Freedom Seeker's Collar | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Freedom Seeker's Collar

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Freedom Seeker's Collar | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeFugitive slave collar

Collar removed from Old Steve, 1862

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1961.73

EnlargeSoldiers of the First Louisiana Native Guards

Soldiers of the First Louisiana Native Guards, 1862

Soldiers of the First Louisiana Native Guards disembark at Fort Macomb, Louisiana. Old Steve may have enlisted in this or another newly formed African American regiment in the fall of 1862. Source: Harper’s Weekly, February 28, 1863, Wisconsin Historical Society Rare Book Library (AP2 H32)

EnlargeColonel Sidney A. Bean

Colonel Sidney A. Bean, 1863-1865

According to Perry’s account, some of the soldiers of the 4th Wisconsin “took the fugitives at once to their colonel, to show him just how they had been treated” by their enslaver. Colonel Sidney A. Bean, above, was most likely the officer in camp when Old Steve and Charley arrived. Source: Wisconsin Historical Society Archives PH 1147, 4th Wisconsin Cavalry photograph album, 1863-1865

Iron collar removed from a freedom seeker by Wisconsin soldiers in 1862.
(Museum object #1961.73)

In early June 1862, the 4th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry occupied Baton Rouge, Louisiana. According to John T. Perry of Company I, within days of the regiment's arrival two enslaved men came into camp still wearing the shackles Jay Bird, their enslaver, had placed upon them as punishment. The enslaved men, known as Old Steve and Charley, both wore handcuffs and Old Steve bore this iron collar, which the Wisconsin soldiers removed by filing off one of the rivets that held the collar closed.

According to Perry's account, Old Steve was about fifty years old and labored as a head plowman on a local plantation. One day, a group of Union soldiers had docked their riverboat at the landing of the plantation. Old Steve and Charley went and spoke with the soldiers, despite their enslaver's instructions to hide from advancing Union forces.   

When Old Steve and Charley returned to the plantation,the enslaver punished them for disobeying his instructions. He whipped them, shackled them, and locked them in stocks in a small brick structure known as a calaboose. He also secured this iron collar around the neck of Old Steve, whom the enslaver suspected to be the main culprit. Perry's account notes, "On either side of the collar was riveted a spike about four inches long, so arranged that one of the spikes stuck up behind each ear, and held the head as in a vice. Any attempt to turn the head ever so slightly resulted in a prod from one of these spikes."  

Despite the conditions of his imprisonment, after several hours of effort Old Steve was able to break a link of his handcuffs. He and Charley managed to escape from the calaboose, fled on foot to the river about a half mile away, and used an old canoe to travel to the Union camp in the city of Baton Rouge, where they met the soldiers of the 4th Wisconsin. 

Perry notes that, while Charley joined the other formerly enslaved people in the camp, Old Steve began cooking for Company I. Perry, who was working in the commissary at the time, saw a good deal of Old Steve over the next few months and described him as bright, capable, and very ambitious. "He could not read a word," Perry recalled, "but, in spite of his advanced age, he somewhere obtained an old 'Webster's spelling book,' and went to work to learn. Every moment he could spare from his duties he spent in study, getting help from one and another of the soldiers as he could; and he was already making rapid progress, considering his opportunities." 

When Major General Benjamin F. Butler organized one of the first regiments of Black soldiers in the Union army (initially known as the Louisiana Native Guards and later as the Corps d'Afrique) in the fall of 1862, Old Steve left his cooking duties and joined the army as a soldier. After Old Steve's enlistment, Perry lost track of him.  

The collar Old Steve wore into the 4th Wisconsin's camp was sent back to Wisconsin with other war relics and later became part of the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society. John T. Perry recalled his experiences with Old Steve and Charley to his son, Herbert S. Perry, who transcribed the account as "Prize Story" and sent it to the Society in 1910. The Historical Society eventually transferred the collar to the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.  

[Source: Perry, Herbert S. "Prize Story." Wisconsin Historical Museum (Museum Accession File 1909.216).]

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Posted on June 16, 2005, edited February 8, 2024