Runaway Slaves and Maroon Communities
Runaway Slaves and Maroon Communities
From the beginning of slavery in colonial Virginia, slaves ran away from their owners for a variety of reasons. Some were dissatisfied with working conditions; others had been severely punished; others attempted to follow loved ones who were sold to distant locations; still others simply wished to take a break from the drudgery of bondage. Although the motives of runaways were as varied as slavery itself, the profile of those who ran away varied little over time. The great majority were young men in their teens and twenties. Because of the dangers and difficulties of taking children along, only about one in five was female. Most who ran away were described in advertisements as intelligent, cunning, active, bold, artful, friendly, or polite. Some were thought to have forged passes. They ran away during every season of the year and they ran off in every direction.
Beginning in the early years of Virginia and South Carolina slavery, and continuing after the colonial period, some African- and Caribbean-born slaves ran away to the woods, swamps, mountains, or dense forests near their plantations, where they established settlements. Called "outliers" or "outlying slaves," they sometimes absconded to negotiate concessions, such as improvements in food, housing, living conditions, work routines, and family visitation privileges, from their owners before they would return on their own. As time passed, it was rare that owners dealt with slaves by striking a bargain for their return. Although their numbers fluctuated over time, pockets of outlying slaves, in the Caribbean known as Maroon communities, were always a part of the region's landscape. During the 1730s some fugitives fled to Spanish Florida. In 1765 some forty runaways, including women and children, lived in a settlement with four substantial buildings in the swamp north of the Savannah River in South Carolina. In the Chesapeake region the terrain and majority white population made establishing runaway encampments difficult. One group of African-born slaves ran away to the mountainous backcountry. There men, women, and children attempted to recreate an African society on the frontier.
Over time, the main change in the population of runaway slaves was the decline in the number of African-born slaves. By the nineteenth century, most runaways were American-born and ran off alone. They often headed for the nearest town or city and hoped to blend in with other slaves and free blacks. Another difference between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was that in the early period more runaways were described as "black" or "negro" (usually meaning black) than in the later period, when a significant proportion were described as persons of mixed racial origin. In fact, an analysis of newspaper advertisements in five states during the 1850s found the more than 40 percent of the slaves who absconded were described as mulatto, light-skinned, brown, yellow, copper, red, "rather light," bright yellow, or "a negro, but not of the blackest cast." At the same time, persons of mixed origin, according to the census, represented only about 10 percent of the slave population. Mulatto slaves were often given positions as house servants, maids, cooks, tailors, waiters, and barbers; with such skills, they could more easily attempt to pass as free blacks.
From the colonial period until the end of slavery, bands of runaways, living in isolated, heavily wooded or swampy areas, or running to the mountains and beyond, attempted to maintain a separate existence. Some of these groups sustained their cohesiveness for several years, a few for longer periods. They made forays into populated farming sections for food, clothing, livestock, and trading items. Sometimes they bartered with free blacks, plantation slaves, or whites who owned no slaves. Only the Great Dismal Swamp, on the border of Virginia and North Carolina, and the marshes and morasses of south-central Florida sheltered generational communities of outlying slaves in North America, and even these two were not comparable to Maroon societies in other parts of the New World. The primary reason outlying bands failed to sustain themselves in the United States was the concerted effort on the part of slave owners, militiamen, and patrollers to find and destroy the outliers. It was only when the terrain was impenetrable that fugitives were able to remain at large.
If runaway gangs seldom lasted more than a year or two and often ended with many among them being killed, some individual slaves managed to sustain themselves by posing as free blacks. In the towns and cities of the South, a number of escaped slaves, especially the most skilled, were able to hire their own time and sometimes meld into the free black population. Although there were ebbs and flows in the economies of Southern cities, in most periods hired slaves were in demand. In many urban areas, as competing whites pointed out, slaves dominated certain occupations. Although prohibited in most places by law, self-hire was widespread; if runaways could convince a potential employer that they had been sent by their owner to find work, they could often be hired with few questions asked.
A few runaways, often the most ingenious, persistent, and lucky, made it to the North. Some of them received assistance from Quakers, the Underground Railroad, and antislavery whites. Traversing the great distance from the Deep South to the North was extremely difficult, but some were able to find assistance along the way and in the North or Canada.
Owners, of course, had the right to pursue their human property. In 1793 and again in 1850, the Congress passed fugitive slave laws outlining the procedures of how owners could claim their slaves in the North and return them to the South. Those who persisted in absconding usually paid a heavy price. Most contemporaries affirmed that what were called habitual or perpetual runaways received cruel and brutal punishments. Slaves escaped with the mark of the whip on their backs, irons on their ankles, missing fingers and toes, and brands on their cheeks and forehead. Indeed, the power of those in control was brought to bear with rapid efficiency against slaves who sought to sustain themselves in freedom. What is surprising, given the odds against them, was the growing stream of runaway slaves that continued unabated over many decades. Conservative estimates put the number at about fifty thousand blacks each year during the antebellum period, with perhaps two thousand making it to freedom. Despite their lack of success, runaways served as a constant reminder to the slaveholding class that the property they were seeking to control was not controllable and the image they were trying to project, as benevolent paternalistic masters, was false.
Meaders, Daniel E., ed. Advertisements for Runaway Slaves in Virginia, 1801–1820. New York: Garland, 1997.
Parker, Freddie L. Running for Freedom: Slave Runaways in North Carolina, 1775–1840. New York: Garland, 1993.
Schweninger, Loren, ed. The Southern Debate over Slavery: Petitions to Southern Legislatures and County Courts, 1778–1864. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.