Runaway Slaves

Running away served as one of the most pervasive methods of resisting slavery throughout the Americas, although many runaways never gained their freedom. Slaves in Mississippi, as elsewhere in the United States, had few destinations where slavery did not exist.

In the eighteenth century, enslaved Africans and African Americans who ran away faced bleak prospects. Native American nations in Mississippi did not offer havens, for they might reenslave runaways, return them to their owners, or sell them to new owners. Escape via the Mississippi River was dangerous both because of the nature of the river itself and the potential for recapture. Even though Natchez and other towns lacked newspapers to publicize runaways prior to late in the century, owners did post notices at the riverfront to alert travelers. In addition, plantations were isolated, presenting difficulties for those who absconded into the woods. In later periods and other locations runaways bound for free territory might have found temporary solace or rations from slave communities, but those communities could be difficult to locate in eighteenth-century Mississippi.

Most runaways left for short periods and then returned to their owners. Abdul-Rahman Ibrahima took flight from a farm near Natchez in 1788 but found it difficult to survive and reluctantly returned. His experience was shared by most runaways in North America, where escaped slaves had difficulty living on their own as fugitives. Some Brazilian and Caribbean slaves who fled eluded recapture by joining maroon communities (groups of slaves who had run away and lived together in unsettled areas), but such communities existed only rarely in what would become the United States as a result of population densities and well-armed local white authorities.

Slave owners applied inconsistent punishment to these short-term runaways. Ibrahima’s owner, Thomas Foster, apparently did not punish him for running away. William Dunbar seems to have expected slaves to run away after being “corrected” with the whip but expressed surprise when they left for reasons other than those related to direct physical attack. When two enslaved women ran away from Dunbar’s plantation in 1776, he punished one with twenty-five lashes but offered no reprimand for the other. When two men left his plantation shortly thereafter, Dunbar supposed they had gotten lost in the woods and believed it to be his good fortune when they were returned by a neighbor. By the next year, Dunbar’s surprise turned to outrage, and he ordered five hundred lashes for each of two slaves captured after leaving his plantation without permission. For their part, slave owners tended to view flight as an expression of ungratefulness and thoughtless action. Despite Dunbar’s confusion about why slaves ran away, they almost always did so when whites infringed on accepted household, farm, or plantation practices.

By the nineteenth century, free territories in the North offered additional incentives to leave the slave South, but the difficulties remained. Along with evading slave catchers and patrols, runaways could not always count on the help or sympathy of others who were enslaved. The fabled Underground Railroad was not available for all, especially residents of Mississippi and other Deep South states, where the journey to free territory meant passing through several other slave states. Slaves certainly worked together to resist white authority, but choosing to flee a plantation or to aid those who did so was primarily an individual decision. As a result of the danger and difficulty, running away was almost always a solitary venture, usually undertaken by young men who did not tell others for fear of damaging the chances of success.

As the Union Army moved through the South during the Civil War, running away became easier but still could result in uncertainty. As a part of Pres. Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to prevent the Border South from seceding, he initially ordered commanders in the field to return runaways to their masters unless they were “in rebellion.” By the summer of 1862 Congress had passed two Confiscation Acts that allowed Union troops to seize southerners’ property, including slaves, who were often referred to as “contrabands.” During that summer, former slaves could be employed by the US military. The practice of running away did not end until December 1865, when the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment formally ended slavery in the United States.

Further Reading

  • Terry Alford, Prince among Slaves: The True Story of an African Prince Sold into Slavery in the American South (1977)
  • William Freehling, The South vs. the South: How Anti-Confederate Southerners Shaped the Course of the Civil War (2002)
  • Peter Kolchin, American Slavery, 1619–1877 (1993)
  • David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
  • Eron Rowland, Life, Letters, and Papers of William Dunbar of Elgin, Morayshire, Scotland, and Natchez, Mississippi; Pioneer Scientist of the Southern United States; Compiled and Prepared from the Original Documents for the National Society of Colonial Dames in America by Mrs. Dunbar Rowland (1930)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Runaway Slaves
  • Author
  • Keywords Runaway Slaves
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 5, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018