Samuel Ruth's Search For His Mother
Turns out you can go home, it just may take awhile. After being separated from his mother on a South Carolina plantation, an Ercildoun man finally finds his link to the past.
Our mothers, say psychologists, provide a safe base from which to explore the world. We may roam, but most of us strive to preserve that primal connection.
That’s how it was for Samuel Ruth of Ercildoun. Born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation, Ruth was separated as a child from his mother, when the man who’d fathered him sold her. He never got over it. Almost 40 years later—after settling in Chester County, building a successful business and raising 12 children—Ruth headed south to find his lost parent.
“‘Is she alive? Is she well? Does she need me? How can I find her?’ Those questions haunted Samuel for years,” wrote granddaughter Ida Jones Williams in Great Grandmother Leah’s Legacy. “Many nights, he relived the sale, in 1857, when he watched his mother as she was led onto the auction block. The loud strike of the gavel would always awaken him.”
Ruth was the son of Leah, the name given by Beaufort County, S.C., plantation owner Robert Fredrick Ruth to a woman kidnapped from Guinea and bought by him in the 1820s. (Importation of enslaved Africans had been banned in the United States in 1808, but smuggling still occurred.)
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According to family lore, Leah carried herself with a regal air. “She walked erectly as if she were balancing a basket of commodities on her head,” wrote Williams. “Her characteristics led her fellow workers to believe that she was a member of the family of a tribal king.”
Leah gave birth to three children: George, Isabel and Samuel. The first two were fathered by another slave; Samuel, by Leah’s owner. His skin was lighter, which qualified him for work in the house. “Samuel was taught social skills and good manners,” wrote Williams. “He was taught to smile, bow, remove his hat and speak softly to family members and guests of the Ruth family.”
Things were harder for Leah—a “strong, healthy and efficient worker,” but not one with a docile personality. Overseer Edward Fields was brutal and profane, using his whip freely. Over time, however, Leah noticed that women had greater latitude to resist violence than men. She decided to use that latitude. “The next time Eddie Fields hits me with that whip, I’m going to beat him to death,” she resolved. “That buckra deserves a good beating.” (An epithet used by blacks in the Southeast to describe a white man, “buckra” is thought to derive from the Efik and Ibibio term, mbakara, or master.)
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When she was lashed for no particular reason on her way to the fields one morning, Leah pulled Fields off his horse and beat him fiercely. He was under a doctor’s care for three weeks. Leah subsequently brawled with another overseer who struck her for being late to work, though she’d been caring for a child. She wasn’t directly punished for either incident, but her masters would have other methods of retaliation.
In 1857, a financial panic depressed prices for agricultural products. Strapped for cash, Robert F. Ruth sold slaves, including Leah. The last Samuel saw of his mother was her chained in the rear of a wagon, rolling out of the yard. “Samuel tried to climb aboard, but the buyer pushed him away,” wrote Williams.
Leah told her son, “Go back to the house, Sammy.”
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Six years later, the Civil War was going poorly for the Confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect in January 1863. In June, Beaufort County fell under Union control with the arrival of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, the all-black regiment that would win fame for its assault on Fort Wagner the following month.
It was probably about this time that, according to Williams, the owner of the Ruth plantation ran into his yard. “You’re free!” he told the slaves. “Run for your lives. The Yankees are here!”
To discourage slaves from escaping to Union lines, many Southern whites told their Negroes that the Yankees would kill them. “[Samuel Ruth] rushed out the kitchen door [and] ran as fast as he could down the long lane and out onto the country road,” wrote Williams. “He had only gone a few yards down the highway when he glanced back and saw a soldier on horseback behind him.”
The man was Stephen Swails, a sergeant with the 54th. A free black from New York, Swails was one of the first blacks to become an officer. “I’m not going to hurt you,” Swails told Ruth.
With that, he hoisted the 13-year-old boy onto his horse and rode with him back to camp, where Ruth became Swails’ personal servant, a water boy for the troops and something of a regimental pet. His manners made many friends, among them Walter Pinn of Burlington, N.J. When the war ended, he went home with Pinn.
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A long-established family of free blacks, the Pinns lived in Virginia until the 1850s, when increasing sectional tensions forced them north. An ancestor, Rolly Pinn, had been a soldier in the Revolution, witnessing the British surrender at Yorktown. In 1863, Walter’s father, Robert, joined the 5th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, he resumed his original career as a Baptist minister. Pinn Memorial Baptist Church in Philadelphia is named after him.
For Ruth, the Pinns were a good family to know. He found work in the area and joined the household as a boarder, soon striking up a romance with Walter’s sister, Louisa. Before 1865 was out, Samuel and Louisa—both only 15—were married. They moved to Coatesville to be near other Pinn relatives.
The early years were lean. Ruth worked at a variety of jobs, and the couple moved frequently. While Samuel was working at a tanning yard in Chatham, he and Louisa were converted by a traveling evangelist.
They joined the Kelton Church of Christ as its first black members. When Ruth learned of un-churched blacks living around Ercildoun, he and Louisa began regular trips there to preach. “He had not gotten to the point where he was financially able to buy a horse and buggy,” wrote Williams. “Samuel walked the nine miles from his home in Chatham to Ercildoun.”
Early services were in private homes, then at a borrowed meeting hall. In 1868, congregants came together as the Ercildoun Church of Christ, with Ruth as its lay minister. Samuel and Louisa soon moved to the village.
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Ruth found a job managing a threshing operation, which he eventually came to own. Then, as now, many farmers outsourced this operation to professionalswho traveled from farm to farm. “He was a shrewd business manager in spite of the fact that he never had the opportunity to go to school,” Williams wrote.
Louisa and her daughters all worked as domestic servants in the neighborhood. Over time, the family became prosperous. Samuel and Leah had 12 childrenand, in 1886, were able to buy a 20-acre farm. They later bought another 107 across the road.
By the early 1890s, the Ruths’ older children had married and were raising their own families. The younger kidscarried much of the day-to-day responsibilities. As life slowed down a bit, the nagging question re-emerged: What had happened to Ruth’s mother?
With Louisa’s help, the mostly illiterate Samuel wrote a letter to the post office in St. Peter’s Parish, Beaufort County. He asked the postmaster where freed slaves had gone after the war. The response: Hilton Head Island.
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In the spring of 1895, Ruth and a nephewtook a train to Savannah, Ga. “It was not an easy trip to make,” recalled his great grandson, Milton Searles of Ercildoun. Segregation was now enshrined in law, so there was a continual stream of indignities for a man who, at home, was a respectedminister, businessman and property owner. “He was apprehensive, but he went anyway,” said Searles.
At the St. Peter’s post office, Ruth recognized two white postmistresses as the daughters of his former owner—his half-sisters. He said nothing, only asking for directions. At Hilton Head, Ruth began buttonholing residents in his humble, polite way until he saw—or was directed to—a woman who looked familiar.
Ruth was 45. He hadn’t seen his mother since the age of 7. “Good morning, Madam,” he said to the woman. “Do you have any children?”
The woman looked at him. “George was killed by the buckras,” she replied.
“Did you have a son named Sam?”
“Yeah, he was killed by the Yankees.”
According to Williams, Leah jumped. She clapped her hands. She screamed. She fell to the ground, shaking, sobbing, rolling and crying, “Sammy, Sammy, he’s alive!”
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The reserved Ruth was embarrassed. “Mama, please don’t do this,” he begged. “The people will think we’re harming you.”
Neighbors soon figured out the story. “Suddenly, it was like a camp meeting scene,” wrote Williams. “The islanders rejoiced and shouted, ‘Leah’s son found his mama!’”
Ruth’s children all met at Broad Street Station in Philadelphia. There, Leah drew a crowd, telling the reunion story—loudly—to all who’d listen. In Ercildoun, Leah became a respected eminence who gathered and sold berries, shared her knowledge of herbal medicine and doted on her youngest descendants.
“You’s a free gal, Bella,” she told one granddaughter. “You ain’t nevah been slave like yo Grandma ’an yo Pa. Just allus ’member you’s free, and don’t let nobody stomp on ya!”
It wasn’t perfect. Leah hated the farm’s telephone. Rather than answer the “devilish” instrument, she simply shouted at it: “Sammy’s not here!”
Worse, her profanity prevented Leah’s acceptance at the Ercildoun church. When she died in 1912, she had to be buried on the farm, rather than in the church cemetery.
No one said mothers were easy.
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