According to Walter Hawkins slaves constantly talked about the possibility of escape: "There arose in some an irrepressible desire for freedom which no danger or power could restrain, no hardship deterred, and no bloodhound could alarm. This desire haunted them night and day; they talked about it to each other in confidence; they knew that the system which bound them was as unjust as it was cruel, and that they ought to strive, as a duty to themselves and their children, to escape from it".
Harriet Jacobs was a slave in Edenton, North Carolina. In her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she described what happened to her brother Benjamin, when he was caught trying to escape from the plantation: "That day seems but as yesterday, so well do I remember it. I saw him led through the streets in chains, to jail. His face was ghastly pale, yet full of determination. He had begged one of the sailors to go to his mother's house and ask her not to meet him. He said the sight of her distress would take from him all self-control. She yearned to see him, and she went; but she screened herself in the crowd, that it might be as her child had said."
Sometimes slaves ran away because they feared punishment for breaking one of the master's rules. Henry Clay Bruce, a slave in Virginia, explained in his book, The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave (1895): "During the summer, in Virginia and other southern states, slaves when threatened or after punishment would escape to the woods or some other hiding place. They were then called runaways, or runaway Negroes, and when not caught would stay away from home until driven back by cold weather. Usually they would go to some other part of the state, where they were not so well known, and a few who had the moral courage would make their way to the North, and thus gain their freedom. But such cases were rare. Some, if captured and not wishing to go back to their masters, would neither give their correct name nor that of their owner; and in such cases, if the master had not seen the notice of sale posted by the officers of the county wherein they were captured, and which usually gave the runaway's personal description, they were sold to the highest bidders, and their masters lost them and the county in which the capture was effected got the proceeds, less the expense of capture. A runaway often chose that course in order to get out of the hands of a hard master, thinking that he could not do worse in any event, while he might fall into the hands of a better master. Often they were bought by Negro traders for the cotton fields of the South."
Runaways also knew that successful escapes were rare. Slaveowners used bloodhounds to trace their slaves. Problems of finding food and shelter in a hostile environment and the absence of maps were also other factors in understanding why most slaves failed in their bids for freedom. Moses Grandy explained the problems that runaways faced: "They hide themselves during the day in the woods and swamps; at night they travel, crossing rivers by swimming, or by boats they may chance to meet with, and passing over hills and meadows which they do not know; in these dangerous journeys they are guided by the north-star, for they only know that the land of freedom is in the north. They subsist on such wild fruit as they can gather, and as they are often very long on their way, they reach the free states almost like skeletons."
Within a few days of leaving the plantation most runaways were brought back and heavily punished. Francis Fredric was free for nine weeks but was captured and received 107 strokes of the whip. Moses Roper, received 200 lashes and this was only brought to an end when the master's wife pleaded for his life to be spared.
A study of runaway notices of local newspapers revealed that 76 per cent of all fugitives were under 35, and 89 per cent of them were men. Another study suggested that field slaves were more likely to try and escape than house slaves. This is probably because house slaves were often better treated. In some cases the slaves were treated like the slave-owners children. When this happened close bonds of affection and friendship usually developed. Trusted house slaves who had provided good service over a long period of time were sometimes promised their freedom when their masters died. However, there are many cases where this promise was not kept.
In 1834 Harriet Jacobs became a runaway. Her master, Dr. Norcom published an advert in the local newspaper: "Ran away from the subscriber, an intelligent, bright, mulatto girl, 21 years age. Five feet four inches high. Dark eyes, and black hair inclined to curl; but it can be made straight. Has a decayed spot on a front tooth. She can read and write, and in all probability will try to get to the Free States. All persons are forbidden, under penalty of the law, to harbor or employ said slave. $150 will be given to whoever takes her in the state, and $300 if taken out of the state and delivered to me, or lodged in jail."
Henry Bibb, a slave from Shelby County, Kentucky managed to escape in 1837. "One of the most self-denying acts of my whole life was to take leave of my affectionate wife, who stood before me on my departure, with dear little Frances in her arms, and with tears of sorrow in her eyes as she bid me a long farewell. It required all the moral courage that I was master of to suppress my feelings while taking leave of my little family."
The most famous case of a successful runaway was Henry Box Brown, with the help of Samuel Smith, a store-keeper in Richmond, he decided to try and escape. The two men devised a plan where the slave would be shipped to a free state by Adams Express Company. Brown paid $86 to Smith, who contacted the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, who agreed to receive the box. Smith sent the box to Philadelphia on 23rd March, 1849. According to one account "Brown's box traveled by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon. Several times during the 27-hour journey, carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly, but Brown was able to remain still enough to avoid detection." The box containing Brown was received by William Still and James Miller McKim.
The development of the underground railroad increased the number of slaves who were able to reach safety. By the middle of the 19th century it was estimated that over 50,000 slaves had escaped from the South using this method. Plantation owners became so concerned by these losses that in 1850 they managed to persuade Congress to pass the Fugitive Slave Act. In future, any federal marshal who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave could be fined $1,000. Any person aiding a runaway slave by providing shelter, food or any other form of assistance was liable to six months' imprisonment and a $1,000 fine.
(1) Henry Clay Bruce, The New Man: Twenty-Nine Years a Slave (1895)
During the summer, in Virginia and other southern states, slaves when threatened or after punishment would escape to the woods or some other hiding place. They were then called runaways, or runaway Negroes, and when not caught would stay away from home until driven back by cold weather. Usually they would go to some other part of the state, where they were not so well known, and a few who had the moral courage would make their way to the North, and thus gain their freedom. But such cases were rare. Some, if captured and not wishing to go back to their masters, would neither give their correct name nor that of their owner; and in such cases, if the master had not seen the notice of sale posted by the officers of the county wherein they were captured, and which usually gave the runaway's personal description, they were sold to the highest bidders, and their masters lost them and the county in which the capture was effected got the proceeds, less the expense of capture. A runaway often chose that course in order to get out of the hands of a hard master, thinking that he could not do worse in any event, while he might fall into the hands of a better master. Often they were bought by Negro traders for the cotton fields of the South.
(2) Advert in the Alabama Beacon (14th June, 1845)
Ranaway, on the 15th of May, from me, a negro woman named Fanny. Said woman is twenty years old; is rather tall, can read and write, and so forge passes for herself. Carried away with her a pair of ear-rings, a Bible with a red cover, is very pious. She prays a great deal, and was, as supposed, contented and happy. She is as white as most white women, with straight light hair, and blue eyes, and can pass herself for a white woman. I will give five hundred dollars for her apprehension and delivery to me. She is very intelligent.
(3) Advertisement, New Orleans Commercial Bulletin (30th September, 1845)
Ten dollars reward. Ranaway from the subscribers, on the 15th of last month, the negro man Charles, about 45 years of age, 5 feet 6 inches high; red complexion, has had the upper lid of his right eye torn, and a scar on his forehead; speaks English only, and stutters when spoken to; he had on when he left, an iron collar, the prongs of which he broke off before absconding. The above reward will be paid for the arrest of said slave.
(4) Advertisement, Richmond Whig (6th January, 1836)
$100 reward - Will be given for the apprehension of my negro Edmund Kenney. He has straight hair, and complexion so nearly white, that it is believed a stranger would suppose there was no African blood in him. He was with my boy Dick a short time since in Norfolk, and offered him for sale, and was apprehended, but escaped under pretence of being a white man. Anderson Bowles.
(5) Advertisement, Madison Journal (26th November, 1847)
James W. Hall, living on Carroway Lake, on Hoe's Bayou, in Carroll Parish, sixteen miles on the road leading from Bayou Mason to Lake Providence, is ready with a pack of dogs to hunt runaway negroes at any time. These dogs are well trained, and are known throughout the parish. My terms are five dollars per day for hunting the trails, whether the negro is caught or not. Where a twelve hours' trail is shown and the negro not taken, no charge is made. For taking a negro, twenty-five dollars, and no charge made for hunting.
(6) In August 1841 Lewis Clarke managed to escape from slavery. He recorded his thoughts in his book Narrative of the Sufferings of Lewis Clark (1845)
I saddled my pony, went into the cellar where I kept my grass seed apparatus, put my clothes into a pair of saddlebags, and them into my seed-bag, and thus equipped set sail for the North Star. What a day was that to me. This was on Saturday, in August, 1841. I wore my common clothes, and was very careful to avoid special suspicion, as I already imagined the administrator was very watchful of me. The place from which I started was about fifty miles from Lexington. The reason why I do not give the name of the place, and a more accurate location, must be obvious to any one who remembers that in the eye of the law I am yet accounted a slave, and no spot in the United States affords an asylum for the wanderer. True, I feel protected in the hearts of the many warm friends of the slave by whom I am surrounded, but this protection does not come from the laws of any one of the United States.
Monday morning, bright and early, I set my face in good earnest toward the Ohio River, determined to see and tread the north bank of it, or die in the attempt. I said to myself, one of two things, freedom or death. The first night I reached Mayslick, fifty odd miles from Lexington. Just before reaching this village, I stopped to think over my situation, and determine how I would pass that night. On that night hung all my hopes. I was within twenty miles of Ohio. My horse was unable to reach the river that night. And besides, to travel and attempt to cross the river in the night, would excite suspicion. I must spend the night there. But how? At one time, I thought, I will take my pony out into the field ,and give him some corn, and sleep myself on the grass. But then the dogs will be out in the evening, and if caught under such circumstances, they will take me for a thief if not for a runaway. That will not do. So after weighing the matter all over, I made a plunge right into the heart of the village, and put up at the tavern.
After seeing my pony disposed of, I looked into the barroom, and saw some persons that I thought were from my part of the country, and would know me. I shrunk back with horror. What to do I did not know. I looked across the street, and saw the shop of a silversmith. A thought of a pair of spectacles, to hide my face, struck me. I went across the way, and began to barter for a pair of double eyed green spectacles. When I got them on, they blind-folded me, if they did not others. Every thing seemed right up in my eyes. I hobbled back to the tavern, and called for supper. This I did to avoid notice, for I felt like any thing but eating. At tea I had not learned to measure distances with my new eyes, and the first pass I made with my knife and fork at my plate, went right into my cup. This confused me still more, and, after drinking one cup of tea, I left the table, and got off to bed as soon as possible. But not a wink of sleep that night. All was confusion, dreams, anxiety and trembling.
(7) Henry Box Brown, Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851)
I was well acquainted with a store-keeper in the city of Richmond, from whom I used to purchase my provisions; and having formed a favourable opinion of his integrity, one day in the course of a little conversation with him, I said to him if I were free I would be able to do business such as he was doing; he then told me that my occupation (a tobacconist) was a money-making one, and if I were free I had no need to change for another. I then told him my circumstances in regard to my master, having to pay him 25 dollars per month, and yet that he refused to assist me in saving my wife from being sold and taken away to the South, where I should never see her again. I told him this took place about five months ago, and I had been meditating my escape from slavery since, and asked him, as no person was near us, if he could give me any information about how I should proceed. I told him I had a little money and if he would assist me I would pay him for so doing.
The man asked me if I was not afraid to speak that way to him; I said no, for I imagined he believed that every man had a right to liberty. He said I was quite right, and asked me how much money I would give him if he would assist me to get away. I told him that I had $I66 and that I would give him the half; so we ultimately agreed that I should have his service in the attempt for $86. Now I only wanted to fix upon a plan. He told me of several plans by which others had managed to effect their escape, but none of them exactly suited my taste.
One day, while I was at work when the idea suddenly flashed across my mind of shutting myself up in a box, and getting myself conveyed as dry goods to a free state.
(8) Henry Box Brown Narrative of the Life of Henry Box Brown (1851)
The next place at which we arrived was the city of Washington, where I was taken from the steam-boat, and again placed upon a waggon and carried to the depôt right side up with care; but when the driver arrived at the depôt I heard him call for some person to help to take the box off the waggon, and some one answered him to the effect that he might throw it off; but, says the driver, it is marked "this side up with care;" so if I throw it off I might break something, the other answered him that it did not matter if he broke all that was in it, the railway company were able enough to pay for it. No sooner were these words spoken than I began to tumble from the waggon, and falling on the end where my head was, I could bear my neck give a crack, as if it had been snapped asunder and I was knocked completely insensible.
The first thing I heard after that, was some person saying, "there is no room for the box, it will have to remain and be sent through to-morrow with the luggage train; but the Lord had not quite forsaken me, for in answer to my earnest prayer He so ordered affairs that I should not be left behind; and I now heard a man say that the box had come with the express, and it must be sent on. I was then tumbled into the car with my head downwards again, but the car had not proceeded far before, more luggage having to be taken in, my box got shifted about and so happened to turn upon its right side; and in this position I remained till I got to Philadelphia, of our arrival in which place I was informed by hearing some person say, "We are in port and at Philadelphia." My heart then leaped for joy, and I wondered if any person knew that such a box was there.
Here it may be proper to observe that the man who had promised to accompany my box failed to do what he promised; but, to prevent it remaining long at the station after its arrival, he sent a telegraphic message to his friend, and I was only twenty seven hours in the box, though travelling a distance of three hundred and fifty miles.
I was now placed in the depôt amongst the other luggage, where I lay till seven o'clock at which time a waggon drove up, and I heard a person inquire for such a box as that in which I was. I was then placed on a waggon and conveyed to the house where my friend in Richmond had arranged I should be received.
A number of persons soon collected round the box after it was taken in to the house, but as I did not know what was going on I kept myself quiet. I heard a man say, "let us rap upon the box and see if he is alive" and immediately a rap ensued and a voice said, tremblingly, "Is all right within?" to which I replied - "all right." The joy of the friends was very great; when they heard that I was alive they soon managed to break open the box, and then came my resurrection from the grave of slavery. I rose a freeman, but I was too weak, by reason of long confinement in that box, to be able to stand, so I immediately swooned away. After my recovery from the swoon the first thing, which arrested my attention, was the presence of a number of friends, every one seeming more anxious than another, to have an opportunity of rendering me their assistance, and of bidding me a hearty welcome to the possession of my natural rights, I had risen as it were from the dead.
(9) Moses Grandy, Life of a Slave (1843)
I am glad to say also, that numbers of my coloured brethren now escape from slavery; some by purchasing their freedom, others by quitting, through many dangers and hardships, the land of bondage. The latter suffer many privations in their attempts to reach the free states. They hide themselves during the day in the woods and swamps; at night they travel, crossing rivers by swimming, or by boats they may chance to meet with, and passing over hills and meadows which they do not know; in these dangerous journeys they are guided by the north-star, for they only know that the land of freedom is in the north. They subsist on such wild fruit as they can gather, and as they are often very long on their way, they reach the free states almost like skeletons. On their arrival, they have no friends but such as pity those who have been in bondage, the number of which, I am happy to say, is increasing; but if they can meet with a man in a broad-brimmed hat and Quaker coat, they speak to him without fear-relying on him as a friend. At each place the escaped slave inquires for an abolitionist or a Quaker, and these friends of the coloured man help them on their journey northwards, until they are out of the reach of danger.
(10) Francis Fredric, Fifty Years of Slavery (1863)
I had been flogged for going to a prayer-meeting, and, before my back was well, my master was going to whip me again. I determined, therefore, to run away. It was in the morning, just after my master had got his breakfast, I was ordered to the back of the premises to strip. My master had got the thong of raw cow's-hide; when off I ran, towards the swamp.
He saw me running, and instantly called three bloodhounds, kept for the purpose, and put them on my track. I saw them coming up to me, when, turning round to them, I clapped my hands, and called them by name; for I had been in the habit of feeding them. I urged them on, as if in pursuit of something else. They instantly passed me, and flew upon the cattle. I saw my master calling them off, and returning. No doubt, he perceived it was useless to pursue me, with dogs which knew me so well.
I now hurried on further, into a dismal swamp, named the Bear's Wallow; and, at last, wearied and exhausted, I sat down at the foot of a tree, to rest, and think what had best be done. I knelt down, and prayed earnestly to the Almighty, to protect and direct me what to do. I rose from my knees, and looked stealthily around, afraid that the dogs and men were still in pursuit. I listened, and listened again, to the slightest sound, made by the flapping of the wings of a bird, or the rustling of the wild animals among the underwood; and then proceeded further into the swamp. My path was interrupted, every now and then, by large sheets of stagnant, putrid, green-looking water, from which a most sickening, fetid smell arose; the birds, in their flight, turning away from it. The snakes crawled sluggishly across the ground, for it was autumn time, when, it is said, they are surcharged with their deadly poison.
When awake in the morning, I tried to plan out some way of escape, over the Ohio River, which I knew was about thirty miles from where I was. But I could not swim; and I was well aware that my master would set a watch upon every ferry or ford, and that the whole country would be put on the alert, to catch me; for the planters, for self-protection, take almost as much interest in capturing another man's slaves, as they do their own.
At length, driven by hunger and desperation, I approached the edge of the swamp; when I was startled by seeing a young woman ploughing. I knew her, and called her by name. She was frightened, and shocked at my appearance - worn, from hunger, almost to a skeleton; and haggard, from the want of sound sleep. I begged of her to go to get me something to eat. She, at first, expressed her fears, and began to tell me of the efforts which my master was making to capture me. He had offered $500 reward - had placed a watch all along the Ohio River - had informed all the neighbouring planters, who had cautioned all their slaves not to give me any food or other assistance, and he had made it known, that, when I should be caught, he would give me a thousand lashes.
The woman went, and fetched me about two ounces of bread, of which I eat a small portion, wishing to keep the rest to eat in the swamp, husbanding it, as much as possible. When she told me that I should receive a thousand lashes, I felt horrified, and wept bitterly. The girl wept also. I had seen a slave, who had escaped to the Northern States, and, after an absence of four years, had been brought back again, and flogged, in the presence of all the slaves, assembled from the neighbouring plantations. His body was frightfully lacerated. I went to see him, two or three weeks after the flogging. When they were anointing his back, his screams were awful. He died, soon afterwards--a tall, fine young fellow, six feet high, in the prime of life, thus brutally murdered.
(11) Moses Roper made several attempts trying to escape from his master. He wrote about the punishment he received in Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper (1838)
Mr. Gooch then obtained the assistance of another slave-holder, and tied me up in his blacksmith's shop, and gave me fifty lashes with a cow-hide. He then put a long chain, weighing twenty-five pounds, round my neck, and sent me into a field, into which he followed me with the cow-hide, intending to set his slaves to flog me again.
He then chained me down in a log-pen with a 40 lb. chain, and made me lie on the damp earth all night. In the morning after his breakfast he came to me, and without giving me any breakfast, tied me to a large heavy barrow, which is usually drawn by a horse, and made me drag it to the cotton field for the horse to use in the field. Thus, the reader will see, that it was of no possible use to my master to make me drag it to the field, and not through it; his cruelty went so far as actually to make me the slave of his horse, and thus to degrade me.
Mr. Gooch had a female slave about eighteen years old, who also had been a domestic slave, and through not being able to fulfill her task, had run away; which slave he was at this time punishing for that offence. On the third day, he chained me to this female slave, with a large chain of 40 lbs. weight round the neck. It was most harrowing to my feelings thus to be chained to a young female slave, for whom I would rather have suffered a hundred lashes than she should have been thus treated. He kept me chained to her during the week, and repeatedly flogged us both while thus chained together, and forced us to keep up with the other slaves, although retarded by the heavy weight of the log-chain.