Moses Grandy

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Moses Grandy
Moses Grandy

1786[nb 1]
OccupationAuthor and abolitionist

Moses Grandy (c. 1786[nb 1] – unknown), was an African-American author, abolitionist, and, for more than the first four decades of his life, an enslaved person. At eight years of age he became the property of his white playmate, James Grandy, and two years later he was hired out for work. The monies Moses earned were collected and held until James Grandy turned 21. Moses helped build the Great Dismal Swamp Canal and learned how to navigate boats. It was that skill that led him to be made commander of several boats that traveled the canal and Pasquotank River, transporting merchandise from Elizabeth City, North Carolina, to Norfolk, Virginia. The position allowed him to be better fed, shod, and dressed. Able to keep a portion of his earnings, Moses arranged to buy his freedom twice and twice his owners kept the money and held him in slavery. An arrangement was made for an honorable man to buy him and Grandy earned the money to buy his freedom a third time, this time successfully.

In the course of his life he had witnessed beatings and sales of family members, including his first bride only eight months after their marriage. Once he obtained his freedom, he worked to make the money to free his wife and children. He was able to secure the release of his wife and 15-year-old son. He dictated a narrative of his life, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America, with the intention of buying the freedom of additional family members.

His slave narrative and others, read in the United States and overseas, helped to bring awareness of slavery and fuel the abolitionist movement.

Early life[edit]

In the late 1700s,[nb 1] Moses Grandy was born in Camden County, North Carolina, into slavery.[4] He was owned by Billy Grandy and raised with his children.[2] When he was about eight years old, Moses was inherited by James Grandy, his playmate of the same age, who was his deceased master's son.[3]

His family was separated when his siblings and father were sold. His mother hid some of her children at times to prevent them from being sold. Among the people that Grandy witnessed being beaten were his mother, a pregnant women, and a 12-year-old boy, who was beaten until he died. He was subject to beatings, and not having enough to eat, he was also half-starved.[5]

Enslaved life[edit]

Grandy was hired out by James Grandy when he was 10. The second man he worked for, Jeremy Coate, beat him so severely for not hilling corn as he wanted it that the sapling broke off in his side. Enoch Sawyer, an owner of large tracts of land in Pasquotank and Camden counties, fed him so little that Grandy ground cornhusks into flour for food. By 15 he was managing ferry crossings of a swampy river in Camden, North Carolina, at Sawyer's Ferry[6] (later Lamb's Ferry);[7] He was "in charge of poling and sculling and cabling the ferry". He lived on Sawyer's plantation, placed his bare feet in heated mud from a hog's nighttime slumber for warmth, and visited his mother, who lived in a cabin in a remote area, on non-arable land outside of Camden, after she became "too infirm to work".[6] The money that was made through Moses Grandy's work was received and held for James Grandy until he turned 21 years of age.[3]

Grandy worked jobs transporting goods to Portsmouth and Norfolk, Virginia, and running boats and cutting timber for the Great Dismal Swamp Canal.[4] Although well-skilled at managing craft on the river, he also worked for a time as field hand and a look-out for his gambling boss. Several bosses after Sawyer, Grandy worked for a man named Richard Furley who allowed Grandy to take on extra work,[8] working nights and Sundays,[5] taking a share of the receipts. James Grandy called in all the slaves he had rented out to others and allowed Grandy to continue doing extra work, but took twice as much as Furley's percentage of the receipts.[8]

He was young yet and had seen a rough go of things already, but he was old enough to know that his life should not be all brutish work and near starvation and standing on the ceremony and bad habits of white men.

— Bland Simpson[9]

Over the years, Grandy studied navigation and other jobs that were assigned to him, so that he was proficient and valuable. A strong, tall man, he worked hard, long hours. He was thoughtful about his actions to avoid worsening his situation; he would not be a runaway or a rebel. Grandy was keenly aware that his success would be more likely to be secured by alliance with an honorable man.[9]

In the winter of 1813, James Grandy's brother-in-law and a merchant, Charles Grice, approached him to hire 21-year-old Moses out as a freightboat captain. He became commander, ultimately Captain Moses Grandy, of up to four boats that navigated and transported goods on the Great Dismal Swamp Canal and the difficult, curvy Pasquotank River, the only navigable waterways between Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia, once the British closed off Chesapeake Bay in the War of 1812. Underclothed and underfed, once he started working for Grice and Norfolk merchant Moses Myers, he had better food, shoes, and a coat. His pay was now based on the value of the successfully transported merchandise.[10]

Grandy "married" a woman (enslaved people could not marry legally), who he said he loved "as I loved my life". She lived on a plantation and one day as he was poling a boat through the river he heard a woman call his name. He saw his wife in a slave coffle as she was being walked to a boat that would take her south and away from him.[5][10] Disconcerted, he lost his grip on the pole and fell into the water. She called out "I am gone." Grandy made it to shore to learn that her former owner was in need of money and thus sold some of his slaves, and, at gunpoint, that there was nothing Grandy could do to change that inevitability.[10] They had been "married" eight months, were settling well into marriage, and she may have been pregnant. They never saw each other again.[11]

He earned enough money to buy his freedom, but two different owners stole his money.[4]

A late 19th-century depiction of slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp

First, he made installments to James Grandy, for which he received receipts, towards the $600 to buy his freedom. After the final payment was made, and within eyesight of the courthouse, James Grandy asked for the receipts in exchange for his signature on the papers to free him. Moses gave him the receipts. Grandy tore up the receipts and rather than walk towards the courthouse, he went to the tavern to drink.[12] Instead of giving Moses his freedom, James sold him to another slave-owner, Mr. Trewitt, and kept the money Moses paid.[3][5] Outraged at her brother's dishonorable behavior, his sister and her husband,[2] Charles[8] Grice, took him to court to have him honor his agreement. That having failed, other whites reacted by having him removed from the boarding house he lived in.[2]

Moses, owned now by Trewitt and having lost his savings, was hired out again. Trewitt kept a share of the money Moses earned and Moses Grandy again saved another $600. When he had saved up what Trewitt demanded to buy his freedom, Trewitt took the money, but did not free him.[3][5]

Grandy went into a deep depression. His owner threatened to sell him, which would mean he would be separated from his second "wife". At the thought of being separated again from a loved one, he said in desperation, "I would cut my throat from ear to ear rather than go with him." His owner, realizing the financial impact of such a measure, withdrew the offer to sell him.[5]

Ironically, one of the most brutal slave overseers, a Mr. Brooks, was outraged by the second time in which Grandy's money was taken without securing his freedom. He notified Grandy that a man, Edward Minner, might be able to help secure his freedom.[5] Grandy recounted the experiences he had to a white man he believed to be honorable, Edward Minner, who agreed to buy him for $650 and have him earn back the price of the sale to obtain his freedom.[5]

By the end of three years from the time he [Minner] laid down the money, I entirely repaid my very kind and excellent friend. During this time he made no claim whatsoever on my services; I was altogether on the footing of a free man, as far as a colored man can there be free. freedom was quite secure, my feelings were greatly excited. I felt to myself so light, that I could almost think I could fly; in my sleep I was always dreaming of flying over woods and rivers. My gait was so altered by my gladness, that people often stopped me, saying, "Grandy, what is the matter?" I excused myself as well as I could; but many perceived the reason, and said, "O! he is so pleased with having got his freedom."[13]


Having papers that proved he was free, at Minner's suggestion he moved to Providence, Rhode Island.[5] Within two months he missed his family and returned to North Carolina and obtained work to earn the freedom of his family. Minner died one year later and Grandy returned to the safer North to earn the money for their freedom. While there, he earned the affection of people who found "his benevolence, affection, kindness of heart, and elasticity of spirit...truly remarkable," according to abolitionist George Thompson. To earn the money for their freedom, he recounted his life story, including the emotional and physical torment, which was published and sold. To fellow African Americans he stated his beliefs that the whites who had harmed his family and other slaves would face judgment of God in the afterlife.[13]

The family members that Grandy wanted to buy their freedom included his "wife", four of his six children — one of his daughters earned the money to free herself and one of her sisters — and four grandchildren.[2][nb 2]

In 1840 Grandy was listed in the Boston Directory and his profession was laborer.[14] He lived with his wife and four young men.[15][nb 3] Grandy worked in coal yards, sawed wood, and took cargo on and off vessels. Then he had a position on the ship James Murray as a seaman. There he earned the same pay as white sailors, which was about $16 per month (equivalent to $434 in 2021). The position provided stability in that room and board was provided for him, the term of employment was virtually guaranteed for the length of a voyage, and he made more money than he would likely have made on land. Saving his earnings working on the James Murray, he was able to purchase his "wife" for $300 and make an arrangement for the freedom of his 15-year-old son.[16]

Abolitionist and author[edit]

Grandy believed that abolitionists in the United States, England, and Ireland (at that time not an independent country) were important in the fight to abolish slavery.[3] In 1842, he traveled to London to help the abolitionist cause by providing a firsthand account of the cruelties of slavery in the United States. As he was "perfectly illiterate", he dictated his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America, to fellow abolitionist George Thompson, according to an introductory letter of the latter, and it was published in 1843. The purpose of the book, according to its title page, was to obtain the money to buy his remaining children and other family members. A second edition was printed the following year.[17] It was one of slave narratives read in the United States and overseas that fueled the abolitionist movement.[18]

His descendant Eric Sheppard, who wrote the book Ancestor's Call,[4] estimated that Moses saved a total of $3,000 in 1844 currency, equivalent to $87,000 in 2021.


In 2006 Moses Grandy Trail, a portion of Virginia State Route 165, was named in his honor.[4]

Published book[edit]

  • Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America, London: Gilpin, 1843.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c There are differing accounts of Grandy's year of birth. Waverley Traylor reports that it was in 1768,[1] Sobel says 1796.[2] Most sites, like the Documenting the South website, say that he was born about 1785.[3] Bill Bartel safely says the late 1700s.[4]
  2. ^ Schermerhorn states that by the time that Grandy had his narrative published six of his children, three girls and three boys, had been "sold to New Orleans."[11]
  3. ^ The household had six people, a man and a woman between 36 and 54, 3 males between 10 and 23 and one man between 24 and 35.[15]


  1. ^ Waverley Traylor. The Great Dismal Swamp in Myth and Legend. Dorrance Publishing; 2010. ISBN 978-1-4349-4114-5, p. 333.
  2. ^ a b c d e Mechal Sobel. Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era. Princeton University Press; September 2002. ISBN 0-691-11333-5. p. 281.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Summary of 'Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America'. London: Gilpin, 1843. Viewed online at Documenting the South's website. Retrieved February 18, 2014.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Bartel, Bill (November 23, 2009), What's in a name? Moses Grandy Trail, Virginian-Pilot, PilotOnline, retrieved April 20, 2013
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Sobel. Teach Me Dreams (2002), p. 127.
  6. ^ a b Bland Simpson. Two Captains from Carolina: Moses Grandy, John Newland Maffitt, and the Coming of the Civil War. University of North Carolina Press; 2012. ISBN 978-0-8078-3585-2. pp. 1–2.
  7. ^ Lambs Ferry and the Floating Road. Camden County, North Carolina. Retrieved February 19, 2014.
  8. ^ a b c Simpson. Two Captains from Carolina (2012), p. 7.
  9. ^ a b Simpson. Two Captains from Carolina (2012), p. 8.
  10. ^ a b c Simpson. Two Captains from Carolina (2012), pp. 8–14.
  11. ^ a b Calvin Schermerhorn. Money Over Mastery, Family Over Freedom: Slavery in the Antebellum Upper South. JHU Press; 9 May 2011. ISBN 978-1-4214-0036-5. p. 65.
  12. ^ Simpson. Two Captains from Carolina (2012), pp. 15-.
  13. ^ a b Mechal Sobel. Teach Me Dreams: The Search for Self in the Revolutionary Era. Princeton University Press; September 2002. ISBN 0-691-11333-5. pp. 127-128.
  14. ^ Stimpson's Boston Directory. Boston: Charles Stimpson, Jr. 1840. p. 447
  15. ^ a b Moses Grandy, 1840 Census, Boston Ward 2, Sixth Census of the United States, 1840. (NARA microfilm publication M704, 580 rolls). Records of the Bureau of the Census, Record Group 29. National Archives, Washington, D.C.
  16. ^ Wilma King. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-century America. Indiana University Press; 2011. ISBN 0-253-22264-8. p. 103.
  17. ^ Yuval Taylor. I Was Born a Slave: An Anthology of Classic Slave Narratives. Chicago Review Press; 1 March 1999. ISBN 978-1-61374-208-2. pp. xviii, xxi, 793.
  18. ^ George Hovis. Vale of Humility: Plain Folk in Contemporary North Carolina Fiction. University of South Carolina Press; 2007. ISBN 978-1-57003-696-5. p. 9.


  • Andrews, William L., ed. (2003), North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, & Thomas H. Jones, University of North Carolina Press, ISBN 0-8078-2821-1.
  • Lee, Julia, Moses Grandy, Oxford African American Studies Center.

External links[edit]