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Discover the hidden history behind Martha Ann Fields’ daring escape from a Hanover plantation to Fort Monroe

The Sanctuary, NYPL
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. (1876). The sanctuary Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e2-ee32-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

VPM’s Hidden History with Brian Bullock uncovers Hanover County’s hidden history behind the brave escape of enslaved woman Martha Ann Fields, her six children and grandchild, and their remarkable journey to sanctuary at Freedom’s Fortress – Fort Monroe, 89 miles away. 

Two of Fields’ descendants, Ajena Rogers and her son Joseph, tell Martha Ann’s incredible story and her continuing legacy to her family. They describe the personal account of the escape recorded by her son, George Washington Fields, in his memoir, “Come On, Children:” The Autobiography of George Washington Fields, Born a Slave in Hanover County, Virginia.
 

Martha Ann Fields’ story begins with the Winston family of Nutshell Plantation, who enslaved Fields and her family, forcing Martha Ann to work as a cook in Hanover Tavern. The tavern, still in existence, housed historic figures such as George Washington, Lord Cornwallis, and the Marquis de Lafayette.

Across the highway from the tavern stands the Hanover Courthouse, one of the oldest government buildings in the Commonwealth. The courthouse and adjacent buildings have continued operating since 1740. Patrick Henry gained fame within the courthouse walls, notably arguing The Parson’s Cause Case against the English crown.

However, the green that stretches out before the courthouse speaks of a darker history – one that Martha Ann Fields felt acutely. Hanover Green held the auction block where men, women, and children were sold into bondage.

Phillip Winston, cruel patriarch to Nutshell Plantation and “owner” of the Fields family, sold Martha Ann’s daughter, Louisa, on Hanover Green. She was sent away from her mother, causing Fields considerable pain and despair.

Martha Ann could often be heard crying in the woods, praying for freedom – for her and for her family.

Shortly after Phillip Winston’s death in 1863, U.S. Troops raided Hanover Courthouse. Fields saw an opportunity to escape. She, her six children, and one grandchild left at night and fled on foot, with bloodhounds in pursuit. They crossed the Pamunkey River into King William County with the help of her uncle and his tiny boat - one passenger at a time.

After several days of walking, with detours, delays and children in tow, the Fields family finally made it to Fort Monroe, where they were declared “contrabands of war,” thereby granting them their freedom.

Ajena Rogers comments on George Washington Fields’ recollection of entering the gate: “To finally get to Fort Monroe, and for him and his family to finally sleep free under the flag of freedom for the very first time – he never forgot that.”

Martha Ann Fields and her family were among a total of 10,000 other freedom seekers who found refuge at Fort Monroe. Once safe within the walls and free from her enslavement, Fields reunited with relatives and secured a paying job at the fort.

The right of freedom that Martha Ann Fields secured for herself and for her family lives on in her descendants.

“Martha Ann Fields had no idea that 150 years later her great-great-great granddaughter would be standing in the very courthouse where her son watched lawyers debate over whether slaves were property,” says Rogers. “It’s our turn to carry these things forward and find strength from the stories of those who came before.”

To see more of this story and catch previous episodes, watch Hidden History with Brian Bullock at vpm.org/hiddenhistory.


Correction: A previous version of this misspelled Martha Ann Fields' name. We have corrected the article apologize for the error.