George Moses Horton was a slave for sixty-eight years, from his birth in about 1797 until the close of the Civil War. His achievements as a man and a poet were extraordinary: Horton was the first American slave to protest his bondage in verse; the first African American to publish a book in the South; the only slave to earn a significant income by selling his poems; the only poet of any race to produce a book of poems before he could write; and the only slave to publish two volumes of poetry while in bondage and another shortly after emancipation. Horton also stands out among African American poets of the nineteenth century for his wide range of poetical subjects and unorthodox attitudes. His religious verse is undogmatic and humanistic; his antislavery poems are honest and deeply personal, unlike the generic protests by free black poets; he treats everyday matters like drinking and poverty, women, love, and marriage with wry and cynical humor in an often self-satirical mood; and his view of America and its heroes is patriotic, integrationist, and culturally nationalistic. Above all, Horton's unbounded enthusiasm for liberty, nature, and his sacred art of poetry vitalizes his best poems, and we hear a real, self-aware individual speaking directly to us.
At a time when the life expectancy for a white male was about thirty- five years and much less for a slave, George Horton survived to the age of eighty-six. Unfortunately, the only sources of concrete information about his long life as a slave and free man are his autobiographical sketch in The Poetical Works ( 1845), a few of his letters, one long oration, and brief reminiscences by men who actually met him.
Horton was born in Northampton County, four miles from the Roanoke River on the small tobacco farm of his master, William Horton. He says in The Poetical Works that he was the sixth of ten children and that his mother had five girls, "not of one father," followed by George, another boy, and three more girls "by her second husband." 1 A few years after George's birth, his master decided to move from Northampton County because of "the sterility of his land" to Chatham County, some 100 miles southwest, where he purchased land in 1800.