The story of Isaac Johnson, his mother, father and three other siblings, began like that of an ordinary family, with love, laughter and a great deal of looking out for each other.
How it ends is rather not what any child would have imagined, especially when it has their father at the very centre of it all.
In a personal account of his life and journeys as a slave, Johnson, whose surname was the maiden name of his mother, recounts the breathtakingly unimaginable story of how his Irish father, Richard Yeager, easily sold his entire family into slavery, from what used to be a pleasant and ordinary life for them.
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Johnson’s mother, named Jane, was stolen from Madagascar by brothers of his Irish grandfather named Griffin Yeager in 1840. These men were engaged in the villainous vocation of the slave trade, trading people in America to enrich themselves.
Griffin gave Johnson’s mother the name Jane and made her a servant in his house, keeping her till he died. According to Johnson’s accounts, by the terms of his grandfather’s will, Jane was bequeathed to his eldest son Richard, commonly known as Dick Yeager.
“Dick also received by the will other personal property, and, equipped with cows, sheep, horses and some farming utensils, he took Jane and moved onto the farm referred to on Green river”, in the State of Kentucky.
Johnson recounts that his father used Jane in all respects as a wife and she, in her supposed innocence, gave him four children – all boys.
Johnson was born in 1844, second to an elder brother called Louis, who was two years older than he was.
They lived a happy and contented life, being more prosperous than most of the farmers in that section of the State, most of whom lived at least, ten miles away from their home. So, for long, they had almost no neighbours.
“They worked together in harmony, she taking the lead in the house and he in the field, where she often assisted him. The first year they raised such vegetables as they needed but these brought no money. They then commenced raising tobacco and hogs. Their first crop of tobacco brought them $1600 in cash, but the hogs all died. They were so encouraged by the tobacco crop that they devoted all their energy to this product thereafter, and in time they became the leading tobacco growers. Other people soon came as neighbors, none of whom owned slaves,” according to accounts.
But soon, the newcomers came in and began to disapprove of and freely talk about his father and the manner in which he was living with a slave and raising children with her.
The new neighbours were unrelenting in showing their disapproval for what they believed was a wrong association between a White and especially a slave, opening the family up to a lot of ostracism.
Yeager began to feel the social cut keenly and soon concluded that it would be safer to sell out his property and leave that part of the country. He accordingly advertised his farm and stock for sale.
Still very young, along with Johnson’s other brothers, the property got sold but his father retained the horses which were taken to the New Orleans market. Johnson’s father went along with them, staying away for about two months. All the while, they waited for his return.
Instead, one day, a sheriff came over and took all of them to Bardstown in Nelson County, about two days journey eastward. There, they were placed in a negro pen for the night.
Still unsure what was happening, the following morning, to their astonishment, a crowd gathered and took turns examining each one of them.
“What it all meant we could not imagine till Louis was led out about ten o’clock, placed on the auction block and the auctioneer cried out: “How much do I hear for this nigger?” Johnson described.
After continuous calls to the crow for bids to be made, Louis was at last sold for eight hundred dollars. It became very obvious to them by then, what exactly was going on and it seemed as though “my mother’s heart would break. Such despair I hope I may never again witness.”
And then one after the other, the auctioneer called for Johnson, and then Ambrose, and then to his mother and their little brother, Eddie, who by the way, was supposed to have been auctioned together with his mother but the crowd wanted them separately.
As Johnson describes, “in a very short time, our happy family was scattered, without even the privilege of saying “Good by” to each other, and never again to be seen, at least so far as I was concerned.”
In total, his entire family was sold for $3,300 and the worst of all was the knowledge they would get later that their father had actually brought all this change to them; they were sold by his orders and all that money went into his pocket.
Yes! He had sold his entire family into slavery with as less of a hint about what he had planned.
That would mark the beginning of the longest years of Johnson’s life, characterized by unending quests for freedom and deepening hatred for his colour and race.
His experiences in life also explain why he eventually chose to bear his mother’s maiden name, instead of that of his father, Yeager.
Read the full story on https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/johnson/johnson.html