Thomas H. Jones
By Sadie Van Vranken
Thomas H. Jones was born enslaved on a plantation near Wilmington, North Carolina in 1806. As a young man, Jones worked as a hired stevedore. Jones saved a portion of his earnings and purchased his wife and children’s freedom, sending them to New York in 1849. Jones followed as a fugitive a few months later. Jones became involved in the anti-slavery circuit in Boston, but fled to Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Returning to Boston in 1854, Jones gave antislavery lectures around the northeast and spent the remainder of his life in Massachusetts, marrying at least twice and pastoring a church in Pembroke. Jones died in New Bedford, Massachusetts, on June 6, 1890.
Jones’s narrative was first printed in Boston, under the title The Experience of Thomas Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years, in 1850. This edition, often ignored by Jones biographers, was printed by Daniel Laing Jr., a black printer in Boston. (More information about Laing is available in this essay.) Laing was connected to the American Colonization Society and printed titles focused on the black community, but his exact connection to Jones remains unknown. Whether this first edition was self-published or funded by Boston abolitionists, Laing’s printing is a fascinating chapter in the publication history of Jones’s narrative.
Jones’s narrative was next printed under the same title in 1853 in Saint John, New Brunswick, where Jones sought refuge from the Fugitive Slave Act. In 1854, after Jones returned from Canada, his narrative underwent its first major transformation. In Springfield, Massachusetts, H. S. Taylor printed The Experience of Thomas Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years, using the same title as the earlier printings. But in Boston, J. E. Farwell began printing Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones, Who Was for Forty Years a Slave: Also the Surprising Adventures of Wild Tom, of the Island Retreat, a Fugitive Negro from South Carolina. Farwell’s version, which was sold by George Holbrook of New York and H. B. Skinner of Boston, molded Jones’ narrative into the image of Harriet Beecher Stowe's bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which had been published in 1852. Jones’s narrative was paired with a fictional tale drawn from Richard Hildreth’s White Slave; or, Memoirs of a Fugitive, published in Boston by Tappan and Wittenmore in 1852. By pairing the narrative with a fictional tale, adding engravings of “Uncle Tom” and a cabin at the front of the narrative, and removing Jones’s letters and endorsements from his text, Farwell’s 1854 and 1858 editions sensationalized and commercialized Jones’s narrative.
Taking advantage of the commercial popularity of Uncle Tom, this version of Jones's narrative distances the reader from Jones’s veracity. Whether Jones was involved in the publication of the Uncle Tom versions of his narrative is unknown, although their commercial distribution by Holbrook, Skinner and Farwell makes self-publication unlikely.
Jones’s narrative reverted to its pre-Uncle Tom condition in 1857, when it was printed by Henry J. Howland in Worcester, Massachusetts. Whether Jones was living in Worcester at the time of Howland’s 1857 printing is unknown, but Jones was living in Worcester by 1860. This version, with the endorsements and letters at the beginning and end of the narrative and no engravings, was printed with smaller margins than Laing’s edition and adds the middle initial H. to Jones’ name, but otherwise closely resembles pre-1854 editions of the text. Howland printed Jones’s narrative again in an undated edition with minor variations in the type setting. Although this printing is undated, the change in Howland’s address listed in the imprint indicates that this edition was printed no earlier than 1859. Howland’s circa 1859 printing has been mistaken in scholarship on Jones’s text as the first edition of his text, using the endorsements at the front of the book, dated 1849, to misidentify the publication date as 1849.
Jones’s narrative first appeared with a copyright statement in 1862, when Bazin and Chandler of Boston printed the narrative. This version was also the first to include a series of introductory letters of support, and contains some textual additions.
Jones spent his latter days in New Bedford, Massachusetts, first appearing in New Bedford records in 1867, when he married Ann Campbell. E. Anthony and Sons, printers in New Bedford, released versions of his narrative in 1868, 1871 and 1885. The 1868 and 1871 editions added a dignified engraving of Jones on the front wrapper and appear to have been stereotyped.
The last transformation of Jones's narrative occurred in the 1880s, when A. T. Bliss and Co. in Boston and E. Anthony and Sons in New Bedford printed The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. The addition of Reverend to Jones’s title, which first appeared in Bliss’s 1880 printing, further dignified his narrative. The final version of his text, printed by E. Anthony and Sons in 1885, contains a section with details on his time as an enslaved preacher and comments on his original narrative.
Much work remains to be done on the publication history of Jones’s narrative and the variations between his texts, as much existing scholarship confuses the publication record with inaccurate information. Existing scholarship often assigns the role of publisher to printers of Jones's narrative and highlight’s Jones’s use of an amanuensis, taking authority away from Jones as an author. Whether Jones’s narratives were self-published remains unclear. Regardless, the publication of his narrative moves with him as he moves around Massachusetts, printed by job printers in each city he lives in, indicating that Jones was highly invested in the publication of his narrative for more than thirty years. As one of the few narratives of a formerly enslaved person first published before the Civil War, Jones’s narrative offers a complex publication history giving scholars the opportunity for informed speculation about Jones’s authorial decisions and his influence over the different versions of his text.
Andrews, William L. and David Alexander Davis, eds. North Carolina Slave Narratives: The Lives of Moses Roper, Lunsford Lane, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003.
Documenting the American South on Thomas H. Jones. https://docsouth.unc.edu/fpn/jones/menu.html
McCarthy, B. Eugene and Thomas L. Doughton, eds. From Bondage to Belonging: The Worcester Slave Narratives. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2007.
Jones, Thomas H. The Experience of Thomas Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. Boston: Printed by Daniel Laing, Jr., 1850.
- Saint John [N.B.]: J. & A. McMillan, printers, 1853.
- Springfield [Mass.]: Printed by H. S. Taylor, 1854.
Jones, Thomas H. Experience and Personal Narrative of Uncle Tom Jones, Who Was for Forty Years a Slave: Also the Surprising Adventures of Wild Tom, of the Island Retreat, a Fugitive Negro from South Carolina. New York: G. C. Holbrook, 1854.
- Boston: J.E. Farwell, sold by Skinner and Holbrook, [1854/55?].
-Boston: J. E. Farwell, 1858.
Jones, Thomas H. The Experience of Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. Worcester [Mass.]: Printed by Henry J. Howland, 1857.
- Worcester [Mass.]: Printed by Henry J. Howland, [not before 1859].
- Boston: Printed by Bazin and Chandler, 1862.
- New Bedford [Mass.]: E. Anthony & Sons, printers, 1868.
- New Bedford [Mass.]: E. Anthony & Sons, printers, 1871.
Jones, Thomas H. The Experience of Rev. Thomas H. Jones Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years. Boston: A.T. Bliss & Co., Printers, 1880.
- New Bedford [Mass]: E. Anthony & Sons, 1885.
 For more information on Hildreth’s narrative and its relation to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, see http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/abolitn/hildrethhp.html.
 The American Antiquarian Society’s copy of this undated Howland printing was initially cataloged as 1849 (based on the copyright date), and later revised to read “not before 1859.” Whether the AAS record originated the misidentified 1849 publication date is unclear, but the error remains in other library records and scholarship.
 Jones’s death date has not been acknowledged in secondary scholarship. I pull his death date from the June 7, 1890 Boston Herald obituary for Jones titled “Slave, and then Preacher.”