Lauana Creel





Ex-Slave Stories

District #5

Vanderburgh County

Lauana Creel



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

mulatto."



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

George.



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

workers.



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

years.



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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