Friday, January 20, 2023

The Legend of Sam Lion

This remnant of one of the Hairston family’s old farming roads still lurks in the woods near my house.
I have posted links to this story before, but an editing project I’m currently working on brought it back to my mind. In Martinsville, VA, where I grew up, there’s a long, winding road in my neighborhood called Sam Lions Trail. As a youngster, I had no clue — or much curiosity — about the name’s origin. However, a local legend (with a couple of different permutations) explains the road name’s history. The most commonly told story goes as follows (condensed by yours truly from articles in The Martinsville Bulletin):

“The story of Sam Lion is a 175-year-old narrative of brutality and deadly revenge between a slave and his overseer. While several minor variations of the tale exist, the principal character has been immortalized in Martinsville by having a road — Sam Lions Trail — named after him.

“Sam Lions Trail is in the Forest Park neighborhood, an area of about 750 homes in the southeast part of the city. In the mid-1800s, this 1,050-acre tract belonged to the Hairstons, a prodigious family of farmers and slave owners who were headquartered at the Beaver Creek Plantation (now off Virginia Highway 108).

“The story goes that Sam Lion, the son of an African chieftain, was brought to this country, along with about 150 other slaves, and bought by one of the Hairstons. As the slaves started to walk from the auction stand, the hot, tired Prince slipped and almost fell. “Watch it there, Sam!” came the harsh voice of a red-headed overseer named Red Tupper. From then on, the Prince was known as Sam. Legend has it that the slave acquired his last name because he acted nobly and with the courage of a Lion.

“The Hairstons had divided their land into sections, and they sent Sam Lion and other slaves to clear one of the biggest tracts. Instead of climbing the long, high hills to get to work, Sam Lion cleared a path around them.

“Red Tupper was a cruel overseer, notorious for beating his slaves for little or no reason. One day he beat Sam Lion. Lion, knowing little English, responded, ”If you beat again, I kill.” Tupper merely laughed. But the next day, Sam Lion stopped to pick up a chain he had dropped, and Tupper hit him with a whip. Lion straightened up and roared, “Didn’t believe?” The slave then picked up his axe, swung it, and killed his overseer. Lion fled into the nearby woods, and for the next three years, he lived off the land, sheltering in caves and watching for signs of anyone searching for him.

“Eventually, some of the locals happened upon Sam Lion while he was sleeping in a cave. He was taken to jail, found guilty of murder, and hanged in the public square.”

Over the years, some have claimed to have seen the ghostly figure of Sam Lion roaming the woods in Martinsville’s Forest Park neighborhood. Me, I’ve never witnessed any such apparition... dammit... but as one who loves history (particularly local history), I find it both sobering and intriguing that the woods, creeks, and trails where I played as a kid — and still frequently haunt — provide the backdrop of this grim legend.

A hillside covered in clusters of huge boulders along what historians believe was the original trail cut by Sam Lion. I’ve always called it “Castle Rock.” Several years ago, I placed a geocache here, which bears that name.

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