Slave patrol

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This article is about patrols to capture runaway slaves. For information on naval operations to enforce laws against bringing slaves from Africa to the Americas, see African Slave Trade Patrol.
A woodcut from the abolitionist Anti-Slavery Almanac (1839) depicts the capture of a fugitive slave by a slave patrol.

Slave patrols (called patrollers, pattyrollers or paddy rollers by the slaves) were organized groups of white men who monitored and enforced discipline upon black slaves in the antebellum U.S. southern states. Slave patrols main function was to police the slaves on the plantations. They also formed river patrols to prevent escape by boat. Patrols of small numbers would also hunt down fugitive slaves and used summary punishment against escapees, maiming or killing them. Slave patrols were first established in South Carolina in 1704, and the idea spread throughout the southern states.


Slave patrols began with colonial attempts to regulate slavery through laws that limited enslaved people's abilities and required all settlers to assist in enforcing the slave codes. As the population of black slaves increased, so did the fear and threat of foreign invasion which further increased the institution of slave patrols. Encountered slaves without passes were expected to be returned to their owners, and sometimes punished. As this approach became more ineffective, slave patrols were formally established. Slave patrols consisted of white men from all social classes. This caused trouble for both enslaved and free black people as it restricted their movement. Black people were subjected to question, searches, and other forms of harassment. Oftentimes, whippings and beatings for non-compliant and even compliant slaves could be expected. More than floggings and beatings, however, slaves feared the threat of being placed on the auction block. If caught by patrols and returned to their masters, being placed on the auction block was an option for masters who no longer wanted to deal with their non-compliant slaves.

Slave patrols "apprehended runaways, monitored the rigid pass requirements for blacks traversing the countryside, broke up large gatherings and assemblies of blacks, visited and searched slave quarters randomly, inflicted impromptu punishments, and as occasion arose, suppressed insurrections."[1] During these times, slaves were often neglected and mistreated despite having permission to travel.

Slave owners feared slave gatherings would allow them to trade or steal goods and the potential for a rebellion. South Carolina and Virginia selected patrols from state militias. Slave patrols were often equipped with guns and whips and would exert brutal and racially motivated control. At times Blacks developed many methods of challenging slave patrolling, occasionally fighting back violently. The American Civil War developed more opportunities for resistance against slave patrols and made it easier for enslaved people to escape.

Fugitive Slave Laws[edit]

The Fugitive Slave Laws helped enforce the necessity for slave patrols in order to abide by the law. Although initially these laws were created to keep tensions low between the north and the south, it caused the physical formation of slave patrols.[2] During the Civil War, the theory of Contraband prevented the return of Southern slaves who reached Union-held territory. This helped limit the role of slave patrols/catchers and changed the war. Another form of help for slaves was the Underground Railroad which aided slaves in their escape to northern states. The use and physical formation of slave patrols came to its end in 1865 when the Civil War ended. This end however is linked to post civil war groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, which continued to terrorize and threaten the black community.[1]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b Hadden, Sally E. (2001). Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas. Harvard University Press. 
  2. ^ Campbell, Stanley W. (1970). The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Salve Law, 1850–1860. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.