Liberian Letters
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Maps of Liberia, 1830–1870
Created and maintained by the Library of Congress.
Reviewed Aug. 2012.

The Liberian Letters
Created and maintained by the Electronic Text Center of the University of Virginia Library.
Reviewed Aug. 2012.

Few topics have attracted more scholarly attention lately than the African colonization movement. Although some of the recent scholarship examines Liberia, there is still much to learn about the colony turned country and its place within the debate over slavery, race, and freedom. Two Web sites, Maps of Liberia, 1830–1870 and The Liberian Letters, can help mitigate that historiographic shortcoming.

St. Pauls River, Liberia at its mouth. Source: Maps of Liberia, 1830–1870, Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress launched Maps of Liberia in 1998, when online research and the scholastic renaissance surrounding the colonization movement were still relatively new. Not surprisingly, then, from a technological perspective, Maps of Liberia is not especially user-friendly, at least not by today’s standards. It provides a very rudimentary search engine, for example. Moreover, to examine the twenty maps available on the site, visitors must use a viewing mechanism that is cumbersome and labor-intensive. The largest viewing window is about five square inches. That small viewing area combined with the detailed nature of the maps necessitates that users employ the site’s zooming and scrolling features, a process that leaves something to be desired. Like the site’s technological features, its supplemental materials are somewhat antiquated. The most recent work in the small “Selected Bibliography” section was published in 1987. Maps of Liberia does provide a fulsome timeline that includes links to the Library of Congress’s other colonization-related sites, but the timeline ends in 1997, even though Liberia (and the scholarship on it) has undergone significant changes since then. In a certain respect, Maps of Liberia is unintentionally thought provoking, illustrating the chasm between what was once novel and expectations for online materials now.

Yet Maps of Liberia does more than encourage ruminations about the technological past and present. It places at researchers‘ disposal maps that are truly interesting and valuable. Needless to say, the maps reflect Americans’ view of things. For instance, the descriptions of indigenous peoples as “warlike” and “proud” (in the case of the Vai) and “indolent and inoffensive” (in the case of the Dei) are predictably ethnocentric. Yet the maps‘ minute accounting of the region’s numerous settlements, extensive waterways, and varied flora bears witness to the map makers’ extensive and necessary engagement with their environs, generally, and with the indigenous population, in particular. In short, future historical accounts of Liberia must be attentive to the differences in geography and demography that were important to the Americans in Africa, or at least to the map makers among them.

Two collections of letters written by former slaves from Virginia who settled in Liberia, Sampson Ceasar and James Hunter Terrell, are available on the University of Virginia’s Electronic Text Center site. These collections further illuminate settlers' experiences in Liberia. Like Maps of Liberia, The Liberian Letters site dates to the late 1990s, but the technological differences between the two are striking. The latter boasts a robust search engine that allows users to find terms in the Ceasar and Terrell letters. Moreover, the letters can be read in several formats: large- and small-scale scanned images of the missives, as well as through “original” and “modernized” transcriptions of them. In addition, the site provides abstracts of the letters and offers links to other colonization-related sites, though many more links could have been added. Likewise, the site would have benefitted from an introductory essay concerning the advantages and disadvantages of using such historical sources, especially if the site’s creators envisioned teachers using them. All things considered, however, this site is quite user-friendly.

Like other letters from Liberia, such as those found in Randall M. Miller’s “Dear Master” (1978) and Bell I. Wiley’s Slaves No More (1980), the Ceasar and Terrell missives shed light on countless aspects of settlers' lives. Ceasar was a twenty-eight-year-old manumittee who emigrated from Buchanan, Virginia, to Caldwell, Liberia, in 1834. While in Liberia, he penned letters—six of which are available here—to his former owner, Henry F. Westfall, and another local figure, David S. Haselden. The letters are candid and provide insights on Ceasar’s relations with his former owner (whom he tellingly called “Henry”), his previous neighbors (whom he predicted would incur divine retribution for standing in the way of him “trying to Serve god”), and his fellow settlers (the North Carolinians he adjudged “dregs” while those from Charleston and Baltimore he deemed “the most enterprising set of men we have here”). Ceasar died of consumption two years after his arrival in Liberia, still insisting that with opportunity, industry, and “good management,” Liberians could be “independent” and “would not be one Step behind … [white men] in no respect.”

Twenty years following Ceasar’s death, the sixty-four members of the Terrell party landed in Liberia. Emancipated by the will of the Albemarle County, Virginia, planter James Hunter Terrell, most of the Terrell freedpeople moved to Careysburg, a small, new upriver settlement located in the putatively more salubrious highlands. The Terrell collection includes forty-nine letters, most of which were addressed to Terrell’s nephew and executor James H. Minor, and many of which were written by women—an underrepresented group within the literature on Liberia. The star of the collection is forty-two-year-old William Douglass. Douglass longed for his children still in America, especially when he heard rumors that two of them had died during the Civil War. Yet Douglass, who became a justice of the peace, a successful farmer, and an amateur cartographer, nevertheless reported that he was “very proud” that he and his family could serve as “an example for those [who] may hereafter come to this country of Industry.” Thousands of African Americans did move to Liberia after the war, and even more expressed a desire to do so, demonstrating that slavery’s demise altered but did not end the colonization saga, and that Liberia played an important role in the ongoing tale.

Eric Burin
University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, North Dakota