This 1856 watercolor of the Liberian Senate is believed to be historically accurate. Liberia became an independent nation in 1847 and the Americo-Liberians replicated the U.S. government in their new country with a key difference, Black citizenship. (Library of Congress photo)

Read Part 1 here: Colonization movement doomed free Black families from Franklin County.

For 19th century emigrants to Liberia from Southside Virginia, just getting to the Norfolk docks was arduous. The Mars and Crockett families likely walked or rode wagons from Franklin County to Lynchburg, then on to Richmond, where they traveled down the James River to the coast. Later emigrants would go by canal boat or railroad from Lynchburg, but neither was in operation in 1830. 

The departures of the Mars and Crocketts involved much dithering by the American Colonization Society (ACS) bureaucracy. Leasing a ship for the first group and others at the last minute, ACS agents had little time to procure supplies for the emigrants, who were always ill-equipped in the best of circumstances. The society managed to ship four boxes of wine for missionaries aboard, but for the emigrants, only 11 plows, a bundle of seeds, some clothes, a few farming implements, and three boxes of smoking pipes, probably for trade with the indigenous people. The ACS bought some pork and tobacco at the last minute in Norfolk but often justified not equipping emigrants with basic tools by saying they needed to learn to fend for themselves. The first group arrived in Liberia in early June.

When the larger second group from Franklin County reached Norfolk in October 1830, they must have worried that again they again would be told to go home. Their ship was already crowded with water casks and goods from Philadelphia. Then, the ACS loaded multiple hogsheads of tobacco, some of it grown around Lynchburg, hoping to trade it in Liberia to raise money to help finance continued emigration. The Mars and Crocketts and the other emigrants were sent almost as cargo themselves, packed into the hold where little room was left. Traveling as cabin passengers were two white ACS representatives — the colony’s only physician, and the colonial agent, who was somewhat analogous to a royal governor in the American colonies. 

The ship was carrying 107 emigrants, including about 40 from Franklin County. To finally sail across the mouth of the beautiful Chesapeake Bay and into the vast Atlantic Ocean must have been a relief and a wonder, but any elation was brief. Measles broke out a few days after the ship left Norfolk and killed 20 of the 107 aboard, mostly children. 

The Franklin County emigrants went to Liberia in 1830. Published that same year, and acquired by the Library of Congress in 1968, this map was based on the surveys and explorations of an American Colonization Society agent and missionary. (Library of Congress)

The others landed in Monrovia, the Liberian capital, in early December 1830, set to go up the broad St. Paul’s River a few miles to the Caldwell settlement where they expected to join the rest of the Mars family. But they soon learned that Abraham Mars and all but one of their relatives had already died, most from the “acclimating fever.” In 1830, the fever was thought to arise from dank, fetid environments, like the swampy areas around Monrovia. Colonization supporters acknowledged that something was lethal in the coastal environment, and were starting inland settlements like Caldwell, where the air was thought to be healthier. 

A modern map of northwest Africa, showing Liberia on the lower left, between Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast. (Library of Congress)

The financially strapped colonization society didn’t have the resources to maintain the building in Caldwell where the Virginia emigrants were to wait out their acclimation, and it wasn’t fit for habitation. So the families remained in pestilent Monrovia, which was hard-pressed to accommodate them. Fever killed Polly Crockett and her adult son within a month. All the remaining Mars were dead within a year, although the oldest member of the group, Catherine Saunders, 70, (Benjamin’s mother-in-law) lived until 1833. A few of the Crockett children survived another year or so, but only one, John Crockett, would live longer than a few years. 

While 50% mortality was the norm for Liberia, generally the deaths were spread over multiple voyages, months and years. For more than 50 people to die so quickly was a disaster for the cause of colonization, and the American Colonization Society tried to deny it. But abolitionists James Forten, a Revolutionary War veteran and Black businessman in Philadelphia, and William Lloyd Garrison, the white publisher of The Liberator in Boston, soon found out the truth.

The society’s journal, the African Repository, brushed over the deaths the following year. The Lynchburg Colonization Society ignored the Franklin County people in its lengthy annual report. The Mars’s shipmate, the colonial agent, dismissed the initial fatalities, only saying they “more numerous than anticipated” and found “chiefly in those from the mountainous parts of Virginia.” A ship captain wrote an April letter mentioning “unusual mortality” and saying the colonization society “must not flinch from it,” comparing the unhealthy climate of Monrovia to Jamestown. In a July report, “Health of Liberia,” the African Repository mentioned a “larger number than usual” amount of deaths, attributing it to the fact that doomed emigrants were from mountainous areas, accustomed to clean, clear air, and were more susceptible to fever than those from Tidewater or states farther south. The colonial agent wrote in November that the colony was generally healthy “except for the heavy affliction it has pleased Providence to send on the emigrants” of the Mars-Crockett voyage. 

These reports didn’t mention the Mars or Crocketts by name, or what county they came, or the total number of deaths. The ACS’s initial coverup was assisted by the colony’s boosterish newspaper, The Liberian Herald. Its editor was part of the Americo-Liberian power structure and the paper claimed that only two of the Mars had died. In those years, the emigrant community in the Monrovia region was as tight-knit as a small Virginia town, and it’s hard to believe that the editor didn’t know the truth. The colonization society’s journal, The African Repository, devoted more space in these years to an orangutan spotted along the St. Paul’s River than it did to the Virginian’s deaths.

The real story hinged on James Forten of Philadelphia, the “Quaker city” with a large free Black population. He was a fourth-generation American. His great-grandfather was brought to America as a slave; his grandfather was born into slavery but gained his own freedom; his father was a free man who served in the Revolutionary War. After attending a Quaker school, young James became a colonial army drummer, was captured by the British, and turned down an offer to switch sides. He later went into the sailmaking business and in 1813 published Letters from a Man of Colour, advocating more civil rights for Blacks in Pennsylvania. In 1817, soon after the American Colonization Society was organized, Forten chaired a meeting at Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. It was attended by about 3,000 African Americans, free and enslaved, and “resoundingly concluded that colonization was an attempt to solidify slavery’s grasp by removing free Blacks from American Soil.” Read one resolution, “We will never separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population of this country.” 

By 1830, Forten was in his 60s, one of the wealthiest and most prominent businessmen in one of the biggest cities in the country. Forten objected to whites referring to Africa as his “native country” and believed that the ACS’s chief purpose was to remove Blacks from the United States, not to help them gain freedom and prosper in another land. He urged free Blacks to remain in the U.S. and work to end slavery. Because of his thriving business in the Philadelphia port, Forten had contacts with ship captains journeying to and from Liberia, and other friends and acquaintances sent him information outside ACS channels. In fact, Forten “had a seemingly inexhaustible fund of information, all of it negative, on Liberia and the ACS,” writes his biographer, Julie Winch, in a A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten, which untangled the conflicting stories about the Virginia emigrants

Forten soon heard what had really happened, and that almost all of the Franklin County people were dead. His initial details, published in a Philadelphia newspaper, came in a letter from another friend in Liberia and included mistaken information about the numbers, and said those who died came from Ohio on an earlier voyage. Because of these errors, colonization supporters dismissed the whole story as false. Forten then consulted another source who told him that the families were from “Western Virginia,” came over on the Carolinian, and almost all had died. He sent this new, correct information to his Boston friend, Garrison, who published it in The Liberator.

In January 1832, the American Colonization Society finally acknowledged that the number of deaths was high, maintaining that it was a misfortune which could not be blamed on the Liberian climate, that the Black man’s natural place was Africa, and that “morally” he should aspire to live there. That was all nonsense to Garrison. Like Forten, he believed that colonization was a deception concocted to avoid freeing the enslaved and granting them equal rights. One of the most hated men in the South, he published a sarcastic response to an 1832 Lynchburg editorial which asserted that slave owners would consent to give up their slaves as long as everyone else did and that they could be removed immediately. Replied Garrison: “They are willing to cease from robbery and oppression as soon as such a measure shall be universal — not before! — and as soon as their victims can be at once removed — that is, as soon as upwards of two millions of human beings can be coercively and unitedly hurled from one continent to another, a distance of only four thousand miles!”

Only one member of the Mars and Crockett family lived long enough to be enumerated in the first Liberian census in 1843: John Crockett, a youngster when he left Franklin County, was 23 by then and working as a laborer in Caldwell, where a few farmers persevered. A rural river village in a huge tropical forest, it remained isolated, and although long-term survivors gained some immunity to malaria, the vicious mosquitoes continued to infect new arrivals. At a crucial time when Liberia should have been growing and developing its own resources, emigration from Virginia and the other states slowed to a trickle, picking up again in the 1840s and 1850s, then culminating with the emigration of more than 150 newly freed enslaved people from Lynchburg in 1865.

All the emigrants soon learned that fever wasn’t the only danger in the tropical land. Joseph Mars Jr. drowned. George Mars, one of the three brothers, died from “exposure to the sun” within weeks of arrival. Four members of the Holcombe family, owned, then freed, by a member of the Lynchburg Colonization Society, went to Liberia with the Franklin County people. Lucinda Holcombe and her son, Powhatan, survived their 1830 voyage and subsequent fever. Powhatan’s brothers Robert and Thomas did not. A Mars child who survived the fever died in 1842 at age 15. 

Back in Virginia, the economic benefits of slavery for the whites went hand in hand with the deep-seated fears of Black insurrection. Nat Turner’s rebellion in August 1831 brought that to life via the death of 50-some whites followed by the hanging of Turner and his fellow revolutionaries. Southside Virginia residents learned about the Southampton County rebellion in a bulletin published the next day by the Virginian, and then in a lengthy report republished from Richmond two days after the rampage. Lynchburg whites remained on edge for months. In a massive overreaction, they sent a mounted artillery company and “volunteers,” likely a mob, to Halifax, about 40 miles south, to quell an insurrection that turned out to be a half-dozen supposedly intoxicated Black men who were not rebelling.

A lengthy address to the Lynchburg Colonization Society was published on the same page of the Virginian as the Nat Turner report. Charles L. Mosby, 23, was a Lynchburg lawyer who came from a family of slave owners, owning 24 people himself by 1840. His address provided another glimpse into why free people like the Mars and Crocketts would have wanted to leave Virginia. No matter what they accomplished, their race determined who they were. “Let (the freeman) toil from youth to age in the honorable pursuit of wisdom — let him store his mind from the most valuable researches of science and literature — and let him add to a highly cited and cultivated intellect, a piety pure, undefiled, and ‘unspotted from the world’ — it is all nothing: he would not be received into the very lowest walks of our society.” 

In the wake of the Turner rebellion, the state legislature defeated a measure that would have allowed for the gradual ending of slavery in Virginia. The American Colonization Society itself essentially ran out of money in the 1830s and had to shift its focus even further toward sending slaves liberated and sometimes coerced to emigrate. By now, Lynchburg’s free Blacks were well aware of the situation: “The free negroes generally seem to have an unconquerable prejudice against the whole scheme, regarding it as a plot of the whites, whom they look upon as hereditary enemies, to (send) them to a barren soil and sickly climate, anxious only for their departure from among them, and indifferent whether they afterwards prosper, or fall a victim to their credulity,” wrote the Lynchburg editor in 1833. 

Forten and the American Abolition Society continued to counter misleading information from colonization proponents. In 1834, he paid the expenses for a Liberian returnee in Philadelphia to testify at a public hearing in New York on colonization, including cross-examination. Conducted by a joint committee of colonizationists and abolitionists, the contentious proceedings lasted two days and included frequent interruptions and complaints from colonization supporters as Thomas C. Brown calmly detailed all that was wrong with the colony. Two of his children and his brother and sister died there, and he had not been well himself for more than three days in a row during the 14 months he spent in West Africa. A free man originally from South Carolina, Brown was a master carpenter, builder and property owner. Like Forten, he was a fourth-generation American and said he “by no means” considered himself an African. He said he went to Liberia to better his condition, but returned because of his health and the lack of work. He mostly described a poor land without resources, where the few people associated with the government lived well and many others were reduced to begging. The American Colonization Society had hoped to impeach Brown and cast doubt on his account, but their attempts were a spectacular failure. Ralph Gurley, a founder of the American Colonization Society, was one of the questioners, but he was unable to counter the damning descriptions or Brown’s assertion that half the people who came to Liberia died. Said Brown, “The grave-yards always look fresh.”

Note on sources: This story is from a book I am writing about the hundreds of Central and Southside Virginians who emigrated to Liberia in the 19th century. The Mars and Crocketts are enumerated by name on manifests of colonization society ships, as well as the University of Virginia’s searchable Virginia Emigrants to Liberia project. Starting there, I pieced together the story of the Mars and Crocketts through research into 19th century documents, books and newspapers; census records and wills; the American Colonization Society’s African Repository, letters and records; and the work of various scholars including Marie Tyler-McGraw’s “An African Republic: Black and White Virginians in the Making of Africa;” Julie Winch’s A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten, andClaude A. Clegg’s The Price of Liberty: African Americans and the Making of Liberia, among many others. Finally, I can’t resist recommending New York Times reporter Helene Cooper’s wonderful memoir of growing up in Liberia in the 20th century, The House on Sugar Beach. Her ancestor went to Liberia on the same ship that brought the first Lynchburg emigrants in 1829.

Joe Stinnett

Joe Stinnett is retired editor of The News & Advance and The Roanoke Times. He is a member of the Cardinal News Journalism Advisory Committee. He lives in Lynchburg.