Douglass began his narrative by noting the place of his birth – Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, twelve miles from Talbot County, Maryland. He did not know his age because no accurate records were kept, and slaves were generally bereft of information about their lives. This fact bothered Douglass immensely. His mother's name was Harriet Bailey, a very dark-skinned daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey. His father was unknown to him, but he was a white man and perhaps even his first master.
Douglass's relationship with his mother was brief and characterized by a lack of emotion on his part owing to their infrequent visits. He saw her about four to five times and always at night; she would travel to where he was enslaved and lie with him at night. They rarely spoke and when she died when he was seven, he did not feel much more than he would have as if a stranger died.
Slave children always followed the condition of their mother, a fact Douglass noted was no doubt due to slaveowners' pernicious lustful designs upon slave women. Children born from slave mothers and white fathers – mulattos – experienced far more difficulties than did other children. They must always fear the wrath of the slaveowner's wife; their presence was a constant reminder of her husband's infidelity. The slaveowner himself must watch his white sons abuse their black brothers. It is actually best if he sells these children to another slaveholder.
The fact that there were so many mulattos present in the Americas who are held in slavery refutes the belief that "God cursed Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south must soon become unscriptural..."
Douglass had two masters, the first being Anthony (called "Captain Anthony"). Anthony only had a few slaves on a small farm. The overseer, Plummer, looked after the slaves. Plummer was an awful man, given to drinking, swearing, and intense violence. His exceedingly cruel behavior was barely restrained by Anthony, who did not much seem to care how his slaves were treated. He also occasionally delighted in viciously beating his slaves. No amount of tears or supplication or streaming blood would cause him to cease his whipping.
Douglass recalls how his own aunt was often prey to these whippings. The first time he witnessed this outrage, it "struck me with awful force. It was the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it."
This event took place when he was very young. His aunt had gone out one night but did not have permission to do so. She was romantically involved with a man named Ned Roberts, who belonged to Colonel Lloyd. There was some suspicion that she was also forced to have sex with Anthony, as she was beautiful and noble in appearance. When Anthony discovered her absence, he punished her upon her return. He stripped her naked to the waist, tied her hands to a hook, and began viciously whipping her, crying out that she was a "damned bitch." Douglass was utterly scarred from observing this spectacle; since he had never seen it before, living on the outskirts of the plantation with his grandmother, he wondered if he was next.
Douglass begins his autobiography in a traditional fashion, giving his parentage and information about his birthplace and early formative events. However, his birth and childhood differed demonstrably from those of most Americans – he was a slave. He lamented the fact that he did not know his birthday and thus his own age, and that he had no idea who his father was, despite a few suspicions. Historians have since determined his birth took place February 1818 from the records kept by Aaron Anthony, his master.
His relationship with his mother was practically nonexistent; they were severed from each other very early in his life and met only a handful of times before she died of a long illness on the Holme Hill Farm in Tuckahoe Creek. These meetings were difficult because she was only able to steal away to see him at night, and their communication was very sparse. When she died Douglass remarked that he did not feel much emotion since she was like a stranger to him; he had "never enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care..." (14). The systematic estrangement of mothers and children is one of the most pernicious, the most lamentable, and the most wrenching and dehumanizing realities of slave life.
Douglass's birthplace was Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, part of Talbot County on Maryland's eastern shore. It was an important tobacco-growing region since the 17th century. Easton was the legislative center for all of the nine Eastern Shore counties, with Hillsborough situated northeast of Easton on Tuckahoe Creek. His first master, Aaron Anthony (Douglass did not know his first name and called him "Captain Anthony") was from impoverished origins but by the time of his death was considered a moderately wealthy planter. He was the captain of the small schooner Sally Lloyd, belonging to Colonel Edward Lloyd.
Douglass had a closer relationship with his grandparents than with his mother. Douglass's grandfather was Isaac Bailey, a free black man. He was a sawyer and found work with Anthony and Colonel Lloyd. He also worked as a plowman and a harvest laborer. As Douglass scholar John Blassingame points out in the copious annotations to the Narrative, the 1820 Talbot County census found Bailey appearing as a free black man with a household of four adult women and nine children. Betsey bailey was Douglas's grandmother and was owned by Anthony. She married Isaac Bailey and lived with him. She was a midwife, and bore twelve children herself. After Isaac died and a succession of masters succeeded Anthony, she lived alone in a small cabin in the woods in severe loneliness and poverty. Douglass would write later in the Narrative how distressed this made him, but in 1840 Thomas Auld, John Anthony's uncle, learned of her situation and brought her home to take care of her until her death.
One important thing to note in this first chapter is Douglass's reference to God's curse of Ham and his progeny, for religion is a prominent theme in the work. Douglass is referring to the Old Testament tale of God cursing Canaan, the son of Ham, for Ham's offense committed against his father Noah. This became a justification for the enslavement of Africans because they were seen as the sons of Ham. It was often invoked by proslavery orators in the 1840s. Douglass states that the presence of mulatto children - the offspring between a master and one of his slaves - refutes this claim that the Bible condones slavery, as clearly not all slaves are the descendants of Ham.