Fugitive Slaves in Maryland
African Americans used the act of running away as part of a broader system of resisting the physical and psychological manipulation of slavery. In most instances, slaves left plantations or work sites without permission but with the intention of returning in order to visit relatives or friends on nearby plantations, or to protest a harsh punishment. At other times, though, runaways attempted to escape slavery permanently. Those who ran hoping never to return understood that they risked their lives. Fugitive slaves plagued slaveholders from the first years of slavery in Maryland until its last days.
Although laws requiring slavery for black women and their descendents did not appear until the Assembly's 1664 session enacted "An act concerning Negroes and other slaves," Maryland's first lawmakers did recognize that some people were made to work against their will and that such people frequently ran away. Along with the earliest legal references to slavery in Maryland, therefore, were attempts to control runaway servants and slaves through legislation.
If the American Revolution (1776-83) had an immediate impact on slave escapes it could only be found in the greater opportunities to escape created by the chaos of war. Revolutionary-era newspapers contained many notices for runaways. Although they spoke of "liberty," few slaveholding Maryland patriots saw any contradiction in denying it to their slaves. Indeed, John Hanson, the Marylander who served as president of the Continental Congress, spent much of the last years of the war pursuing Ned Barnes, an enslaved man who had fled Hanson's plantation.
A variety of factors moved fugitive slaves to attempt a permanent break: persistent brutality by an owner or overseer, relocation away from immediate family or relatives, a reduction in privileges such the ability of hired slaves to keep small portions of fees, a worsening of work conditions, and numerous other individual concerns. After 1800 the most common motivation was probably the threat of sale to the Deep South. Many blacks risked flight rather undergo the perils of the domestic slave trade.
Most runaways were young men fleeing alone. Young women without children ran more often than those with children. The months of April through October saw the most escape attempts, but no single week of the year emboldened more runaways than the days between Christmas Eve and New Year's Day because owners were distracted and supervision was relaxed. Though some made clandestine use of railway and water vessels, most runaways fled on foot. While at large and on the move, runaways stayed close to roads, rivers, and other normal routes, and traveled mainly at night. Many made use of family and friends on nearby plantations, or in towns and cities. Fugitives also generally helped themselves to provisions (food, clothing, sometimes money) before leaving, but when these ran out, they foraged in the woods, relied on the kindness of people encountered along the way, and even pilfered barns and storehouses to survive. Many fugitives even found short-term employment from whomever might be willing to hire a person of undetermined status with no questions asked.
Maryland fugitives generally tried to reach urban environments (Washington, DC, Frederick, Baltimore, Philadelphia) where they might disappear into free black populations. As northern states abolished slavery during the early 1800s, however, Maryland runaways and others sought to reach free territory, including, by the 1830s, Canada, where they believed the threat of recapture was much less.
Although creativity, perseverance, and good fortune were traits of successful runaways, those pursuing fugitives were not without advantages. For example, because of indifference and unreliable support in recapturing runaways early on, by the late seventeenth century Maryland laws mandated that sheriffs, constables, and even citizens cooperate in recapturing fugitives. Federal support came first in the late eighteenth century and was greatly strengthened in 1850 by the Fugitive Slave Law. Any black person found without direct white supervision was treated as a runaway unless she or he could provide a legitimate reason. Advertisements alerted the public to fugitives' names and physical characteristics, when and from where they had run, whom they knew in the area, and most importantly, what the owner would pay for their return. Even in the northern free states, local marshals taking fugitives before a magistrate received a greater reward ($10) if an apprehended black turned out to be an escaped slave than if he or she was free and could prove it ($5). Marshals who failed to arrest a fugitive slave, or permitted one to escape, were fined $1,000.
Most runaway attempts were unsuccessful, and the price of failure could be terrible for runaways and for those who attempted to help them. Punishments for free blacks and whites convicted of aiding runaways could be severe. Even unwitting ship captains and train conductors faced fines or jail for not knowing who traveled with them. Every town and hamlet in the state had a jail, and many had slave pens designated specifically to house runaways. Once captured, most slaves were returned to their legal owners, who might administer a variety of punishments. Many runaways, especially repeat offenders, were sold at auction to South-bound slave dealers, never to see their families again.
The Abolitionist Movement of the mid-nineteenth century, with its "underground railroad," focused the nation's attention on slavery to a much greater degree than earlier attempts to end the institution had done. Before the national debate gave way to sectional conflict and civil war, fugitives from slavery found both more allies and more obstacles in their path. Wartime measures such as the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia (April 1862) and the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863), did not directly affect Maryland blacks, but they did encourage slaves to flee, creating what scholar W. E. B. DuBois called a "general strike" of the enslaved workers. By May 1863, the federal government had also begun to recruit black soldiers, the United States Colored Troops (USCT), for the Union army. Recruiters promised freedom to slaves who enlisted, further encouraging flight.
In the two centuries of slavery in Maryland, many runaways managed to remain at large and might be said to have succeeded in becoming free. Yet freedom for runaways seldom brought peace, as fugitives always lived in fear of recapture and return to slavery.
The National Park Service's Underground Railroad Theme Study (1998) estimated the number of successful escapes for the nation for the years 1790-1860 at 100,000, or about 1,500 per year.
Written by David Taft Terry for the Maryland Online Encyclopedia..