Monday, February 6, 2012

My Ancestor and Her Great Escape to Freedom!

This is an image from Video of Slavery in Pittsburgh (Scroll  down to view the video)

Earlier today I got an email from a professor Tom Wing at the University of Arkansas, Ft. Smith. He mentioned that I might be interested in a site that he had found discussing a video that would probably interest me. The video was about an exhibition held at the University of Pittsburgh.  I watched the video---and then halfway through the video----there it was---a reference to a woman-----one of my ancestors!!!!

The story is a simple one. 

While on a trip to Virginia with his wife and her slave girl, John Drennen of Van Buren Arkansas spent a night at the Monangahela House in Pittsburgh.

The Monangahela House, Pittsburgh
Image: Courtesy of Samuel Black Curator, 
African American Collections, Senator John Heinz History Center

The staff of the hotel had waiters and maids who worked there as part of the population of free people. Many such people from the community were active with the Underground Railroad. The story is simple---the girl was exposed to a community of free blacks for the first time, and quite easily, seeing people of color coming and going freely it is not hard to imagine that she was easily enticed to sample freedom herself. It was said that she was sent to sleep in the servant's quarters.

A panel describing the Drennen Slave Girl and her opportunity to escape

After assisting the mistress in dressing for dinner, the young girl had requested that a trunk of clothes that had been damaged to be sent out for repair. After attending to Mrs. Drennen, the girl attended to the trunk needing repair. She followed the servants carrying the trunk out to the street, and she disappeared.

Depiction of  the Drennen Slave Girl and her opportunity to escape

Seeing this image struck me. Although this is a mere representation --- this was a dramatization that gave this young girl a face.  She was originally part of the Drennen family of slaves--and she is believed to have been the younger sister to my  gr. gr. grandfather Patrick Drennen.

And seeing this representation of her--the young teenaged girl that she was I cannot help but be moved---she was so tender in age, yet so vulnerable, and so unexposed to the world. She had to now trust those who would  assist her on this new journey, and she would remain vulnerable to so many unknowns. But--the word eventually got back---she made it to freedom! It is not known how long the Drennen's sought her return, but with slaves being considered slaves for life, into perpetuity, she was most likely still considered simply to be "missing" property.

In Arkansas, she was more than likely the young girl reflected in the Drennen household in the 1850 Slave Schedule. 

Image: Slave Schedule 1850, Crawford County Arkansas, Van Buren Township The red arrow is believed
to be the young girl who escaped from the Drennen Household While Traveling With Drennens in Pennsylvania

It should be noted that The Drennen home is the only home in the entire state of Arkansas continually occupied by the same family from the time it was built until it was recently sold to the University of Arkansas. 
The home itself is a simply one-story structure that sits on 26 acres. No one other than members of the Drennen family or Drennen family descendants have ever lived in the home. Patrick and his sister and his family lived mostly likely close by in servants' quarters, or possibly in one of the many additional structures on the ground.

Source: Southwest Times Record May 8, 2011, Features Section

I have visited the home several times. The first time, a friend and fellow researcher Tonia Holleman a well respected historian and resident of Van Buren, took me there for the first time. It was, in fact it was she, who educated me on who the Drennen family was.  I only knew the name of John Drennen from the depositions of my gr. gr. grandmother Lydia, whose husband was Patrick who lived on the estate. And it was Ms. Holleman introduced the Drennen family history to me, and I shall always be grateful to her for the information that she shared.

I have met some of the Drennen descendants on more than one occasion, and last year at the dedication of the newly restore Drennen home, I met several more. In honor of  my gr. gr. grandfather Patrick, and his family, I was there for the dedication.

I like to think that also on that day,--a young woman smiled down from the heavens--this same young girl who made her escape to Freedom, I like to thing that she too was also present that day, as she and her family were represented as having been there, too.

Did this anonymous  young girl return to America? 

Image from Exhibition on the Great Escape of my ancestor

I don't know. But it would be about 15 years before she could have ever safely returned to a life of freedom in the United States. My only hope is that she thrived, and she lived to pass her story down.

Quite possibly she adapted to life, probably in Ontario, possibly in the black Canadian settlement of Buxton. But wherever she landed, she breathed fee air, and with time, all of her family did.

I knew only a small part of her story, and I never realized however, that her story would be considered one of America's great escapes!! But it was, a great escape, and I know that she found a new life and found her way.


Ms Vicky said...

What a wonderful story Angela! I am sure your ancestor is smiling along with all the others who are surrounding her.
Blessings my friend..

Kristin said...

What a great story! My uncle by marriage was Canadian. He told a similar story of how his family ended up in Canada. He said the slave owners kept taking his ancestors on trips to the north and they kept escaping to Canada. I don't know if he was kidding or not. He was a Shreve and they lived in the Windsor area.

Kathy Reed said...

I followed a link from Kristin of Finding Eliza to this post. What a great story. I'm glad I followed the link.

LindaRe said...

She made it to freedom! What an inspirational story.

Randell said...

What a great moment this must have been for you! An incredible story to say the least.

Unknown said...

I have the name Drennan and have always been curious as to where the name comes from, I spoke to some old irish men a couple of years ago whom told me that the 'Drennan's' are a groyp of people from the Brennan clan who were banished due to not being on board with everything the Brennan's did...true?? I have no idea, I am still finding things out. I do know that we have a coat of arm ..😊 if anyone knows the origin of the Drennan name I would to know.
Wendy Drennan Manchester UK