Letter from Barney Ford to his owner in 1848

Barney L. Ford
Formerly enslaved
An illustration from the 1891 book "History of the State of Colorado Volume III" by Frank Hall.
Image from Sandra F. Mather Archives / Breckenridge Heritage Alliance

Editor’s note: This letter and its introduction published in 1850 in the Chicago Western Citizen newspaper. It was provided to the Summit Daily News by the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. Learn more about Barney Ford at the Barney Ford Museum, 111 E. Washington, in Breckenridge.

“We publish the following letter written by a fugitive slave, now residing in this city, to his master. Our readers cannot fail to sympathize warmly with the manly spirit which it breathes.”

Col. N.G. Woods,

Sir, I never thought that it would be my duty to write you a letter of this kind, but of necessity I am driven to it. Sir, I have thought seriously and deliberately upon this matter, and have finally come to the conclusion that I am entitled to my liberty. Sir, you know that you have told me a great many times that I was as free as you were: Well, I listened to you, but I could not make it appear so to me. You say that you have to work harder than I do. Admit that; I ask who enjoys the income of your labor? Can you say that I enjoy it, or can you say that I ever enjoyed the half of what my services were worth to you? Now, sir, if I were as free as you are, why did you not pay me for my services? You could not have thought that I was satisfied with what you chose to give me. For instance, you have not given me a decent suit of clothes since you have owned me, which is now almost five years; and you don’t like to see me have on anything to make me look well; if I would wear your old clothes, you would like me much better. There is another thing in consideration — in our travels about, you always, as is natural, want the best accommodation, when you have it to pay for; then, if I am as free as you are, I should want the same. But I notice this, that you always try to get me on the floor in your room to sleep, and when a chance offers for me to get a bed, you will not let me have it if you can help it, as I have frequently heard you say that anything on the floor would do. And there is another thing; you have a way of calling me boy, and negro, when before gentlemen. Now I don’t think that this makes you look any larger, and I assure you that it makes me feel much smaller.

I have told you that I would not leave you, but I find that I can’t serve God and serve you; for when I am reading my Bible at night, after waiting and putting you to bed, you frequently make me quit reading and go to bed, so that I can get up early to serve you. Now, sire, if I was as free as you are, you could not have such dominion over me. I am now actuated by your own words. You say that I am as free as you are; well, if I can do better by myself than I can with you, I feel that I am at liberty to do so; for this is common to all free men. Then it can’t be said that I have run away from you, if I am as free as you say; and moreover, I am free according to the laws of this state, which I learn are as follows: If a man brings his slave here and remains in the state 10 days, that the slave is then free. So, with this on my side, I don’t think that I have done wrong in leaving you. But there is one thing — you shall not have it to say that I stole your money and ran away from you. I have left you without a dollar in my pocket, and sink or swim, I shall depend on my own exertions for a living. I have served you faithfully for nearly 5 years, and now I can’t show a dollar; and if I were to serve you 10 years more it would be no better. Well, supposing that I have been worth $150 a year to you, and have served you 4 years and 6 months, then you have made $675, or saved that much; then you have lost nothing by my leaving you. Surely you could not want me to work a lifetime to pay for what you gave for me, when in the above statement it is already paid.

Now, sir, I must bid you farewell; I expect to go to Canada, but I don’t know at what point I shall stop, and if you will excuse this liberty, I shall not impose any more of my letters upon you. I hope you will not wish me ill, as I am acting in self-defense; and as I know when you got married I should see a hard time. Sir, you have my best wishes for your success in your present and future engagements, and if we never meet on earth, I hope to meet you in Heaven.

Your humble servant, B.L. Ford

Oct. 10, 1848

Quincy, Illinois

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