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Documents that have been newly discovered confirm the reality of people and places that Jacobs presents in her book under fictitious names.  Jacobs was born a slave in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina.  She inherited the legal status of her mother because the law stated that children automatically acquired the legal status of their mother.  Jacobsís maternal grandmother, Molly Horniblow, ďwho had been freed in middle age,Ē[1] owned a house on West King Street in Edenton and supported herself as a baker.  Jacobsís father, Elijah, was a skillful carpenter who was owned by Dr. Andrew Knox.  Her mother, Delilah, was a slave of Elizabeth Pritchard Horniblow.
When Jacobs was six years old and her younger brother John was four, her mother died.  Soon after her motherís death, Jacobs was sent to live with her motherís mistress, Margaret Horniblow.  Margaret Horniblow died when Jacobs was eleven years old and bequeathed Jacobs to her niece Mary Matilda Norcum, whose family lived near Jacobsís grandmother.  Mary Matilda Norcumís father, Dr. James Norcum, bought Jacobsís brother.  As Jacobs matured, Norcum incessantly harassed her sexually.  In an effort to avoid Norcumís advances, she became sexually involved with a neighbor, a young single white lawyer, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer.  With him, Jacobs had two children, Joseph and Louisa Matilda.

In 1835, Norcum threatened Jacobs that if she did not become his concubine, she would have to work on one of his plantations.  Jacobs did not submit to Norcum and as a result was sent to one of his plantations in Auburn.  However, after discovering that Norcum planned to move her son and daughter from her grandmotherís home to Auburn into plantation slavery, Jacobs decided to run away.  Initially, she found shelter with a few sympathetic black and white neighbors, but eventually, hid in a tiny space above a storeroom in the back of her grandmotherís house.  Jacobs managed to successfully protect her children because shortly after she went into hiding, Sawyer bought Joseph and Louisa Matilda as well as Jacobsís brother, John, from Norcum.  Her children continued to live with her grandmother, and later, Sawyer took Louisa to a free state.  However, he failed to keep his promise to Jacobs that he would free the children.

While Jacobs was in hiding, she often read the Bible and practiced writing.  After almost seven years in hiding, in 1842, Jacobs escaped to the North.  First she went to Brooklyn, where her daughter Louisa was.  She also arranged for her son to be sent to her brother John, who had escaped from Sawyer and was living in Boston.  Jacobs found a job as a nursemaid in New York City for Imogen, the daughter of Mary State Willis and the magazine writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis.  Meanwhile, Norcum traveled to New York on several occasions in search of Jacobs, his runaway slave.  In October 1844, with the help of her brother and Mrs. Willis, Jacobs fled to Boston with Louisa Matilda.  Mrs. Willis died the following spring.  Soon thereafter, Mr. Willis persuaded Jacobs to accompany him and his daughter, Imogen, on their visit to his in-laws in England.  Jacobs returned ten months later and found that her son had ďshipped out to seaĒ[2] after having been subjected to racism in the print shop where he was apprenticing.  In 1849, Jacobs enrolled her daughter in a boarding school run by abolitionists in Clinton, New York, and moved to Rochester where her brother was lecturing for the abolitionist movement.  Jacobs began working in the antislavery reading room, office, and bookstore that her brother and his fellow antislavery activists had established above The North Star newspaper.  During her eighteen months in Rochester, she read as many books and papers in the abolitionistsí library as she could.

While her brother was away from home lecturing, Jacobs stayed with a couple who were Quaker reformers and staunch abolitionists, Isaac and Amy Post, for nine months.  Amy Post had been a participant in the first Womanís Rights Convention at Seneca Falls and also helped organize the Rochester Convention.  While Jacobs lived with the Posts, she confided in Amy, who encouraged Jacobs to publish her personal history to the public to aid abolitionism.  In Jacobsís letters to Post after Jacobs returned to New York, their close friendship is apparent as well as the sophistication of Jacobsís vocabulary and writing skills.  In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law mandating that all citizens were forbidden from aiding fugitive slaves, even in the Northern states where slavery had been abolished.  If those who aided fugitives were found, they would be punished.

After joining protestors against the Fugitive Slave Law, Jacobsís brother decided to venture west for the California gold rush.  Jacobsís son Joseph also joined him.  In 1852, both men decided to go try out the Australian gold rush.  In 1850, Jacobs returned to New York City and while visiting Imogen, she met Nathaniel Parker Willisís new wife, Cornelia Grinnell Willis, who hired Jacobs to take care of her newborn baby.  Mary Matilda Norcum, who had inherited Jacobs, was an adult by this time and after the death of her father, traveled to New York with her husband, Daniel Messmore, in search of Jacobs and her daughter.  Upon discovering that the Messmores were in New York to seize her and her daughter, Jacobs went back into hiding.  While Jacobs was in hiding, Mrs. Willis arranged for the American Colonization Society to act as an agent and bought Jacobs from the Messmores for $300.00 in 1852 in order to assure the freedom of Jacobs and her children.


[1] Yellin, p. xvii.
[2] Yellin, pg. xviii.