Temporary and Local Flight Slaves had several different possible objectives when fleeing their owners. Most commonly, they fled only temporarily and stayed in their local area, remaining around friends and relatives who might secretly feed or otherwise help them when the master or mistress was not in sight. Because the master controlled the slave's food supply, the runaway might find foraging and sleeping in the woods uncomfortable or impossible. When he briefly fled Covey's farm once, Douglass did not go far, because the master controlled his food supply: "I spent the day mostly in the woods, having the alternative before me,--to go home and whipped to death, or stay in the woods and be starved to death." James H. Hammond's Silver Bluff plantation in South Carolina had fifty-three slaves escape between 1831 and 1853, but none permanently gained their freedom. Two-thirds were caught, while one-third came in on their own, after a temporary absence that averaged forty-nine days. The manager of a very large plantation in the Deep South told Olmsted that the runaways hid in the swamp, and came into the cabins at night to get food. "They seldom remain away more than a fortnight, and when they come in they are whipped." Sometimes, even when a slave had been gone a long time, they still had not gone far. Barrow's slave Ginney Jerry had run away, and was caught six months and three days after absconding--right in Barrow's neighborhood. Before capture, John Little spent two years running in the woods near his old master's place where his mother lived, after leaving his new master's place about ten miles away. Sometimes slaves fled to other local slaveholders for temporary sanctuary against an enraged master or overseer threatening punishment for some reason. The former might then intercede for the slave, if they believed the slaves in question, and ask for lighter or no punishment to be inflicted. Northrup did this once, by fleeing to his old kind master, William Ford, after fighting with his present cruel master, John Tibault, who sought to kill him with a hatchet and an axe. Ford even got the latter to sell Northrup, after criticizing Tibault for his shameful treatment of him in threatening slaves with such weapons, saying if this kind of treatment became common other slaves would be made discontent and start running away.602 The desires to stay close to family and friends who could still help them, and be in a familiar area where they knew their surroundings, were other good reasons why many slaves did not go far when they ran away.
"Negotiating" a Return Local runaways demonstrated they had some bargaining power with their owners. Because of the expense and time it might take to capture slaves forcibly and bring them in, masters did have some self-interest in being able to get them to return on their own. Freedman Cato of Alabama remembered that if a runaway came in on his own, he was punished considerably less than if his owner ran him down with the dogs in a search party. Another master sent out a runaway's brother to threaten him with the dogs if he did not come in, because he knew exactly where the runaway was in an attempt conceal his scent. Sure enough, he came in--but the dogs were still unleashed against him anyway and tore him up badly, after being told he did not have to move with his master if he beat them to a big black-gum tree. This was a bad deal, to say the least! Another master, after fighting with a slave named Isaac Williams who then ran away, offered him a deal: If he came in, he would not whip him. He lived up to this deal--but then would whip his wife, telling her to make "Isaac a good boy"! Sometimes they would agree to return in exchange for a reduced amount of punishment, or none at all, using other slaves as their intermediaries. The master who owned Williams later on used him to relay a message through a runaway's sister to tell him he would not whip him if he came in on his own. But after the slave came in, he broke his promise, and whipped him anyway. One Alabama master faithfully followed a similar deal, and after conveying a message through other slaves, his runaways returned after being told they would not be whipped if they came back on their own. After spending a summer in the woods, John Holmes returned, because his master told all the neighbors that he would not be whipped if he came in. And what was his owner's motive for displaying leniency?: "I was a great hand to work and made a great deal of money for our folks." In some cases, the initiative came from the other side, and one slave might negotiate with the master for the runaway's return. This strategy was particularly risky since the collaborator or even the whole slave force might be punished for such an act.603 Negotiations between the legally almost all-powerful master and his human chattels after running away show the de facto realities of slave management were very different from the theory found in the slave codes or pro-slavery polemics. Even an individual slave, upon occasion, had some bargaining power with his master, depending on the latter's disposition and willingness to pursue him at all costs.
How Runaways Could Resist Capture Even when a slave was being pursued by a party of white men and their dogs, slaves still had ways to avoid or resist capture. William Street, once a slave in Tennessee, was pursued by two white men and their three bloodhounds. He, being well armed with a pistol, knife, and big stick, shot one of the dogs dead. His owner decided to hand him over to the slave catcher because he had killed a bloodhound who he would not sell for $500, commenting: "He was worth more than him, d--n him." Still more spectacular was one slave in Louisiana who, upon capture and being placed in a boat, grabbed and attacked one of his two captors with a hatchet, seriously wounding him, then threw them both overboard. Later, these same two slave catchers, after getting some dogs, cornered him near the edge of the Mississippi river on a large raft. Armed with a pistol and club, he knocked the dogs into the water, threatened death to his pursuers, and had to be shot at three times before he went down. Defiantly chosing to drown rather than be captured, he sank into the water still waving his club. This "bondsman" certainly demonstrated he would rather be dead than enslaved! Slaves also presented serious potential problems while on the run, because they could attack whites or their property. In Mississippi, Olmsted's roommate awoke him by trying to barricade his room, explaining, "You don't know . . . there may be runaways around," before pulling out two loaded pistols to check their caps! Planter Barrow himself lost a cow and nearly a hog to runaways owned by one of his relatives. Slaves also could seek aid from other slaves or free blacks who would hide them in their homes. This was always risky, because informers lurked among the black population, always willing to sell out a fellow black for the white man's money and esteem. In a case that demonstrates the adage that truth can be stranger than fiction, Harriet Jacobs was hidden for seven years in a crawl space above the shed added to her mother's house in order to evade her master's sexual advances. Another slavewoman, after hitting her mistress and being threatened with the stocks and the lash, was able to live in a nearby cave secretly for seven years until the time freedom came. Her husband fixed up the cave to have a stove, beds, tables, and a ceiling of wood. She even gave birth to three children, who then lived there as well. Her husband routinely brought food to her. She and her children were effectively maroons, staying in the slave states while beyond the control of their owners. Some escaped slaves were less lucky, and were turned in by other blacks. John Little's hiding location was betrayed by a free born black man for a mere ten dollars offered by some poor whites, after his master offered a reward of fifty dollars for his capture, dead or alive. Barrow once had his slave Dennis pretend to be a runaway in order to capture one owned by another planter. For such reasons, runaways were hesitant to trust anyone else they encountered, whites above all, but blacks as well. Even after capture, runaways could still cause problems for their owners. Barrow confessed that he placed too much reliance on one captured runaway to tell where other runaways were: "Caught one woman this morning & very foolish endeavored to make her direct us to the Camp & fooled the day off to no purpose, Brought her to my house tried the cold water on her Ladyship [i.e., ducked her]."604 The difficulties that slaveholders faced in recapturing local runaways show that although they may not have gained permanent freedom in most cases except perhaps as maroons, they still were a major headache for them and other whites. These acts of resistance may have been often individual and rather unthinking, and not organized and collective, but still they kept the white regime busy hunting for escapees and taming those they captured, demonstrating to them that many slaves were hardly content in bondage. Local runaways were significant because they were much more numerous than those who permanently escaped to the North or (in some cases) Mexico, and presented the white regime with notable economic losses and labor discipline problems, and encouraged them to restrain the harshness of their treatment of their bondsmen in order to discourage further flights.605 Maroons: Settlements of Escaped Slaves Some American slaves fled to uninhabited areas distant from where white settlers were, and set up their own settlements to farm the land, although this was never as common an option for slaves in the United States as in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America. Maroon slave settlements in the South never grew to the size and strength of some of those elsewhere in the Americas, but they could still pose significant problems for masters trying to hang onto their human property. They provided runaways a place of refuge, such as where Polk's slave Jack fled to in Arkansas, where no law officer could easily take any of them back without a large armed force backing him up. Upon occasion, they also launched raids against plantations and farms nearby and attempted to free still more slaves, sometimes killing the masters in the process. From 1705 to 1769 Virginia legalized the killing of any "outlying slaves" without getting the colony's legal permission first, and explicitly authorized their castration as well. North Carolina had a similar process of outlawing particularly destructive runaways which encouraged slave catchers to kill them, especially when their owners offered rewards that paid more for them dead than alive because the colony would reimburse their losses.606 During the Seminole War maroons played their largest role in the history of American slavery. While exaggerating, Major General Thomas Sidney Jesup, the leader of American troops during the most critical stage of the Seminole War, was still onto an essential truth when he said in late 1836: "This . . . is a negro, not an Indian war." Although the Seminole War was nominally a struggle between Indians and whites, it was more a conflict between the slaves the Indians had bought and runaways who fought along side the Indians against the United States Army. During this war at times possibly 250 to 400 or 500 blacks fought for the Indian cause in some actions, making this one of America's most notable instances of organized slave resistance against the white regime. Its main cause, since the Seminoles did not live in the main path for white settlers heading west, was the white slaveholders' opposition to their slaves running away to live among the Seminole. These escapees made those remaining behind especially discontent because they lived a more relaxed lifestyle than those in plantation agriculture. Most of the blacks living among the Indians were slaves in name only even when purchased by them, and most lived prosperously in their own villages, whom they only burdened by demanding some tribute from them at harvest and butchering times. In 1841, as the war was winding down, the War Department effectively decided to allow many of the blacks to go west with the Seminoles despite many were the legally claimable property of white Americans. Justifying this policy, Lieutenant Colonel W.J. Worth said that "if . . . the swamps of Florida become . . . the resort of runaways, their intelligence, so superior to the Indian, might impose upon the general government a contest quadruplicate in time and treasure than now being waged." Ending this war and clearing out Florida presently of all blacks not controlled by whites and most of the Seminoles themselves in order to prevent future runaways was deemed a good trade-off in exchange for allowing most of those blacks already among the Seminole to go free. Maroon settlements were vulnerable to the advancing frontier and determined armed white parties clearing them out. The vast Dismal Swamp in Virginia and North Carolina largely ceased to be a refuge for permanent runaways by the time Olmsted wrote in the 1850s.607 So while maroon runaway slaves played a part in the overall picture of resistance against the slaveholding elite, they caused far fewer problems in the United States than in Brazil and other Latin American and Caribbean areas, where governments sometimes waged full-scale wars with large maroon settlements, and even negotiated treaties that recognized their autonomy.608 The Most Successful Runaways The most successful, as well as the most unlikely, runaways were those who secured permanent freedom in Canada, Mexico, or the North, assuming they were not recaptured in the latter and hauled back into bondage.609 Flight to free territory was generally only a practical option for slaves living in the Border States, or those so light complexioned they could pass for being white, and so could flee greater distances without suspicion or detection.610 The exact numbers of those successfully escaping permanently are humanly unknowable, as quantifying any illegal and necessarily secret activity is, but some basic parameters and estimates are available. A lower limit on the number arriving in Canada is given by the estimate of 30,000 blacks who were living in Upper Canada made by the First Report of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada in 1852. While most of the adult blacks included in this estimate were likely successful fugitives, not many of the children counted could have been, because they mainly were single men between the ages of sixteen and thirty-five who normally fled by themselves or sometimes with one other slave.611 Another estimate of those permanently escaping is about a thousand a year in the 1850s, with the number falling from 1,011 in 1850 to 803 in 1860 according to census reports. Judge Lumpkin of the State Supreme Court of Georgia claimed in 1855 60,000 slaves totaled up all those lost to the North. Mississippi Governor Quitman once declared 100,000 slaves had fled the South during the years 1810 to 1850. This round number, doubtlessly declared rhetorically, is much higher than the census data of Northern blacks who said they were born in the South. Nevertheless, in his study on the Underground Railroad, William Siebert believes this figure is reasonably accurate, maintaining that 40,000 slaves escaped through Ohio alone. However, these figures constitute only a small proportion of the slaves who lived and died in bondage in the antebellum South over the decades before 1861. In 1860, the South had almost four million slaves, and about a quarter million free blacks.612 When considering the low average life expectancies and the turnover of generations even in the fifty years before the Civil War, only a very small percentage of those born in bondage escaped it by illegal means. For most masters, especially those in the Deep South, successful runaways (and the Underground Railroad's aid to them) were largely irritants and theoretical hazards as opposed to serious practical threats, outside of cases where during war armies hostile to their interests roamed nearby.
As discussed above (p. 174), family connections always served as a major restraint on escape attempts, as one owner of two plantations in Mississippi commented, although he knew this was hardly fail-safe:
Only way [to restrain runaways] is, to have young ones there [Texas] and keep their mothers here [Mississippi], eh? Negroes have such attachments, you know. Don't you think that would fix 'em, eh? No? No, I suppose not. If they got mad at anything, they'd forget their mothers, eh?
Despite these ties, many bondsmen still willingly ran away because the desire for freedom beat so strongly in their hearts, although those who left wives, husbands, or children behind suffered mixed feelings on their choice. These refugees from slavery also indirectly aided those who remained behind, by helping restrain the ill conduct and harsh treatment of calculating masters and mistresses in the Border States because the chances of successful escapes from these areas were much higher than from the Deep South. Making the bondsmen more content in their chains generally reduced their willingness to flee, since family separations caused by sales and punishment frequently provoked runaway attempts. Hence, the effects of their decisions, even if normally made on their own, had positive collective effects upon their fellow black brothers and sisters left behind in chains.613
"Strikes" Conducted by Groups of Slaves Running Away One underrated but significant type of collective protest by slaves were virtual "strikes," in which they withdrew their labor from their owners in an organized manner by running away temporarily in large groups. While uncommon, these protests occurred enough in some areas to present problems for slaveholders who imposed a particularly harsh overseer over them or demanded too much work from them. One Florida overseer, after trying "pushing them up a Little" found his work force retaliated by suddenly deserting him. A small Louisiana planter had a similar experience, with all but two of his slaves disappearing in protest against how much work he imposed. John Holmes described how, when the overseer and mistress's son were going to whip everyone for not helping the former when he fought with a slave woman, all the young able men besides one fled into the woods after a domestic servant tipped off those in the quarters of their white family's plans. "They sent off the overseer to get us home." While the overseer did come back to stick out the year, he chose not to whip any of the men because they might run away. More generally, as described above (p. 261-62) about the infrapolitics of quota setting in task system areas, if the master increased the imposed daily work excessively he risked "a general stampede to the 'swamp.'" One respected Deep South overseer told Olmsted when he first arrived, many of the slaves ran away often, but after getting used to his ways said they liked him better than all the prior ones. Still, he occasionally had problems with groups running away, which he dealt with thus: "If many of them went off, or if they stayed out long, he would make the rest of the force work Sundays, or deprive them of some of their usual privileges until the runaways returned. The negroes on the plantation could always bring them in if they chose to do so" because if they stopped feeding them, they had to come in. Ex-slave Annie Coley recalled a much more confrontational "strike" which yielded success also. After one cruel overseer beat a woman and made her miscarry late in her pregnancy in the field, all the slave women attacked him and threatened to burn him on a brush pile. After their men told them to let him go, the master said he was going to whip all the women for their act. But he soon changed his mind: "All de womens hid in the woods dat evenin' [to avoid the whipping], en Boss never say no more about it. He sent the over seer away en never did hev no more overseers." One Georgia overseer over a small plantation, after whipping some of its slaves, complained that six of them ran off--"every man but Jack." He suspected they were hiding out in the woods until they could meet their owner or his uncle, which illustrates once again the principle that the slaves sought redress of their grievances by playing upon the divisions among the whites who ruled them.614 These "strikes" often seemed to actually wrest some concessions from the slaveholders or overseers affected, or at least they avoided inspiring harsh crack-downs. It amounts to a type of temporary and local running away done en masse, since the slaves disappeared into the swamps or woods, and did not hang around in the quarters or some other place where they could be easily located and whipped for their recalcitrance. Perhaps due to this lack of direct confrontation, in contrast to the picket lines of modern unions when on strike, and because it often took advantage of the overseer/slaveholder fault line, masters at least sometimes granted concessions to their "striking" bondsmen, thinking that the protests by such a large group at once proved they had legitimate complaints.
Small Scale Open Confrontations and Violence Small scale show-downs between slaves and masters and their overseers in which one or more slaves fought their owners and supervisors, or attempted to hit or kill them, were another form of resistance. These struggles and crimes do not constitute organized resistance, in the sense of a slave rebellion, but still created worries and fears among the white regime's members, because their own lives could suddenly and unexpectedly be at risk when (say) seeking apply the lash to some slave who refused to be whipped. Similar to what provoked many runaways, the flash point of resistance often was a slave refusing to be punished by his owner, and latter insisting on doing it anyway in order to maintain his authority and prove he would enforce discipline on other slaves as well. The classic incident here, but he was hardly alone, was Frederick Douglass's struggle with Edward Covey, to whom his master had rented him out for breaking. Covey tried to whip him for having run away, but after losing to Douglass, he never tried to whip him again. Afterwards, so long as he remained a slave, "I did not hesitate to let it be known of me, that the white man who expected to succeed in whipping, must also succeed in killing me." One master, insistent on applying the lash to a slave who refused to be whipped, found one tactic to be useful, as escaped slave Mrs. James Seward from Maryland described: "My master could not manage to whip my sister when she was strong. He waited until she was confined, and the second week after her confinement he said, 'Now I can handle you, now that you are weak.'" This attempt to whip still backfired, because she ran away, and got sick after running through water. Francis Henderson, who worked on a plantation in Washington, D.C., fought his master and his son when they tried to whip him. After throwing the latter against the side of the barn, he ran into the woods. "From this time I was not punished. I think my master became afraid of me; when he punished the children, I would go and stand by, and look at him,--he was afraid, and would stop." John Holmes was an especially recalcitrant slave, and always refused to be whipped, causing showdowns and fights, getting shot one time and nearly shot another, whenever his owners or overseers sought to punish him. On his plantation, there were two other men and one woman who refused to be whipped besides him. The overseer got into a vicious fight with the slavewoman, who after hitting her with a stick for not working fast enough, struck back with a rake, and exchanged blows and wrestled on the ground. With the aid of the mistress's son and son-in-law, they whipped her terribly, but it backfired: "She behaved worse afterwards." One morning, Holmes was late getting into the field. After his overseer said, "I'll make all the hands catch you, and I'll whip you," he replied: "There ain't a man the sun shines upon, that shall whip me." By his account, his boast was achieved. One slave struck the man who had hired him from his master, and after the stakes for whipping him spread-eagle were pounded into the ground, his brother said to him, "Charles, before I'd be whipped for that Frenchman, I'd cut my throat." He did this, beat off five men who followed him into the river, and after coming out of the water, was not whipped--and his throat healed in a few weeks.615 Such spectacular incidents when whippings were opposed were hardly usual, as were slaves who refused to be whipped, but they presented enough danger that overseers and masters in some areas were taken to carrying loaded pistols and/or knives when confrontation did come. Because of the bad example these slaves set for others from the masters' viewpoint in preserving labor discipline, their defiance constituted a challenge to the maintenance of order, which either required employing extreme measures whenever they would be confronted, as with the slavewoman Holmes knew, or else they would turn a blind eye to their refusals to be whipped, calculating, like Covey, further showdowns were not worth the risks involved.