Fugitive slaves in the United States

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Eastman Johnson's A Ride for Liberty - The Fugitive Slaves, 1863, Brooklyn Museum Brooklyn Museum - A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves - Eastman Johnson - overall.jpg
Eastman Johnson's A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves , 1863, Brooklyn Museum

In the United States, fugitive slaves or runaway slaves were terms used in the 18th and 19th century to describe enslaved people who fled slavery. The term also refers to the federal Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850. The use of "fugitive" and "runaway" infers that the enslaved person had committed a crime and inferred that slaveholder was the injured party. Enslaved people who fled servitude were in fact freedom seekers, which reflects African American's objectives to make liberty a reality. [1]


Generally, they tried to reach states or territories where slavery was banned, including Canada, or, until 1821, Spanish Florida. Most slave law tried to control slave travel by requiring them to carry official passes if traveling without a master with them.

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased penalties against enslaved people and those who aided them. Because of this, freedom seekers left the United States altogether, traveling to Canada or Mexico. Approximately 100,000 American slaves escaped to freedom. [2] [3] This is approximately 2.5% of the 3,953,752 slaves in the 1860 Census, about 2% if one includes the slaves who died before 1860.


Beginning in 1643, the slave laws were enacted in Colonial America, initially among the New England Confederation and then by several of the original Thirteen Colonies. In 1705, New York a measure meant to keep bondspeople from escaping to Canada was passed. [4]

An animation showing the free/slave status of U.S. states and territories, 1789-1861 (see separate yearly maps below). The American Civil War began in 1861. The 13th Amendment, effective December 1865, abolished slavery in the U.S. US Slave Free 1789-1861.gif
An animation showing the free/slave status of U.S. states and territories, 1789–1861 (see separate yearly maps below). The American Civil War began in 1861. The 13th Amendment, effective December 1865, abolished slavery in the U.S.

The states began to divide into free and slave states. While Maryland and Virginia passed laws to offer rewards to people who captured and returned enslaved to their slaveholders. Slavery was abolished in five states by the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. At that time New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island had become free states. [4]


Legislators from the Southern United States were concerned that free states would offer protection for enslaved people who fled slavery. [4] The United States Constitution, ratified in 1788, never uses the words "slave" or "slavery", but recognized its existence in the so-called fugitive slave clause (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3), [4] the three-fifths clause, [5] and the prohibition on prohibiting importation of "such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit" (Article I, Section 9). [6]

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 is the first of two federal laws that allowed for runaway enslaved people to be captured and returned to their slave holders. It was enacted in 1793 by the Congress to allow agents for the slaveholders and local governments, including free states, in tracking and capturing bondspeople. They were also able to penalize individuals with a $500 (equivalent to $9,675in 2020) fine if they assisted African Americans in their escape. [4] The slave hunters were required to get a court-approved affidavit to capture the enslaved person. Northerners thought that this meant that it was like legalized kidnapping and deplored the idea of slave hunters stalking through their state. It resulted in the creation of a network of safe houses, called the Underground Railroad. [4]

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850, was a law enacted by the Congress that declared that all fugitive slaves should be returned to their masters. Because the South agreed to have California enter as a free state, the North allowed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 to be created. The act was passed on September 18, 1850, and it was repealed on June 28, 1864. The act strengthened the authority of the federal government in the capturing of fugitive slaves. The act authorized federal marshals to require Northern citizen bystanders to aid in the capturing of runaways. Many Northerners perceived the legislation as a way in which the federal government overstepped its authority, due to the fact that the legislation could be used to force Northerners to act against their abolitionist beliefs. Many Northern states eventually passed "personal liberty laws", which prevented the kidnapping of alleged runaway slaves; however, in the court case known as Prigg v. Pennsylvania , the personal liberty laws were ruled unconstitutional on the grounds that the capturing of fugitive slaves was a federal matter in which states did not have the power to interfere. [7]

Many Northern citizens were outraged at the criminalization of actions by Underground Railroad operators and abolitionists who helped enslaved people escape slavery. It is considered one of the causes of the American Civil War (1861–1865). The Fugitive Acts of 1793 and 1850 were repealed on June 28, 1864 by an act of Congress. [4]

State laws

Many states tried to nullify the new slave act or prevent capture of escaped slaves by setting up new laws to protect their rights. One of the most notable is the Massachusetts Liberty Act. This Act was passed in order to keep escaped slaves from being returned to their masters through abduction by federal marshals or bounty hunters. [8] Wisconsin and Vermont also enacted legislation to bypass the federal law. Abolitionists became more involved in Underground Railroad operations. [4]


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Runaway slave poster Runaway slave.jpg
Runaway slave poster

When the slaves were found missing, masters were outraged, many of them believing that slavery was good to the slave, and if they ran away it was the work of Northern abolitionists "They are indeed happy, and if let alone would still remain so." [9] (A new name was invented for the supposed mental illness of a slave that made him or her want to run away: drapetomania.) Flyers would be put up, advertisements placed in newspapers, rewards offered, and posses send out to find him or her. Under the new Fugitive Slave Act they could now send federal marshals into the North to extract them. This new law also brought bounty hunters into the business of returning slaves to their masters; a former slave could be brought back into the South to be sold back into slavery, if he/she was without freedom papers. In 1851, there was a case of a black coffeehouse waiter who was kidnapped by federal marshals on behalf of John Debree, who claimed to be the man's enslaver. [10]


Fugitive slave Gordon during his 1863 medical examination in a Union camp. Gordon, scourged back, NPG, 1863.jpg
Fugitive slave Gordon during his 1863 medical examination in a Union camp.

Many escaped slaves upon return were to face harsh punishments such as amputation of limbs, whippings, branding, hobbling, and many other horrible acts. [11]

Individuals who aided fugitive slaves were charged and punished under this law. In the case of Ableman v. Booth , the latter was charged with aiding Glover's escape in Wisconsin by preventing his capture by federal marshals. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was unconstitutional, as it required states to violate their own laws in protecting slavery. Ableman v. Booth was appealed by the federal government to the US Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of the Act. [12]

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a network of black and white abolitionists between the late 18th century and the end of the Civil War who helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom. In 1786, George Washington complained that a Quaker tried to free one of his slaves. Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker from Philadelphia, and a group of people from North Carolina established a network of stations in their local area in the early 1800s. [13] Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), African Methodist Episcopal Church, [13] Baptists, Methodists and other religious sects helped in operating the Underground Railroad.

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Searchtool.svg Network to Freedom map, in and outside of the United States

In 1831, when Tice David was captured going into Ohio from Kentucky. His owner blamed an "Underground Railroad" who helped in escape. Eight years later, while being tortured for his escape, a man named Jim said that he was going north along the "underground railroad to Boston." [13] The network extended throughout the United States— including Spanish Florida, Indian Territory, and Western United States—and into Canada, and Mexico. In some cases, freedom seekers immigrated to Europe and the Caribbean islands. [14]

"Stations" were set up in private homes, churches, and schoolhouses in border states between slave and free states. Often, enslaved people had to make their way through southern slave states. [13] Slaves helped people who had runaway. There were signals, such as use of a light or two lamps, or the choice of songs sung on Sundays, to let escaping people know if it was safe to be in the area of if there were slave hunters nearby. If they stayed in a slave cabin, they would likely get food and learn good hiding places in the woods as they made their way north. [15]

John Brown had a secret room in his tannery to give escaped slaves places to stay on their way.[ citation needed ] People who maintained the stations provided food, clothing, shelter, and instructions about reaching the next "station".

The Underground Railroad was initially an escape route that would assist fugitive enslaved African Americans in arriving in the Northern states; however, the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, as well as other laws aiding the Southern states in the capturing of runaway slaves, resulted in the Underground Railroad being used as a mechanism to reach Canada. Canada was a safe haven for African-American slaves because Canada had already abolished slavery by 1783. Blacks in Canada were also provided equal protection under the law. [13] The well-known Underground Railroad "conductor" Harriet Tubman is said to have led approximately 300 slaves to Canada. [16]

Harriet Tubman

One of the most notable runaway slaves of American history and conductors of the Underground Railroad is Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland, around 1822, Tubman as a young adult escaped from her master's plantation in 1849. Between 1850 and 1860, she returned to the South numerous times to help parties of other slaves to freedom, guiding them through the lands she knew well. She has aided an estimated 300 persons to escape from slavery, including her parents. During this time, there were numerous bounties on her head throughout the South, payable to anyone who could capture her and bring her back to slavery. Many people called her the "Moses of her people." During the American Civil War, Harriet Tubman also worked as a spy and as a nurse at Port Royal, South Carolina.

Notable people

Notable people who gained or assisted others in gaining freedom via the Underground Railroad include:


Colonial America

United States

Civil War


See also

Related Research Articles

Underground Railroad Network for fugitive slaves in 19th-century U.S.

The Underground Railroad was a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century. It was used by enslaved African Americans primarily to escape into free states and Canada. The scheme was assisted by abolitionists and others sympathetic to the cause of the escapees. The enslaved who risked escape and those who aided them are also collectively referred to as the "Underground Railroad". Various other routes led to Mexico, where slavery had been abolished, and to islands in the Caribbean that were not part of the slave trade. An earlier escape route running south toward Florida, then a Spanish possession, existed from the late 17th century until approximately 1790. However, the network now generally known as the Underground Railroad was formed in the late 18th century. It ran north and grew steadily until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. One estimate suggests that, by 1850, 100,000 enslaved people had escaped via the network.

Harriet Tubman African-American abolitionist

Harriet Tubman was an American abolitionist and political activist. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped and subsequently made some 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, including family and friends, using the network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. During the American Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women's suffrage.

William Still American activist, abolitionist, historian, and businessman

William Still was an African-American abolitionist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad, businessman, writer, historian and civil rights activist. Before the American Civil War, Still was chairman of the Vigilance Committee of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. He directly aided fugitive slaves and also kept records of the people served in order to help families reunite.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 Act of the United States Congress

The Fugitive Slave Act or Fugitive Slave Law was passed by the United States Congress on September 18, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern interests in slavery and Northern Free-Soilers.

Fugitive Slave Act of 1793

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was an Act of the United States Congress to give effect to the Fugitive Slave Clause of the US Constitution, which was later superseded by the Thirteenth Amendment. The former guaranteed a right for a slaveholder to recover an escaped slave. The Act, "An Act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from the service of their masters," created the legal mechanism by which that could be accomplished.

Passmore Williamson

Passmore Williamson was an American abolitionist and businessman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a free state in the antebellum years. As secretary of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and a member of its Vigilance Committee, Williamson is best known for helping Jane Johnson and her two sons gain freedom from slavery on July 18, 1855.

Fugitive slave laws in the United States Laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 and 1850

The fugitive slave laws were laws passed by the United States Congress in 1793 and 1850 to provide for the return of enslaved people who escaped from one state into another state or territory. The idea of the fugitive slave law was derived from the Fugitive Slave Clause which is in the United States Constitution. It was thought that forcing states to deliver freedom seekers back to enslavement violated states' rights due to state sovereignty and was believed that seizing state property should not be left up to the states. The Fugitive Slave Clause states that freedom seekers "shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due", which abridged state rights because forcing people back into enslavement was a form of retrieving private property. The Compromise of 1850 entailed a series of laws that allowed enslavement in the new territories and forced officials in free states to give a hearing to slave-owners who enslaved people without a jury.

Ellen and William Craft American fugitive slaves and abolitionists

Ellen Craft (1826–1891) and William Craft were American fugitives who were born and enslaved in Macon, Georgia. They escaped to the North in December 1848 by traveling by train and steamboat, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. Ellen crossed the boundaries of race, class, gender, and physical ability by passing as a white male planter with William posing as her personal servant. Their daring escape was widely publicized, making them among the most famous of fugitives from slavery. Abolitionists featured them in public lectures to gain support in the struggle to end the institution.

Thomas Garrett

Thomas Garrett was an American abolitionist and leader in the Underground Railroad movement before the American Civil War. For his fight against slavery, he was subject to threats, harassment and assaults. A $10,000 bounty was established for his capture, He was arrested and convicted in the Hawkins case. Over his life, he helped more than 2,500 African Americans escape slavery.

Jermain Wesley Loguen

Rev. Jermain Wesley Loguen, born Jarm Logue, in slavery, was an African-American abolitionist and bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and an author of a slave narrative.

Oberlin–Wellington Rescue

The Oberlin–Wellington Rescue of 1858 in was a key event in the history of abolitionism in the United States. A cause celèbre and widely publicized, thanks in part to the new telegraph, it is one of the series of events leading up to Civil War.

Cyrus Gates Farmstead United States historic place

The Cyrus Gates Farmstead is located in Maine, New York. Cyrus Gates was a cartographer and map maker for New York State, as well as an abolitionist. The great granddaughter of Cyrus-Louise Gates-Gunsalus has stated that from 1848 until the end of slavery in the United States in 1865, the Cyrus Gates Farmstead was a station or stop on the Underground Railroad. Its owners, Cyrus and Arabella Gates, were outspoken abolitionists as well as active and vital members of their community. Historian Shirley L. Woodward states that through those years escaped slaves came through the Gates' station.

Slave catcher (United States)

A slave catcher was a person employed to track down and return escaped slaves to their enslavers. The first slave catchers in the Americas were active in European colonies in the West Indies during the sixteenth century. In colonial Virginia and Carolina, slave catchers were recruited by Southern planters beginning in the eighteenth century to return fugitive slaves; the concept quickly spread to the rest of the Thirteen Colonies. After the establishment of the United States, slave catchers continued to be employed in addition to being active in other countries which had not abolished slavery, such as Brazil. The activities of slave catchers from the American South became at the center of a major controversy in the lead up to the American Civil War; the Fugitive Slave Act required those living in the Northern United States to assist slave catchers. Slave catchers in the United States ceased to be active with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

Shadrach Minkins American slave

Shadrach Minkins was an African-American fugitive slave from Virginia who escaped in 1850 and reached Boston. He also used the pseudonyms Frederick Wilkins and Frederick Jenkins. He is known for being freed from a courtroom in Boston after being captured by United States marshals under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Members of the Boston Vigilance Committee freed and hid him, helping him get to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Minkins settled in Montreal, where he raised a family. Two men were prosecuted in Boston for helping free him, but they were acquitted by the jury.

Samuel Burris

Samuel D. Burris was a member of the Underground Railroad. He had a family, who he moved to Philadelphia for safety and traveled into Maryland and Delaware to guide freedom seekers north along the Underground Railroad to Pennsylvania.

Underground Railroad in Indiana

The Underground Railroad in Indiana was part of a larger, unofficial, and loosely-connected network of groups and individuals who aided and facilitated the escape of runaway slaves from the southern United States. The network in Indiana gradually evolved in the 1830s and 1840s, reached its peak during the 1850s, and continued until slavery was abolished throughout the United States at the end of the American Civil War in 1865. It is not known how many fugitive slaves escaped through Indiana on their journey to Michigan and Canada. An unknown number of Indiana's abolitionists, anti-slavery advocates, and people of color, as well as Quakers and other religious groups illegally operated stations along the network. Some of the network's operatives have been identified, including Levi Coffin, the best-known of Indiana's Underground Railroad leaders. In addition to shelter, network agents provided food, guidance, and, in some cases, transportation to aid the runaways.

The Tilly Escape

The Tilly Escape occurred in October 1856 when an enslaved woman, Tilly, was led to safety by Harriet Tubman. Historians who have studied Tubman consider it: "one of her most complicated and clever escape attempts." It was a risky trip because Tubman and Tilly would not have been able to travel directly from Baltimore to Philadelphia without proof that they were free women. In addition, local slave traders would have recognized strangers. Tubman sought to evade capture by going south, before heading north, and using different modes of transportation over water and land.

Black Canadians in Ontario

Black Canadians migrated north in the 18th and 19th centuries from the United States, many of them through the Underground Railroad, into Southwestern Ontario, Toronto, and Owen Sound. Black Canadians fought in the War of 1812 and Rebellions of 1837–1838 for the British. Some returned to the United States during the American Civil War or during the Reconstruction era.

The Dover Eight refers to a group of eight blacks who escaped their slaveholders of the Bucktown, Maryland area around March 8, 1857. They made it north to Dover, Delaware where they were turned in by Thomas Otwell and lured to the Dover jail with the intention of getting the $3,000 reward for the eight men. The Dover Eight escaped the jail and made it to Canada. They were helped along the way by a number of people on the Underground Railroad, except for Thomas Otwell.

William Brinkley was a conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped more than 100 people achieve freedom by traveling through the "notoriously dangerous" town of Camden north to or towards Wilmington, which was also very dangerous for runaway enslaved people. Some of his key rescues include The Tilly Escape of 1856, the Dover Eight in the spring of 1857, and the rescue of 28 people, more than half of which were children, from Dorchester County, Maryland. He had a number of pathways that he would take to various destinations, aided by his brother Nathaniel and Abraham Gibbs, other conductors on the railroad.


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