The Strange Tale of Fortune Snow

As a novelist and journalist, I’ve run across some bizarre stories, stories that did more than just test the limits of my credibility, stories of the man in the moon variety. Usually, with a little research, the story is easily disproven. But recently, I ran across a story that, at the very least, passes the first “sniff” test.
In doing some research into 19th century Tennessee, I ran across a newspaper story from 1875 about a former slave named Fortune Snow. The story, which ran in a handful of newspapers across the country, described how the author had encountered a 127 year old African-American in Gibson County, Tennessee. Living with his grandson-in-law, Fortune Snow told the reporter of his remarkable life. He was born into slavery in South Carolina prior to the American Revolution. His master, William Snow, became an officer under General Francis Marion, the famous Swamp Fox, and Fortune went along, acting as personal servant and cook.
After the Revolution, Fortune followed his master to the Mobile, Alabama area, where his daughter “jumped the broom” and married. Fortune stayed in south Alabama throughout the Civil War, but in the years after, he followed his grandchildren north, stopping finally near Trenton, Tennessee.
An interesting story, but hardly one to take seriously. Like I said, I’ve seen such stories before. And tall tales were just part of the journalistic landscape in the 1800s. But here’s where the story of Fortune takes an odd turn.
Part of that same research project had me looking through the 1870 census for Gibson County, Tennessee. Just out of curiosity, I glanced to see if there truly was a Fortune Snow.
Not only was there a Fortune Snow in Gibson County, Tennessee in 1870, five years before the newspaper stories ran, but he was listed as 122 years old. It was absolutely one of those head-scratching moments. I rushed to run down other elements of his story. Yes, there was a William Snow in South Carolina who served with Francis Marion, and yes, there was a William Snow in the Mobile area in later years. Outside of that, it was difficult to find other, corroborating evidence, at least on short notice.
I don’t know if Fortune Snow lived to be 127. What I do know is that his story cannot be easily dismissed. Probably, he was well into his 90s, perhaps even 100 when that reporter encountered him in 1875. But even so, he would have been born around the beginning of the Revolution, and very well could have been with his master in the army of Francis Marion as a young boy. And that, by itself, is a story worth telling.

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