George Fortman

Ex-Slave Stories

District 5

Vanderburgh County

Lauana Creel



Cor. Bellemeade Ave. and Garvin St.

Evansville, Indiana, and other interested citizens

"The story of my life, I will tell to you with sincerest respect to all

and love to many, although reviewing the dark trail of my childhood and

early youth causes me great pain." So spoke George Fortman, an aged man

and former slave, although the history of his life reveals that no Negro

blood runs through his veins.

"My story necessarily begins by relating events which occurred in 1838,

when hundreds of Indians were rounded up like cattle and driven away

from the valley of the Wabash. It is a well known fact recorded in the

histories of Indiana that the long journey from the beautiful Wabash

Valley was a horrible experience for the fleeing Indians, but I have the

tradition as relating to my own family, and from this enforced flight

ensued the tragedy of my birth."

The aged ex-slave reviews tradition. "My two ancestors, John Hawk, a

Blackhawk Indian brave, and Racheal, a Chackatau maiden had made

themselves a home such as only Indians know, understand and enjoy. He

was a hunter and a fighter but had professed faith in Christ through the

influence of the missionaries. My greatgrandmother passed the facts on

to her children and they have been handed down for four generations. I,

in turn, have given the traditions to my children and grandchildren.

"No more peaceful home had ever offered itself to the red man than the

beautiful valley of the Wabash river. Giant elms, sycamores and maple

trees bordered the stream while the fertile valley was traversed with

creeks and rills, furnishing water in abundance for use of the Indian


"The Indians and the white settlers in the valley transacted business

with each other and were friendly towards each other, as I have been

told by my mother, Eliza, and my grandmother, Courtney Hawk.

"The missionaries often called the Indian families together for the

purpose of teaching them and the Indians had been invited, prior to

being driven from the valley, to a sort of festival in the woods. They

had prepared much food for the occasion. The braves had gone on a long

hunt to provide meat and the squaws had prepared much corn and other

grain to be used at the feast. All the tribes had been invited to a

council and the poor people were happy, not knowing they were being


"The decoy worked, for while the Indians were worshiping God the meeting

was rudely interrupted by orders of the Governor of the State. The

Governor, whose duty it was to give protection to the poor souls,

caused them to be taken captives and driven away at the point of swords

and guns.

"In vain, my grandmother said, the Indians prayed to be let return to

their homes. Instead of being given their liberty, some several hundred

horses and ponies were captured to be used in transporting the Indians

away from the valley. Many of the aged Indians and many innocent

children died on the long journey and traditional stories speak of that

journey as the 'trail of death.'"

"After long weeks of flight, when the homes of the Indians had been

reduced to ashes, the long trail still carried them away from their

beautiful valley. My greatgrandfather and his squaw became acquainted

with a party of Indians that were going to the canebrakes of Alabama.

The pilgrims were not well fed or well clothed and they were glad to

travel towards the south, believing the climate would be favorable to

their health.

"After a long and dreary journey, the Indians reached Alabama. Rachael

had her youngest papoose strapped on to her back while John had cared

for the larger child, Lucy. Sometimes she had walked beside her father

but often she had become weary or sleepy and he had carried her many

miles of the journey, besides the weight of blankets and food. An older

daughter, Courtney, also accompanied her parents.

"When they neared the cane lands they heard the songs of Negro slaves as

they toiled in the cane. Soon they were in sight of the slave quarters

of Patent George's plantation. The Negroes made the Indians welcome and

the slave dealer allowed them to occupy the cane house; thus the Indians

became slaves of Patent George.

"Worn out from his long journey John Hawk became too ill to work in the

sugar cane. The kindly-disposed Negroes helped care for the sick man but

he lived only a few months. Rachel and her two children remained on the

plantation, working with the other slaves. She had nowhere to go. No

home to call her own. She had automatically become a slave. Her

children had become chattel.

"So passed a year away, then unhappiness came to the Indian mother, for

her daughter, Courtney, became the mother of young Master Ford George's

child. The parents called the little half-breed "Eliza" and were very

fond of her. The widow of John Hawk became the mother of Patent George's

son, Patent Junior.

"The tradition of the family states that in spite of these irregular

occurrences the people at the George's southern plantation were

prosperous, happy, and lived in peace each with the others. Patent

George wearied of the Southern climate and brought his slaves into

Kentucky where their ability and strength would amass a fortune for the

master in the iron ore regions of Kentucky.

"With the wagon trains of Patent and Ford George came Rachel Hawk and

her daughters, Courtney, Lucy and Rachel. Rachel died on the journey

from Alabama but the remaining full blooded Indians entered Kentucky as


"The slave men soon became skilled workers in the Hillman Rolling Mills.

Mr. Trigg was owner of the vast iron works called the "Chimneys" in the

region, but listed as the Hillman, Dixon, Boyer, Kelley and Lyons

Furnaces. For more than a half century these chimneys smoked as the most

valuable development in the western area of Kentucky. Operated in 1810,

these furnaces had refined iron ore to supply the United States Navy

with cannon balls and grape shot, and the iron smelting industry

continued until after the close of the Civil War.

"No slaves were beaten at the George's plantation and old Mistress

Hester Lam allowed no slave to be sold. She was a devoted friend to all.

"As Eliza George, daughter of Ford George and Courtney Hawk, grew into

young womanhood the young master Ford George went oftener and oftener to

social functions. He was admired for his skill with firearms and for

his horsemanship. While Courtney and his child remained at the

plantation Ford enjoyed the companship of the beautiful women of the

vicinity. At last he brought home the beautiful Loraine, his young

bride. Courtney was stoical as only an Indian can be. She showed no hurt

but helped Mistress Hester and Mistress Loraine with the house work."

Here George Fortman paused to let his blinded eyes look back into the

long ago. Then he again continued with his story of the dark trail.

"Mistress Loraine became mother of two sons and a daughter and the big

white two-story house facing the Cumberland River at Smith Landing,

Kentucky, became a place of laughter and happy occasions, so my mother

told me many times.

"Suddenly sorrow settled down over the home and the laughter turned into

wailing, for Ford George's body was found pierced through the heart and

the half-breed, Eliza, was nowhere to be found.

"The young master's body lay in state many days. Friends and neighbors

came bringing flowers. His mother, bowed with grief, looked on the still

face of her son and understood--understood why death had come and why

Eliza had gone away.

"The beautiful home on the Cumberland river with its more than 600 acres

of productive land was put into the hands of an administrator of estates

to be readjusted in the interest of the George heirs. It was only then

Mistress Hester went to Aunt Lucy and demanded of her to tell where

Eliza could be found.

'She has gone to Alabama, Ole Mistus', said Aunt Lucy, 'Eliza was scared

to stay here.' A party of searchers were sent out to look for Eliza.

They found her secreted in a cane brake in the low lands of Alabama

nursing her baby boy at her breast. They took Eliza and the baby back to

Kentucky. I am that baby, that child of unsatisfactory birth."

The face of George Fortman registered sorrow and pain, it had been hard

for him to retell the story of the dark road to strange ears.

"My white uncles had told Mistress Hester that if Eliza brought me back

they were going to build a fire and put me in it, my birth was so

unsatisfactory to all of them, but Mistress Hester always did what she

believed was right and I was brought up by my own mother.

"We lived in a cabin at the slave quarters and mother worked in the

broom cane. Mistress Hester named me Ford George, in derision, but

remained my friend. She was never angry with my mother. She knew a slave

had to submit to her master and besides Eliza did not know she was

Master Ford George's daughter."

The truth had been told at last. The master was both the father of Eliza

and the father of Eliza's son.

"Mistress Hester believed I would be feeble either in mind or body

because of my unsatisfactory birth, but I developed as other children

did and was well treated by Mistress Hester, Mistress Lorainne and her


"Master Patent George died and Mistress Hester married Mr. Lam, while

slaves kept working at the rolling mills and amassing greater wealth for

the George families.

"Five years before the outbreak of the Civil War Mistress Hester called

all the slaves together and gave us our freedom. Courtney, my

grandmother, kept house for Mistress Lorainne and wanted to stay on, so

I too was kept at the George home. There was a sincere friendship as

great as the tie of blood between the white family and the slaves. My

mother married a negro ex-slave of Ford George and bore children for

him. Her health failed and when Mistress Puss, the only daughter of

Mistress Lorainne, learned she was ill she persuaded the Negro man to

sell his property and bring Eliza back to live with her."

[TR: in following section the name George 'Fordman' is used twice.]

"Why are you called George Fordman when your name is Ford George?" was

the question asked the old man.

"Then the Freedsmen started teaching school in Kentucky the census taker

called to enlist me as a pupil. 'What do you call this child?' he asked

Mistress Lorainne. 'We call him the Little Captain because he carried

himself like a soldier,' said Mistress Lorainne. 'He is the son of my

husband and a slave woman but we are rearing him.' Mistress Lorainne

told the stranger that I had been named Ford George in derision and he

suggested she list me in the census as George Fordsman, which she did,

but she never allowed me to attend the Freedmen's School, desiring to

keep me with her own children and let me be taught at home. My mother's

half brother, Patent George allowed his name to be reversed to George

Patent when he enlisted in the Union Service at the outbreak of the

Civil War."

Some customs prevalent in the earlier days were described by George

Fordman. "It was customary to conduct a funeral differently than it is

conducted now," he said. "I remember I was only six years old when old

Mistress Hester Lam passed on to her eternal rest. She was kept out of

her grave several days in order to allow time for the relatives, friends

and ex-slaves to be notified of her death.

"The house and yard were full of grieving friends. Finally the lengthy

procession started to the graveyard. Within the George's parlors there

had been Bible passages read, prayers offered up and hymns sung, now the

casket was placed in a wagon drawn by two horses. The casket was covered

with flowers while the family and friends rode in ox carts, horse-drawn

wagons, horseback, and with still many on foot they made their way

towards the river.

"When we reached the river there were many canoes busy putting the

people across, besides the ferry boat was in use to ferry vehicles over

the stream. The ex-slaves were crying and praying and telling how good

granny had been to all of them and explaining how they knew she had gone

straight to Heaven, because she was so kind--and a Christian. There were

not nearly enough boats to take the crowd across if they crossed back

and forth all day, so my mother, Eliza, improvised a boat or 'gunnel',

as the craft was called, by placing a wooden soap box on top of a long

pole, then she pulled off her shoes and, taking two of us small children

in her arms, she paddled with her feet and put us safely across the

stream. We crossed directly above Iaka, Livingston county, three miles

below Grand River.

"At the burying ground a great crowd had assembled from the neighborhood

across the river and there were more songs and prayers and much weeping.

The casket was let down into the grave without the lid being put on and

everybody walked up and looked into the grave at the face of the dead

woman. They called it the 'last look' and everybody dropped flowers on

Mistress Hester as they passed by. A man then went down and nailed on

the lid and the earth was thrown in with shovels. The ex-slaves filled

in the grave, taking turns with the shovel. Some of the men had worked

at the smelting furnaces so long that their hands were twisted and

hardened from contact with the heat. Their shoulders were warped and

their bodies twisted but they were strong as iron men from their years

of toil. When the funeral was over mother put us across the river on the

gunnel and we went home, all missing Mistress Hester.

"My cousin worked at Princeton, Kentucky, making shoes. He had never

been notified that he was free by the kind emancipation Mrs. Hester had

given to her slaves, and he came loaded with money to give to his white

folks. Mistress Lorainne told him it was his own money to keep or to

use, as he had been a free man several months.

"As our people, white and black and Indians, sat talking they related

how they had been warned of approaching trouble. Jack said the dogs had

been howling around the place for many nights and that always presaged a

death in the family. Jack had been compelled to take off his shoes and

turn them soles up near the hearth to prevent the howling of the dogs.

Uncle Robert told how he believed some of Mistress Hester's enemies had

planted a shrub near her door and planted it with a curse so that when

the shrub bloomed the old woman passed away. Then another man told how a

friend had been seen carrying a spade into his cousin's cabin and the

cousin had said, 'Daniel, what foh you brung that weapon into by [TR:

my?] cabin? That very spade will dig my grave,' and sure enough the

cousin had died and the same spade had been used in digging his grave.

"How my childish nature quailed at hearing the superstitions discussed,

I cannot explain. I have never believed in witchcraft nor spells, but I

remember my Indian grandmother predicted a long, cold winter when she

noticed the pelts of the coons and other furred creatures were

exceedingly heavy. When the breastbones of the fowls were strong and

hard to sever with the knife it was a sign of a hard, cold and snowy

winter. Another superstition was this: 'A green winter, a new

graveyard--a white winter, a green graveyard.'"

George Fortman relates how, when he accompanied two of his cousins into

the lowlands--there were very many Katy-dids in the trees--their voices

formed a nerve-racking orchestra and his cousin told him to tiptoe to

the trees and touch each tree with the tips of his fingers. This he did,

and for the rest of the day there was quiet in the forest.

"More than any other superstition entertained by the slave Negroes, the

most harmful was the belief on conjurors. One old Negro woman boiled a

bunch of leaves in an iron pot, boiled it with a curse and scattered the

tea therein brewed, and firmly believed she was bringing destruction to

her enemies. 'Wherever that tea is poured there will be toil and

troubles,' said the old woman.

"The religion of many slaves was mostly superstition. They feared to

break the Sabbath, feared to violate any of the Commandments, believing

that the wrath of God would follow immediately, blasting their lives.

"Things changed at the George homestead as they change everywhere," said

George Fortman. "When the Civil War broke out many slaves enlisted in

hopes of receiving freedom. The George Negroes were already free but

many thought it their duty to enlist and fight for the emancipation of

their fellow slaves. My mother took her family and moved away from the

plantation and worked in the broom cane. Soon she discovered she could

not make enough to rear her children and we were turned over to the

court to be bound out.

"I was bound out to David Varnell in Livingston County by order of Judge

Busch and I stayed there until I was fifteen years of age. My sister

learned that I was unhappy there and wanted to see my mother, so she

influenced James Wilson to take me into his home. Soon goodhearted Jimmy

Wilson took me to see Mother and I went often to see her."

Sometimes George would become stubborn and hard to control and then Mr.

Wilson administered chastisement. His wife could not bear to have the

boy punished. 'Don't hit him, Jimmie, don't kick him,' would say the

good Scotch woman, who was childless. 'If he does not obey me I will

whip him,' James Wilson would answer. So the boy learned the lesson of

obedience from the old couple and learned many lessons in thrift through

their examples.

"In 1883 I left the Wilson home and began working and trying to save

some money. River trade was prosperous and I became a 'Roustabout'. The

life of the roustabout varied some with the habits of the roustabout and

the disposition of the mate. We played cards, shot dice and talked to

the girls who always met the boats. The 'Whistling Coon' was a popular

song with the boatmen and one version of 'Dixie Land'. One song we often

sang when near a port was worded 'Hear the trumpet Sound'--

Hear the trumpet sound,

Stand up and don't sit down,

Keep steppin' 'round and 'round,

Come jine this elegant band.

If you don't step up and jine the bout,

Old Missus sure will fine it out,

She'll chop you in the head wid a golen ax,

You never will have to pay da tax,

Come jine the roust-a-bout band."

From roust-a-bout George became a cabin boy, cook, pilot, and held a

number of positions on boats, plowing different streams. There was much

wild game to be had and the hunting season was always open. He also

remembers many wolves, wild turkeys, catamounts and deer in abundance

near the Grand River. "Pet deer loafed around the milking pens and ate

the feed from the mangers" said he.

George Fortman is a professor of faith in Christ. He was baptized in

Concord Lake, seven miles from Clarksville, Tennessee, became a member

of the Pleasant Greene Church at Callwell, Kentucky and later a member

of the Liberty Baptist Church at Evansville.

"I have always kept in touch with my white folks, the George family,"

said the man, now feeble and blind. "Four years ago Mistress Puss died

and I was sent for but was not well enough to make the trip home."

Too young to fight in the Civil War, George was among those who watched

the work go on. "I lived at Smiths Landing and remember the battle at

Fort Donnelson. It was twelve miles away and a long cinder walk reached

from the fort for nearly thirty miles. The cinders were brought from the

iron ore mills and my mother and I have walked the length of it many

times." Still reviewing the long, dark trail he continued. "Boatloads of

soldiers passed Smith's Landing by day and night and the reports of

cannon could be heard when battles were fought. We children collected

Munnie balls near the fort for a long time after the war."

Although the George family never sold slaves or separated Negro

families, George Fortman has seen many boats loaded with slaves on the

way to slave marts. Some of the George Negroes were employed as pilots

on the boats. He also remembers slave sales where Negroes were auctioned

by auctioneers, the Negroes stripped of clothes to exhibit their


"I have always been befriended by three races of people, the Caucassian,

the African, and the Negro," declares George Fortman. "I have worked as

a farmer, a river man, and been employed by the Illinois Central

Railroad Company and in every position I have held I have made loyal

friends of my fellow workmen." One friend, treasured in the memory of

the aged ex-slave is Ollie James, who once defended George in court.

George Fortman has friends at Dauson Springs, Grayson Springs, and other

Kentucky resorts. He has been a citizen of Evansville for thirty-five

years and has had business connections here for sixty-two years. He

janitored for eleven years for the Lockyear Business College, but his

days of usefulness are over. He now occupies a room at Bellemeade Ave.

and Garvin St. and his only exercise consists of a stroll over to the

Lincoln High School. There he enjoys listening to the voices of the

pupils as they play about the campus. "They are free", he rejoices.

"They can build their own destinies, they did not arrive in this life by

births of unsatisfactory circumstances. They have the world before them

and my grandsons and granddaughters are among them."

George Eatman George G King facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail