The iron slave collar is a rare artifact which has survived as evidence of America’s reprehensible era of slavery. If it wasn’t for Ben’s spirited persona, this iron collar would not have been made. The tangibility of the iron collar is rare, but even rarer is Ben’s story because we know his name. He was a human being who was entitled to freedom and who thirsted for freedom as did all his ancestors before him. Freedom was within Ben’s grasp when it was unlawfully snatched away, a mere eight miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, just weeks before his 28th birthday. Ben’s story is legion, for it is the story of thousands of African American slaves whose names are not remembered and will never be known.
In March of this year, a slave’s iron collar was given to Allison-Antrim Museum by Courtland C. Kauffman of Florida. It was used in the early 1800s to tame a slave who had run away three times. The collar had been kept in the Kauffman family for over 175 years until it was gifted to Allison-Antrim Museum.
The runaway slave’s name was Ben. He was about 21 years old. Ben was high spirited and ran away on three occasions in an effort to seek his freedom. He also threatened to kill his master, Andrew Kauffman, who owned a farm in the Kauffman’s Station area.
The ratio of slaves to free African Americans in Pennsylvania during the early 1800s was one out of 10, so Ben could have easily blended into the African American society in a large city, such as Philadelphia, had he made it that far.
Upon being captured the third time, Kauffman took him to a blacksmith and had an iron collar made. The two-piece collar, with a spear-like shape on each side, was made of three-quarter inch round forged iron. According to Keven Walker, curator at Antietam National Park, the length of the collar was likely made for the breadth of his shoulders. When riveted together, the semi-circles fit around Ben’s neck with the spear-like shapes resting on his collar bones – which Walker says would have made it bearable for him. The collar seemingly had its effect, for after it was placed around Ben’s neck, he became very obedient. Had he tried to escape a fourth time, the collar would have certainly marked Ben as a runaway slave. Ben remained at the Kauffman farm for the next three years, after which he was sold to a neighbor. At the time of the sale, one of the rivets was removed, and the two-pound, six-ounce iron collar was loosened from around Ben’s neck.
Every Sunday (which was his day off), Ben returned to the Kauffman home and repeatedly asked his former owner to buy him back; but Andrew Kauffman refused. However, Kauffman did tell Ben that he would hire him as a farm hand in four years when, under the Pennsylvania Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, Ben would become a freeman at the age of 28.
Andrew Kauffman never got to keep his promise because just a few weeks before Ben’s 28th birthday, he was kidnapped by slave raiders and taken “south,” meaning anywhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line where slavery was law. Ben was never heard of again.
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