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. Such people are also called freedom seekers to avoid implying that the enslaved person had committed a crime and that the slaveholder was the injured party.
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.
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.
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.
Legislators from the Southern United States were concerned that free states would offer protection for enslaved people who fled slavery. 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), the three-fifths clause, 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).
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 $9,675 in 2020) fine if they assisted African Americans in their escape. 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.
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.
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.
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. Wisconsin and Vermont also enacted legislation to bypass the federal law. Abolitionists became more involved in Underground Railroad operations.
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." (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.
Many escaped slaves upon return were to face harsh punishments such as amputation of limbs, whippings, branding, hobbling, and many other horrible acts.
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.
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. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baptists, Methodists and other religious sects helped in operating the Underground Railroad.
|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." 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.
"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. Slaves helped people who had run away. 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.
John Brown had a secret room in his tannery to give escaped slaves places to stay on their way. 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. The well-known Underground Railroad "conductor" Harriet Tubman is said to have led approximately 300 slaves to Canada.
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 hundreds of people to escape from slavery, including her parents. Tubman followed north-south flowing rivers and the north star to make her way north. She preferred to guide enslaved people on Saturdays, since newspapers were not published on Sundays and gave her a one day head-start before runaway advertisements would be published. She preferred the winters, because the nights were longer, when it was the safest to travel. Tubman wore disguises. She sang songs, in different tempos to indicate whether is was safe for freedom seekers to come out of hiding. She sang Go Down Moses and Bound For the Promised Land. Many people called her the "Moses of her people." During the American Civil War, Harriet Tubman also worked as a spy, cook, and as a nurse.
Notable people who gained or assisted others in gaining freedom via the Underground Railroad include: