Pathways to History

Roads, Trails, and Journeys


John Parker's Journey in a Slave Coffle from Virginia to Alabama


Preliminary Essay


In about 1835, long before he would become a runaway on the Mississippi River, John Parker was a young slave walking along a trail in the mountains of Virginia. "Every flower was in bloom," he remembered, "the wilderness was all about us, green and living." For another child this might have been a welcome ramble through the countryside, but not for Parker. He struck angrily at the wildflowers with a stick and, seeing a red bird in a chestnut tree, he tried to kill it with a stone. He later described himself as behaving "like a mad bull hitting out in every direction."

John Parker had recently been torn away from his mother. Eight years old and "heartbroken" he had been taken to Richmond, Virginia, and sold to a slave trader headed for Alabama. Parker was then put in a "coffle" -- a line of men, women, and children, all linked together, walking across the countryside. One hot day the coffle stopped at a well. Before Parker could get a drink, the slaves were forced to move on; the chain pulled him past the bucket before he could drink. Later the slaves were fording a river and came to a deep hole. Ahead Parker saw a "mass of struggling people." Then he was dragged into the deep water himself and nearly drowned.

The coffle with John Parker arrived in Alabama in the midst of the cotton boom: "The slaves were driven hard, early and late, to clearing the land for King Cotton. There was no letup in the driving. Forests were literally dragged out by the roots. It was into this situation that the men and women of our caravan were hurled." But not all of the slaves were sent to the fields. The young boys and girls, including Parker, were sent into towns, "until they were stronger." Parker was sold to a doctor in Mobile. Not yet ten years old he had already lived through one of the most feared experiences of an American slave -- being sold away from home and family.



Quotations are from John P. Parker (1827-1900), His promised land : the autobiography of John P. Parker, former slave and conductor on the underground railroad, edited by Stuart Seely Sprague (New York : Norton, c1996)