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  • Leaving Virginia for Liberia: Western Virginia Emigrants and Emancipators
  • Jane Ailes and Marie Tyler-McGraw

In the spring of 1834, a young man from Buckhannon, Virginia, wrote home from the West African colony of Liberia to friends: “O Henry when I look back and reflect on the many ours I Spent with you and your family I am led to wish that I could See you all but we are severl thousand miles apart at this time . . . I want you to write to me as often as you can . . . let me no all about the people how many hav died and who they are and how many has mared and who they are and who was elected to the next Legislature . . . Give my love to the Boys and tell them that if they ever want to see any thing to leave Buchannon.”1

Samson Ceasar’s letters to his friends David Haselden and Henry F. Westfall were homesick and yearning, yet teasing and sermonizing, often in the same paragraph. “Tell Lydia that their was A vessel from Jermany landed here About ten days Ago and I never Saw better looking men in my life than some of them ware if She wants a Jerman and will write to me I will try to send hur one for I think they will Suit hur tell her Above all things to get religion So that She may Save hur Sole.”2 His homesickness was abated by the power of the missionary impulse that drove him to Liberia. Ceasar’s letters refer to both the opposition to his ministry that he experienced in a small town in northwestern Virginia and the emotional closeness he felt with the Westfall, Carper, and Haselden families there. Samson Ceasar was a Methodist, a western Virginian, and a black man.3 The people he called David and Henry and Lydia were white.

Ceasar was described as a hatter in the 1833 ship’s list,4 but he saw himself primarily as a preacher, a missionary to Africa. It was for this purpose that he went to Africa, not to make hats. The white families to whom Ceasar wrote were pioneers in northwestern Virginia, coming into the region around 1800 and following a common migratory path southwest from Pennsylvania. Ceasar was held as a slave by Abraham Carper who was born in Pennsylvania, apprenticed as a hatter, and was a member of the German Reformed Church. By midlife, Carper was a prosperous farmer and an exhorter and class leader in the “Carper Church,” the Methodist Episcopal church in Buckhannon, Lewis County, Virginia.5 In 1833, Carper freed Samson Ceasar to leave for [End Page 1] Liberia6 and Ceasar wrote to his contemporaries in age: Henry Westfall, David Haselden, and Daniel Carper, youngest son of Abraham.7 Ceasar’s sense of identification with certain white families and the reality of his exclusion from the larger white society were both, with some exceptions, characteristic of western Virginia emigrants to Liberia.

Ceasar was in Liberia as a result of the efforts of the American Colonization Society (ACS), a national organization that was an active and prominent part of American politics and society in the decades from its formation in late 1816 until the close of the Civil War in 1865. In the antebellum era, the ACS offered a national solution to what it described as the problem of the status of free blacks in the American republic, but which all understood to be the problem of American slavery, unresolved under the Constitution and dividing the young nation. The society declared that unalterable prejudice prevented free blacks or, by implication, emancipated slaves from achieving real citizenship in the United States. They would be better off in Africa, the Colonization Society concluded, where they could repeat the American experience of exploration and colonization and, through courage and sacrifice, build for themselves a republic like that of the United States. Furthermore, they could convert the Africans to Christianity and establish trade ties with the United States.

The goal of an African republic seemed possible as the ACS managed within four years to appropriate a small segment of land on the western coast of Africa...


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