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Thomas Henry Tibbles, the heroic sixteen-year-old Abolitionist

Posted in America, Law, Politics on Thursday, 27 June 2013

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This edited article about Thomas Henry Tibbles originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 306 published on 25 November 1967.

Thomas Tibbles is arrested, picture, image, illustration

Thomas Henry Tibbles, aged 16, was sentenced to hang for his anti-slavery activities

Thomas Henry Tibbles was ten years old when his father died, and he became the ‘man’ of the family. He proceeded to run a 40-acre farm, planted wheat, corn and potatoes, and undertook to maintain his mother and two younger brothers.

It was hard but rewarding work, but it came to an end when Thomas was judged, by the laws of the state of Iowa, USA, to be too young to run his own farm. The local sheriff separated him from his family and he was apprenticed to a farmer who had six daughters but no son.

From his very first day he was forced to work “just like a slave”.

“I rose at four,” Thomas wrote later, “made the fires, fed the horses, cattle and hogs, and milked the cows before breakfast. Then my day’s toil of a man’s work began.”

Despite his repeated requests to spend some time with his mother, Thomas was not allowed to leave the farm.

A whole year passed, and then the sturdy, well-built youngster decided to run away. One morning in 1851 he awoke as usual at four, took one of the horses, and rode off to where his mother was living.

This taste of freedom made him decide to stay at liberty. He took the steamboat to the city of Quincy, on the Mississippi River.

But gradually town life began to bore him, and he felt a growing longing for the woods, the prairies, and great open spaces. Finally he set off and did not stop until he had reached the westernmost settlement in Iowa.

It was in the town of Winterset, in 1856, that the 16-year-old Thomas took up the cause of abolishing slavery. His own boyhood had taught him the horrors of being a slave, and when a caravan of abolitionists passed through the town, he begged to join them.

Thomas soon made a reputation for himself as a supporter of liberty, and on 15th August, 1856, he tramped with his musket to the small town of Lecompton, where the Border Ruffians, as the proslavery soldiers were called, had their headquarters. He was just washing his hands and face when a Border Ruffian burst into his bedroom and arrested him.

Justice in those days was as speedy as it was rough, and a few hours later Thomas found himself facing a court martial, on trial for his life! The head of the court was a Colonel Titus, a stern man who showed neither sympathy nor mercy. The trial proceeded swiftly, and before long a verdict of ‘Guilty’ had been recorded. The prisoner, Thomas Henry Tibbles, aged 16, was sentenced to be hanged at eight o’clock the following morning.

Thomas was then marched to the nearby Fort Titus, where he was put into a tent with two armed guards. At nine o’clock that evening an officer came in and gave the men their orders.

“If the prisoner makes an attempt to escape,” he said, “shoot him on the spot. If the place is attacked during the night, at the first sound of musketry you will shoot him.”

Despite this threat, Thomas, who was lying on the bare ground, did not lose heart.

The night soon passed, and the next morning Thomas was awakened by the rattle of musketry. “Looking up,” he said, “I saw a dozen bullet holes in the tent. Only one guard was there, and he stood at my feet with his musket at ‘ground arms’ by his side. He at once brought it to his shoulder and pointed it at my breast.

“Instinctively, I threw out my left hand and struck the bayonet just as he pulled the trigger . . . the musket shot tore away the whole sleeve of my shirt. But while the guard’s fingers pulled that trigger, a bullet from outside the tent struck him under the left eye. He fell dead at my feet.”

Thomas then grabbed the dead guard’s gun and ran out of the tent towards the abolitionist forces who were advancing on the fort.

The rebels continued their attack, and a white flag of surrender shortly fluttered over the fort. Thomas then dashed towards the fort, determined to be the first person to reach it. “On the way,” he recorded, “I had made up my mind to kill old Colonel Titus because he was the fellow who had sentenced me to be hanged.”

He charged through the open door, and came across some wounded men, and a badly bloodstained floor. He was told that the Colonel was in the next room, and he entered it with his musket at the ready.

At first he could not see anyone. Then he spotted the old soldier sitting in the far corner. He had been shot through his right hand and his right shoulder.

The Colonel faced the boy he had only the day before sentenced to death, held up both hands, and pleaded. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I surrender!”

Thomas lowered his musket. He did not have the heart to kill the wounded man. Instead he marched him outside and handed him over to the captain of the abolitionist troops.

Thomas Tibbles’ adventure was at an end. He had shown courage and, what was more important, a mercy that was to stay with him for the rest of his days.

He supported the abolitionists until their cause was won, and in his adult life he gained distinction as a farmer, preacher, politician and journalist. He came to look upon himself as a reformer, and said that people like himself “must always travel a lonesome trail”.

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