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Fugitive slave , any individual who escaped from slavery in the period before and including the American Civil War. In general they fled to Canada or to free states in the North, though Florida for a time under Spanish control was also a place of refuge. See Black Seminoles. From the very beginning of slavery in America , enslaved people yearned to escape from their owners and flee to safety.
Most slaves were illiterate and had no money and few, if any, possessions. The colour of their skin made them easy targets during the daylight for those who would hunt them down—often with the help of bloodhounds—and return them to their owners. Many runaways had long distances to travel on foot before they were able to reach safety in a free state or in Canada. Not surprisingly, then, the vast majority of slaves who escaped from bondage were captured. Most of those who were returned to their owners were severely punished in an effort to deter others from attempting to leave.
Despite the dangers, however, many runaways managed to find their way north, into states that had outlawed slavery. Because of the incredible physical challenge of the journey to freedom, most of the slaves who ran away were young men. One study that examined advertisements in newspapers in the early s calling for the return of fugitive slaves noted that 76 percent of all fugitive slaves were younger than age 35, and 89 percent were male.
Escape became easier for a time with the establishment of the Underground Railroad , a network of individuals and safe houses that evolved over many years to help fugitive slaves on their journeys north. Even with help, the journey was grueling. Small groups of runaways would travel at night, sometimes a distance of 10 to 20 miles 16 to 32 km from station to station, always at risk of recapture.
Once they had escaped, many found the freedom they had dreamed of illusory. Often their new lives in the so-called free states were not much better than they had been back on the plantation. Segregation and discrimination were pervasive in many parts of the North, and, having limited access to skilled professions, many found it difficult to earn a living. The situation in the North was made still worse by the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of , which allowed heavy fines to be levied on anyone who interfered with a slaveowner in the process of recapturing fugitive slaves and forced law-enforcement officials to aid in the recapture of runaways.
The upshot was that distant Canada became the only truly safe destination for fugitive slaves. Some of those who escaped wrote narratives about their experiences and the difficulties they faced on the journey north. Another, Slave Life in Virginia and Kentucky; or, Fifty Years of Slavery in the Southern States of America , tells the story of a slave named Francis Fedric sometimes spelled Fredric or Frederick , who suffered extreme brutality at the hand of his owner.
Frederick Douglass , among the best known of all fugitive slaves, expressed particularly well in his writings the bittersweet quality of finding freedom. He is at first overcome with joy that he has arrived in a free state. But almost immediately, he says, he was:. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me.
There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my own brethren—children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition. The experiences of runaway slaves are depicted in a of classics of American literature. Based on actual events, it tells the story of Sethe, a runaway who kills her small child rather than allowing her to be recaptured and enslaved.
Fugitive slave. Additional Info. Print Cite verified Cite. While every effort has been made to follow citation style rules, there may be some discrepancies. Please refer to the appropriate style manual or other sources if you have any questions. Facebook Twitter. Give Feedback External Websites. Let us know if you have suggestions to improve this article requires . External Websites. Osler, John: fugitive slaves.
See all media. Related Topics: United States Show more. Full Article. Get a Britannica Premium subscription and gain access to exclusive content. Subscribe Now. The image refers to the well-known story of slave Henry Brown, who fled Richmond, Virginia, by shipping himself via Adams Express to Philadelphia in a packing crate. Portrait of Frederick Douglass as a runaway slave, lithograph by E. Bowie, , the cover illustration for a piece of sheet music, The Fugitive's Song , that was composed for and dedicated to Douglass.
It depicts runaway slave Eliza Harris's dramatic escape with her son, Harry from slave catchers across the thawing Ohio River. Slave catchers confront Margaret Garner near the body of the daughter she has killed, wood engraving after a painting by Thomas Noble, published in the May 18, , edition of Harper's Weekly. The story of fugitive slave Garner—who in January , while attempting to escape Kentucky with her family, killed her daughter and intended to kill her other three children and herself rather than allowing them to be captured and returned to slavery—inspired Toni Morrison's novel Beloved Learn More in these related Britannica articles: Black Seminoles.
Black Seminoles , a group of free blacks and runaway slaves maroons that ed forces with the Seminole Indians in Florida from approximately through the s. The Black Seminoles were celebrated for their bravery and tenacity during the three Seminole Wars.
The Native American…. United States, country in North America, a federal republic of 50 states. Besides the 48 conterminous states that occupy the middle latitudes of the continent, the United States includes the state of Alaska, at the northwestern extreme of North America, and the island state of Hawaii, in the….
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