The Road to Black Ned’s Forge
A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier
In 1752 an enslaved Pennsylvania ironworker named Ned purchased his freedom and moved to Virginia on the upper James River. Taking the name Edward Tarr, he became the first free black landowner west of the Blue Ridge. Tarr established a blacksmith shop on the Great Wagon Road from Philadelphia to the Carolinas and helped found a Presbyterian congregation that exists to this day. Living with him was his white, Scottish wife, and in a twist that will surprise the modern reader, Tarr’s neighbors accepted his interracial marriage. It was when a second white woman joined the household that some protested. Tarr’s already dramatic story took a perilous turn when the predatory son of his last master, a Charleston merchant, abruptly entered his life in a fraudulent effort to reenslave him. His fate suddenly hinged on his neighbors, who were all that stood between Tarr and a return to the life of a slave.
This remarkable true story serves as a keyhole narrative, unlocking a new, more complex understanding of race relations on the American frontier. The vividly drawn portraits of Tarr and the women with whom he lived, along with a rich set of supporting characters in Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Virginia, provide fascinating insight into the journey from slavery to freedom, as well as the challenges of establishing frontier societies. The story also sheds light on the colonial merchant class, Indian warfare in southwest Virginia, and slavery’s advent west of the Blue Ridge. Contradicting the popular view of settlers in southern Virginia as poor, violent, and transient, this book--with its pathbreaking research and gripping narrative--radically rewrites the history of the colonial backcountry, revealing it to be made up largely of close-knit, rigorously governed communities.
One man in one Virginia county demonstrates the immense potential that local case studies have long had in American history. But not one of those case studies is as powerful and artistically rendered as The Road to Black Ned’s Forge.
Virtually unknown in the annals of American history, Ned Tarr and the story of his life are a remarkable discovery by McCleskey. With notable skill, deft handling of complex sources, and masterly writing, McCleskey places Tarr at the center of a major work of early American history.
In a well-researched study of Virginia during the colonial era, Turk McCleskey provides an insightful analysis of Augusta County and its ties to settlements in Pennsylvania, Tidewater Virginia, and the Carolinas through migration and trade. He reveals how economic development and demographic growth changed social and political structures in a backcountry where settlers, slaves, hunters, and Indians met on contested ground.
Finally, a southern version of A Midwife’s Tale, with an author who shares Laurel Ulrich’s gift for turning slighted scraps of paper into stats and stats into stories—and a protagonist as heroic as hers, too. Edward Tarr purchased himself and a remote farm and then learned that his ex-owner’s son had tracked him down, bent on returning him to slavery.
With keen insight and thorough research Turk McCleskey vividly recovers the frontier world of Black Ned. Bold, proud, and clever, Black Ned lived at a crossroads in time and place. On Virginia's colonial frontier, a forceful black man could prosper as a blacksmith, defend his freedom in court, and marry a white woman. But that defiance eventually provoked resentments that, during the next generation, would close loopholes in the system of racial slavery, gaps that Ned had exploited so resourcefully. McCleskey has worked wonders in recovering and telling Ned's powerful story.
The remarkable story of Edward Tarr, a black freed man who lived with a white wife and worked as a blacksmith... a deeply researched study of slavery on the frontier.
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2014
Turk McCleskey is Professor of History at Virginia Military Institute.