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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Theme: FreedomTheme: EnslavementTheme: CommunityTheme: IdentityTheme: Emancipation
Theme: Enslavement

Runaway slave advertisement
- Virginia runaway ads, 1745-1775 (PDF)
- A runaway's explanation, William Chase letter, 1827 (PDF)
- Escape to Canada, Littles' narratives, 1856, excerpts (PDF)
- Escape to Canada, W. W. Brown narrative, 1847, excerpts (PDF)
- On running away, selections from WPA narratives, 1930s (PDF)

"The hour was now come," recalls James Pennington of his escape from slavery, "and the man must act and be free, or remain a slave for ever . . . if I did not meet the crisis that day, I should be self-doomed." Self-doomed . . . yet many slaves knew well that a failed escape risked doom. "No use running from bad to worse," advised Martin Jackson's father, adding that "the War wasn't going to last forever [and] our forever was going to be spent living among the Southerners, after they got licked." Deciding to run away was a complicated decision with many factors to weigh. Here we look at the individual's decision to run away (or not) and the direct consequences of escape. In the next Theme, COMMUNITY, we will consider the organized aspects of escape including the Underground Railroad and fugitive-aid organizations.

  1. Virginia runaway ads. Runaway advertisements may seem an unlikely source for insight into runaways' motives and plans, for they are usually boilerplate listings of names, physical descriptions, and rewards offered. In many, however, such as these thirty-five Virginia ads in the 1700s, the slaveholders reveal much about the runaways' intentions and potential success, either directly ("he is so ingenious a fellow, that he can turn his hand to anything") or indirectly ("he has been much whipped, which his Back will show"). What common traits do you find among the fugitives? When do several slaves escape together? Included are the escape and capture notices of two fugitives: why might their attempts have failed?

  2. A runaway's explanation. Before fleeing north from Maryland in 1827, Anthony Chase wrote an explanatory letter to Jeremiah Hoffman, to whom he had been hired out by his owner. "[W]hat can a man do," he laments, "who has his hands bound and his feet fettered?" He vows to recompense his owner's widow (who had refused to free Chase as promised in her husband's will) in order "to prove to her and to [the] world that I don't mean to be dishonest." A testament to the heart-rending decision to run away, especially with Chase's insistent P.S. exonerating his wife of involvement, this letter was archived with the papers of Hoffman's father in the Maryland Historical Society. We do not know what happened to Anthony Chase.

  3. Escape to Canada: The Littles' narratives. John Little and his wife (whose first name we do not know) were married in Tennessee when enslaved on the same plantation. They escaped in 1841, crossing the Ohio River, trekking across Illinois to reach Chicago, traveling by train to Detroit, and then crossing into Canada, where they settled in the backcountry and began farming. Fourteen years later in 1855, a Boston journalist and abolitionist, Benjamin Drew, recorded their narratives of escape, privation, and near-capture. "I was hunted like a wolf in the mountains," Little recounted, "all the way to Canada." Here we present excerpts from John Little's narrative with sidebars from his wife's shorter but equally revealing narrative.

  4. Escape to Canada: William Wells Brown narrative. "I would dream at night that I was in Canada," remembers William Wells Brown of his enslaved childhood, "and on waking in the morning, weep to find myself so sadly mistaken." Born in Kentucky in 1814, Brown twice attempted to escape but was captured both times. At age twenty he succeeded by fleeing from a steamboat on the Ohio River and traveling across Ohio to Cleveland, as we read in these excerpts from his 1847 narrative. What led to his "intense agony" the night before his escape? Why did he not fear death during his flight? How did he feel during his first days as a free man? How did he choose his name as a free man?

  5. On running away. Finally, we read the accounts of seventeen formerly enslaved people interviewed in the 1930s through the Federal Writers' Project, a New Deal agency under the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Six recount their own escapes from slavery; others describe helping runaways, witnessing punishments, planning their own escapes, reuniting with a fugitive parent, and seeing long-hidden fugitives "come out from the woods from all directions" when the Civil War ended. "This is what I know, not what somebody else say," we are assured by Margrett Nickerson, interviewed over seventy years after emancipation, "I seen this myself."

Compare these readings with the narratives of two Underground Railroad "conductors" in Theme III: COMMUNITY, #7: Fugitives, and with fugitives' letters to their former slaveholders in Theme IV: IDENTITY, #2, Slave to Free. (31 pages.)

Discussion questions
  1. What factors complicated a person's decision to flee slavery?
  2. When and how did they take family members with them?
  3. Why did some fugitives return willingly to their plantations?
  4. Enumerate the instances of courage, quick-thinking, aid, and luck that influenced the successful escapes.
  5. What factors led to failed escapes?
  6. Why did some enslaved persons choose not to attempt an escape (or a second escape)?
  7. How do successful runaway slaves describe their lives in freedom (before 1865)? What challenges remained?
  8. What acts (and attitudes) of slave resistance are represented in the runaway advertisements?
  9. In the ads, how do the slaveholders exhibit a veiled respect for their runaway slaves?
  10. What attitudes toward slavery in general emanate from the slaveholders' ads for runaways?
  11. Why does Anthony Chase take the unusual step of writing a letter to explain his escape?
  12. Why does he insist that his wife is innocent in his escape?
  13. Why do you think Jeremiah Hoffman send money to Chase's owner to compensate her for loss of property?
  14. Compare the narratives of John Little and his wife, especially on the details of their escape and on their lives as farmers in Canada. What does each emphasize? Why?
  15. Compare the Littles' narratives with that of William Wells Brown, both published before the Civil War. Analyze the similarities and differences in their escapes, the audience for their published memories, and their attitudes toward life as free people.
  16. Why is the selection of a new name so important to William Wells Brown after his escape? Why does he choose "Wells Brown"? Why does he keep "William"?
  17. Compare the nineteenth- and twentieth-century narratives. Consider tone, audience, time span between enslavement and narrative, attitude toward their former slaveholders, and their judgment of their own lives as former slaves and later freemen.
  18. Determine the range of attitudes toward running away voiced by the African Americans interviewed in the 1930s. What might explain this range of attitudes, which does not appear in the nineteenth-century narratives?
  19. Select of pair of runaway slaves below, and compose an imaginary dialogue between them. Choose a theme for the dialogue (goals for escape, backup plan if caught, message to the twenty-first century, etc.). Include the given quotes:
  • - Bob, a 1767 runaway: "He has been gone for eight years, a part of which time he lived in Charleston, South Carolina. He can read and write; and, as he is a very artful fellow, will probably forge a pass."
  • - "A new Negro man," escaped in 1768: "As he was only landed in the country three days before his [escape], he could therefore have no particular route to prosecute [follow], nor can he speak English sufficient to give any account of himself."

  • - Anthony Chase, author of the 1827 letter of explanation: "I know that you will be astonished and suprised when you becom acquainted with the unexspected course that I am now about to take, a step that I never had the most distant Idea of takeing."
  • - Thomas Cole, WPA interviewee, escaped during the Civil War: "[I] makes up my mind he [overseer] won't git a chance [to whip me], 'cause I's gwine run off de first chance I gits. I didn't know how to git out of dere, but I's gwine north where dere ain't no slaveowners."

  • - John Little, escaped with his wife to Canada in 1841: "My wife worked right along with me: I did not realize it then, for we were raised slaves, the women accustomed to work, and undoubtedly the same spirit comes with us here: I didn't realize it then but now I see that she was a brave woman."
  • - Mrs. John Little: "I got to be quite hardy . . . by the time I got to Canada, I could handle an axe, or hoe, or anything. I felt proud to be able to do it to help get cleared up, so that we could have a home and plenty to live on. . . . I have lost two children by death; one little girl is all that is spared to me. She is but four years old. I intend to have her well educated, if the Lord lets us."

  • - Ambrose Douglass, WPA interviewee, captured after each escape attempt: "I was a young man and didn't see why I should be anybody's slave. I'd run away every chance I got. Sometimes they near killed me, but mostly they just sold me. I guess I was pretty husky, at that. They never did get their money's worth out of me, though."
  • - Martin Jackson, WPA interviewee, considered escape: "Even with my good treatment, I spent most of my time planning and thinking of running away, I could have done it easy, but my old father used to say, 'No use running from bad to worse.'"

  • - William Wells Brown, escaped to Canada in 1824: "During the last night that I served in slavery, I did not close my eyes a single moment. When not thinking of the future, my mind dwelt on the past."
  • - John W. Fields, WPA interviewee, escaped to Indiana in 1864: "Our ignorance was the greatest hold the South had on us. We knew we could run away, but what then?"

  • - John Little, escaped to Canada in 1841, interviewed in 1855: "If there is a man in the free States who says the colored people cannot take care of themselves, I want him to come here and see John Little."
  • - Caroline Hammond, WPA interviewee, escaped to Pennsylvania ca. 1855, interviewed in 1938: "On my next birthday . . . I will be 95. . . I am happy with all the comforts of a poor person not dependant on anyone else for tomorrow."

Framing Questions
  •  How did enslavement in America affect Africans and their descendants?
  •  How did enslaved peoples maintain selfhood in the slave-master relationship?
  •  What aspects of slavery did freed men and women emphasize when relating their experiences?
  •  How did a person respond to being the slave of another?
  •  What impact did slavery have on white people?

Runaway advertisements:  6
Chase letter:  2
Stills' narratives:  9
W. W. Brown narrative:  7
WPA narratives:  7
TOTAL 31 pages
Supplemental Sites
Runaway Journeys, in In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library

The Geography of Slavery in Virginia: 4,000 advertisements for runaway slaves and servants, from Tom Costa and the University of Virginia

Follow the Trail to Freedom in the 1850s, interactive map, from the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Beneath the Underground: The Flight to Freedom and Communities in Antebellum Maryland, from the Maryland State Archives

William Still, Underground Rail Road: A Record of Facts, Authentic Narratives, Letters, etc., 1872, full text in digital images, from Maryland State Archives

North American Slave Narratives (18th-19th century), Introduction, Dr. William A. Andrews, UNC-Chapel Hill

Slave narratives, 19th-century, full text in Documenting the American South (UNC-Chapel Hill Library) WPA Slave Narratives, 1930s, full text as digital images, Library of Congress An Introduction to the WPA Slave Narratives, Norman A. Yetman (Library of Congress)

"Should the Slave Narrative Collection Be Used?," by Norman A. Yetman (Library of Congress)

Guidelines for Interviewers in Federal Writers' Project (WPA) on conducting and recording interviews with former slaves, 1937 (PDF)

General Resources in African American History & Literature, 1500-1865

Image: Runaway slave advertisement, no date, no publication. Reproduced by permission of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, #485464.

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

1. An Enslaved Person's Life   2. Sale   3. Plantation   4. Driver
  5. Labor   6. Master/Slave   7. Resistance   8. Runaways

TOOLBOX: The Making of African American Identity: Volume I, 1500-1865
Freedom | Enslavement | Community | Identity | Emancipation

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