Monday, February 3, 2020

Charles Bell, The Escaped Slave Who Worked At Bucknell For 40 Years

Charles Bell , a former slave, had made the trip south to visit his mother after the civil war ended.  On his return trip, heading to Williamsport to work in the lumber industry, he was carrying an ax as he passed through Lewisburg.  Mr. Loomis, the president of Bucknell University, spotted him, and hired him to cut down a tree.  Then he hired him on as the janitor, with Bell being employed by Bucknell for nearly 40 years.  Before his death, he recounted his escape from slavery, and it was published in the Lewisburg Journal.

“I wasn’t born a slave. My master was Mr. Inship, a West Virginia planter. I had never known what it was to be a slave, for my master was very kind to me and treated me just as a servant." Bell told Helen C. Bartol, who transcribed Bell’s account.

A workday in his early youth included serving as a waiter or helping in the kitchen. Bell said he learned manners and was taught to read and write. When he grew older and stronger, he was called to work in the fields.

Just as I was reaching manhood my master died. At the time I was away at work, having been ‘farmed out’. In order to settle his estate, the slaves had to be sold. 

Accordingly, I was sent back to my master’s plantation for appraisal. The appraiser said that on account of a broken jaw, which I had received in an accident, I was worth $800. However, at the sale I brought $1050.

 After the sale, my new master, a Mr. Marner, took those of us he had purchased away to his plantation. Then, for the first time in my life I fully realized I was a slave. 

I shall never forget how my mother looked when I said to her ‘goodbye, mother,’ I said to her ‘goodbye,’ she answered, turned away. As she covered her face with her hands, I heard her say, ‘my poor boy is gone.’ That was the last time I saw her ‘till after the war.

 [My new master] was very harsh with me, allowing no liberties whatsoever. When he found out I could write, he was at first very much astonished, and then very angry.

Bell was sure he’d be sold again. His master told him to travel to a train station to meet a man from Georgia. Bell spotted him as a slave trader the moment he laid eyes on the man.“I drove him home to the plantation and that night ran away,” Bell said. "I went straight to my old master’s son."

The son had the same name as his father, James H. Inship. Bell described the man as an abolitionist in quiet. Inship instructed Bell on how to flee to Canada and allowed him to take off with the woman Bell had married but was separated from, Catharine. Bell said he left Romney with his wife on a Sunday in August 1849. He was 21. His wife was about 16.

"That night a Sunday in August, 1849, my wife and I left Romney. We walked thirty miles to the Potomac River. We followed the river until we came to a bridge and before daylight were outside of the state of West Virginia. We made straight for the mountains, never stopping until we reached them. Rain had been falling all day. For a week it poured. We had no shelter nor a way to keep ourselves dry. During the day we rested as best we could under some thick tree or overhanging rocks, which sheltered us a little from the rain. At night we traveled. As soon as it was dark we worked our way down to the highway, and all night long we stumbled along in the mud. Alone either of us would have given up. However, we encouraged each other, and although we were wet and hungry, and foot-sore, we never lost our determination. We knew that if we went back or were captured, we should be sold down the river."

 "For four weeks we kept to the mountains. After we had been traveling for a week or two, we came down to the highway, but almost the first thing we saw was a poster, nailed to a dead tree, Describing me and offering a reward for my return. That frightened us so we never again ventured on the highway in the daytime. "

"Only once in all four weeks did we speak to anybody. One day we came in sight of a little farmhouse in a clearing. We were very hungry and decided to try and go down to the hours and get something to eat. There were two women there. We asked for some food. The women looked us over and said they had nothing to give us then, but if we came back a little later they would have something for us. That made me suspicious at once. My wife and I went back among the trees and hid ourselves. Presently we saw one of the women leave the house and hurry over to some men on the hillside. She talked to them for a minute and then the men dropped their tools and came over to the house. We knew they intended to catch us and we hurried away as fast as we could go. By this point we were so used to traveling in the woods that we could go very fast. The farmers never overtook us."

As much as the Bells feared the mountains, they feared the city even more. When they reached Pittsburgh, they risked interaction to trust they’d find allies. They got lucky, met a friendly man who offered help and found room and board.

Bell called a man named Squire James Marshall “the president of that part of the Underground Railway.” Marshall sent the Bells away in a covered wagon as soon as possible. They traveled to a farm in Bakerstown, north of Pittsburgh. Bell remained there with an abolitionist until spring, farming and performing chores while his wife worked in the house. 

In the springtime, he received $50 in gold and with his wife, was taken to Moorheadville, north of Erie. Bell said they traveled 100 miles by wagon. They lived there for about a year. According to information in the university’s archives, his wife gave birth to their first son there.

A railroad had been completed along Lake Erie, inspiring the Bells to journey north to New York. They took a train into the Village of Manchester, which would later become Niagara Falls.

“We got off the train at Manchester, quite near to the old suspension bridge across the Niagara River," Bell said. "Getting into a stage coach at this point, we found ourselves, at about three o’clock in the afternoon, crossing the great and famous bridge. “The driver of the stage-coach guessed that we were runaway slaves and at the middle of the bridge turned to me and said quietly, ‘now you are in Canada and as free as anybody’. The stage coach carried us through to St. Catherines, a town perhaps 12 miles from the river. I got off here, at the American House, a freeman, safe, under the British Lion’s paw. Thus ended my journey to freedom.” 

Upon arriving in Canada, Mr. Bell was forced to leave his wife to seek employment. 

Published works about Bucknell University’s history say Bell was hired in 1867 by the school’s president at the time, Justin Loomis.

Bell was walking through the area with an ax, returning from a visit to family in the South — Bell mentioned in his retelling he wouldn’t see his mother until after the Civil War ended — en route for Williamsport, where hands were needed for lumber work. Loomis spotted him, hired him to chop down a tree and kept him on as a janitor.

Bell was employed by Bucknell University for over 40 years. During this time, he managed to reunite with his wife, and they lived together in a house on neighboring St. George Street. 

Charles Bell died in 1912 and is buried in Lewisburg Cemetery.


The Lewisburg Journal
December 20 1912

From Slavery To Freedom
Interesting Narrative Of The Life Of Charles Bell
The Lewisburg Journal
December 20 1912


  1. This is a great piece of local history, thank you for sharing.


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