Interviewer: Lauana Creel
Person Interviewed: George Taylor Burns
Location: Evansville, Indiana
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.