DADDY JAKE, THE RUNAWAY
One fine day in September, in the year 1863, there was quite an uproar on the Gaston plantation, in Putnam County, in the State of Georgia. Uncle Jake, the carriage-driver, was missing. He was more than fifty years old, and it was the first time he had been missing since his mistress had been big enough to call him. But he was missing now. Here was his mistress waiting to order the carriage; here was his master fretting and fuming; and here were the two little children, Lucien and Lillian, crying because they didn’t know where Uncle Jake was—“Daddy Jake,” who had heretofore seemed always to be within sound of their voices, ready and anxious to amuse them in any and every way.
Then came the news that Daddy Jake had actually run away. This was, indeed, astounding
news, and although it was brought by the son of the overseer, none of the Gastons would believe it, least of all Lucien and Lillian. The son of the overseer also brought the further information that Daddy Jake, who had never had an angry word for anybody, had struck the overseer across the head with a hoe-handle, and had then taken to the woods. Dr. Gaston was very angry, indeed, and he told the overseer’s son that if anybody was to blame it was his father. Mrs. Gaston, with her eyes full of tears, agreed with her husband, and Lucien and Lillian, when they found that Daddy Jake was really gone, refused to be comforted. Everybody seemed to be dazed. As it was Saturday, and Saturday was a holiday, the negroes stood around their quarters in little groups discussing the wonderful event. Some of them went so far as to say that if Daddy Jake had taken to the woods it was time for the rest of them to follow suit; but this proposition was hooted down by the more sensible among them.
Nevertheless, the excitement on the Gaston plantation ran very high when it was discovered that a negro so trusted and so trustworthy as Daddy Jake had actually run away; and it was not until all the facts were known that the other negroes became reconciled to Daddy Jake’s absence.
What were the facts? They were very simple, indeed; and yet, many lads and lasses who read this may fail to fully comprehend them.
In the first place, the year in which Daddy Jake became a fugitive was the year 1863, and there was a great deal of doubt and confusion in the South at that time. The Conscription Act and the Impressment Law were in force. Under the one, nearly all the able-bodied men and boys were drafted into the army; and under the other, all the corn and hay and horses that the Confederacy needed were pressed into service. This state of things came near causing a revolt in some of the States, especially in Georgia, where the laws seemed to bear most heavily. Something of this is to be found in the history of that period, but nothing approaching the real facts has ever been published. After the Conscription Act was passed the planters were compelled to accept the services of such overseers as they could get, and the one whom Dr. Gaston had employed lacked both experience and discretion. He had never been trained to the business. He was the son of a shoemaker, and he became an overseer merely to keep out of the army. A majority of those who made overseeing their business had gone to the war either as volunteers or substitutes, and
very few men capable of taking charge of a large plantation were left behind.
At the same time overseers were a necessity on some of the plantations. Many of the planters were either lawyers or doctors, and these, if they had any practice at all, were compelled to leave their farming interests to the care of agents; there were other planters who had been reared in the belief that an overseer was necessary on a large plantation; so that, for one cause and another, the overseer class was a pretty large one. It was a very respectable class, too; for, under ordinary circumstances, no person who was not known to be trustworthy would be permitted to take charge of the interests of a plantation, for these were as varied and as important as those of any other business.
But in 1863 it was a very hard matter to get a trustworthy overseer; and Dr. Gaston, having a large practice as a physician, had hired the first person who applied for the place, without waiting to make any inquiries about either his knowledge or his character; and it turned out that his overseer was not only utterly incompetent, but that he was something of a rowdy besides. An experienced overseer would have known that he was employed, not to exercise control over the house-servants,
but to look after the farm-hands; but the new man began business by ordering Daddy Jake to do various things that were not in the line of his duty. Naturally, the old man, who was something of a boss himself, resented this sort of interference. A great many persons were of the opinion that he had been spoiled by kind treatment; but this is doubtful. He had been raised with the white people from a little child, and he was as proud in his way as he was faithful in all ways. Under the circumstances, Daddy Jake did what other confidential servants would have done; he ignored the commands of the new overseer, and went about his business as usual. This led to a quarrel—the overseer doing most of the quarreling. Daddy Jake was on his dignity, and the overseer was angry. Finally, in his fury, he struck the old negro with a strap which he was carrying across his shoulders. The blow was a stinging one, and it was delivered full in Uncle Jake’s face. For a moment the old negro was astonished. Then he became furious. Seizing an ax-handle that happened to be close to his hand, he brought it down upon the head of the overseer with full force. There was a tremendous crash as the blow fell, and the overseer went down as if he had been struck by a pile-driver.
He gave an awful groan, and trembled a little in his limbs, and then lay perfectly still. Uncle Jake was both dazed and frightened. He would have gone to his master, but he remembered what he had heard about the law. In those days a negro who struck a white man was tried for his life, and if his guilt could be proven, he was either branded with a hot iron and sold to a speculator, or he was hanged.