William Wells Brown was born into slavery in Lexington, Kentucky. His mother Elizabeth was owned by Dr. Thomas Young and had seven children, each by different fathers. (In addition to William, her children were Solomon, Leander, Benjamin, Joseph, Milford, and Elizabeth.) William’s father was George W. Higgins, a white planter and cousin of Elizabeth’s master Dr. Young. Higgins had formally recognized William as his son and made his cousin Young promise not to sell the boy. Young did sell him, and William went through several sales before he was twenty years old.
The narrative begins with a description of Henson’s life growing up. He was born June 15, 1789 in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N. He was the youngest of six children. His mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP., but was hired routinely to Mr. N, who owned his father. His earliest known memory was of his father bloody and beaten. Henson eventually found out that his father had been beaten because he had beaten a white man for assaulting Henson’s mother, which was punishable by Maryland law. His father’s right ear was cut off and he had received a hundred lashes as punishment. His father, from that point afterward became a “different man” and the Mr. N. Eventually sold him. Dr. McP stopped hiring out his mother afterward, but Josiah went to live with her for two or three years.
He expresses that his time on Dr. McP’s plantation was some of his happiest. During this time he learned about God from his mother, who frequently recited the Lord’s prayer.
Not long after, Dr. McP died after falling from a horse and drowning. As a consequence, the doctor’s property, which included Henson and his family, was divided throughout the country. On the day this was happening after watching her other five children get sold off, his mother was bought by Mr. R. (Isaac Riley). At seeing that Henson would not be bought also, she went to Mr. R and begged at his feet. He kicked her away and ignored her. Henson was then sold to another master, but after seeing that Henson had falling sick, he was sold to Mr. Riley.
“The opinion was … whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion I know nothing…. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant…. It [was] common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.
“I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. … She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.”