Chains and Freedom: or, The Life and Adventures of Peter Wheeler, A Colored Man Yet Living, A Slave, A Sailor on the Deep, and A Sinner at the Cross by Peter Wheeler with Introduction by Graham. Russell Gao Hodges. New York: E. S. Arnold & Co.. 1839; 2009 ed., Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, vii + 149 pp.
The Wheeler's slave and escape narrative reminds one of the current oral interviews that have been conducted and complied in the last few decades. Graham Russell Gao Hodges is to be commended for reissuing Peter Wheeler's The Life and Adventures-Hodges' provides an excellent overview of the circumstances surrounding the telling of Peter Wheelers tale. Hodges provides the information on Charles Edward Lester, lawyer, minister and dedicated abolitionist who interviewed Wheeler and verified his story. Hodges explains that Lester had to have a number of white citizens familiar with Wheeler to sign the narrative because during the antebellum era proslavery advocates, north and south, denied the accuracy of many slave narratives. Similarly, Hodges informs us that in last thirty years historians have been able to authenticate numerous antebellum slave narratives.
The narrative is organized in three books; the books are short. The complete tale is 143 pages. Wheeler claimed his year of birth as 1789, in New Jersey. And born to a slave mother who talked of his grandfather "'the African." Wheeler's owner. Job Mather, was a Quaker. Wheeler's story of his early years is similar to other slave narratives regarding enslaved children being removed from their mothers so that they could serve the owner's household in some way. At a young age Mather used Wheeler as a surrogate child for his grieving wife, she lost one of her children. Wheeler became a fixture around the Mather household and played with the other Mather child. Other narratives also mention enslaved children playing with the master's children as if they were equals. At age eleven Wheeler's quasi-idyllic existence, according to Wheeler, changed. The mistress died and Mather sold Wheeler to Gideon Morehouse. And according to Wheeler, this was when his "field of trouble" began (p.40)
Wheeler's time with Morehouse was filled with brutality and humiliation. Morehouse moves his family and Wheeler to Central New York and during the journey and afterwards Wheeler received numerous beatings for minor and major infractions of Morehouse's rules. On one occasion, after they arrived in New York, while they were building the cabin Morehouse hits Wheeler in the face with an axe and draws blood. Wheeler commented on the incident: "This warn't (sic) much, but I tell it to show the natur' (sic) of the man; for anybody will abuse power, if they have it to do just as they please." (51) There were other instances of brutality. At one point Morehouse tried to shoot Wheeler. Even Morehouse's white neighbors commented on his brutality and one even encouraged Wheeler to run away. …