Runaway slaves!

Far from being contented and docile, American slaves dreamed of liberty, and thousands rebelled or ran away

American slaves were
tortured or killed if caught
trying to run away.

American slaves were always looking for opportunities to be free, as John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger document in their recent book, Runaway Slaves. The authors researched plantation records, newspapers, diaries, runaway slave notices and other original documents.

Slaves did all kinds of things to rebel on the plantations. “Slaves pulled down fences,” the authors explained, “sabotaged farm equipment, broke implements, damaged boats, vandalized wagons, ruined clothing, and committed various other destructive acts. They set fires to outbuildings, barns, and stables; mistreated horses, mules, cattle, and other livestock. They stole with impunity: sheep, hogs, cattle, poultry, money, watches, produce, liquor, tobacco, flour, cotton, indigo, corn, nearly anything that was not under lock and key – and they occasionally found the key.”

“Some blacks worked slowly, or indifferently, took unscheduled respites, performed careless or sloppy labor while planting, hoeing, and harvesting crops. Some chopped cotton so nonchalantly that they cut the young plants nearly into fodder, while others harvested rice or sugar with such indifference that they damaged the crop. Slaves feigned illness, hid in outbuildings, did not complete their assigned tasks, and talked at performing dangerous work.”

Countless thousands of slaves ran away. They left because they were treated badly, they were afraid of being sold to a new master, they wanted to see their spouses on other plantations, or they just wanted to be free.

Slaves rebelled against and ran away from black as well as white slaveholders. As Franklin and Schwendinger wrote, “The largest black slaveholder in the South, John Carruthers Stanly of North Carolina, faced a number of problems in the 1820s in dealing with a slave labor force on his three turpentine plantations in Craven County. With a total of 163 slaves, Stanly was a harsh, profit-minded taskmaster, and his field hands would run away. Stanley dealt with this through his two white overseers and with a spy network that included a few trusted slaves. Brister, his slave barber in New Bern, was responsible for relaying to his owner rumors of planned escapes…Nor did Stanly have any pangs of conscience about selling children away from their parents or holding free blacks in bondage.”

Franklin and Schweninger continued, “Free black slave owners who lived in urban areas – Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, Natchez, and New Orleans – also faced difficulties with their slave property. Free mulatto barber William Johnson of Natchez was not certain what had happened to his recently purchased slave, Walker, when he disappeared in 1835. He had either been stolen or had run away to Kentucky to rejoin his wife. When on 4 July 1833, authorities in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, jailed the twelve- or fourteen-year-old black boy named Isaac taken off the steamer Watchman, he admitted he was owned by a ‘free woman of color in New Orleans named Jane.’” So whether slaves were owned by whites or blacks, they just wanted to be free.

During the War of 1812, the British blockaded American ports, invaded Virginia and guaranteed the liberty of runaway slaves, and the number of runaway slaves soared. Slaveholders moved their slaves away from British forces, where they would have a harder time running away. “In South Carolina,” Franklin and Schweninger reported, “Elliott’s Cut became so filled with outlaws and runaway slaves during the war that the governor ordered out a detachment of militia to clear this ‘Negro thoroughfare.’”

Even crippled slaves tried to escape. A one-legged slave named Andrew ran away from his New Orleans owner. Other slaves ran away because of injuries they suffered, like broken bones, by abusive plantation overseers.

Although it has often been claimed that cruelty was rare, since slaveholders must have been concerned about protecting their “property,” in fact they were very concerned about discipline. Plantation overseers harshly punished anyone caught trying to run away. “On many plantations and farms,” Franklin and Schwendinger wrote, “slaves who attempted to escape or who openly defied white authority were routinely whipped and severely beaten. Sometimes, they were cut with knives, attacked by dogs, shot with buckshot…One overseer admitted that he tied a female slave’s hands, put her head down a steep hill, placed a log under her belly, and administered several hundred lashes. He ‘whipped her so brutally’ that the woman, who was pregnant, miscarried and ‘was seriously injured and disabled.’”

Runaway slaves were sometimes shot for allegedly frightening women and children. Alleged rape, of course, was punished by lynching.

Slaves who were fortunate to live in a border state could gain their freedom by crossing the border into a free state, but for most slaves running away was extraordinarily difficult because they usually had no money, they were illiterate, and there were very few places they could go. Slave hunters naturally checked to see if they went to stay with relatives, so these places weren’t safe. “Some runaways concealed themselves, used disguises, obtained free papers [saying an individual wasn’t a slave], traveled back roads, and hid out for months, but were still captured,” Franklin and Schwendinger reported.

In an effort to suppress the underground economy and make it more difficult for runaway slaves to survive, Southern states had laws forbidding slaves from buying or selling anything without permission of their owners. In Georgia, it was illegal for a slave to buy or sell “any quantity of amount whatever of cotton, tobacco, wheat, rye, oats, corn, rice or poultry.”

Prospects for runaways were best in towns and cities which had a free black population. Some of the urban blacks were slaves who were permitted to hire themselves out for pay (supposedly giving most of the money to their masters). “Hired slaves worked for businesses,” Franklin and Schwenginger wrote, “moved about, met other slaves, became acquainted with literate free blacks, and acquired some knowledge of the world beyond their locale. Some of them saved small amounts of money. When they did run, they often posed as free blacks and carried forged identification papers…In cities of the Lower South, self-hired slaves could at times gain their freedom by simply moving from one section of a city to another. In New Orleans, self-hired men and women often went to a different section of the city or a suburb and hired themselves out.”

Runaways always had to fear slave catchers. “Among this group,” reported Franklin and Schwendiner, “were men who specialized in tracking slaves. They sometimes owned or could secure dogs and were willing to expend substantial effort to find their prey. They were hired by planters who could not spare their overseers, plantation managers, or other whites on the plantation to go on the frequent expeditions that might last for days, sometimes weeks. Charging by the day and mile, they were often illiterate, nonslaveholding whites who could earn what was for them a sizeable amount – ten to fifty dollars – for bringing back a runaway.”

Another obstacle to liberty were laws restricting freedom of movement. “In Virginia,” according to Runaway Slaves, “the law required that emancipated slaves leave the state within twelve months after gaining their freedom. Since the neighboring state of North Carolina denied them permission to enter and other states restricted their movement and ability to earn a living, those freed in Virginia faced the dilemma of leaving the South entirely and abandoning loved ones or remaining in the state with the constant fear of reenslavement…The manumitted William remained free for nineteen years following emancipation by his owner, Charles Ewell, a planter on the eastern shore on Accomack County. In October 1838, he was found guilty of remaining in the state and sentenced to be sold. On New Year’s Day, 1839, he was auctioned off for $530 to a local farmer.”

Of all the slaves who ran away, very few made it far enough into the North or Canada where they would be safe. But as the most famous runaway Frederick Douglass reflected, “The wretchedness of slavery, and the blessedness of freedom, were perpetually before me. It was life and death with me.”


John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweninger, Runaway Slaves, Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

"Eyewitness testimony," in Jim Powell, The Triumph of Liberty (New York: Free Press, 2000).

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