Austin Steward was born a slave in Prince William County, Virginia, in 1793. "As was the usual custom, we lived in a small cabin, built of rough boards, with a floor of earth, and small openings in the sides of the cabin were substituted for windows. The chimney was built of sticks and mud; the door, of rough boards; and the whole was put together in the rudest possible manner. As to the furniture of this rude dwelling, it was procured by the slaves themselves, who were occasionally permitted to earn a little money after their day's toil was done."
Steward's master, William Helm, owned over a hundred slaves. When Steward was eight years old he became a house slave at Helm's mansion. His job was "to serve as an errand boy, where I had to stand in the presence of my master's family all the day, and a part of the night, ready to do any thing which they commanded me to perform. My master's family consisted of himself and wife, and seven children.... Mrs. Helm was a very industrious woman, and generally busy in her household affairs - sewing, knitting, and looking after the servants; but she was a great scold, - continually finding fault with some of the servants, and frequently punishing the young slaves herself, by striking them over the head with a heavy iron key, until the blood ran; or else whipping them with a cowhide, which she always kept by her side when sitting in her room. The older servants she would cause to be punished by having them severely whipped by a man, which she never failed to do for every trifling fault."
Steward was involved in providing food for the slaves: "The amount of provision given out on the plantation per week, was invariably one peck of corn or meal for each slave. This allowance was given in meal when it could be obtained; when it could not, they received corn, which they pounded in mortars after they returned from their labor in the field. The slaves on our plantation were provided with very little meat. In addition to the peck of corn or meal, they were allowed a little salt and a few herrings.... Captain William Helm allowed his slaves a small quantity of meat during harvest time, but when the harvest was over they were obliged to fall back on the old allowance."
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
Steward was highly critical of the way the slaves were punished: "The usual mode of punishing the poor slaves was, to make them take off their clothes to the bare back, and then tie their hands before them with a rope, pass the end of the rope over a beam, and draw them up till they stood on the tips of their toes. Sometimes they tied their legs together and placed a rail between. Thus prepared, the overseer proceeded to punish the poor, helpless victim. Thirty-nine was the number of lashes ordinarily inflicted for the most trifling offence. Who can imagine a position more painful? Oh, who, with feelings of common humanity, could look quietly on such torture? Who could remain unmoved, to see a fellow-creature thus tied, unable to move or to raise a hand in his own defence; scourged on his bare back, with a cowhide, until the blood flows in streams from his quivering flesh?"
Helm sold his plantation and moved to Bath in Steuben County. In financial difficulties, Helm had to hire his slaves out to local farmers. Some of these men treated him very badly and eventually he escaped. Steward reached Canada in 1815 where he joined the Wilberforce Colony that had been established by the Society of Friends. Steward later recalled: "The Society of Friends at this time, however, with commendable sympathy for the oppressed and abused colored residents of Cincinnati, and with their proverbial liberality, raised a sum of money sufficient to purchase eight hundred acres of land of the Canada Company for the benefit of the colony. The funds were placed in the hands of one of their number, Frederick Stover, who went to Canada as their agent, purchased the land, and settled colored people upon it, which comprised nearly all of the Wilberforce settlement."
Steward returned to Monroe County in 1837 where he became a businessman and served on a committee appointed to oversee black schools in the area. After fire destroyed his business, Steward moved to Canandaigua where he became a schoolteacher. He also became involved in the anti-slavery and temperance campaigns. He was also a strong opponent of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. Steward's autobiography, Twenty-Two Years a Slave appeared in 1857 and is considered one of the best slave narratives available.
Austin Steward died in Rochester in 1860.