The Story of Hagar Randall

The following is a first-hand account of the life of Hagar Randall (c. 1810-1895), an enslaved woman from Virginia. Not being able to read or write, she dictated her story while visiting the family of Frederick Newman Knapp in Plymouth, MA. The hand-written transcript is in the Drew Archival Library, along with a photograph of her daughters, Jerry and Dick Randall.

Dick (seated) and Jerry Randall, c. 1869.
Photographer: G. P. Critcherson, Worcester, MA.

My old mistress of all was Cockburn. I was born in Springfield, VA. My mother didn’t die til the time of the war. Where did she live? Oh, yes, Newport. Ann Powell was my new mistress.[1] I guess my mother was born in Springfield. My father belonged to the Masons. His name was Jackson. When I was 19 we moved. Nancy Cockburn had a friend just as Miss Perkins is to Miss Sally[2]– and that friend was Nancy Triplet. Nancy [Cockburn] set us all free when she died. Dr. Triplet and Bailey Tyler and Judge Dade broke the will. Tyler left Springfield on Saturday to go to Leesburg. He got as far as his farm, Shelter Farm, and started next A.M. Got one foot in the stirrup and fell back dead. Dade didn’t die till next fall. After the will was broke we all was gathered up and sent to Alexandria to Joe Bruin’s jail.[3] I wouldn’t like to describe it to you. It was more like hell than any other place. I stayed in Joe Bruin’s jail 8 weeks. Harry was not with us.[4] Seven children were with me – Mary Ellen, Dick, Jerry, Rachel and Peter, Artemis, Frances – she was the oldest child. Next oldest to Frances died and next oldest died. I raised seven, lost six. Seven were in jail. I was cooking for Joe Bruin all day. They wouldn’t let me out with the children, afraid I’d run away. I slept in jail every night. Dr. Powell bought me out of jail. Joe told me if I would go to Powell three children could go with me and he would keep the other two and wouldn’t separate them [Dick and Jerry]. I took Mary Ellen, Rachel and Peter. I had a very good life. I lived splendid but they took my children. 

When she sent Mary Ellen off the fat was in the fire. I told her [Mrs. Powell] I never would xxx her again as long as I lived. I used to go and sit and talk with her nights. If Dr. Powell had lived, Mary Ellen would not have been sent off. [she was sold for $900 and sent to sent to Louisiana]. She made as Mary was going to Fauquier to learn to cook. I used to dream and I always see her traveling. I made up my mind I’d ask Mrs. Powell so I went and said,  “What you done with Mary Ellen?” “Why didn’t you ask Mr. Taylor I guess he knows where she is.” Her son Llewellyn said “why didn’t you tell Aunt Hagar where Mary Ellen is?” “Well,” said Mrs. Powell, “Mary Ellen got to cussing and swearing.” Said I, “That’s one of Shackleford’s lies, you might as well as told us.” I knew it was a lie. “If you had sold Mary Ellen, why didn’t you tell me?” I’ve been to church and been to church to see if old Kingsford could preach anything why one woman should take another woman’s child. Do you think so you think I could take your child and sell it? She pulled her bonnet over her face and went out as if crying and I prayed to God Mary Ellen could die. I prayed Mrs. Powell might die. I told her everything right to her face for I wanted her to sell me.

Me and Tip would quarrel but me and Tip was first rate. When Tip was shut up I carried him things. He was a miserable bad boy but always my favorite, good to me. Mary went down south and stayed twelve years. 

You know when Fremont was running I knew who was running for President[5] I cared about freedom ever since I knew anything. I’ve heard talk about freedom ever since I can remember. Them that owned slaves they weren’t going to set and talk about freedom. My old master was abolitionist – Dr. Powell he didn’t believe in selling. I know by the club he belonged to. They’d all go together. There was always something dropping and you could pick it up. When Fremont wasn’t elected we was dreadful sorry. Mrs. Kitty Powell, Ann’s mother, would tell you anything. When old Abraham L was elected all was expected. I took for granted if the war came on we’d be free. The first gun that was fired I knew it – first gun on Fort Sumter. Little Fanny came and said, “Aunt Hagar the war’s begun, the war’s begun.” I was getting breakfast, I ran out and said, “Hush, it ain’t.” Every paper that came I tried to find out who was elected. Miss Ann went off and left not a soul but me. My children were sent off to Miss Emily. Harry and I lived in a little house and Miss Ann left everything in my care. 

Bull Run Battle began about 10 o’clock, 6 or 7 soldiers came to see if I could give them a dinner. By and by we heard a cannon firing and they said they believed they was going to fight that day. I give them a dinner they day. I got all kinds of vegetables in the garden. I made two great big chicken pies – damson pies, damson tarts. Oh Lord I was afraid for the soldiers that night. A great storm came on and one poor fellow who had been sick couldn’t eat nothing but boiled eggs. Very nice men looked like fellows that had been raised at home. One said, “Aunty, they’re fighting up here and if we are ordered off you must follow us.” I was feeding people all the next day, a great big pot of coffee all the time on the stove. The first day I saw soldiers was when Col. Ellsworth was killed.[6]“If you have come to kill me, kill me right here.” I was sitting one day when I saw a lot of soldiers, they came right up and I said that. 

Miss Powell said she must sell Mary Ellen to give Bob his education and she wasn’t going to draw her money out of the bank to educate Bob.[7]

The house was a contraband camp. I liked the soldiers but I was always afraid of ‘em such a mass of men and I didn’t see no women. I’d like to see Charley Clough, he was a gentleman and never lost it soldiering. Just as I was born a colored lady and through all the traveling round I has always been a colored lady. 

Peter’s mistress carried him to Leesburg and he ran away and joined the Union soldiers. I told him to xx xx like the Lord directed me what to tell him. 

I went to see Lincoln after he was dead. I walked on muskets that day and laid my hand on his face and when he was reelected, I went up and sat in Lincoln’s chair. I sat in President’s seat that day.

Your kitchen Mrs. Knapp was the first place I went in after the war.

“Hagar’s gal’s come” Uncle Harry in Mrs. K’s door. Mary Ellen knowed she was sold from Alexandria. When she came from the south she inquired for me. She was gone two years then I got a letter, Fanny came and said there was a letter from Mary Ellen. After the war I knew nothing about her til she come to find me.

After leaving the Powell’s home in Alexandria, Hagar worked for the family of Rev. Frederick Newman Knapp in Washington, DC. Knapp was an administrator in the United States Sanitary Commission. Hagar’s daughter’s, Jerry and Dick Randall, made their way to Washington, DC just as Mary Ellen did. Their story is described more fully below in Gershom Bradford’s letter.

After the war, the Knapp family moved for a brief time to Sutton, MA. Jerry Randall remained with them. It was here that she married George Lyles, also a former slave and employee of the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

The Lyles’ home at 174 Court Street, Plymouth, MA

By 1870, George and Jerry Lyles had moved to Plymouth, MA and purchased a small house at 174 Court Street. Their home was not far from the Knapp’s newly established Knapp School for Boys. Although Hagar and Harry Randall remained in Washington, DC, once widowed, Hagar spent time in Plymouth as well. She is part of the Lyles household in the 1880 US Census.

The Lyles raised five children. Jerry died in 1902; George Lyles in 1922.

Letter from Gershom Bradford, III to Duxbury Town Historian Dorothy Wentworth, September 27, 1971

Quite in contrast with the foregoing is the recent death in Plymouth of my friend of 50 years, a fine Negro, James Chester Lyle. He was 90 and his mother was a slave! I remember her, Jerry Lyle…The Randall family was owned by a doctor in Alexandria, VA. The old doctor would never allow a slave to be sold, but he died and his wife, ambitious and in need of money steeled herself and sold off several of the children.[8] The father was a free man. My uncle, Rev. Frederick Knapp afterwards got the mother, Aunt Hagar Randall, to tell him the story as he wrote it down. I have it. There were two girls about eleven who were put on the Auction Block, but Bruin, the auctioneer, or broker, decided that he would take these girls himself. He sent one of them down on his farm in Fauquier County. There, as the Civil War was on, the girls would drive the horses and cattle into the swamps whenever either of the armies came near.

At wars end they went down to the RR track and burned matches for the night train, got aboard and reached their old home in Alexandria. Everything was changed; they walked aimlessly until a man stopped them.

“Ain’t you Hagar Randall’s girls?”

“Yes, where is she?”

They were told that she was with a Knapp family in Washington (just back of the present Smithsonian Institute is now). They made their way over, were united with their mother and some of the children. There was not room in the house so they built a shanty in the back yard. To the Knapps they were known as the Contrabands.[9]

Mr. Knapp, after he had closed up his business with the Sanitary Commission, was called to Yonkers, Sutton and then to Plymouth in the 1870s. They brought one or both of those girls, Dick and Jerry – Dick being a girl. I never knew what became of Dick. Rachel, another sister, became the cook for friends of Mamie’s family. She spent most of her life with the Bonds.

In “The Home” of the Sanitary Commission, a convalescent hospital for soldiers preparing to go home, Aunt Charlotte, in her last service, was the matron.[10] Her right hand man, a Negro named George Lyle. He was devoted to her. In time, he made his way to Plymouth and later married Jerry [Randall]. When George came to Aunt Charlotte’s funeral at the Old house, I was standing by him when he tied his horse to a tree. He said that this was one of his saddest days. Jerry cooked dinner at the Knapp’s when General Grant visited Plymouth at the initiative of Mr. Knapp, who had him many times in the war.

“Chester,” her son, always was ready to help when we or the Knapps were in need of his services. Once in about 1921 I had an old car that needed repair. Chester and I worked on it all day. At five it was running. I asked him what I owed him. He hesitated saying, “I hate to take money from a Bradford or a Knapp.” When I felt badly on one trip North and not feeling like driving back, the Knapps got hold of Chester and he drove us down. So you will understand why I sent flowers to Plymouth.

Aunt Hagar’s story is deep in pathos. She showed no hate towards her mistress’ actions, not ranting against her. In fact, at times she seemed to feel sorry for her. It is a moving story…


1. Ann Maria (Powell) Powell (1800-1885), born in Leesburg, VA to Cuthbert Powell and Catherine Simms. She grew up on a grand estate called Llangollen. In 1820, she married her first cousin. Dr. William Leven Powell (1797-1853). He was a physician, a graduate of the Medical College at the University of Pennsylvania.

2. Sarah Perkins was a long-time family friend to the Knapps. She often lived and traveled with them..

3. Joseph Bruin’s Slave Jail was a two-story brick building located in Alexandria, VA.

4. Harry Randall, Hagar’s husband and the father of her children. According to some, he was born a free man. However, in a deposition taken during the Civil War regarding a stolen horse, Hagar explained that she and Harry were married according to the “custom of colored people in Virginia who were slaves. His master gave him permission to visit me and my master consented.” Together they had 13 children. Harry Randall appears in the 1870 US Census with Hagar, born c. 1790 in Virginia.

5. The John C. Fremont presidential campaign was in 1856. He was the first Republican candidate.

6. Elmer E. Ellsworth (1837-1861) was the first Union officer to die in the Civil War. He was killed while removing the Confederate flag from the Marshall House Inn in Alexandria, VA. 

7. Dr. Robert Conrad Powell (1838-1890). Began college at the University of Pennsylvania , but left when the Civil War began.  After the war was a graduate of the Medical Dept of the University of Baltimore, 1869.

8. The narrative of Hagar Randall says that she and three of her children (Mary Ellen, Rachel and Peter) were sold to Dr. Powell after the death of her original owner, Nancy Cockburn. Dick and Jerry were sold away from her at Joseph Bruin’s Slave Auction house. Two other children, Artemis and Frances, died at Bruin’s.

9. Contrabands was a term used to describe escaped slaves during the Civil War. 

10. Charlotte Bradford (1813-1893). Born in Duxbury to Capt. Gershom Bradford and Sally Hickling. Her life as a nurse is highlighted in her home, DRHS’ Bradford House Museum, 981 Tremont Street, Duxbury, MA. See also previous posts in this blog.

2 thoughts on “The Story of Hagar Randall

  1. This is fascinating and also heartbreaking. Thank you for sharing this. It is so rare to read a first-person account from someone who was a slave. I cannot imagine having my own child sold; my mother heart hurts for this poor woman and those like her whose children were ripped away from them. I’m transcribing letters from the ’20s that also reveal thoughts on motherhood any mom can relate to today. One made me cry, even though events described happened nearly 100 years ago, because a mother’s heart remains the same.

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