Ellen and William Craft

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Ellen and William Craft, fugitive slaves and abolitionists

Ellen Craft (1826–1891) and William Craft (September 25, 1824 – January 29, 1900)[1] were slaves from Macon, Georgia in the United States who escaped to the North in December 1848 by traveling openly by train and steamboat, arriving in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. She passed as a white male planter and he as her personal servant. Their daring escape was widely publicized, making them among the most famous of fugitive slaves. Abolitionists featured them in public lectures to gain support in the struggle to end the institution.

As the light-skinned quadroon daughter of a mulatto slave and her white master, Ellen Craft used her appearance to pass as a white man, dressed in male clothing, during their escape.

As prominent fugitives, they were threatened by slave catchers in Boston after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, so the Crafts emigrated to England. They lived there for nearly two decades and raised five children. The Crafts lectured publicly about their escape. In 1860 they published a written account, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; Or, The Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. One of the most compelling of the many slave narratives published before the American Civil War, their book reached wide audiences in Great Britain and the United States. After their return to the US in 1868, the Crafts opened an agricultural school for freedmen's children in Georgia. They worked at the school and its farm until 1890. Their account was reprinted in the United States in 1999, with both the Crafts credited as authors, and it is available online at Project Gutenberg and the University of Virginia.

Early life[edit]

Ellen Craft was born in 1826 in Clinton, Georgia, to Maria, a mixed-race slave, and her wealthy planter master, Major James Smith. At least three-quarters European by ancestry, Ellen was very fair-skinned and resembled her white half-siblings, who were her master's legitimate children. Smith's wife gave the 11-year-old slave Ellen as a wedding gift to her daughter Eliza Cromwell Smith to get the girl out of the household and remove the evidence of her husband's infidelity.[2]

After Eliza Smith married Dr. Robert Collins, she took Ellen with her to live in the city of Macon where they made their home.[2][3] Ellen grew up as a house servant to Eliza, which gave her privileged access to information about the area.

William was born in Macon, where he met his future wife at the age of 16 when his first master sold him to settle gambling debts. Before he was sold, William witnessed his 14-year-old sister and each of his parents being separated by sales to different owners. William's new master apprenticed him as a carpenter and allowed him to work for fees, taking most of his earnings.[4]

Marriage and family[edit]

At the age of 20, Ellen married William Craft, in whom her master Collins held a half interest. Craft saved money from being hired out in town as a carpenter.[2] Not wanting to rear a family in slavery, during the Christmas season of 1848 the couple planned an escape.[5]

Eventually they had five children together, who were mostly born and reared during their nearly two decades living in England. The Crafts went there after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed, because, as a prominent fugitive slave couple, they were in danger of being captured in Boston by bounty hunters. Their children were Charles Estlin Phillips (1852–1938), William Ivens (1855–1926), Brougham H. (1857–1920), Ellen A. Craft (1863–1917), and Alfred G. (1871–1939), all born in England. When the Crafts returned to the United States after the American Civil War, three of their children came with them.[5]

Ellen Craft dressed as a man to escape from slavery.


Ellen planned to take advantage of her appearance to pass as white while the pair traveled by train and boat to the North; she dressed as a man since at the time it was not customary for a white woman to travel alone, let alone with a slave.[6] She also pretended illness to limit conversation, for she was uneducated. William was to act as her slave and personal servant. During that time period, domestic slaves frequently accompanied their masters during travel, so the Crafts did not expect to be questioned. To their surprise, they were detained but only temporarily. An officer had demanded proof that William was indeed Ellen's property.[7] They were finally let on the train due to sympathy from passengers and the bus conductor.[8] Their escape is known as the most ingenious plot in fugitive slave history, even more ingenious than "Henry Box Brown".[9]

During their escape they traveled on first-class trains, stayed in the best hotels, and Ellen dined one evening with a steamboat captain. Ellen cut her hair and bought appropriate clothes to pass as a young man, traveling in jacket and trousers. William used his earnings as a cabinet-maker to buy clothes for Ellen to appear as a white slave holder. They carefully selected clothes that white male slave holders would wear. Ellen's wardrobe included a top hat, cravat, jacket, tartan, and a tassel, all of which signified slave holder status. William fixed her hair to add to her manly appearance. Ellen also practiced the correct gestures and behavior.[9] She wore her right arm in a sling to hide the fact that she did not know how to write. They traveled to nearby Macon for a train to Savannah. Although the Crafts had several close calls along the way and neither could read nor write, they were successful in evading detection. On December 21, they boarded a steamship for Philadelphia, in the free state of Pennsylvania, where they arrived early on the morning of Christmas Day.[10]

Their innovation was in escaping as a pair. Historians have noted other slave women who posed as men to escape, such as Clarissa Davis of Virginia, who dressed as a man and took a New England-bound ship to freedom; Mary Millburn, who also sailed as a male passenger; and Maria Weems from the District of Columbia. As a young woman of fifteen, she dressed as a man and escaped.[11]

Soon after the Crafts' arrival in the North, abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison and William Wells Brown encouraged them to recount their escape in public lectures to abolitionist circles of New England. They moved to the well-established free black community on the north side of Beacon Hill in Boston,[5] where they were married in a Christian ceremony. Ellen Craft posed in her escape clothes for a photograph (the basis for the engraving included with this article). It was widely distributed by abolitionists as part of their campaign against slavery. Like her actions, her image as a man challenged viewers' assumptions about the "fixity of gender, race, normalcy and class."[2]

During the next two years, the Crafts made numerous public appearances to recount their escape and speak against slavery. Because society generally disapproved at the time of women speaking to public audiences of mixed gender, Ellen typically stood on the stage while William told their story. An article of April 27, 1849 in the abolitionist paper The Liberator, however, reported her speaking to an audience of 800–900 people in Newburyport, Massachusetts.[12] Audiences were intensely curious about the young woman who had been so bold in escape. In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, which increased penalties for aiding fugitive slaves, and required residents and law enforcement of free states to cooperate in capturing and returning such slaves to their owners. The act provided for a reward to officers, and simplified the process by which people might be certified as slaves, requiring little documentation from slave catchers. Commissioners appointed to hear such cases were paid more for ruling that a person was a slave, than not.

A month after the new law was effective, Collins sent two bounty hunters to Boston to retrieve the Crafts. Willis H. Hughes and John Knight eagerly traveled north from Macon intending to capture William and Ellen Craft; upon arriving to Boston they were met with resistance by both white and black Bostonians. Abolitionists in Boston had formed the biracial Boston Vigilance Committee to resist the new Slave Bill; its members protected the Crafts by moving them around various "safe houses" (such as the Tappan-Philbrick house in the nearby town of Brookline[13]) until they could leave the country. The two bounty hunters finally gave up and returned to the south. Collins even appealed to the President of the United States, Millard Fillmore, asking him to intervene so he could regain his property. The President agreed that the Crafts should be returned to their owners in the South, and authorized the use of military force if necessary to take them.[14]

The Crafts and many other fugitive slaves were no longer safe in the North. That year the couple moved to Liverpool, England, a major port.[15]

Flight and life in Great Britain[edit]

Bounty hunters and slave catchers sought fees for finding fugitive slaves. William Craft described the new law as "an enactment too infamous to have been thought of or tolerated by any people in the world except the unprincipled and tyrannical Yankees".[16] Aided by their supporters, the Crafts decided to escape to England. They traveled from Portland, Maine overland to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where they boarded the Cambria, bound for Liverpool. As William later recounted in their memoir, "It was not until we stepped ashore at Liverpool that we were free from every slavish fear". They were aided in England by a group of prominent abolitionists, including Harriet Martineau. She arranged for their intensive schooling at the village school in Ockham, Surrey.

Having learned to read and write, in 1852, Ellen Craft published the following, which was widely circulated in the antislavery press in both Great Britain and the US. The anti-abolition press had suggested the Crafts regretted their flight to England. She said:

So I write these few lines merely to say that the statement is entirely unfounded, for I have never had the slightest inclination whatever of returning to bondage; and God forbid that I should ever be so false to liberty as to prefer slavery in its stead. In fact, since my escape from slavery, I have gotten much better in every respect than I could have possibly anticipated. Though, had it been to the contrary, my feelings in regard to this would have been just the same, for I had much rather starve in England, a free woman, than be a slave for the best man that ever breathed upon the American continent.

Anti-Slavery Advocate, December 1852[17]

The Crafts spent 19 years in England, where they had five children together. Ellen participated in reform organizations such as the London Emancipation Committee, the Women's Suffrage Organization, and the British and Foreign Freedmen's Society.[2] They earned speaking fees by public lectures about slavery in the US and their escape. William Craft set up a business again, but they still struggled financially. For most of their time in England, the Craft family lived in Hammersmith.[18] After the end of the Civil War and emancipation of slaves, Ellen located her mother Maria in Georgia; she paid for her passage to England, so they were reunited.[2]

Return to the United States[edit]

In 1868, after the American Civil War and passage of constitutional amendments granting emancipation, citizenship and rights to freedmen, the Crafts returned with three of their children to the United States. They raised funds from supporters, and in 1870 they bought 1800 acres of land in Georgia near Savannah in Bryan County. There they founded the Woodville Co-operative Farm School in 1873 for the education and employment of freedmen. In 1876, William Craft was charged with misuse of funds, and he lost a libel case in 1878 in which he tried to clear his name. The school closed soon after. Although the Crafts tried to keep the farm running, dropping cotton prices and post-Reconstruction era violence contributed to its failure. Whites discriminated against freedmen while working to re-establish white supremacy in politics and economics. By 1876, white Democrats regained control of the state governments in the South.[5]

In 1890, the Crafts moved to Charleston, South Carolina to live with their daughter Ellen, who was married to Dr. William D. Crum. He was appointed Collector of the Port of Charleston by President Theodore Roosevelt. The elder Ellen Craft died in 1891, and her widower William January 29, 1900.[5]

Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom[edit]

Their book provides a unique view of race, gender, and class in the 19th century. It offers examples of racial passing, cross-dressing, and middle-class "performance" in a society in which each of these boundaries was thought to be distinct and stable.[17] While originally published with only William's name as author, twentieth-century and more recent scholarship has re-evaluated Ellen's likely contribution, noting the inclusion of material about Sally Miller and other women slaves. Reprints since the 1990s have listed both the Crafts as authors.[5]

Their escape, and particularly Ellen's disguise, which played on so many layers of appearance and identity, showed the interlocking nature of race, gender, and class. Ellen had to "perform" successfully in all three arenas simultaneously for the couple to travel undetected. Since only William's narrative voice tells their joint story in the book, critics say it is suggestive of how difficult it was for a black woman to find a public voice, although she was bold in action. Brusky says that, in the way that she used wrappings to "muffle" her during the escape to avoid conversation, Ellen in the book is presented through the filter of William's perspective.[17]

Historians and readers cannot evaluate how much Ellen contributed to the recounting of their story, but audiences appreciated seeing the young woman who had been so daring. On one occasion, a newspaper notes, there was "considerable disappointment" when Ellen Craft was absent.[19] Since they appeared over a period of 10 years, as William recounted their escape, they could respond to audiences' reactions to Ellen in person and to hearing of her actions. It is likely their published account reflects her influence.[17]

Legacy and honors[edit]

  • Their residence in Hammersmith is commemorated by a historic Blue Plaque on the wall of Craft Court, the office of the Shepherds Bush Housing Association.[18]
  • 1996, Ellen Craft was inducted into Georgia Women of Achievement.[5]
  • Their life, accomplishments, and history are displayed at the Tubman African American Museum in Macon, Georgia.
  • They are mentioned in connection with the Lewis and Harriet Hayden House on the Boston Women's Heritage Trail.[20]
  • In September 2018, at the village of Ockham in Surrey, where they found refuge, a sign commemorating their escape was unveiled at an event attended by their great-great-grandson Christopher Clark and other descendants.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ South Carolina, Death Records, 1821–1955 [database on-line]. Provo, UT: Ancestry.com 2008. Original data: South Carolina death records: South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Barbara McCaskill, "Ellen Craft: The Fugitive Who Fled as a Planter", Georgia Women: Their Lives and Times, ed. Anne Short Chirhart, Betty Wood, University of Georgia Press, 2009, p. 85, accessed 9 March 2011
  3. ^ Magnusson, Magnus (2006), Fakers, Forgers & Phoneys, Mainstream Publishing, p. 231, ISBN 978-1-84596-190-9
  4. ^ Holmes, Marian (June 16, 2010). "The Great Escape From Slavery of Ellen and William Craft". Smithsonian. Retrieved April 20, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Barbara McCaskill, "William and Ellen Craft", New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2010, accessed 9 March 2011
  6. ^ Craft, William (1860). Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. London: W. Tweedie. p. 35.
  7. ^ Craft, William (1860). Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. London: W. Tweedie. p. 71.
  8. ^ Craft, William (1860). Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. London: W. Tweedie. pp. 72–73.
  9. ^ a b Marshall, Amani (June 2, 2010). "The Will Endeavor to Pass for Free: Enslaved Runaways Performances of Freedom in Antebellum South Carolina". Slavery and Abolition. 31 (2): 161–80. doi:10.1080/01440391003711065.
  10. ^ Magnusson 2006, pp. 233, 240
  11. ^ Barbara McCaskill, "Yours Very Truly: Ellen Craft – the fugitive as text and artifact", African American Review, Vol. 28, 1994, cites William Still, The Underground Railroad, 1872, pp. 60–61, 177–89, 558–59, accessed 9 March 2011
  12. ^ "Interisting Meeting", The Liberator, 27 April 1849, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina, accessed 18 March 2011
  13. ^ "Member Details". www.nps.gov.
  14. ^ Magnusson 2006, pp. 241–42
  15. ^ McCaskill, Barbara. "William and Ellen Craft (1824–1900; 1826–1891)". georgiaencyclopedia.org. Retrieved October 12, 2014.
  16. ^ Craft, William (1860). Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom; or, the Escape of William and Ellen Craft from Slavery. London: W. Tweedie. p. 87.
  17. ^ a b c d Sarah Brusky, "Ellen Craft", Voices from the Gap, University of Minnesota, 2002–2004, accessed 9 March 2011
  18. ^ a b Magnusson 2006, pp. 242–44
  19. ^ National Anti-Slavery Standard, January 30, 1851, p. 141
  20. ^ "Beacon Hill". Boston Women's Heritage Trail.
  21. ^ McKeon, Christopher (September 16, 2018), "Ockham unveils tribute to escaped slaves who settled in Surrey village", Get Surrey.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]