Rated: ASR · Fiction · History · #2312342
Disclaimer: This is data from my own family tree viewed in relation to history.
I was not born in Kentucky. I had to fight to get here. Never knew my father. My mother was known only as Katherine. She was a slave.

Her mother had come over from Africa. Brought against her will. I never knew my grandmother's name. Not the one her owners gave her or her African name.

All I knew growing up was my mother Katherine. She bore me in the year 1764. She raised me without my dad. that she also raised my two younger brothers, Edward and John as well.

In 1776 after so much talk, unrest and violence, a revolution began. Of course we hadn't a clue until a man brought the news to us. He told us any boy or man willing to fight in this war would gain his freedom.

It took me until 1778 to escape and join the rebel army. I was only 14 and scared. I didn't have anybody's permission to be where I was. I could have been caught and punished at any moment.

I finally found some recruiter to tell my intentions to. "I wanna fight," I said. "So I can be free!"

The elderly white gentleman didn't seem to care. "Right," he said. "What's your name, boy?"

"James," I said.

He scratched his pen across the paper. "Have you a last name?" He asked.

Well I didn't. Most slaves were never given last names. If I didn't have one, did that mean I wouldn't get to fight? Well I might not have a daddy I knew, but given I was lighter than most of the other men working the fields, I had my suspicions.

"Uh, yeah," I said. "My full name is James Briscoe." I used the master of the plantation's name as my own surname. I'd come too far to just give up.

I must have lisped or the man was deaf. He repeated aloud what he had written. "James Bristow," he said. "Welcome to the continental army."

I was a mix of fear and elation. Finally I had a chance to gain what no one in my family had, freedom.

That elation soon faded. I was given a drum bigger around than I was and two wooden sticks. "Our last drummer boy got shot," the regimental leader said. "I am going to teach you all the rhythms you'll need to beat out."

It was a lot of information. There was one pattern that meant "get out of bed", another for advance, there was even one to tell the regiment to drink water. That last one seemed kind of weird but I played the beat my leaders commanded.

I suppose it was my duties that kept me safe. As a drummer boy, neither side was allowed to kill me. If they did, they'd be executed as well.

I saw a lot of battles. Can't remember all their names but I do recall the smell of the black powder that went off in the muskets and cannons. The screams of the other men fighting and dying.

Finally, the fighting stopped. The Rebels won and the Union and I were free. I cherished my manumission papers. I later learned that others like me weren't so lucky. Not every slave who fought was given these papers. I was one of the fortunate few who had received a document saying no one owned them.

That wasn't the end of my problems. Even after the state of Maryland ratified the constitution, I still faced prejudice.

Sometimes people didn't believe I was a free black. They threatened to turn me in for running away. Eventually I lost track of how many times I had to present my manumission papers. They became dog eared and worn.

Eventually, I heard rumors of a new Union territory. Kentucky they called it. It was out in the west. Out away from the traditions and institutions that were still making life in Maryland hard.

This was another opportunity. One I hoped would lead to me having land of my own. Where I could support myself without someone trying to "send me back to my master."

I packed up the few farming tools I had and the rest of my earthly possessions. Then I traveled to Kentucky. It was not easy.

Everything west of the thirteen original states was largely untamed wilderness. There were bears, snakes and numerous other natural hazards.

When I got to Kentucky I settled in the area that would become Shelby. In 1788, I met a girl of Scotch-Irish parentage. Her name was Catherine Cariss. She was from a poor family but she was one of the kindest most wonderful people I had met.

Now I knew there were laws preventing marriage between a black man and anybody in Maryland. Kentucky had them too. But they weren't passed until 1792. So our local priest was able to perform the wedding. Seems farfetched, but it happened.

Our sons and daughters are free because we are. We have a small farm of our own. Life is good for me. Still I worry what future my children will have.

People here still discriminate. That law against blacks marrying anyone passed a few years after my son, Jeremiah, was born. Will he be allowed to have the life I do? I am certain he will be free because his mother is. The legal tradition states "as the mother is, so is the child."

Still, thanks to these laws, will Jeremiah be able to have a wife and family of his own? Will some fool decide that he or his descendants are property? I don't know, I hope my son finds a way to be free.

(Author's note: this is based on what I found out about my ancestors on my dad's side. It is largely conjecture but I feel like it's close to the truth. James' son Jeremiah Briscoe moved out of Kentucky after his first son was born. He died in 1880 in Fairfield, Iowa.)
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