IAGenWeb Bremer County

The Story of Martin Thomas,

 former slave, who lived in Tripoli

~~Thanks to Mary Chevelle who located this story for us.


Martin Thomas, the well-known colored man of Tripoli, has taken unto himself a wife, the fortunate young lady being Miss Bell Sward, a favorite in colored society circles of Independence. The wedding occurred at the residence of the bride’s parents Monday afternoon, and the happy couple passed through Waverly Tuesday, en route for Tripoli, where they will reside.

Martin has lived on the Wapsie since the close of the war. He is the only colored man ever permanently residing there, yet but few men with white skins have more or warmer friends. A nature as sunny as the Alabama clime in which he was born and a heart as big as a watermelon combine to make him a favorite with all, but not the least of his good traits are his habits of industry and frugality which have enable him to acquire a comfortable property.

He is quite a character in his way and has an interesting history. He was born on a cotton plantation in southern Alabama and was a small but troublesome item in the chattels of an aristocratic old lady until he was about nine years of age. His mistress had several grown children, who on each Christmas day gathered about the family hearthstone and on such occasions the doting mother invariably made all happy by giving each a darky for a Christmas gift.

In his youth, to use his own words, Martin “was a bad egg,” causing his mistress no end of trouble by his mischievousness and so it happened that on Christmas, 1864, Martin had arrived to a size that was unhandy to spank - it being the old lady’s custom to thus chastise the unruly pickaninnies whilst holding their heads between her knees - he was summoned with others to the parlor and presented with all due ceremony to the eldest son. On the plantation of the latter, wither he was taken, he found the punishment to be of a more substantial kind than he had hitherto been enjoying. He somehow couldn’t accustom himself to a thrashing, and so one dark night, hearing that Yankee troops were but ten miles distant, he made a bold dash for liberty.

He reached the Union lines without mishap. The soldiers greeted the kinky-haired little individual cordially and a troop of cavalry men at once adopted him for a mascot, furnishing him with a horse and accoutrements and a uniform twice too large for him. He stayed with the company till it was mustered out in the fall of 1866 and then came north with one of its members, Volney Streeter, who a short time later moved to Bremer county and settled on the Wapsie. Martin Thomas accompanied him and has stuck there ever since. This, briefly, is the story that will be told some little Thomas's while nestled on their father’s knee, a few years hence.

Martin boarded with a farm family in Fremont Twp. when young and attended school briefly. He was later employed by the railroad and also worked for people in Tripoli. Martin evidently met his future wife through his work with the railroad. Independence, Iowa was a railroad town that had a colored community and active social scene. Martin and Bell were married about four years and had two children. Bell obtained a divorce and moved with the children back to Independence where she lived with her married brother's family and her mother.

Martin was very well thought of in the Tripoli area, but it must have been lonely for his wife. Her full name was Isabelle Sward. They had their own house in town, but I am guessing her only social life may have been employment. It is not surprising that she chose to go back to her old home in Independence. Martin is buried in Fremont Cemetery, Fremont Twp, Bremer County, Iowa. He has a small stone engraved with his name and “Former Slave,” but no dates are given. For many years his grave was decorated by the GAR.

from the Waverly Democrat 18 January 1894, p. 4
Contributed by Karlyn Armstrong
April 2009