Biography of Harriet Jacobs

Harriet Ann Brent Jacobs, better known as simply Harriet Jacobs, was the author of one of the most famous American slave narratives, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, published in 1861. She was born in 1813 in Edenton, North Carolina. Her parents were Delilah and Elijah Jacobs, slaves who lived together as a family with Delilah's mother Molly Horniblow. Horniblow was the daughter of a North Carolina planter who was sent north and set free during the Revolutionary War, but was falsely re-enslaved and sent back to the south. In Edenton she worked as a caterer and saved up some money; she was also highly respected and esteemed by the black and white denizens of Edenton.

Delilah and Elijah both died when Harriet and her brother John were relatively young. After her mother's death in 1819, Harriet went to the home of her kind and sympathetic mistress, Margaret Horniblow. After that woman's death, Harriet became the property of her young niece, the daughter of town magnate Dr. James Norcom. Norcom was also made owner of Molly when her own mistress died, and decided to put her on the auction block. This was considered scandalous in the town, and an elderly white woman bought her and emancipated her. Molly then bought her own home. One of her sons, Joseph, escaped to the north, where he encountered his other brother Mark. Joseph disappeared from record, but Mark worked as a steward on a passenger boat and aided fleeing slaves.

When Harriet was thirteen years old she fell in love with a black carpenter, but this match was disapproved of by Norcom, who directed his lascivious attention toward his young slave. This caught the attention of the son of Norcom's partner, Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. This unmarried lawyer courted Harriet through letters and she decided to sleep with him in order to stave off Norcom. She became pregnant and incurred the ire of Norcom's wife, Mary Matilda Horniblow Norcom, who naturally assumed the child was her husband's. Harriet was exiled and went to live with her grandmother.

Harriet gave birth to her son Joseph in 1829. After Nat Turner's Rebellion in 1831, horrified white slaveowners and the south became wracked with chaos and violence as slaveholders sought to tighten the controls of slavery and rout out even the hint of insurrection. Jacobs had another child by Sawyer in 1833, this time a daughter, Louisa.

Harriet learned that her children were to be sent to the plantation to be broken in, so she decided that she would run away. She spent some time in a dangerous swamp full of snakes and mosquitoes, and then lived for seven years in a crawlspace in her grandmother's house. Norcom eventually sold John Jacobs and Harriet's two children, all of whom were purchased by Sawyer.

Harriet escaped from Edenton to New York in 1842. Her daughter Louisa was already there, taken to the house of Sawyer's new wife's half-sister in Washington, DC first, and then given to Tredwell cousins in Brooklyn. Joseph was sent to Harriet in New York; she then sent him to her brother John in New Bedford. Harriet worked in the Astor House. There she was the live-in baby nurse of Nathaniel Parker Willis, a poet and editor of the Home Journal. He was married to the English Mary Stace Wallis, and was known in abolitionist circles.

In New York Harriet felt hunted, particularly after Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850. Norcom died in 1850, but his heirs still claimed to own Harriet. In 1843 and 1844 Harriet had then fled to Massachusetts, where she felt safer. Finally, in 1852 the second Mrs. Willis, Cornelia Grinnell, bought Harriet for $300 and emancipated her.

After her emancipation Harriet continued to work for the Willises at their Hudson River estate. She worked on her memoir in secret. It was published in 1861 under the pseudonym Linda Brent, and was entitled LINDA: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, seven years concealed in Slavery, Written by Herself. It was not successful in garnering much attention from the reading public, as the Civil War started that year.

Harriet moved to Washington DC in 1862 and Louisa joined her in 1863. They volunteered in the freedmen's relief movement under the Quakers, passing out food and supplies to blacks who escaped slavery or the war. In 1865 and 1867 Harriet returned to Edenton with the relief effort and continued to aid the poor. She also traveled to Savannah, Georgia and England. When Reconstruction ended in the south, she and Louisa retuned north to run a boarding house for Harvard faculty and students. In 1885 she attended meetings of the National Association of Colored Women.

Harriet Jacobs died on March 7th, 1897. She was 84 years old. She is buried at Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, and her headstone reads: "Patient in tribulation, fervent in spirit serving the Lord."

Study Guides on Works by Harriet Jacobs