Researching the Mind of a Slave Owner

As I continue to do the character development for my book about the fugitive slave Emperor Shields and how he joined John Brown’s infamous attack on Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent martydom, I came across a startling and compelling bit of history. I’m currently developing a fictional slaveowner, “Jonah Vanderhart,” as Emperor’s master and owner. In researching slave owners in North Carolina in the 1800s, I learned of a former slave, turned slave owner, who also became the wealthiest black alive in the 1800s, John Carruthers Stanley of New Bern, NC.

Stanely was an incredibly complex person and so is his story. His life proves that history can never be taken for granted and that we have so much to learn from it if we study. The complex industry of slavery in the US was dynamic, ever-changing, and of course, insidious. It was a form of capitalism that was far more grey than black or white, and it involved everyone. My own genealogy research has shown this to be true–that though enslaved blacks were chattel, it did not mean they stood idly by, it did not mean they built their own societies, culture and lifestyle. The “Roots” version of African American slavery, while groundbreaking for its time, can lead to an over-simplification.

Stanely owned over 160 slaves, lived in a big house across the street from his white father, knew which African tribe he descended from (Ibo). Educated and trained as a barber, Stanely petitioned for and won his own freedom after becoming a successful barber. He purchased his wife Kitty, a slave, and other family members. He started a plantation which was worked by both free blacks and slaves. He was considered as tough as a white master and apparently used the same techniques of slave owners–the whip, overseers and forced ignorance. I’m struck by several questions.

  • Why did he purchase slaves?
  • What possessed him to amass so much wealth?
  • Faced with insight that his own education set him free, why turn his backs on so many? Or did he? Is there more to the story?


As today, so then, money and friends could buy your freedom, buy your family’s freedom and buy you slaves (if you had enough of it). One of the raiders at John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry, Dangerfield Newby, was in fact, a free man and blacksmith who had tried to raise enough money to free his enslaved wife Harriet and six children. Dangerfield realized  though he could not do it in time before they were to be sold into the deep south. Several letters from his wife spurred him on (note- both he and his wife could read and write, again, one cannot assume slavery meant slaves were incapacitated).

Newby joined Brown on the attack on Harper’s Ferry with this in mind. My development of his motivation concludes he was also recruiting among the raiders to rescue his own wife. Tragically, he died at the attack and his family was separated and sold off. Though, just five years later, slaves were freed upon the Emancipation Proclamation.

I feel drawn to further explore Stanley’s story as a means of unlocking the nature of the mind of the slaveowner. Who knows? Perhaps his story will spark a new book project for me. One thing is for certain, I marvel how complex we are–how history,  our lives are so very full of choices. Real lives are always more interesting.


Stripers on the Fly Forever

This is for one of my fellow Gowanus Noodlers (you know who you are), who is enchanted by the idea of catching stripers on the fly after doing the party boat thing for years. Peter Laurelli has got real cahones, nerves of steel, and I’d guess infinite patience. His work has been featured on many fly fishing blogs, but since I gather you don’t read them, I’d provide it for you.  I don’t know what possessed him to film his exploits fly casting to stripers in NY’s waters, but bless him. Enjoy.

Thanks to Brooklyn Urban Anglers Association for the find.

FYI, I’m a member of Stripers Forever. If you’ve ever fished for striper and consider it a delicious game fish that you want your children to be able to fish for, then consider supporting SF. SF believes (as do I) that Stripers should be a gamefish, i.e. non-commercial. Why? Policy across the mid-Atlantic seaboard varies state-to-state resulting in fishery that is continually threatened by commercial interests. For example,  in NC, many fishermen and concerned anglers have noted the wasteful discard of stripers outside the slot limit by commercial fisherman who trawl (not to mention the other species in the discard). Here’s an example shot on video:

I can personally attest that the direct action I took as part of the SF campaign to end North Carolina’s wasteful discard rules had some results. My email and hundreds of others were answered by the NCDMF, but I wouldn’t have known to get involved without SF’s vigilance. Fortunately, several journalists were alerted and wrote about the issue as well.

Here was my original letter and the NCDMF’s response:

Louis Daniels PhD


Dear Commissioner Daniels,

I recently read about the tragic discard of Striped Bass in NC waters. The story itself contains a link to a YouTube video showing pictures of the dead floating stripers as commercial fisherman attempt to achieve a limit by culling high-grade fish. I’ve also read how you and your team actually take the time to grapple with these issues (I admire that your team chose to temporarily close the speckled trout fishery just-in-case) and work with your community.  As a member of Stripers Forever, I agree that “Stripers are worth considerably more per pound if allocated to the recreational fishery in North Carolina than when taken by commercial harvest.”  I hope that you and your team will use the power of your office to work with your local community to keep this from happening in the future.

As you know, what you do in the NC fishery has a profound impact on the entire NE fishery for stripers. You’re pioneers on the front line and your actions could affect striper fishermen (both recreational and commercial) everywhere for the better or worse. I hope that you will enter this into your official comments of whatever research or community outreach your office intends to do.

Good luck and thanks for doing the hard work.

And here’s the NCDMF’s response:

Dear Mr. Johnson,

I am writing in response to your e-mail regarding your concerns about North Carolina’s striped bass fishery.

On Jan. 21, the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries implemented regulatory changes to address discards of striped bass in the commercial trawl fishery. The division replaced the previous 50-fish-per-day commercial trip limit with a 2,000-pound-per-day trip limit. To avoid regulatory discards, the new regulations allow commercial trawl fishermen to transfer trip limits to other fishing vessels that hold a striped bass ocean fishing permit for the commercial trawl fishery. This way, all the fish will be landed and count against the commercial quota.

Thank you for your interest in North Carolina’s marine fisheries.


Patricia Smith

Membership to Stripers Forever is free, there are no dues, so consider it.