Craft, Ellen (1826–c. 1891)

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Craft, Ellen (1826–c. 1891)

Escaped slave, abolitionist activist and educator. Born Ellen Smith in 1826 in Clinton, Georgia; died around 1891 in Charleston, South Carolina; buried at Woodville; daughter of James Smith (a slave-master, lawyer, and surveyor) and Maria (Smith's slave); illiterate until adulthood, then attended Ockham School, Ockham, England; married William Craft, on November 7, 1850; children: Charles Estlin; William, Jr.; Brougham; Ellen Crum ; Alfred.

Given as a wedding present to half-sister Eliza Collins and moved to Macon, Georgia (1837); escaped slavery masquerading as a white master of her black slave husband (1848); settled in Boston; active in New England abolitionist work; fled to England after passage of U.S. Fugitive Slave Act (1850); studied three R's and taught sewing at Ockham School (pioneering venture in industrial education), founded by Lord Byron's daughter; appeared with abolitionist groups; cared for her five children, often single-handedly as her husband undertook trading and abolitionist work in Dahomey, Africa; family returned to U.S. (1870); established Woodville plantation and school south of Savannah, Georgia; taught domestic science, reading and arithmetic; moved to Charleston, South Carolina, to live with activist daughter Ellen and her physician husband William Crum (1890).

In 1826, 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a teenaged house slave in Clinton, Georgia, gave birth to a baby girl who would become for a brief time the most famous black woman in the United States. Of the several hundred 19th-century narratives of escape from slavery, hers was to be probably the most dramatic. She would be proclaimed a heroine by such noted former slaves as William Wells Brown, America's first black man of letters, and Frederick Douglass, black orator and anti-slavery activist. She would be acclaimed also by Boston abolitionists Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison and Theodore Parker. The baby was named Ellen. Her young mother Maria was the light-skinned slave of Major James Smith, a lawyer, surveyor and one of the richest men in central Georgia. He was also Ellen's father.

Ellen Craft spent her first 11 years on the Smith plantation unkindly treated by her mistress because she bore so strong a resemblance to her father. When in 1837 her white half-sister Eliza was married to Dr. Robert Collins of Macon, Ellen was sent as a wedding gift to the Collins home. The gift was not unusual. In Virginia, the mulatto half-sister of Thomas Jefferson's bride had been sent to Monticello as a slave.

Craft later asserted that her life in the Collins' fine house was easier than the life of most slaves. A trusted lady's maid, she was not ill-treated by her mistress-sister. She was allowed her own quarters and taught to sew, a skill that would be of lifelong benefit to her. She was not taught to read and write, however; Georgia law expressly forbade anyone to teach reading and writing to a slave.

In Macon, a growing town of some 4,000 inhabitants, half white and free, half black and slave, Craft had somewhat greater freedom of movement than she would have had on a country plantation. Sunday was free, as was, with permission, the precious holiday week between Christmas and New Year. Macon had a number of slaves who were trained as skilled artisans. They were allowed to receive money for their work, though required to give a specified annual sum to their masters. Clever and hard-working slaves could thus accumulate some money of their own.

Among these Macon black men was a cabinet maker named William Craft. As a child and teenager, William had seen his parents and siblings sold separately to owners in different parts of Georgia. A deeply poignant memory was of the sale of his 14-year-old sister, taken away without a moment for goodby. He later recalled:

The thought of the harsh auctioneer not allowing me to bid my dear sister farewell sent red-hot indignation darting like lightning through every vein. It quenched my tears, and appeared to set my brain on fire, and made me crave for power to avenge our wrongs! But, alas! we were only slaves, and had no legal rights; consequently we were compelled to smother our wounded feelings, and crouch beneath the iron heel of despotism.

Ellen and William met in the slave society of Macon and fell in love. She was allowed to take him into her cabin, and, with their shared skills, they made a simple home. Yet as slaves they could not have a legal or religious marriage. Also, Ellen seems to have been resolved not to bear children who would by law belong to her slave master.

Illiterate but intelligent and high-spirited, the young couple dreamed of freedom. The dream was daring. A generation earlier desperate and adventurous black Georgians had made their way to the Seminole Indians in Florida and to Mexico. In mid-century, those escape routes were closed. Further north, slaves were escaping, aided by the abolitionists of the "underground railroad" who harbored them when they reached free territory.

Flight from Macon in the deep South would require a thousand-mile journey across slave states. The punishment for failure would be severe—jail, whipping, torture, perhaps even sale to a house of prostitution for Ellen. Wrote William:

The greatest excitement prevails at a "slave hunt." The slave holders and their hired ruffians appear to take more pleasure in this inhuman pursuit than English sportsmen do in chasing a fox or stag…. But the mere idea that we were held as chattels, and deprived of all legal rights—the thought that we could not call on the bones and sinews God gave us as our own: but above all, the fact that another man had the power to tear from our cradle the new-born babe and sell it in the shambles like a brute, and then scourge us if we dared to lift a finger to save it from such a fate, haunted us for years.

In December 1848, the Crafts conceived of an escape plan whose chance of success seemed to justify the risk. Ellen was so light-skinned that among strangers she could pass as white. A black man could not travel alone on public transportation in the South, but he could travel as the slave of a white man. The Crafts' plan was that Ellen should disguise herself as a young male in poor health traveling north to Philadelphia for medical treatment. Dark-skinned William would travel as her/his slave.

We could not understand by what right we were held as "chattels."

—William Craft

In a few hectic days the two gathered the clothing Ellen would need, William purchasing garments from several white merchants, Ellen making herself a pair of trousers. With much persuasion, they obtained from their masters passes that would allow them to be absent from home during the Christmas holiday.

Just how the young couple, illiterate and without travel experience, knew what their escape route should be remains something of a mystery. What is known is that, very early on the morning of December 21, the two left Ellen's cabin to go by different routes to the Macon railroad station. There a delicate looking young man in trousers, jacket, fashionable fringed cloak and stove-pipe hat, face half masked with green glasses and right arm in sling and poultice, bought two tickets for Savannah. When William took his place in the car for black passengers, he was frightened to see his master on the station platform but was able to hide until the train glided down the tracks.

Ellen, in her fine accommodations for whites only, had a greater fright. The passenger who seated himself beside her was a close friend of the Collins family and had eaten dinner at their home only the evening before. The young "slavemaster" pretended to be deaf and so escaped having to engage in the general conversation. For the first time in her life, Ellen, silently listening, came to realize from the lively talk of cotton, slaves, and abolitionists that abolitionists were not thieving monsters but white men and women who fought against the oppression of slavery.

That knowledge was of little assistance during the next perilous days. At Savannah, the Crafts went on board a steamer bound for Charleston, South Carolina. In Charleston, they registered at a leading hotel, then bought tickets for a steamer trip to Wilmington, North Carolina. From Wilmington, a train took them to Washington, D.C., where they transferred to the Baltimore line. At last, on Christmas morning, they reached free Philadelphia.

Each hour of the journey presented perils: first there was young "Mr. Johnson's" illiteracy (only the sling on her right arm and her assumed rheumatism hid Ellen's inability to sign her name). Then there were the inquisitive fellow passengers who invited "Mr. Johnson" to share drinks and cigars and wondered at "his" staying apart from them. Others warned against taking a bright and attentive slave to the North where "the boy" would surely attempt to run away. An aggressive woman traveler mistook William for one of her own slaves, of whom ten had taken flight since her husband's recent death, she declared indignantly. Officials at Baltimore, the last slave port, demanded extensive information from any white man taking a slave into the North.

Even in the City of Brotherly Love danger lurked. The Fugitive Slave Law of 1793, still in force, required that slaves captured in free states be returned South to their masters. Ellen, now truly ill after the sleepless nights of the journey, could not believe that any white person, even in Pennsylvania, could be kind to her. William was more trusting. Following the advice of a fellow train passenger, he hailed a cab and gave directions to a boarding house owned by an abolitionist. There, Ellen shed her disguise. Soon the couple were taken to the farm home of Quakers who sheltered them and at once set about teaching them to sign their names.

Word spread rapidly in the abolitionist community, and the Crafts had an unexpected and intriguing visitor, an escaped slave named William Wells Brown. Brown would become known as America's first black man of letters, a novelist, playwright, historian and songwriter. He was, in 1848, a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Clever dramatist and propagandist, he saw at once that the Crafts' unique story would draw large audiences, and he persuaded them to come to Massachusetts to lecture with him.

For some months, they criss-crossed the state of Massachusetts, appearing at numerous Anti-Slavery Society meetings. At first, it was William who spoke, but audiences, who had never before seen a woman fugitive, began to demand that Ellen tell her story. Women who spoke in public were generally derided—a mid-century Unitarian minister said of a noted suffragist orator that "tomorrow the hen will crow"—but Ellen's presentation was sympathetically received. Newspaper accounts were published as far away as Macon's Georgia Telegraph.

The Crafts' decision to reveal their true names was a bold move taken because they wanted to make sure that their story would be believed. Frederick Douglass, after escaping from his Maryland master, had at first hidden his real identity. Other fugitives had been equally secretive.

The Crafts' frank revelation did them no immediate harm. Leaving the lecture tour, they settled in Boston. They were welcomed by the orator Wendell Phillips, by the Unitarian and Congregationalist minister Theodore Parker and by others active in the anti-slavery cause, as well as by the community of free blacks. Yet their hope of leading a peaceful life using their own skills was not to be realized. Despite the ardor of the abolitionists, Bostonians did not hire black artisans. Ellen was able to work as a seamstress, but William found no job as a cabinet maker and was obliged to open a used-furniture store.

Graver difficulties awaited. In 1850, Congress passed a new Fugitive Slave Law that made more stringent the provisions of the original bill. The new legislation was intended to nullify the laws by which several free states, Massachusetts among them, had sought to contravene the longstanding federal statute.

Now, if any white man took an oath that a particular black man was his runaway slave, federal marshals and U.S. Commissioners were required to deliver the runaway to his master, real or reputed. "All good citizens were commanded to aid and assist them." Accused blacks could not speak for themselves or demand a jury trial, and anyone who helped them could be subject to imprisonment. Commissioners were paid twice as much for turning in a black man than for setting him free. During the next six years, more than 200 arrests of fugitives would be recorded, with other captures probably going unnoted.

In 1850, two slave hunters appeared in Boston, bent upon seizing William and Ellen. Some advisors suggested that, for their protection, the couple be arrested by the state of Massachusetts and charged with fornication. Arrest by the state would presumably place them beyond federal control. The Crafts did not accept the desperate proposal. They chose instead to be legally married by the fiery Theodore Parker, who gave William a Bible and a sword to protect both soul and body, then set out at once for Canada where they planned to sail for refuge in England. The winter journey to Halifax was difficult, and the fleeing couple met prejudice along the way. At last in late November, ill and weary, they boarded the S.S. Cambria as steerage passengers. In mid-December, they reached Liverpool.

The fugitives arrived in a country that had freed its own West Indian slaves and where abolitionists—though, in fact, only a few, Ellen was soon to decide—were actively supporting the anti-slavery movement in the United States. Prince Albert, Queen Victoria 's consort, was president of the English Anti-Slavery Society, and other notables were involved.

The Crafts joined their friend William Wells Brown, also now in England, on a lecture tour through Scotland. As a woman, Ellen was not allowed to speak, but she received much attention, seated on the platform before Brown's dramatic panorama depicting the life of American slaves. Ellen was shrewd enough to see that racial prejudice existed even in the British Isles and that abolitionists quarreled among themselves, often misunderstanding their American counterparts. Yet, at last, the Crafts could begin a peaceful and productive life.

They went to live in the village of Ockham some 20 miles from London. There they were enrolled in the Ockham School, a pioneering venture in industrial education founded by Ada Byron Lovelace (1815–1852), Lord Byron's daughter. In the mornings, the Crafts studied reading and writing, the skills so long denied them. In the afternoons, William taught carpentry while Ellen taught sewing. In 1852, Charles Estlin Phillips Craft was born, the first of the couple's five children.

At the end of their second Ockham year, the Crafts were offered positions as superintendent and matron of the industrial department of the school, but William had other ambitions. He would go to London and seek his fortune. His new friends were shocked. William was called "proud and secretive," also "suspicious and self-willed," although "really a good fellow" to whom his wife, despite her "natural good sense," yielded entirely. Two people who had undergone so many trials to gain their liberty were not to be deterred by the disapproval of well-meaning benefactors. In London, where Ellen tended their growing family, William embarked on a variety of uncertain business ventures. Eventually the sale of boots and raincoats made of the newly invented vulcanized rubber allowed the couple to buy their first home, in the London suburb of Hammersmith.

In 1860, William published Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom, an account of the escape story he and Ellen had told so often. Such slave narratives were popular reading. Some of the stories were written by white abolitionist authors, retelling the accounts given them by escaped slaves. Some were dictated by ex-slaves to white scribes. Some, like the autobiography of William Wells Brown, were written by the escaped slaves themselves with minimal help from white advisors. The sale of such narratives at Anti-Slavery Society meetings and elsewhere might earn for their black authors money to purchase the freedom of relatives still enslaved or to establish a new life in the North. William Craft sent a copy of Running a Thousand Miles to Massachusetts, asking that any revenues not used for the anti-slavery cause be sent to him for the education of his children.

Fighting an impulse to return to the United States and enlist in the Union army during the Civil War, William set out on a quite different adventure. He went to Dahomey on Africa's west coast to try to promote trade with England and to persuade the king of Dahomey to give up the slave trade and cease human sacrifice. William had scant luck with the king, although he was presented with three slave boys whom he brought back to England to free and educate. He had more luck with his trading venture, importing palm oil and other African products. In 1864, he undertook a second journey that would keep him in Africa for three years but bring him little profit. This time the king presented him with 60 slaves whom William felt honor bound to take from Dahomey and free.

Left in London, Ellen had the responsibility for her own children and for the education of the three young African boys. She brought her mother Maria to England. In addition, Ellen was busy with a variety of organizations set up to aid freed slaves and black children. The years in England had developed her self-confidence and a willingness to speak her mind in public, which made one American report that "Ellen is a kind of missionary among the grandees here."

But the United States was not forgotten. The news was heartening. Not only was slavery abolished and the Civil War ended but black men were holding offices of which they could not previously have dreamed. The 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the vote to all males regardless of color, was making its way through the state legislatures and would soon be a part of the federal constitution. Many suffragists had joined in the struggle to grant the ballot to black men, letting their own demands for women's rights take second place.

With what must have been high hopes, the Crafts returned to Massachusetts where they were welcomed as celebrities by the happily disbanding Anti-Slavery Society. In 1870, they went South, determined to help educate their people for freedom. But they found the Georgia they had known impoverished. Great plantations had been destroyed. Sherman's pillaging "march to the sea" had left devastation and bitter memories. A few blacks prospered, but many worked for their former masters in a kind of economic slavery. Others roamed the countryside, homeless and unemployed.

The Crafts themselves had resources quite unequal to their dreams, and fund raising for benevolent causes aiding freed blacks was growing increasingly difficult. William was accused of soliciting money for his personal use, and his libel suit against his attackers went badly, eating up time and money and ending in legal defeat. At Hickory Hill, the South Carolina home that they leased, crops were planted, and Ellen set up a small school, but after a single season the plantation was torched by the Ku Klux Klan.

In 1872, the Crafts leased a second plantation, Woodville, 19 miles south of Savannah. Woodville had once been a splendid property, producing rice and long-staple cotton. Abandoned at the approach of Sherman's army, both "big house" and slave cabins were badly deteriorated, and the fertile 1,800 acres were overgrown with weeds. For 18 years, the Crafts struggled at Woodville to develop a cooperative farming community and an industrial school modeled on Ockham School in England. William traveled to raise funds, played a part in Georgia's Republican politics, and continued to write and lecture. Ellen managed the plantation, gradually purchasing the necessary animals and attracting new families, some from white plantations that exacted harsher sharecropping terms.

Rural postwar Georgia offered little or no education to black children. Ellen, with the help of two of her grown sons and her young daughter, taught the children of Woodville and neighboring plantations the basics of reading and writing, geography, arithmetic, and history. She also taught black women, many of them former field hands, gentle child-raising practices, sewing, and other household skills. She established a Sunday School and welcomed itinerant preachers. Dogged by a crippled economy, as were their white neighbors, the Crafts nevertheless managed to maintain the only black-owned plantation in their county. There Ellen, though often overshadowed in public life by her husband, proved her skills as administrator and educator.

Sometime in 1890, the Crafts moved to South Carolina to live with their daughter, Ellen Craft Crum , a founder of the National Federation of Afro-American Women and wife of Dr. William Crum, a physician, Republican, and future U.S. Minister to Liberia.

Probably in 1891—the exact date is uncertain—Ellen Craft died in Charleston. As she had wished, she was buried at Woodville in Georgia soil. As the Boston Liberator had reported in 1849, Wendell Phillips declared that "we could look in vain through our Revolutionary history looking for an instance of courage and noble daring to equal that of the escape of W. and E.C.; and future historians and poets will tell this story as one of the most thrilling of the nation's annals." It would, in fact, be well over a century after Phillips' prediction when a biographer began to seek out the details of Ellen Craft's largely forgotten story.


Craft, William. Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. London, England: William Tweedie, 1860.

Sterling, Dorothy. Black Foremothers. Old Westbury, NY: The Feminist Press, 1979 (includes excellent bibliography).

The William and Ellen Craft Papers. Donated by Department of Black Community Education Research and Development. Black Studies Department, University of Pittsburgh, 1978.

suggested reading:

Child, Lydia Maria. The Freedmen's Book. Boston, 1865.

Siebert, William. The Underground Railroad from Slavery to Freedom. New York, 1898.

Weiss, John. Life and Correspondence of Theodore Parker. Boston, 1863.


Boston Public Library Anti-Slavery Collection contains letters from Ellen Craft, William Craft and others active in the anti-slavery movement; the National Archives in Washington, D.C. holds letters from William Craft.

Margery Evernden , Professor Emerita, English Department, University of Pittsburgh, and freelance writer