Harriet Jacobs and George W. Lowther


George W. Lowther (1822-1898), Joseph Blount Skinner’s enslaved valet, was emancipated in the mid 1840s and moved to Boston where he established a hairdressing business. Active in the abolitionist movement, he was elected in 1878 to the Massachusetts legislature.

George W. Lowther testimonial

Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl “contains some incidents so extraordinary, that, doubtless, many persons, under whose eyes it may chance to fall, will be ready to believe that it is colored highly, to serve a special purpose. But, however it may be regarded by the incredulous, I know that it is full of living truths. I have been well acquainted with the author from my boyhood. The circumstances recounted in her history are perfectly familiar to me. I knew of her treatment from her master; of the imprisonment of her children; of their sale and redemption; of her seven years’ concealment; and of her subsequent escape to the North. I am now a resident of Boston, and am a living witness to the truth of this interesting narrative.”



George W. Lowther, barber, abolitionist, equal school rights activist, and Massachusetts legislator, was born a slave in Edenton, North Carolina. His mother, Polly Lowther (c.1780-1864), was an Edenton baker and the emancipated slave of wealthy planter Joseph Blount Skinner. Lowther married Sarah Logan of Boston in September 1852.

Jacobs, Louisa (Yellin)

Louisa Jacobs served as bridesmaid at George W. Lowther’s 1852 Boston wedding. (Thought to be Louisa Jacobs, courtesy Jean Yellin).

Among the wedding guests were his old Edenton friends, Harriet Jacobs, and her daughter, Louisa M. Jacobs, who served as bridesmaid. George and Sarah Lowther’s nieces, teachers Sarah and Marianna Lawton, assisted Louisa Jacobs in running the Jacobs freedmen’s school in Alexandria, Virginia. Louisa’s life-long friendship with the Lawtons is mentioned in her recently discovered private letters, Whispers of Cruel Wrongs: The Correspondence of Louisa Jacobs and Her Circle, 1879-1911 (36).

Lowther was the first African American in Massachusetts to be admitted to the national temperance organization, the Right Worthy Grand Lodge.  Along with lawyer George L. Ruffin (his next door neighbor in 1870) and Dr. John S. Rock, Lowther supported the Republican Party, and in 1878 he was elected to a two-year term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives where he represented Boston’s 9th Ward.  In 1879, Lowther served with early equal rights activist Wendell Phillips and three others on a fundraising committee to aid African Americans who wanted to leave the South.  When Wendell Phillips died in 1884, George W. Lowther was one of the speakers at Phillips’ memorial service. Continue reading

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Engaged, 1848

Tristrim Lowther Skinner to Eliza Fisk Harwood



Detail from “Childhood,” The Voyage of Life by Thomas Cole, 1842, National Gallery of Art.

Eliza, since the day when first,

I saw thy lovely form and face;

My heart has lived upon they love,

And with my growth, has grown apace.



And though stern fate has shaped my course,

Through paths with rocks and thorns thick strewn;

My love for thee mid grief and pain,

No doubt, nor wavering has known.

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“Let this miserable war be ended,” May 2, 1862

Eliza Fisk Skinner to Tristrim Lowther Skinner

Oxford [North Carolina]

May 2nd 1862 

1st NC Blue Flag copy 2

Tristrim Skinner’s niece, Maria Warren, presented this blue silk flag to the Albemarle Guards (Company A, 1st NCST). After Skinner’s death at the Battle of Mechanicsville on June 26th, 1862, this portion of the flag was returned to his widow, Eliza Fisk Skinner, whose family loaned it to the Museum of the Confederacy, now the American Civil War Museum, Richmond, Virginia.

1st NC Blue Flag copy


My dearest husband

I have felt so satisfied this week with the general management of things in this “Confederacy” that I have not been disposed to do anything but quarrel – very much in the Examiner’s[1] mood. I have not yet entirely recovered my good humor, & were it not for the fear of making you feel uneasy, I would not write now.


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Camp near Richmond, August 5, 1861

Tristrim Lowther Skinner to Eliza Fisk Skinner

Camp near Richmond,

Aug: 5th 1861

Dearest Eliza

hat front copy

Cap belonging to Captain Tristrim Lowther Skinner of the Albemarle Guards, 1st Regiment, North Carolina State Troops. Courtesy Frances Inglis.

I am officer of the day today and in expectation rather than having a certainty of leaving tomorrow for Manassas. I hoped to find time to write you quite a long letter today but am disappointed as I have much to do, & can probably only half fill this sheet. Yesterday Lt. J. A. Benbury & I went in to accompany our Edenton friends to church & pass the day with them. We heard a sermon fr: Mr. Minnigerode & dined at the Spotswood house having a very pleasant time. Dr. W. and his two ladies[1] go tomorrow to Charlottesville & cannot well get home before Monday next. Maria takes home some clothes for me. I was most agreeably surprised & greatly pleased to meet her. I had gone into one hotel to write to you, but finding the room rather crowded, went on to the S. house, & had finished my letter & was passing out of the street door where a gentleman asked me if I had seen Dr. T Warren who was there with his daughter & Miss Page. They would have sought us out, but I was happy thus to save them the seeking. They visited us at dress parade on Saturday. Continue reading

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Hotel Fire! Portsmouth, Virginia, 1859

Tristrim Lowther Skinner to Eliza Fisk Skinner

Macon House Jan: 16th 1859

The_Fire Alexandre Antigna 1851

“The Fire,” painted by Alexandre Antigna 1850-51. Le musée des beaux-arts d’Orléans.

Dear Eliza

As you will rather expect to hear from me tomorrow evening, and as also events occurring around me since I left you enable me to scribble off a long & interesting letter, I will devote an hour or so today to the pleasant task of preparing such an one for you. I arrived safely at the Ocean House about 2 oclock yesterday ….

Soon after 10 I took a glass of hot whiskey punch after getting in bed, had two extra blankets put on my bed & settled away for a sound & hot sleep to melt away my very bad cold; But only half of the remedy, as it turned out, was to be applied. Very soon after midnight the cry of fire waked me from my nap & I found myself in a profuse perspiration – a man running past under my window (I in the 3rd story,) was asked where is the fire, and he answered in foreign accent, our inginousnext door – so I thought his engine house was in the direction of his race, & pulled the covering closer around me. Continue reading

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Slave list, 1860

fishing-north-carolina copy

1860 sepiaMen copynight-fishing copy


See Slave Lists for transcriptions, photo credits, Edenton slave baptisms, 1850 slave lists, 1846 slave lists, Gabriel Johnston slave estate, Thomas King’s slaves, and African American slave families in antebellum Edenton.

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Bullying, 1840

Tristrim Lowther Skinner to Joseph Blount Skinner

 January 16, 1840

Our “bloodthirsty season” has come again. You may recollect that I told you of a fight which occured between Christmas & the 22nd of Feb. last year.[1] I must now tell you of one which I fear has terminated more fatally.

1842b (before May 9 1842) W&M College engraving from Thomas Millington drawing 1840s.

College of William and Mary [1840], engraving from Thomas Millington’s drawing. NYPL Digital Library.

There was a very small fellow here from the upper part of our state, who is very easily irritated by persons who tease him on that account. One of the students who boarded at the same house at with him, was very fond of teasing him and Wood[2] (the name of the small student) at last got very tired of it, and told the other that if he did not stop he would shoot him. He therefore borrowed a pistol loaded with two balls, and was sitting in his room when Scott[3] (the name of the other) entered and commenced plaguing him.

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Old Valentine Again, 1848

Tristrim Lowther Skinner’s Valentine verses


Old Valentine again has come –

With joy to most, tho’ grief to some;

And we who are young and gay should be,

Free to receive him merrily. 

sentimental closeup u glasgow RB 2499:16

Detail from the cover of The Sentimental Valentine Writer, 1850. University of Glasgow, Special Collections, RB 2499/16.


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Single, 1846

Tristrim Lowther Skinner to Eliza Fisk Harwood

Harveys Neck March 28th 1846

My dear Miss Eliza—

Tristrim Lowther Skinner 1820-1862

Tristrim Lowther Skinner (1820-1862), photograph c. 1850, enlarged and retouched.

On the 25th of last month I wrote to you, and I cannot think that you would have permitted so long a time to pass without answering, if you had received, my letter – I have therefore thought of late, that to the many evils caused me by the opening event of this blustering month, I must add that of having intercepted my letter on its way to you. It ought, by the regular course of the mail, to have left Norfolk in the day of the storm – and I have imagined that the mail for Hampton, if sent, may have been lost, & if not sent, the high tide which overflowed the lower floors of the post office may have destroyed many letters, and among them mine. Now, this may be a more improbable supposition than another which has sometimes entered my mind, but which I have endeavoured not to believe; Continue reading

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Young Love in the Old South

1845 Ladies Companion (before May 2 1845)

Girl reading, Ladies’ Companion, 1845.

In the early spring of 1841, thirteen-year-old Eliza Fisk Harwood of Williamsburg, Virginia, wrote a letter to her friend Tristrim “Trim” Skinner so crammed with news that it was practically unreadable. What she considered to be her most important news, however, were two parties she had recently attended. At the Twelfth Night gala she had appeared as a “a great belle” and had danced so long that she had worn holes into her new satin shoes and hose; then, at the Fair held in February at the Court House, she had watched, fascinated, as a gang of college boys gathered around the whisky punch bowl and recited a hilarious poem. Eliza was so impressed by the students’ parody of the 1777 mock epic poem, The Belles of Williamsburg,[1] that she copied out all twenty-eight stanzas of the doggerel verse into every spare centimeter of white space in her letter. Continue reading

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