In the article below Seattle historian Carver Clark Gayton describes his most prominent ancestor, Lewis G. Clarke, who is widely considered to be the model for one of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s main characters in her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Here Gayton describes Clarke’s evolving relationship with Stowe and as importantly, Clarke’s role in the larger struggle against slavery.
When I was a child, my mother passed on stories to me and my siblings about Lewis G. Clarke, her paternal grandfather, a slave who escaped from bondage in the early 1840s. She often read from a book, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which told of Clarke’s experiences as a slave and verified that the character “George Harris” of her book was based upon Clarke’s early life. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was first published in 1852, became one of the most popular novels ever written. It was a best seller in the United States (second only to the Bible) and just five years after its publication it was translated into twenty languages. Stowe published The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin one year later to explain and defend how she came to write the now widely popular novel. The lines from The Key that I remember most vividly were “Lewis Clarke is an acquaintance of the writer. Soon after his escape from slavery he was received into the family of a sister- in-law of the author and there educated.”
At the time I did not appreciate the significance of Lewis Clarke’s life nor his relationship with Harriet Beecher Stowe. I considered it interesting family history, but no more than that. Additionally, whatever luster he had as a figure in history was dulled by the comments my mother said her father made about him, declaring “He was a rolling stone” and was not committed to raising his family because of his travels across the country “making speeches.” Many years later I realized that his travels were the result of his being a famous man. His fame resulted, however, not only by being depicted as “George Harris,” the husband of Eliza, the