Escape: An Overview

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Escape: An Overview

The act of running away from a master on either a plantation or in the domestic sphere was commonplace throughout the history of slavery in the United States. Running away was one form of active resistance that occurred in every state in the antebellum South while the institution of slavery existed. Other forms of active resistance, such as stealing food, feigning illness, and speaking back to an overseer, were also frequent, but the act of running away was symbolic of the constant longing for freedom, which was something that everyone oppressed by the bonds of slavery desired. As one plantation slave noted, "There was not a day throughout the ten years I belonged to [my master] that I did not consult with myself upon the prospect of escape" (Osofsky 1969, p. 358).

Physical abuse, overwork, separation from sale, and threat of punishment are a handful of the many reasons why a slave would chose to abscond. While the reasons why a slave would take flight are numerous, the intent of the act remains the same: to forcibly break away from the grips of slavery and exercise free will, or agency. A slave who absconded knew the reprisals of such an act could be severe and could entail whippings, brandings, cutting off an appendage, being sold to another master, or even death (Gayarré 1965). Nonetheless, slaves still chose to escape from their masters from the earliest colonial beginnings in America until emancipation.

One of the primary reasons why a slave would escape was because of abuse, or threat of physical reprimand. In many cases, masters or overseers had the right to physically punish their slaves for misbehavior, which had legal backing. (Slaves almost never had the right to testify in court, so stories of their abuse often were unheard by the law.) As one former Alabama slave notes, "Member one time uh 'Nigger' boy named Hyman Marks down on de plan'ation wuz whuped by de ove'seer an' he whuped'im so hard 'tel he run away an' come to town, to git 'tection f'om Miss Anne." Upon being apprehended, the master "Whuped'im 'tel de blood jes' run all down on'im. Dat boy's mammy wuz in de kitchen lis'nin at dem licks … but she couldn't say nut'tin coze she scaid dy kill'im an whip her too" (Blassingame 1977, p. 640).

Historians note that the great majority of runaways were young men in their teens and twenties (Franklin and Schweninger 1999). While their destinations differed, many chose to abscond to a city to blend in with the free black population, or strike for free lands (such as Canada and the northern states). Frequently, the slaves ran to specific places, such as other plantations, to reunite with their friends or loved ones. One ex-slave escaped by "concealing himself by day, and traveling by night, for six or eight weeks [from Georgia to Virginia] where he had been separated from his little family." Unfortunately, his wife had already been resold to another buyer elsewhere, and the slave consequently found himself "in the cold dungeon of the Richmond jail," awaiting resale by the state (Blassingame 1977, pp. 279-280).

Monotonous, hard work on the sugar and cotton plantations also drove slaves to escape. Ex-slave William Matthews notes that on his Louisiana plantation, "dey shore work de slaves bad. Made 'em git out in de fields 'for de sun come up an' work out dere 'til black dark" (Davis 1967, pp. 28-29). Generally, masters worked their plantation slaves every day except for Sunday, holding them to a strict standard of daily production. The master also organized their field slaves into gangs to foster the competitive spirit. If a gang fell short, or put rocks in their cotton sacks to throw off the scale, the consequences could be severe. Many times, a master would work his slaves relentlessly during the day, so they would be too tired to escape at night. This daily regimen of toilsome field labor drove many slaves to abscond to seek freedom or perish trying.

In the domestic sphere, many slaves ran away because of psychological or sexual abuse. This was especially prevalent with female slaves, who sometimes fell victim to the sexual advances of the master. Consequently, this could inspire the wrath of the mistress, putting the slave in an unappealing situation. An ex-slave notes that one of his female companion slaves "bore the scars of a thousand stripes; not because she was backward in her work, nor because she was of an unmindful and rebellious spirit, but because it had fallen to her lot to be a slave of a licentious master and a jealous mistress" (Osofsky 1969, p. 328). Sexual forays with slaves were common in the antebellum South, especially in the case of overly paternalistic masters who sought to increase the slaves on his plantation. Female slaves caught in the cross fire between an overzealous master and a spiteful mistress sometimes had no other choice than to abscond.

Slaves who absconded more than once were known as habitual runaways. As historians John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger (1999) note, slave traders in the upper states obtained sworn affidavits that the slaves they offered were not habitual runaways, so they could sell their slaves in the Deep South. In many cases, habitual runaways could be told by the numerous scars or "stripes" on their backs from the bite of the lash. Several historians recount the story of a slave family of Louisiana that, after being broken apart by a sale, sought reunification at the cost of absconding. A trader bought the family children, who took them down the Mississippi River, eventually selling them to another buyer. Grieving the loss of their parents, the children, aged in their early teens, took flight and clumsily traveled through the swamps and bayou country to return to the plantation they once inhabited. Intentionally aiming for their parents, the slave children traveled countless miles before being apprehended near Baton Rouge. Even after punishment, the slave children attempted to escape to their family but once again were caught and eventually sent to the remote Attakapas island of Grand Cote, on the Gulf of Mexico (Tadman 1989). The breaking apart of a family often led many slaves to habitually runaway for the purposes of reunification.

As much as possible, masters found it necessary to prevent against runaway slaves. Because masters considered slaves chattel property, like horses or cows, a runaway slave was considered an economic loss. Hence, masters developed several tactics for tracking down their absconded slaves. Runaway advertisements ran in most southern papers, detailing the sex, age, and physical features of the slave, as well as offering a reward for their return. In other cases, slaves caught by the patrollers were advertised by the jails. A prison periodical (the Tri-Weekly Flag & Advertiser) from September, 14, 1847, notes that a boy named Jim was "dark skinned, 5 feet 4 inches high, and is about 13 years old. Several of his front teeth are out. The owner is requested to come forward, prove property, pay charges, and take him away, or he will be dealt with as the law directs."

In every slave state, slaves were not permitted to be on the open road without a permission slip from their masters. Groups of law enforcement officials called patrollers, or patter-rollers, served the purpose of checking permission slips, quelling any rumors of slave insurrection and hunting down runaways. Handsomely paid by the slave owners for apprehending runaways, patrollers inspired fear in many slaves, who knew of their abusive tactics and use of bloodhounds. As one ex-slave notes, "They hire those patter rollers, and they have to take the meanest fellows above ground; and because they are so mortal sure the slaves doesn't want their freedom, they have the power [to do] jest as they like. If a slave don't open his door to them at any time of night they break it down." He continues that "slaves must be taught that it's their business to obey 'em in everything, and the patterollers know that very well" (Blassingame 1977, p. 157).

Many slaves note in their narratives that the reason why slaves were not desirous of running away was the fear of the bloodhounds that were tracking them. The dogs used by the patrollers were known to be vicious, and as one ex-slave notes, "tore [one runaway] all to pieces" (Blassingame 1977, p. 433). Known to mercilessly bite and attack slaves, bloodhounds were the common tool patrollers used to hunt down escaped slaves. The patroller would use an article of the slave's clothing, so the bloodhound would be able to detect a distinct scent, which could then be used to track the slave's trail. After following the trail, the hounds would be let loose to "tree" the runaway, who would likely climb a tree as to not be bitten. There, the dogs would bark until the slave hunter (or sometimes the plantation master) would arrive and forcibly take the slave back to his plantation.

Yet slaves, for the most part, chose not to runaway. To attempt such an action could incite the ire of the master, bringing with it severe punishment. As well, traveling through the forest was equally perilous, as hunger, intemperate weather, lack of shelter, or an encounter with insects or animals could prove to be fatal. Nonetheless, slaves still willfully chose to escape, reflecting the desperation of their cause to find freedom and free themselves from the grips of oppression.


Blassingame, John. Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

Davis, Edwin Adams. Plantation Life in the Florida Parishes, 1836–1846. New York: AMS Press, 1967.

Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Gayarré, Charles. History of Louisiana. New Orleans, LA: Pelican, 1965.

Osofsky, Gilbert. Puttin' on Ole Massa: The Slave Narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, and Solomon Northup. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.

Rawick, George, ed. The American Slave: a Composite Autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1977.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Tri-Weekly Flag & Advertiser (Montgomery, AL), September 14, 1847.

                                   Matthew Mitchell