Runaway and Fugitive Slaves

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Runaway and Fugitive Slaves

The irrepressible desire for freedom consumed every slave. In confidence, slaves discussed their desire to flee bondage and they understood that running away presented a chance to change their dismal lot. Edward Lycurgas, a former slave, remembered meeting scores of runaway slaves. Lycurgas recalled that "[s]ome was trying to get north[;] … one and all, dey had a good strong notion to see what it was like to own your own body" (Mellon 1988, p.302). Without a doubt, a runaway slave defied all odds in his or her attempt to secure freedom and fewer actions demonstrate the slave's desire for freedom better.

According to historian John Blassingame (1979), a number of circumstances fanned the flames of slaves' desire for freedom. In his book The Slave Community, he notes that the "overseer's lash, the master's celebration of the Fourth of July, a heated political campaign, the whites' disparagement of abolitionists, a painful reminder of the invidious distinctions between blacks and whites, or a sermon might cause the slave to dream of about freedom." Seemingly, the more slaves learned about freedom, the greater their desire to obtain it. Former slave Elijah Marr recalled that slave quarter conversations centered on freedom and the topic of "colored people running off and going to Canada," so much that his "mind was busy with this subject even in [his] young days." With greater knowledge came an increased unwillingness among slaves to remain in bondage (Blassingame 1979, pp. 193-194).

Newspapers document numerous attempts by slaves to realize their desire for freedom. Advertisements offering rewards for runaway slaves, such as the one filed by Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) on September 14, 1769, reveal that numerous slaves sought freedom in spite of the odds. Jefferson's ad noted that "a Mulatto [s]lave called sandy about 35 years of age,…" had fled and that a ransom would be paid to whomever returned the slave. Jefferson's runaway slave brought tools with him, hoping to find employment. Other slaves depended on their linguistic skills to secure freedom or on their knowledge of local geography. The latter was true for Berkely Bullock, who fled slavery and "traveled at night by de moonshine … [and] would feel 'round de trees an' whichever side de moss grew on, he knowed dat was de north direction" (Perdue, Barden, and Phillips 1976, p. 286).

But none of these traits or skills guaranteed freedom, as one former slave named Joe found out repeatedly. Gabe Emmanuel, another former slave, remembered being "out in de quarters when he [the overseer] brung back old Joe from runnin' away. Old Joe was always arunnin' away an' dat man, Duncan an' his dawgs always brung him back in" (Mellon 1988, p. 300). Slaves like Joe who persisted in running away faced painful physical punishment, and in many instances were eventually sold off by their master. Certainly, slaves had to seriously weigh the risks involved in fleeing slavery and also had to be prepared for the repercussion if caught. Furthermore, sympathizers seeking to assist runaway slaves had to be very cautious as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 promised a jail sentence and a sizable monetary fine for any person caught abetting a runaway slave.

But in order to experience freedom, even if only for a moment, many slaves decided that running away was worth the risk. Some ran away knowing that they planned to return willingly. One former slave reported that "[d]ere was two kin's of runaways—dem what hid in de woods an' dem what ran away to free lan'." His grandmother, he recalled, "lived in de woods. Dey say her people treated her lak a dog. In fac' dey treat her so bad she often come down to our place. After a while dey tell someone to tell her to come on home." (Holt and Brown 2000, pp. 249-250). Many sought the comfort of loved ones on neighboring plantations, withdrawal from an overly cruel overseer, or just a few days alone. Perhaps because of the perils associated with running away, it seems that, generally speaking, men fled more often than women, who found it especially difficult to abandon children and families.

However, women did in fact flee plantations with the hope of securing freedom. Some slave women decided to flee with their children. In one particular instance, when the runaway slave mother was found, she chose to take the life of her children rather than have them return to the brutal institution of slavery. However, the most notable female runaway slave, Harriet Tubman (1820–1913), actually made nearly twenty trips into the South in an effort to help escort roughly 300 slaves to freedom. Tubman, also known as Moses, did not lose a single runaway slave along the way. One former slave recalled:

[M]any slaves escaped … through West Virginia to Ohio[;] … [t]hey's safe when they get out there. "Moses" would come around like today and tonight she would run them away and get them over near the border line and run them over into Pennsylvania the next night on what you call the "Underground Railroad." I never saw "Moses." I heard talk of her, but I never saw her (Perdue, Barden, and Phillips 1976, p. 85).

By the mid-1850s, the reward for the capture of Tubman had reached $40,000. Clearly her efforts posed a serious threat to slave owners.

Despite their desire for freedom, many slaves could not face leaving their family and friends. According to Frederick Douglass (1817–1895), "thousands would escape from slavery … but for the strong cords of affection that bind them to their families, relatives and friends" (Blassingame 1979, p. 198). Certainly, Henry Bobb felt similar emotions when he wrote that it was "one of the most self-denying acts of my whole life, to take leave of an affectionate wife, who stood before me on my departure, with dear little Frances in her arms, and with tears of sorrow in her eyes" (ibid.). Familial ties should not be overlooked in any consideration of why so many slaves chose not to abandon the plantation. A successful attempt at running away tended to leave family members in harms way, as the overseer or slave master might elect to take vengeance on a family member. Though not fully in a position to protect family members as a slave, many decided it best not to stir the water and create any unnecessary trouble.

Even if a slave managed to overcome the anxiety associated with severing familial ties, the journey to freedom proved a long and dangerous road. Runaway slaves had to deal with hunger pains and could not rest mentally knowing that an overseer accompanied by a pack of bloodthirsty dogs followed closely behind them. These men often knew the terrain better than slaves. Slaves knew all to well that, as slave Lizzie Brown noted, the "patterollers wus always hanging around at night to catch the niggers that was visiting away from they own plantation" (Mellon 1988, p. 139). Moreover, in many instances, these overseers and slave masters offered slaves a preview of the punishments they would receive if they did run away. Some slave masters went as far as chopping off the toes, feet, and even legs of repeat runaways. These mutilations warned other slaves of the hazards of running away. It was not uncommon for slave masters to beat all the skin off a runaway slave's back and then wash them down with salt and water.

No doubt, as one former slave recalled, slave masters "beat slaves unmercifully for running away" (Perdue, Barden, and Phillips 1976, p. 85). If this did not completely deter slaves from attempting to leave the plantation, slave masters also made use of iron collars and ankle bonds. Slave masters understood that their actions toward runaway slaves could serve as a message to the larger slave community. One slave master's actions left an indelible mark on a former slave named Equiano who recalled how a female runaway slave "was cruelly loaded with various kinds of iron machines; she had one particularly on her head, which locked her mouth so fast that she could scarcely speak; and could not eat nor drink. I was much astonished and socked [sic] at this contrivance, which I afterwards learned was called the iron muzzle" (Clayborne, Lapsansky-Werner, and Nash 2005, p. 88).

Thus numerous runaway slaves had to reinvent themselves to help ensure that they would not get caught. For example, a twenty-three-year-old Philadelphia slave named Joe who managed to escape slavery changed his first name to Joseph and adding Boudron as his surname. Runaway slaves attempted to change their physical appearance as well. In some instances, fugitive black slaves would impersonate or live among Native Americans. In 1751, "Tom, a thirty-seven-year-old mulatto in East New Jersey, cut his cat short to make Indian stockings, lopped off his hair, and searched for a blanket 'to pass for an Indian'" (p. 87). According to Blassingame, some runaway slaves "mailed themselves in boxes, hid, often with the aid of black sailors of sympathetic white captains, in the hold of North-bound ships, disguised their sex, paid poor whites to write passes for them, or, when literate, wrote their own passes." (1979, p. 200). As these examples illustrate, slaves committed to running away were willing to try anything to secure freedom.


Blassingame, John W. The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Clayborne, Carson, Emma J. Lapsansky-Werner, and Gary B. Nash, eds. African American Lives: The Struggle for Freedom. New York: Pearson and Longman, 2005.

Holt, Thomas C., and Elsa Berkley Brown. Major Problems in African American History: Documents and Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Mellon, James. Bullwhip Days: The Slaves Remember. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988.

Perdue, Charles L., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds. Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1976.

                                        T. E. Robinson