THE LIFE STORY OF GEORGE TAYLOR BURNS
[HW: Personal Interview]
Ox-carts and flat boats, and pioneer surroundings; crowds of men and
women crowding to the rails of river steamboats; gay ladies in holiday
attire and gentleman in tall hats, low cut vests and silk mufflers; for
the excursion boats carried the gentry of every area.
A little negro boy clung to the ragged skirts of a slave mother, both
were engrossed in watching the great wheels that ploughed the
Mississippi river into foaming billows. Many boats stopped at Gregery's
Landing, Missouri to stow away wood, for many engines were fired with
wood in the early days.
The Burns brothers operated a wood yard at the Landing and the work of
cutting, hewing and piling wood for the commerce was performed by slaves
of the Burns plantation.
George Taylor Burns was five years of age and helped his mother all day
as she toiled in the wood yards. "The colder the weather, the more hard
work we had to do," declares Uncle George.
George Taylor Burns, the child of Missouri slave parents, recalls the
scenes enacted at the Burns' wood yards so long ago. He is a resident of
Evansville, Indiana and his snow white hair and beard bear testimony
that his days have been already long upon the earth.
Uncle George remembers the time when his infant hands reached in vain
for his mother, the kind and gentle Lucy Burns: Remembers a long cold
winter of snow and ice when boats were tied up to their moorings. Old
master died that winter and many slaves were sold by the heirs, among
them was Lucy Burns. Little George clung to his mother but strong hands
tore away his clasp. Then he watched her cross a distant hill, chained
to a long line of departing slaves. George never saw his parents again
and although the memory of his mother is vivid he scarcely remembers his
father's face. He said, "Father was black but my mother was a bright
Nothing impressed the little boy with such unforgettable imagery as the
cold which descended upon Greogery's Landing one winter. Motherless,
hungry, desolate and unloved, he often cried himself to sleep at night
while each day he was compelled to carry wood. One morning he failed to
come when the horn was sounded to call the slaves to breakfast. "Old
Missus went to the Negro quarters to see what was wrong" and "She was
horrified when she found I was frozen to the bed."
She carried the small bundle of suffering humanity to the kitchen of her
home and placed him near the big oven. When the warmth thawed the frozen
child the toes fell from his feet. "Old Missus told me I would never be
strong enough to do hard work, and she had the neighborhood shoemaker
fashion shoes too short for any body's feet but mine," said Uncle
Uncle George doesn't remember why he left Missouri but the sister of
Greene Taylor brought him to Troy, Indiana. Here she learned that she
could not own a slave within the State of Indiana so she indentured the
child to a flat boat captain to wash dishes and wait on the crew of
George was so small of stature that the captain had a low table and
stool made that he might work in comfort. George's mistress received
$15,00 [TR: $15.00?] per month for the service of the boy for several
From working on the flat boats George became accustomed to the river and
soon received employment as a cabin boy on a steam boat and from that
time through out the most active days of his life George Taylor Burns
was a steam-boat man. In fact he declares, "I know steamboats from wood
box to stern wheel."
"The life of a riverman is a good life and interesting things happen on
the river," says Uncle George.
Uncle George has been imprisoned in the big jail at New Orleans. He has
seen his fellow slaves beaten into insensibility while chained to the
whipping post in Congo Square at New Orleans.
He was badly treated while a slave but he has witnessed even more cruel
treatment administered to his fellow slaves.
Among other exciting occurrences remembered by the old negro man when he
recalls early river adventures is one in which a flat boat sunk near New
Orleans. After clinging for many hours to the drifting wreckage he was
rescued, half dead from exhaustion.
In memory, George Taylor Burns stands in the slave mart at New Orleans
and hears the Auctioneers' hammer, for he was sold like a beast of
burden by Greene Taylor, brother of his mistress. Greene Taylor,
however, had to refund the money and return the slave to his mistress
when his crippled feet were discovered.
"Greene Taylor was like many other people I have known. He was always
ready to make life unhappy for a negro."
Uncle George, although possessing an unusual amount of intelligence and
ability to learn, has a very limited education. "The Negroes were not
allowed an education," he relates. "It was dangerous for any person to
be caught teaching a Negro and several Negroes were put to death because
they could read."
Uncle George recalls a few superstitions entertained by the rivermen.
"It was bad luck for a white cat to come aboard the boat." "Horse shoes
were carried for good luck." "If rats left the boat the crew was uneasy,
for fear of a wreck." Uncle George has very little faith in any
superstition but remembers some of the crews had.
Among other boats on which this old river man was employed are "The
Atlantic" on which he was cabin boy. The "Big Gray Eagle" on which he
assisted in many ways. He worked where boats were being constructed
while he lived at New Albany.
Many soldiers were returned to their homes by means of flat boats and
steam boats when the Civil War had ended and many recruits were sent by
water during the war. Just after peace was declared George met
Elizabeth Slye, a young slave girl who had just been set free. "Liza
would come to see her mother who was working on a boat." "People used to
come down to the landings to see boats come in," said Uncle George.
George and Liza were free, they married and made New Albany their home,
until 1881 when they came to Evansville.
Uncle George said the Eclipse was a beautiful boat, he remembers the
lettering in gold and the bright lights and polished rails of the
longest steam boat ever built in the West. Measuring 365 feet in length
and Uncle George declares, "For speed she just up and hustled."
"Louisville was one of the busiest towns in the Ohio Valley," says Uncle
George, but he remembers New Orleans as the market place where almost
all the surplus products were marketed.
Uncle George has many friends along the water-front towns. He admires
the Felker family of Tell City, Indiana. He is proud of his own race and
rejoices in their opportunities. He remembers his fear of the Ku Klux,
his horror of the patrol and other clans united to make life dangerous
for newly emancipated Negroes.
George Taylor Burns draws no old age pension. He owns a building located
at Canal and Evans Streets that houses a number of Negro families. He is
glad to say his credit is good in every market in the city. Although
lamed by rheumatic pains and hobbling on feet toeless from his young
childhood he has led a useful life. "Don't forget I knew Pilot Tom
Ballard, and Aaron Ballard on the Big Eagle in 1858," warns Uncle
George. "We Negroes carried passes so we could save our skins if we were
caught off the boats but we had plenty of good food on the boats."
Uncle George said the roustabouts sang gay songs while loading boats
with heavy freight and provisions but on account of his crippled feet he
could not be a roustabout.
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