Twenty year-old William Simms was being held captive against his will. Although he had never committed a crime or been in a military setting, he was being forced to do hard labor with six other captives.
The people holding them prisoner and making them work were led by a woman named Mrs. Mason. One of the captives overheard one of their captors say: “When this job is done, I’ll destroy that breed o’ dogs.” So William Simms and the six others decided their best chance for survival was to attempt an escape. They knew that if they were recaptured they would either be killed or tortured.
The seven fled on foot, leaving on a Saturday night and following a mountain range that they knew led to the border and to their freedom. They traveled only at night, lying up in the woods during the day. The weather was cold and wet and there was some snow.
Their meager provisions quickly gave out and after several days they were nearly starving. William Simms later said he was so exhausted that he had to crawl on his hands and knees to relieve his feet. Four of them were caught, but Simms and two others made it to freedom in 1858 with help from the Underground Railroad.
William Simms later married and settled in South Danby, New York, where he rented land and farmed. He is remembered because a fifteen year-old white boy, Arthur Charles Howland, who lived on a neighboring farm, interviewed him and took notes about Simms’ escape from slavery. Those notes are posted on the internet at http://www.rootsweb.com/~nytompki/tsimm.htm
I was moved by William Simms’ story. We share the same last name and it is possible that I am related to him. I am descended from four Northern Irish Simms brothers who initially settled in North Carolina in the 1780’s. “William” is a common name in our family tree (I am related to the famous American author and slaveholder, William Gilmore Simms). William Simms escaped from slavery on a farm in Virginia.
Simms’ story is just one of the many thousands of American heroes who risked their lives in attempts to escape from being held as human property. Many were killed. Many were tortured. Many were “sold down the river.” And many, like Simms, made their escape. But they all took heroic action in the name of freedom.
Has anyone better lived out Patrick Henry’s cry; “Give me liberty or give me death,” than America’s runaway slaves? Frederick Douglas, perhaps the most famous runaway slave; Said: “In coming to the fixed determination to run away from slavery, we did more than Patrick Henry. With us it was a doubtful liberty at most, and almost certain death if we failed.” Harrett Tubman said: “There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other.”
Throughout our history, many Americans have risked much for freedom–the Founding Fathers, Patriots, Abolitionists, Underground Railroad Conductors, the men and women of our Armed Forces–all stood up courageously for the cause of individual liberty. There are many monuments and memorials to them in our country. But where are the monuments to the great courage and heroism of America’s runaway slaves?
Thank you, William Simms, for your brave stand for freedom! Sincerely, Steve Simms.