Almost from the beginning of slavery in North America, southern masters struggled to cope with the constant problem of runaway slaves. It is impossible to know how many slaves actually ran away because no exact count was ever made. Some historians contend that up to 50,000 blacks ran away each year of slavery, especially from 1830 to 1860. However, most of these runaways were not attempting to escape slavery by fleeing to free states. Rather, they ran for a variety of reasons, and the vast majorities either returned of their own accord or were captured.
The most common motivation for slaves to run was their fear of severe punishments by whipping or worse treatment by cruel slaveholders and overseers. Many runaways were actually truants who ran off to visit wives or husbands, family, and friends on neighboring plantations before returning to face the wrath of their masters. Others were habitual runaways who left every chance they got to escape, usually because someone had insulted them or affronted their dignity. Again, many of these runaways returned once the slaveholder had calmed down or sent out the word through other slaves that no punishment would occur if the fugitive returned quickly.
Countless slaves also ran away after being sold in the domestic slave trade. These enslaved men and women tried to get back to their families or to connect with any family members who had been sold away from them. Very few ever succeeded in finding their families. Most gave up and returned to the plantations of their owners. Yet, some stayed away permanently by joining up with other runaways in so-called maroon colonies, trying to go to northern free states, or just surviving as best they could on their own, frequently trying to get lost among the slaves and free blacks in southern towns and cities like Charleston and New Orleans.
Although it is impossible to have an accurate profile of the typical runaway slave, historians investigating fugitive advertisements in southern newspapers agree that, except in urban centers like New Orleans and Charleston, 80 to 90 percent of the runaways were males. Very few children were among the runaways, perhaps only around two percent. The male runaways were also young, single men in the main, usually in their mid-twenties and represented every type of occupation in slavery: field hands, skilled artisans, and house servants. Usually, the runaways made their attempted escapes in the summer months. Having fled, these young, unmarried men had to elude slave patrols and bounty hunters as well as local informants. Every town in the South erected special jails to house captured runaways, and every newspaper carried numerous ads identifying fugitives in great detail as to their physical descriptions, such as color, size, gender, age, and physical markings, as well as their attitude. The ads also indicated where the fugitive was likely headed and sometimes their motives for running away. Newspapers also ran ads listing those slaves recently captured and confined in jail. If the slave's owner did not take up a captured slave within a short period of time, the runaway would be sold in a public auction.
Among the thousands of runaways were those who tried to escape from slavery by fleeing to free states, Canada, Mexico, or the British West Indies. No one knows how many slaves escaped. Historians suggest that at least 1,000 may have made it to freedom each year in the 1840s and 1850s. Although we can't be sure, analysis of slave runaway ads in newspapers suggest that fewer than ten percent of runaways were headed north in the opinions of their owners. Sample studies indicate that around 75 percent of these fugitives were never captured. Most of these fugitives fled from border states, such as Maryland, Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Others used the Mississippi River to escape by going down river in the 1820s, prior to the steamboat, and up river after 1830. Still others escaped by boarding coastal trade ships bound north or to the West Indies. Frederick Douglass was one of the most famous of these fugitives.
Beginning in the 1850s, southern slaveholders, as well as northern abolitionists, referred to the escape routes used by runaways as part of a system of well-traveled trails and safe houses along the way to freedom. Because the railroad captured the imagination of Americans as the technological wonder of the age, these loosely organized and haphazard escape routes and the support system runaways used became known as the Underground Railroad.
After a while, the symbolic meaning of this network of safe houses, contact points, and operators was more important than its reality. Southern slaveholders used the term Underground Railroad to shore up their defenses and demand a stringently enforced Fugitive Slave Law, which became part of the Compromise of 1850. Northern abolitionists also boasted of its success in freeing slaves and demonstrating to the world the undying thirst for freedom and courage that its passengers and operatives exhibited. Anti-slavery societies and groups frequently presented runaways and the free blacks who assisted them at meetings and events where they detailed the horrors of slavery for enraptured, angry audiences.
The Underground Railroad operated principally in the Upper South and the North, and most of the fugitives who made it to the North escaped on their own. Once outside of the South, however, hundreds--perhaps even thousands--of individuals assisted the runaways to avoid capture and to make it to Canada. This network was managed, operated, and principally funded by African Americans rather than by whites, although whites also did participate in small numbers. Working-class blacks provided clothing, food, and shelter, while wealthier northern blacks offered legal help, money, publicity, and important contacts with anti-slavery societies and helpful whites. Once the escaped blacks reached the North, they found safe houses and assistance in evading any pursuing slave catchers. This system of assistance operated most effectively in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. Fugitive slaves found networks of sanctuary among black communities that essentially constituted an underground network of committees, stations, and information. This network was broad reaching, and its members used undercover agents in hotels, train stations, and ports. Black workers in hotels frequented by slave catchers kept track, for example, of their movements and even used the telegram to warn others about their comings and goings. Perhaps, the best-organized network operated in Washington D.C., where its members helped rescue slaves from Virginia and Maryland, sending them on to Philadelphia or New York with forged certificates of freedom for safe transport to Canada.
Perhaps, the most famous underground agent was Harriet Ross Tubman. She escaped slavery in 1849 from Maryland, running away upon learning that her master planned to sell her out of State, thus separating her from her husband. In freedom, Tubman lived for two years in Philadelphia before sneaking back to the South in the hope of persuading her husband to join her, only to find that he had remarried. Her daring trip back to Maryland convinced her that she could help others escape to freedom.
For the next decade, Tubman returned 19 times to the South, rescuing nearly 300 enslaved men, women, and children. She often dressed as a feeble old woman or as an impoverished and mentally demented man. Among the people she rescued were her sister and her sister's two children, her brother and his wife, and her own parents, with whom she settled in Auburn, New York. A fearless fighter, Tubman helped the white abolitionist John Brown plan his raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. However, she was prevented from actually participating in the raid by a last minute illness. Faced with a $40,000 bounty for her capture, Tubman defied all odds again and again, making her last trip south in 1860.
Among those who broke for freedom in the American South were African Americans who lived for years with groups of runaway slaves in independent, outlaw communities. These maroon communities existed everywhere in the Americas and, especially, in Jamaican, Surinam, St. Domingue, and Brazil. (The term maroon derives from the Spanish word, Cimarron, and it originally referred to runaway animals that had wandered off farms and plantations.) In the American South, these communities--perhaps around 50 in number--were small, mobile, and largely male groups of fugitives who sustained themselves by raiding local plantations and producing their own crops that were hidden away in swamps and marshes.
Several factors worked against the existence, however, of large numbers of maroon communities in the South: few impenetrable wilderness or mountain areas existed to offer refugee and sanctuary; Native Americans often worked for whites as slave catchers; and a disproportionately large white population was determined to eliminate any independent black activity in their midst. Equally important, maroon communities in South and Central America and the West Indies were almost always composed of recent arrivals from Africa who tended to runaway in groups. Conversely, American-born slaves who ran away tended to act as individuals rather than as groups, possibly reflecting their lack of cultural identity with Africa by the 1830s.
The Spanish borderlands in Florida and Louisiana and the Dismal Swamp area in Virginia and North Carolina proved to be the most hospitable areas for maroon communities of the sort found elsewhere in the Americas. The largest of these communities existed in the Dismal Swamp, and it may have numbered 2,000 escaped slaves. In contesting the British for control of West Florida in the late colonial era, the Spanish offered freedom to escaped English slaves, some who then formed maroon communities in association with Native Americans, especially the Seminole Indians. In an area just north of St. Augustine, a haven for runaway slaves known as Gracia Real De Santa Teresa de Mose thrived and was officially sanctioned by the Spanish from around 1738 to 1765. In the 19th century, escaped slaves lived with and fought alongside the Seminole Indians in the Florida swamps, actually forcing the United States to recognize their independence. After the Second and Third Seminole Wars ended in the 1850s, the maroons of Florida were allowed to move with the Seminoles to Oklahoma rather than be returned to the white slaveholders from whom they had escaped.
By 1850, it was commonly believed that a systematic and well-organized "Underground Railroad" assisted fugitive slaves throughout the South to escape slavery. Most of these runaways, perhaps one or two thousand each year, escaped from slave states close to the North or from coastal regions where they fled by hiding on ships or boats. Few received any help from abolitionists until they made it into a free state. Once there, safe houses and other African Americans often helped the fugitives from slavery to make it safely to northern cities and even to Canada. Some fugitives did escape from the Deep South, but the idea of an established Underground Railroad was more myth than fact. Abolitionists often dramatized these escapes in anti-slavery newspapers, and slaveholders who wanted strong fugitive slave laws enforced by the federal government also spread stories about an underground railroad with stations all over the South.
Civil War and Slavery Books (last updated September 2009)