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Fugitive slaves in the United States

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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 centuries to describe 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.[1]

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

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 increased penalties against runaway slaves and those who aided them. Because of this, some freedom seekers left the United States altogether, traveling to Canada or Mexico. Approximately 100,000 enslaved Americans escaped to freedom.[2][3]


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

Over time, the states began to divide into slave states and free states. Maryland and Virginia passed laws to reward people who captured and returned enslaved people to their enslavers. 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 protect 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 the 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[edit]

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 is the first of two federal laws that allowed for runaway slaves to be captured and returned to their enslavers. Congress passed the measure in 1793 to enable agents for enslavers and state governments, including free states, to track and capture bondspeople. They were also able to penalize individuals with a $500 (equivalent to $11,390 in 2023) fine if they assisted slaves in their escape.[4] Slave hunters were obligated to obtain a court-approved affidavit in order to apprehend an enslaved individual, giving rise to the formation of an intricate network of safe houses commonly known as the Underground Railroad.[4]

Fugitive Slave Act of 1850[edit]

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, part of the Compromise of 1850, was a federal law that declared that all fugitive slaves should be returned to their enslavers. Because the slave states agreed to have California enter as a free state, the free states agreed to pass the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Congress passed the act on September 18, 1850, and repealed it on June 28, 1864. The act strengthened the federal government's authority in capturing fugitive slaves. The act authorized federal marshals to require free state citizen bystanders to aid in the capturing of runaway slaves. Many free state citizens perceived the legislation as a way in which the federal government overstepped its authority because the legislation could be used to force them to act against abolitionist beliefs. Many free 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 because the capturing of fugitive slaves was a federal matter in which states did not have the power to interfere.[7]

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

State laws[edit]

Many states tried to nullify the acts or prevent the capture of escaped enslaved people by setting up laws to protect their rights. The most notable is the Massachusetts Liberty Act. This act was passed to keep escaped slaves from being returned to their enslavers 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]


Advertisements and rewards[edit]

Runaway slave poster

Enslavers were outraged when an enslaved person was found missing, many of them believing that slavery was good for the enslaved person, and if they ran away, it was the work of abolitionists, with one enslaver arguing that "They are indeed happy, and if let alone would still remain so".[9] (A new name was invented for the supposed mental illness of an enslaved person that made them want to run away: drapetomania.) Enslavers would put up flyers, place advertisements in newspapers, offer rewards, and send out posses to find them. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, enslavers could send federal marshals into free states to kidnap them. The law also brought bounty hunters into the business of returning enslaved people to their enslavers; a former enslaved person could be brought back into a slave state to be sold back into slavery if they were without freedom papers. In 1851, there was a case of a black coffeehouse waiter whom federal marshals kidnapped on behalf of John Debree, who claimed to be the man's enslaver.[10]


Fugitive slave Gordon during his 1863 medical examination in a U.S. Army camp.

Enslavers often harshly punished those they successfully recaptured, such as by amputating limbs, whipping, branding, and hobbling.[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 Joshua 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, requiring states to violate their laws. Ableman v. Booth was appealed by the federal government to the US Supreme Court, which upheld the act's constitutionality.[12]

The Underground Railroad[edit]

The Underground Railroad was a network of black and white abolitionists between the late 18th century and the end of the American Civil War who helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom. Members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), African Methodist Episcopal Church, Baptists, Methodists, and other religious sects helped in operating the Underground Railroad.[13][14]

External image
image icon Network to Freedom map, in and outside of the United States

In 1786, George Washington complained that a Quaker tried to free one of his slaves. In the early 1800s, Isaac T. Hopper, a Quaker from Philadelphia, and a group of people from North Carolina established a network of stations in their local area.[13] In 1831, when Tice David was captured going into Ohio from Kentucky, his enslaver blamed an "Underground Railroad" who helped in the escape. Eight years later, while being tortured for his escape, a man named Jim said he was going north along the "underground railroad to Boston."[13]

Fellow enslaved people often helped those who had run away. They gave signals, such as the lighting of a particular number of lamps, or the singing of a particular song on Sunday, to let escaping people know if it was safe to be in the area or if there were slave hunters nearby. If the freedom seeker 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]

Hiding places called "stations" were set up in private homes, churches, and schoolhouses in border states between slave and free states.[13] John Brown had a secret room in his tannery to give escaped enslaved people places to stay on their way.[16] People who maintained the stations provided food, clothing, shelter, and instructions about reaching the next "station".[17] Often, enslaved people had to make their way through southern slave states on their own to reach them.[13]

The network extended throughout the United States—including Spanish Florida, Indian Territory, and Western United States—and into Canada and Mexico.[18] The Underground Railroad was initially an escape route that would assist fugitive enslaved African Americans in arriving in the Northern states; however, with the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, as well as other laws aiding the Southern states in the capture of runaway slaves, it became a mechanism to reach Canada. Canada was a haven for enslaved African-Аmericans because it had already abolished slavery by 1783. Black Canadians were also provided equal protection under the law.[13] The well-known Underground Railroad "conductor" Harriet Tubman is said to have led approximately 300 enslaved people to Canada.[19] In some cases, freedom seekers immigrated to Europe and the Caribbean islands.[18]

Harriet Tubman[edit]

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 enslaver's plantation in 1849. Between 1850 and 1860, she returned to the South numerous times to lead parties of other enslaved people to freedom, guiding them through the lands she knew well. She aided hundreds of people, including her parents, in their escape from slavery.[20] Tubman followed north–south flowing rivers and the north star to make her way north. She preferred to guide runaway slaves on Saturdays because newspapers were not published on Sundays, which 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.[17] She sang songs in different tempos, such as Go Down Moses and Bound For the Promised Land, to indicate whether it was safe for freedom seekers to come out of hiding.[21] Many people called her the "Moses of her people."[20] During the American Civil War, Tubman also worked as a spy, cook, and a nurse.[20]

Notable people[edit]

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


Colonial America

United States

Civil War


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Language of Slavery - Underground Railroad (U.S. National Park Service)". www.nps.gov. Retrieved 2021-06-22.
  2. ^ Renford, Reese (2011). "Canada; The Promised Land for Slaves". Western Journal of Black Studies. 35 (3): 208–217.
  3. ^ Mitchell, Mary Niall; Rothman, Joshua D.; Baptist, Edward E.; Holden, Vanessa; Jeffries, Hasan Kwame (2019-02-20). "Rediscovering the lives of the enslaved people who freed themselves". Washington Post. Retrieved 2019-02-20.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Fugitive Slave Acts". History.com. February 11, 2008. Retrieved 2021-06-22.
  5. ^ "Slavery and the Making of America. The Slave Experience: Legal Rights & Gov't". www.thirteen.org. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  6. ^ "Article I, Section 9, Constitution Annotated". Congress.gov, Library of Congress. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  7. ^ White, Deborah (2013). Freedom on my Mind. Boston Mass: Bedford/St Martins. p. 286. ISBN 9780312648831.
  8. ^ [1] Archived October 10, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  9. ^ Reid, JosephB.; Reeder, Henry R. (1838). Trial of Rev. John B. Mahan, for felony : in the Mason Circuit Court of Kentucky : commencing on Tuesday, the 13th, and terminating on Monday the 19th of November, 1838. Cincinnati. p. 4.
  10. ^ Schwarz, Frederic D. American Heritage, February/March 2001, Vol. 52 Issue 1, p. 96
  11. ^ Bland, Lecater (200). Voices of the Fugitives: Runaway Slave Stories and Their Fictions of Self Creation Greenwood Press, [ISBN missing][page needed]
  12. ^ [2] Archived November 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ a b c d e f "Underground Railroad". HISTORY. Retrieved 2021-06-22.
  14. ^ IHB (2020-12-15). "The Underground Railroad". IHB. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  15. ^ Stein, R. Conrad; Taylor, Charlotte (2015-07-15). The Underground Railroad. Enslow Publishing, LLC. ISBN 9780766070141. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  16. ^ Miller, Ernest C. (1948). "John Brown's Ten Years in Northwestern Pennsylvania". Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies. 15 (1): 24–33. ISSN 0031-4528. JSTOR 27766856.
  17. ^ a b Greenspan, Jesse. "6 Strategies Harriet Tubman and Others Used to Escape Along the Underground Railroad". HISTORY. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  18. ^ a b "What is the Underground Railroad?". U.S. National Park Service. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  19. ^ Reese, Renford (2011). "Canada; The Promised Land for Slaves". Western Journal of Black Studies.
  20. ^ a b c "Harriet Tubman". Biography. Retrieved 2021-06-23.
  21. ^ "Myths & Facts about Harriet Tubman" (PDF). National Park Service. Retrieved 2021-06-22.


External links[edit]